Van Build Diary #2: How to Fit 5 People and a Dog in a Van – The Layout
Updated: Nov 4, 2020
Let me tell you, figuring out how to sleep and seat 5 people – 3 adults and 2 growing children – and have everything we need for full time living inside a van is no easy task, my friends. But, we did it. We figured it out, at least for now. And, we’re really excited to show you all the plans!
A lot of research went into figuring out what kind of appliances, electric and plumbing components, and other items we might need. I hope it can help you all on your journey! If you're curious why we decided on a Sprinter, 170 wheel-base, extended, 3500 XD, high roof, check out this post!
As a side note *some of the links below (not all) are affiliate links - I may receive a small commission (at no cost to you) if you purchase through the links provided. I never post a link to a product or service that I haven’t used myself & love! (Learn more here)
Why Not Just Go with a Layout that Already Exists?
We’ve seen a million and one layouts and not one fits our needs: some are missing “wet baths” (toilet/shower combo)...
... some have a 3-bunk combo – and there’s no way Baba (my 79-year-old mom is climbing into one of those)...
Some have make-shift bunks that strap onto the driver and passenger seats at night like a cot – not ideal for permanent living and a growing child to create/have privacy and a space of their own. . . the list could go on.
Oh! We even saw one where the queen bed lowers from the ceiling covering half the height through the kitchen/dinette area . . . impossible to walk through at night, not to mention Marino and I have to climb up 5 feet into the bed, something a child would love but not a 54-year-old grown man (and I’m not too excited about it either).
Now, if we weren’t planning to explore in sometimes freezing and sometimes boiling temperatures, that might not be a problem. We could create a design that sleeps 3 below and a pop-top tent to sleep 2 more for the kids up above. However, the heat loss/gain from the pop-top, as well as my constant concern that my children are freezing/boiling up there, would be too much. Plus, it would make our solar less efficient and make positioning ourselves more complicated to maximize solar energy intake while parked.
Our Layout Needs
So, as a reminder, here are all the requirements:
Marino and I can sleep together, the kids can also (although some separator for when they are older would be great), and Baba needs her own bed that stays permanently down when we’re parked (osteoporosis in her spine requires lots of resting). For now, I must disclaim, Leila will be sleeping with us, because that's what we do at home. Dante does too but he said he's ready and wants his own bunk.
So, our layout currently has four sleeping locations and has built into its design the possibility of adding a fifth when Leila is done with co-sleeping.
A wet bath
There is no way we could possibly ask my mother to live in a van without a shower and bathroom to use when she needs. For that matter, I’m not too excited to do it either, although I’d survive.
Some people have outdoor showers, where you open the back doors of the van and hang a curtain. Sure, let’s ask a 79-year-old woman to stand outside and take a shower in Finland in November, that makes sense!
Some people also have slide out toilets that hide under a bench or seating arrangement. . . Not happening! Everyone in our family needs some privacy when doing you know what!
So, it needs to be a full “wet bath” – a fully enclosed area that includes a shower and toilet. Now, what kind of a toilet is a different story for a different post. Please subscribe by following the link at the top of the post to be alerted to future posts, including the one on our toilet choice!
Kitchen with Sink, Stove/Oven, and the Largest Fridge Possible
So, we’ve seen quite a few options when it comes to kitchen layout, none of which fit our needs. One thing we discovered on our search (thank you Campovans, for that inspiration) is that there are so many options in the world of boating and it makes so much sense: they are also compact spaces operating on limited energy sources! So, we definitely borrowed a lot from the marine world.
The most frequently used fridges in van conversions are the cooler style fridges, of which Dometic and Isotherm (Indel Webasto brand) are the two superstar brands here in the U.S. There are lots of benefits to them, including lower energy use. However, we’d need at least 4 of these for our food intake needs – we’re feeding 5 people 3 times per day! So, we looked for the maximum cubic feet we could get, given the height limitations of the van.
That doesn’t mean that those brands don’t have fantastic front-opening fridges. It’s just that we found a wonderful 8.1 cubic foot Vitrifrigo fridge, with the freezer on top (where the kids can’t steal the ice cream from yet!), which is the largest cubic volume we’ve found that fit are van’s measurements.
Almost all layouts we’ve seen forego the oven, which is a necessity for us. We make our own Nutella (fantastic recipe from Pick Up Limes – I switch out maple syrup for date syrup), a variety of hummus (also from Pick Up Limes, yes, I’m a fan – turmeric and beet are our favorite), most of our sweets are homemade too, and there is plenty of baked “fry”-making that goes on.
