The making of a tiny camper

I was in the market for a camper van. I looked at old Vanagons (so expensive in America), school buses (where will I park that in San Francisco), trucks, (sorry planet) then I discovered the Honda Element. It was 4WD, seemed reliable (Honda) and I discovered this amazing company called Ursa Minor that made pop up tents for them. There are hundreds of people modifying them with sleeping platforms and the like, so it seemed like the perfect car for me. I bought a 2008 dark red one, and called him Owlburt.

Unfortunately, although my preferred choice, I wasn’t able to afford one of the fancy Ursa Minor conversions. Maybe one day! But I found a second-hand roof top tent on Craigslist from a guy who just used it to travel down to Panama. It sits on your roof rack on top of your car, and folds down to an aerodynamic shell, a bit like a luggage box.

The Maggiolina

I had a custom memory foam topper added, and I couldn’t be happier with it. I store my duvet, pillows, and sheets on the bed when its shut. So when I’m ready for a nap. I just open it up (4 seconds)and jump right in.

Now I have a nice place to sleep that can drive places. But it’s missing something. A kitchen!

How can i fit a kitchen in?

The Honda has neat folding / fully removable rear seats. I wondered about removing one seat and designing a Vanagon style kitchen to replace it.

Seats folded against the wall. (they are removable too)

Plenty of space then to fit everything in, but I worried about the side airbags, and losing one of my passenger seats.

Space behind the seats.

Nope. Time to be practical. It’s going to have to fit behind the rear seats. Now that that was decided, now I had to figure out how to do it.

Design Goals

I made a list of what I wanted in my ultimate car kitchen.

  • Two Burner Stove with gas supply — oven would be nice.
  • Fridge / Freezer
  • Integrated power supply / inverter that will run the fridge for 4 days +
  • Sink / water tank
  • Storage space for dry goods, cups, pots, pans, plates etc…
  • Removable and should not require any permanent modification to the car.
  • Fits behind rear seats of car.
  • Something I can actually build that won’t spontaneously deconstruct.

That seemed like quite a lot to fit in a fairly small space in the back of the car. Step one seemed to be to get some accurate measurements.

Make a form

After getting my tape measure out and looking at the back of the car, it quickly became clear to me accurate measurements would make or break this project. They were also surprisingly hard to obtain. The rear of the car had lots of complicated shapes and angles for the form I wanted to make:

This was roughly the shape that would give me the maximum volume for kitchen. But it was very hard to measure accurately. Even though it takes just seconds to sketch.

Before I put hours into learning CAD, or cutting wood. I knew I had to get this right, and even after measuring and measuring again. I wasn’t confident. So I decided to make a prototype form. I figured I could find / buy some sort of connector for dowel, similar to the ones used by Kites, and make a quick cheap frame with those and wooden dowel. I tried to find these connectors everywhere. I could not find them.

So I 3d printed some! First time I’ve done that, and it worked great. I used a service provided by Thingyverse — waited a week, and then I had my connectors!

My first use-case for 3d printing. My own connectors!

Now I could cut some cheap dowel to fit. Make a prototype form and be sure all the measurements were correct:

The prototype form cut out and in place in the car, held together with my 3d printed connectors. This step was fundamental in making sure my later work would fit and be removable from the car.
The prototype form back in the house, before the cat destroyed it.

Now I had a form I could accurately measure, and then try and figure out how I was going to fit everything into it.

Source the main parts…

I needed to decide on the main items for the kitchen so I knew what I was going to be working with size wise. I spent a lot of time researching each item, both for cost and durability, and I’m really happy with what I ended up with:


Partner Steels two burner camp stove.

Cooker

A two burner stove hand made by Partner Steel — I selected this cooker as it was more compact than other offerings, bullet proof, and I knew it would last.

Dometic CFX35 — plenty of space and can take full height bottles.

Fridge / Freezer

I went with a Dometic CFX35 — It had good reviews, can freeze or cool, and had a variable speed compressor that was not available on similar models from competitors, that made it much more power efficient. It was also much cheaper than many others options.


Power

I knew I was going to run an inverter and the fridge for a long time. I didn’t want to use the vehicle battery, so I needed another power source. The trouble was normal 12v battery form-factors are wide. Not good for my tiny amount of space. I found that a lead-acid Telco battery was just the ticket, and scored 150AH of battery in just three inches of thickness. Enough to run everything for over a week.

I had a lot more other items to find, sinks, taps, locking drawer slides, electronics, etc. But I figured these were more flexible size wise, and could come after my initial design.

Time to learn CAD

When I started looking at fridges, batteries, and cookers, and then trying to calculate how I was going to lay everything out so I could fit them into a tiny space. I knew I was going to make mistakes, lots of them. So the best way to not make expensive mistakes, seemed to be to do all my designs in CAD. I’m glad I took the time to do this. With the cooker and fridge I had less than a half inch of spare space in my available width, and just figuring how to lay everything out, took many, many evenings. I tried five distinct designs, but finally settled on one I liked, and felt would work well:

The front of the design, fridge drawer with vents bottom right, a utility drawer above. Pullout cooker on the left, below the sink. Standard milkcrate sized hole for storage.
The fridge slide open showing the space behind the drawer that houses the battery. The battery has a custom made tray and strap to prevent any movement.
Because space was so tight, the drawer slides needed to be fitted into a dado within the structure so everything would fit. I was worried about strength, but after the build that proved to be a non-issue. Baltic Birch ply is strong!
The rear view (side that goes against the car seats)

Sourcing Parts

Now I had a solid design, I needed to source all the other parts I needed. This took a lot longer than expected, but I needed to find:

  • Stainless steel sink with no drain (I wanted to be able to remove it to use like a bucket and empty elsewhere, plus no car drain hole) — Ended up with a steel steam pan!
  • Tap / Faucet with integrated pump
  • Drawer slides that are robust, and lock in the closed and open position. (Only found one company that made them to the specs required!)
  • Water tank that fits behind my milk crate storage
  • Gas delivery system for the stove, that would fit under the cooker.
  • Various flush hinges, magnets and bits/bobs.

Once that was done and dusted, I ordered the parts (I have a parts list if you want it) and waited.

Electricals

Whilst I was waiting for all my parts, I decided to wire up the battery charger. The idea was that I wanted to charge my auxiliary battery in the kitchen when the car was on. I never wanted to the vehicle battery to power the kitchen. I also wanted to be able to jump start the vehicle battery with the aux kitchen battery should I need to.

I found a neat battery isolator that allowed me to achieve all of that for $50. Next step, wire it and install it under the hood of the car.

Found a nice spot for the battery isolator. Fixed it here with zipties.
Battery isolator cabled in, with a fuse. (Haven’t connected the wire from the fuse to the rear of the car yet) I also covered the isolator terminals with some rubber sugru.
Found a handy hole in my firewall to route the wire through. Used more sugru to build a rubber gasket so it wouldn’t rub.
Ran the power cable down the door sills, and to the rear of the car. Thanks Honda for making these panels so easy to remove! Took no time at all. I Ran the cable to the rear spare tire well, and terminated it with a 12v plug/socket

Time to build!

The day had finally come, I had all the parts, and now it was time to stick some wood together. Because I’d drawn everything in CAD I was able to send off the DXF files and have the wood (baltic birch ply — the same thing as skateboard decks) cut out by a computer controlled CNC. Obviously I don’t have a computer controlled CNC but there are many facilities who will do this for you.

I am very lucky in that I have a dear friend who started a furniture building business called Harrison Furniture and has a large collection of wood tools, including a CNC. So he very kindly agreed to cut out my pieces on his CNC machine, down in Monterey.

It was very exciting to see the fruition of many months of work, in real tangible wood form! The CNC did a great job of cutting out my various pieces of car kitchen. It was like my own personal IKEA kit.
My home for the weekend. Total build time — two days.
Sticking the first pieces together. The cabinet is glued with Sikaflex (ridiculously strong) and pinned. It also has dado connections in the wood for extra strength so everything slots together. I think it would survive a fall from a roof, I was really impressed with how strong it turned out.
Rear view, showing the groove that the battery sits in. The battery is held down with a cage and two turnbuckles.
My friend Monkey, helping clamp and glue things. You can also see the dado recess for the drawer slides here.
Back home — ready for electrical wiring, painting and installation. It’s real!
Battery installed, electrical work starting. Top right is the main switch panel to turn / off the fridge, 12v outlet, 120v outlet. There is also a charge status LCD that shows the state of the battery.
Making the wiring loom. This was great and I had it all neat and tidy, and then found out I wired the LCD screen in upside down. So I had another beer. There’s a fuse block bottom left, because safety.
Hooray it works! Now shown is the 120v inverter top left. This powers a socket on top of the kitchen.
Because I live in a city, and people love to break into cars, I needed it to be low-profile. So i painted the cabinet with truck bed liner. It’s ok, but if I could have afforded it, I’d of had it sprayed on. It's very durable however, and it achieved what I wanted.
The first test fit. Pretty happy! Also of note, but not shown there are two turnbuckles on the back of the cabinet that connect to the Honda tie-down points under the seats. Nothing moves at all.
The battery is held in its tray (it's recessed into the base) by two turnbuckles. In hasn’t moved yes, and I’ve taken the car on some pretty weird terrain.
The switch panel has a master “on” and individual settings for the fridge, 120v socket and 12v accessory. Later I may add a “mode” switch that can put the fridge on one of three modes. On all the time. On when engine is on (auto) and off.
The cooker is seated on a recessed area of the drawer. There is space in the drawer for plates, bowls, and the dual can gas supply…
Two 1lb propane bottles live underneath the cooker connected inline, with two valves, both on the bottle and cooker.
Plenty of storage space in the top utility drawer.
Found some stackable bamboo containers that contain all the utensils.
I also found some aluminium movable drawer organisers.
Fridge slide. The handles for the fridge need to be removed to fit, (two allen bolts each). The fridge itself is mounted onto the drawer with two bolts. Really happy with the fridge, its plenty roomy.
The storage crate below can slide out easily as the hinges I found are flush mount. The water tank is behind the crate, along with misc storage. Theres lots of space in the milk crate for pots / pans and various things you might want.
I use the top counter for general storage, and put a cargo net above it. The bed liner is super grippy so nothing really slides off.
First test run with my friend Mette — Everything working great!
Love this stove very much.
More testing at the hotsprings
Sauce organisation. Very important. Tiny campers need tiny condiments.

Interested in one?

I’m wondering if there is interest in a kit or full finished product, or if I should just give away my plans and parts list. If you have the time and would like to stay in touch, could you take my two minute survey?

More stuff:

Take the survey and stay in touch.

Conversation on Reddit.

You can also find me on Instagram #tinycamper

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