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RAV4 Camper Conversion for Minimalists

Some prefer it fancy, I like it simple. I used to tent on the way. Now I sleep in my Toyota RAV4 which I converted into a mini-camper. What an immense improvement in camping quality. I will never go back to tenting unless it’s during a multi-day hiking trip.

On my recent road trip to the Canadian north, Northwest Territories and Yukon, I travelled in my RAV4 mini camper to places not many people have. The most remote places are the ones I like best and those are the ones I will always remember. Partly it’s because of the uniqueness of the places, but mostly because of the local people I met.

They are the best, don’t leave home without them.

What did I miss as a minimalist traveller in the north?

Not much. All I needed I had with me in my converted Toyota RAV4 camper. Everything I had with me I used. After a few trips to the Canadian North, I know what I need and what I don’t, and I travel with a minimum of gear. And still, I live comfortably in my converted RAV4 SUV.

A Toyota RAV4 SUV conversion makes a comfortable mini camper with lots of space for one person. It’s just about perfect.

It would work for two people as well. You would need a larger sleeping platform and perhaps a storage box on the roof and you would be totally fine. Probably a bit crowded but okay.

For a single person, a RAV4 is the ideal vehicle for an extended road trip. Actually, you can convert any car into a mini camper, just adapt the layout to the size of the car.

Living in the small space of my RAV4 camper has taught me to be organized. Everything has its place and I only carry with me what I need.

I bring along a camp chair and table in my RAV4 camper
I bring along a camp chair and table in my RAV4 camper

Experience helps

I am a minimalist road-tripper who learned during previous road trips what works for me and what doesn’t. This time, the trip was pretty much perfect.

You don’t need a campervan to enjoy van life. My miniature home on wheels might look lost between the enormous rigs on the road, but I’m not jealous of any of them.

With my 4×4 SUV, I can go anywhere, it’s cheap on gas and easy to manoeuvre. It’s comfy and cozy and gives me enough space, even on a rainy day.

My camper conversion design

Simple and cheap were my priorities. To be able to sit in my RAV4 comfortably and have lots of headspace was important as well. My bed had to serve as my couch and I wanted space for a portable table.

Many plans and instructions I found on the Internet were too fancy for my taste with drawers, built-in cupboards and platforms to accommodate a double mattress. I spent quite some time sitting in the back of my RAV visualizing the design. What I came up with was much simpler than I ever expected.

The steps I took to convert my 2009 RAV4 into a camper

1. Take out the back seats

Toyota RAV4 back seats removed
After the backseats are removed in a Toyota RAV4

The back seats had to come out. Unfortunately, the seats were connected with an electro cable and bolted in. Not like my old RAV4, where the seats easily slid out.

I inquired at Toyota, but they wouldn’t take the seats out for me, because of safety and liability reasons, they said. It was easy to find a mechanic to do it.

You could also inquire at a car recycling place to help you with that.

2. Build a sleeping platform on the passenger side

Piece of plywood with cutout for the sleeping platform
Piece of plywood for the sleeping platform

For a one-person sleeping platform, you need a piece of plywood approximately 96 cm long x 76 cm wide, and 1 cm thick. This works for the 2019 Toyota RAV4 which comes with the storage compartment. Please note: Measurements are only approximate.

The sleeping platform is adjacent to the storage compartment

The plywood touches the storage compartment. If your car is flat all the way to the back, you will have to extend the platform to the back.

Cut out a rounded piece to fit the plastic moulding that covers the wheel.

Screw on four or five legs cut from a piece of 2” x 4” to keep the platform in place and to be parallel with the storage compartment.

Attached legs on sleeping platform for RAV4 camper conversion
Attached legs on the sleeping platform for RAV camper conversion

Cover the plywood with a beautiful piece of material and attach it with a few table clothes clamps to keep it from sliding.

Sleeping platform covered with fabric and fastened with clamps
Cover the plywood with fabric and fasten with clamps

The gap towards the front of the bed when the passenger seat is pushed forward I built up with two storage containers and a couple of pillows on top. This can easily be removed if I want to put the passenger seat back into a seating position.

3. Buy a memory foam

Buy a memory foam mat, 8 – 10 cm thick to put on top of your bed platform. I cut my foam to my height. The space below my feet on the passenger side I use to store my water bottle and my coolbox.

If you are tall, you will need the whole length of the car for sleeping.

Cut out the rounding for the armrest.

Foam mattress for RAV4 camper conversion
Foam mattress on top of the sleeping platform

Cover the foam with a nice bedsheet. Bring your pillow and your feather duvet and you will never be cold. My sleeping bag I carry just in case of extremely low temperatures or if I stay at someone’s place.

Below the sleeping platform, I store my Colman Stove, my backpack, my foldable camp chair, and cans of food for an emergency.

Comfortable bed in my RAV4 camper conversion
My comfortable bed in my RAV4 camper conversion

4. Install Rain Guards

Rain guards for Toyota RAV4
Rain guards for Toyota RAV4

For my last extended northern road trip, I invested in a set of rain guards, also called wind deflectors, for my Toyota RAV4. This was a worthwhile investment and it made my trip much more enjoyable. The set I bought had to be mounted above the windows and attached with the included tape. Just clean around the window and apply, an easy no-drill application.

The mounted rain guards keep the rain out when the car windows are open a couple of inches. There is no dripping down the inside of the windows anymore

Rain guards also reduce wind noise and allow windows to be cracked discreetly when parked.

5. Mount a Basket Roof Rack

Roof rack for my RAV4
Roof rack for my RAV4 SUV conversion

A basket roof rack is the best solution to carry extra gasoline and a second spare tire if necessary. You can get extended racks as well, but the small one gives me plenty of space for what I need.

6. Mosquito net for windows

Mosquito net for SUV conversion
Attach the mosquito net with magnets

I bought half a metre of mosquito netting at the fabric store and cut the width in half. The pieces are large enough to cover the front or back window. I attach the netting on the outside of the windows and use magnets to keep them in place. It’s easy, fast and works great. In Canada, sets of magnets are available cheap at any of the Dollar Stores.

Now I can open the window from the inside of the car and mosquitos and other bugs stay outside.

Most times I only use the netting on the passenger side front window. That’s also where I keep the window open a crack during the night.

7. Window curtains

I didn’t like the idea of permanent curtains on the car windows. My car windows are tinted and most times I don’t use any curtains when I camp. Still, if I have to stay in a Walmart parking lot or in a campground with big rigs on both sides, curtains come in handy. In the far north, where you have the midnight sun, the curtains keep the sun out and help me fall asleep.

Attached wire to hang curtains in suv conversion
Attached wire to hang curtains

At the fabric store, I bought a bag of curtain sash cord with eyelets. I attached the cord around the inside of the car, using the eyelets to fasten the wire at various places. The sash cord stays in there permanently as long as I use the RAV4 as my camper.

At a Thrift store, I picked up a new, dark blue bathroom curtain with blackout material on the back.

I cut three panels about 80 cm wide and sewed a seam on all sides. At the Dollar Store, I bought a couple of bags of office clips which I use to hang up the curtains. All it takes is a couple of minutes to get the curtains up and a few seconds to take them down.

Curtains for privacy if needed

8. Storage for the RAV4 camper conversion

For storage in my RAV4 camper, I use plastic crates, plastic storage bins, string bags, and nylon pouches for some of my clothes. All the containers I bought at Walmart.

  • 1 plastic storage bin for dry food storage, approximately 43 cm x 30 cm x 35 cm h. This container fits in between the fitting from the removed seat. The container narrows at the bottom. It serves as my night table where I put my solar lamp, flashlight etc. during the night.
  • 3 black crates approximately 46 cm x 43 cm interlock, which keeps them from moving around. (Interlockable is not necessary) One container stores all my kitchen equipment, pots, pans, dishes, cutlery, another stores my camera and electronic equipment, in the third crate I keep more food, cans, etc.

Please Note: Measurements are only approximate!

Maybe a better option would be to use solid containers with lids instead of crates to keep the dust out.

Back shelve Toyota RAV4 with net and storage below
Back shelve RAV 4 and storage below
  • The Toyota RAV4 netting storage shelf – If your car doesn’t come with this, you might want to build a shelf in the back. I love this simple addition to my RAV4. On this net shelve, I keep the rest of my clothes, rolled up jackets, tripod, plastic container for dishes and whatever else needs a space. During the day I store my solar lamp on the shelve to get charged by the sun.
  • My Cellar – The spare tire for the RAV4 is mounted outside the back door. Therefore the RAV4 actually has cellar storage. To get to it I only have to remove the black crate and coolbox. Keep this in mind if you decide to build a shelve in the back. Make sure you can get access to the storage below.
Toyota RAV4 Cellar Storage
Toyota RAV4 Cellar Storage

Keep safety in mind

Make sure to build the structure to prevent injury in case of an accident. Also, consider that with everything you add to the RAV4 camper conversion and when you load it up with your equipment. Use straps to tie down equipment if needed.

RAV4 Camper for minimalists
My Mini-Camper and home away from home for minimalists

Power Source I use in my RAV4 camper

One of the most useful gadgets to take along on a road trip is the one that lets you power up all the other gadgets while. An inverter changes the 12-volt direct current from the car’s battery into the 115-volt alternating current used by most appliances.

Inverters come in all sizes. Smaller ones, like the Energizer I have, fit into the glove box and plug into the lighter/power outlet. In addition to giving me AC power, it lets me charge my smartphone through a USB cable.

What else to pack for a road trip

You may also like


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Are you planning to convert your car into a miniature home? Do you have any questions about my simple design? Please leave a comment below!

Yrene Dee

Yrene lives in the Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada, and is the founder of BackcountryCanadaTravel.com. She was born in Switzerland, lived and worked on different continents and has travelled the world. Yes, that's me, an Entrepreneur, wilderness nut and animal lover who prefers off-the-beaten-track places. I write about things I love. Mostely.

31 Comments

  1. David

    How much time, effort, and money did this take?

    When things open up again, I would like to take a very long road trip from Ohio in the United States through Canada on the ALCAN Highway to Fairbanks, Alaska. My current passenger car could not be converted like this, and it is unlikely I would use this again, since I usually travel internationally with public transportation like trains between big cites. I have done limited research for renting a camper, but they are generally much larger than I need for a solo trip, and I have very little experience camping or driving large vehicles. Your SUV conversion looks like a reasonable option. Do you know if they are available for rent? It would not need to be in the US for the whole trip. I could drive my car to Saskatoon or Edmonton, staying in hotels, then get the SUV conversion rental there if something like this is available. Thanks.

    • Yrene Dee

      Hello David, You’re right, most campers available are too big for solo travel. That’s why I came up with the idea to convert my RAV4, it’s perfect for my trips. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any place where you could rent something like this. Maybe check Canada RV rentals. What kind of car do you have? I think you could do a trip like this with any car, especially if you take the ALCAN Highway, it’s paved all the way and in fairly good condition. If you tell me what vehicle you have maybe I can give you some suggestions. If it is not possible to sleep in your vehicle you could use a tent. You will meet lots of travellers on this stretch of road and campgrounds are all nice. Of course, the majority of campers have big rigs. I just updated my blog Road Trip planner, maybe have a look at it. If you more questions you can use my contact form. Planning is part of the fun and it will be a trip of a lifetime for sure. All the best to you.

  2. Daniel

      Thanks for the detailed article. I have been eyeing a rav4 recently and converting to a simple camper as well. Right now I just have a 2012 cruze and its just too small to be comfortable. Where did you buy the memory pad ?
    • Yrene Dee

      Hi Daniel,
      I’m happy that my article is useful. I’m definitely a RAV4 fan. My old 2001 RAV4 had over 400,000 km when I got back from travelling in Canada’s north and I still was able to sell it afterwards. My current one is a 2009. The shell is not built as strong anymore but it survived my road trips to the Territories well last summer. The foam I’m using I bought at Canadian Tire years ago but I need to add another mat for more comfort. A foam works well because you can cut it to your length and get more storage space in the back.
      Good luck with everything and let me know if you have any other questions.

  3. Expanded Metal

    Here we come to know about SUV Toyota to Rav 4 camper conversions, which is attractive to most everyone. Here you will get to know in detail about the topic which is in demand. I enjoyed a lot while reading this article and would recommend others too.

  4. Meredith Steele

    First of all, kudos on the excellently written and excellently “SEO’ed” post! (Coming from someone who writes blogs for a magazine’s website for part of my job!) 🙂

    Thank you so much for all this info. My hubby and I are just at the beginning of researching converting our 2006 RAV4 into a mini-camper. We’ll definitely be taking a lot of your advice into account.

    • Yrene Dee

      Thank you Meredith for your kind comment. Good luck with your RAV conversion. I’m on my third summer road tripping with my RAV in Canada’s north and I still believe that it is the best mini camper ever. Let me know if you have any questions. All the best!

  5. Melissa

    I’m so happy to have found your blog! I am in the research phase of my camper journey and I was starting to feel like I needed to win the lottery to have this life! So many people seem to have such fancy vans with expensive conversions. It’s nice to see someone living the life in a simple and affordable way – for me, that’s the whole reason to have this type of life! Thank you for sharing your adventures 🙂

    • Yrene Dee

      Thanks, Melissa, I’m glad my information is useful! Simple is best, for me at least. Enjoy your travels!

  6. Carlos Miguel Fernandez

    WOW! This is exactly what I was looking for! I recently sold my 2014 Roadtrek 190P because it had to many bells and whistles which were always causing me angst! I love camping/traveling and my preferred mode is using Corps Of Engineer Camps (COE). My original plan for life after an RT was to buy and build my own van with the minimalist functions that I need. However that would have meant maintaining one more engine, insurance, etc… Since I already own a 2012 RAV4 4WD (Barcelona Red) vehicle and travel alone my way ahead has been defined! I plan on starting the conversion soonest and hope to make it out to Quartzite, AZ this year despite COVID! I cant believe that my solution was sitting right under my nose! Thanks! Merry Christmas and I hope to meet you sometime down the black top so I can pay you with an adult beverage of your choice! Thanks again.

    • Yrene Dee

      Hi Carlos, I’m so glad I was able to inspire you! Travelling with a RAV4 or other small SUV has many advantages. I always have to smile when I camp next to the big rigs and honestly I wouldn’t like to swap with any of them. I am checking out different options once in a while but for the moment I will just keep my old RAV. Happy trails!

  7. Larry Yakimoski

    Just came across your articles as I was researching car camping. I have just started to build a sleeping platform in a 2017 Rav 4 Hybrid. I don’t want to remove the seats and the traction battery also causes a rise out of the floor. I have started building a quick instal/remove sleeping platform that will be simple to use. I could send you some pictures for your readers when I am finished if that interests you.

    • Yrene Dee

      Thank you Larry for your comment. I would love to get some pictures. It was a big decision for me as well whether to take out the seats or not. If you don’t need the extra storage you will be fine. I guess the design of the newer RAV is a bit different. What road trip are you planning to do?

  8. Rose

    Larry – I have a 2017 Hybrid Rav4 as well and would be interested in what you made. We have a platform in ours, without removing the seat, but it’s a bit tall.

  9. Kelly

    Hi, is a platform only necessary in order to have storage? I’m considering just throwing an air matress in the back of my Rav4 with the seats down… any reason that might be a bad idea for a hybrid rav4? Thanks!

    • Yrene Dee

      Yes, mostly for storage and it feels more like being in a mini camper without the seats. Unfortunately with the newer RAV4 taking the seats out is not that easy. Try it without a platform and see how it works. I did a few long road trips before it was perfect for me.

  10. Dana

    This was exactly the post I was looking for! We recently got a RAV4 and are looking forward to camping in the mountains with it once it warms up a little bit. I’ve heard that magnetic curtains can work, but I like your idea as well!

  11. Marie Bell

    Hi there, Your blog says that your power source is an invertor. I’m wondering if you thought about using a Jackery 500 or something like that? I’m asking this because I would like to travel and sleep in my Rav4 in Canada too, but am think that I need a ‘plug and play’ power source. Thanks in advance! (Please email the response, if possible.)

  12. Carol-lynn

    Just purchased a used Rav 4! Very excited to start preparing for my road trip ! Thanks to your site I will be able to fulfill my dream of seeing Canada myway , comfortable and affordable ! Thank you !

    • Yrene Dee

      Hi Carol-lynn, I’m so happy that I have inspired you. You will love it. Please send me a picture when you’re on the road. Enjoy, it’s a great life and very affordable!

  13. Tim

    Hi, I’ve been looking at the Rav4 with the idea of a camping set up. I really like the look of the 2nd generation (your first one – the blue one you had). Did you find a huge space difference with the 2nd and 3rd generation Rav4 (your red one)? Is the back much shorter in the 2nd generation version? Thanks so much! Tim

    • Yrene Dee

      Hi Tim, my 2009 red RAV is a bit bigger than my old blue one and has a bit more storage space, but it’s not a huge difference. I especially like the bar with the net across the back on my red RAV. But generally, I preferred standard transmission and the easy way to take out the seats on my old 2001 RAV and I think it was built stronger. I love the RAV4s, no matter what generation.

  14. Tom

    Great article, thank you!
    To understand how it would be to sleep two can you please provide the length and width of the back of the car if one were to build the bed platform over the entire width of the car?

  15. Peter Errmann

    Hi Yrene, we have a kinship. I am a minimalist camper for 60 years now and reading your article makes me feel good. Lately I used a small Hyundai Accent (with one seat only) for 13 years , sleeping in it, packing canoes, bikes etc, and it’s getting old. I am thinking RAV4 now and I would like to ask you which year of RAV4 has the electrical problem when you remove the seats? And are there any other problems that you know of if only one (driver) seat is left. Crawling in and out keeps me fit. Thank you for your rich and inspiring information. Peter .

    • Yrene Dee

      Thanks, Peter, this makes me feel good that my information is appreciated. Just so you know, my 2009 RAV4 will be for sale in a month or so, ready for camping. Yes, there were electrical connections to deal with but it wasn’t a big problem. My Mechanic friend took them out for me and promised to install them again if needed. I kept the passenger seat installed. The RAV4 has lots of storage space. Please send me an email via my contact form if you would like more information.

  16. Maren

    Dear Yrene,
    iam so unbelievable happy to have found your side. Iam at the very beginning of planning trips with a SUV to sleep in.
    My question is: On December 27th 2020, Larry Yakimoski offered to send you fotos of his selfmade “Quick to instal/remove sleeping patform” without having taking out his back seats.
    Do you have fotos of this and if, could you send them to me please?
    Kind regards
    Maren

    • Yrene Dee

      I’m glad you find the information useful. No, unfortunately, I never received any pictures from Larry. People always promise and once their fun begins they forget. Check out Pinterest for ideas. There is heaps of information there. I’m leaving for a trip this week again but send me an email via the contact form in a couple of weeks if you still need help and I will try to give you some ideas.

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