Also, many people opt for induction cook-tops (electric only), which is too much of an energy drain for us (subscribe to get alerts to future articles, where we discuss energy/electric needs) because we buy all of our beans in dry bulk (requiring at least an hour of cook time per batch) and do a lot of stews (also requiring a lot of cook time) and other stove-top cooking.
At the same time, propane isn’t the best option when traveling to different countries because they all have different fittings for refilling your tank – not to mention, you have an additional sources of potentially explosive energy and/or gas leak in your home.
So, we turned to the world of boating again, to find this AMAZING Dickinson Marine Adriatic Diesel Stove with a bonus water coil heating feature to heat the whole van so we don’t even need to worry about finding a heater! And, while few van lifers (if any) use diesel for cooking here in the States, it seems a much more popular option in European van living. More about this stove/oven/heater in subsequent posts!
We will need a sink with decent depth, as cooking for five requires bigger pots and pans. Many RV sinks are either very shallow or not very wide . . . we think we found something, stay tuned!
Now, MANY will find this excessive and unnecessary. . . I beg to differ. I have an older parent and am planning for the reality that incontinence affects many. The last thing we need is some accident happening and my mother never recovering from the embarrassment. Also, we have two kids that love, love, love getting dirty. Lastly, Leila has not yet transitioned from night time diapers and all parents know how many accidents happen along the way!
We plan on boondocking quite frequently and certainly, not always, in places where washing facilities are easily available. We also have to be realistic with the amount of clothing we can bring, given that most people are only trying to juggle the clothing requirements for 2 to 3 people, not 5! And we need to store/pack clothing for all seasons as we will not have a “home base” easily accessible between seasons to switch out our clothing.
As a small benefit, most van lifers say one of the biggest overlooked storage spaces is a space for dirty laundry. We’ve seen a lot of fantastic storage options, like this little secret hamper that Snow and Curt of the Chill Daze created (skip to 10:40 if you just want to see the hamper). Well, this is our space for dirty laundry! And we’re stocking up on these Tru Earth super compact, super eco-friendly laundry strips so we don’t have to keep bulky detergent around with us all the time!
So, limited wardrobe, plus dirt-loving children, plus planning for older age, plus limited space for carrying extra sets of sheets means we either run the risk of some very uncomfortable/unpleasant nights, OR we install this amazing washer/dryer combo unit that fits right under the kitchen counter and can run while we’re on the road, or while we’re off exploring whatever we’re exploring or whenever!
And here is the Splendide WD2100XC White Vented Combo Washer/Dryer:
While many van lifers need a place to store their gear, we need space to store bulk food (hierba for Yerba Mate, dried beans, tomato paste, etc.), off-season clothes for 5 people, a possible future wheelchair, a walker (current need), toys, folding chairs and table, and of course, our battery bank and tools to fix the van when/as needed.
We’d love to pack on some “gear,” and even put folding bicycles on our list but aren’t sure we’ll have the room for it. Grandma’s needs are a priority, as are making sure the kids have a few comforts from home (at least one box worth of their Pratt Unit Blocks, maybe some Legos, art supplies and a few “stuffies” to change out). We’ll settle for just plain hiking and walking around for our adventures. Who knows, at the end of it all, there might be room for a couple folding bicycles. . . we’ll keep our fingers crossed.
That means we need a "garage" area under our bed!
I am not going to try to let Baba freeze or boil in our home. Even if we barely use them, we need an AC and a heater. We also need a good ventilation system to reduce moisture in the van (leads to rust) and to keep air flowing for those days that AC and heater are not necessary and to just keep fresh air circulating through the van (5 people produce a lot of CO2 and odors, I'm sure).
Getting All of Our Needs to Fit into One Van: The Layout
So, once we figured out all of our needs, the next step was to try to create a layout that met all of them. . .
We went through at least 5 versions before we settled on this most recent one. In future posts, we will definitely go into more details on each of the components of the build, how we plan to do it and how everything works (you can subscribe by clicking the link at the top of this post).
We had to work around the wheel wells, factor in a loss of approximately 2 inches on all sides for insulation and think strategically about window placement – I’m not traveling the world with my mom so she feels like she’s living inside a dark box! With all of our other needs, here is what we came up with – you’ll see the bird’s eye view, wall views and a view from the back looking forward: