When your wife says no…

…you have to improvise.  No I’m not being rude, I’m talking about camper vans.  I’ve wanted one for a long time, but she’s not so keen.  I love to travel, and I love to take pictures.  What I don’t love is getting up at stupid o’clock in the dark and cold to drive to a location to try to catch the sunrise.  You’ll notice there aren’t many sunrise shots in my portfolio! 

Back in August I went out on a Saturday evening to try to photograph the Perseid meteor shower.  I ended up staying out all night as I was having so much fun.  

By about 7am on Sunday morning though, both mine and the car’s batteries were exhausted.  I put the car on charge in Fort William and decided to have a little snooze myself.  My car is a BMW i3 and the front seats don’t recline very far, so I wondered if there would be enough room for me to lie down in the back if I folded the seats flat… I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was.  In fact I could actually lie full length if I tilted the backs of the front seats forward and filled the gap behind them with my backpack to support my head.  Despite the make shift nature of the arrangement, a lovely sleep was had and I spent the rest of Sunday heading for Ardnamurchan to explore.

After getting home from my trip I couldn’t help thinking about the opportunities that would be opened up to me if I could make use of this discovery…How could I fill the gap behind the front seats more satisfactorily and have a flat, level base to sleep on?, and importantly, as it’s a lease vehicle, how could I do it without any permanent modifications to the car?  After a bit of thought  & investigation armed with a measuring tape I came up with a plan, mostly using things I already had available and the i-Free camper was born!

I made 3 base boards from 12mm plywood.  Taped the edges with black Gorilla tape and covered the top surface with carpet tiles to give a bit of comfort and look nice with the rest of the interior.  The boards are all 970mm x 550mm overall so they stack neatly in the boot when the rear seats are in use.  The two front boards have a 170mm x 55mm cut out in the outer corners to fit around the rear seat mounting.

The front part of the boards needed some support to make a stable base and luckily my 12v cool box is just the right height so that goes behind the passenger seat.  I have 2 stackable storage boxes behind the driver’s seat that are also conveniently just the right height.  The front seats don’t have to be moved from the positions we use when we’re driving around, we only need to tilt the backs forward.  The 2nd box behind the driver’s seat goes in the boot or on the back seat when travelling as there’s only enough room for it when the seat back is tilted forward.  These 2 boxes give a decent amount of tidy storage space for a lot of the stuff you need for a few days away.  The single burner gas stove does fit in this space when travelling though.

The carpet gives a slightly more comfortable surface than just the bare wood, but for sleeping you really need some kind of mattress.  I already had these self inflating camping mattresses so they do the job just fine.  They are surprisingly comfortable and pack away very small & neatly when not in use.  

On top of the mattresses I have normal pillows and a double sleeping bag which is nice & cosy.  I’m happy to say that the comfort level is very satisfactory.

The base boards can’t be left in position when travelling as the front seat backs need to return to their normal positions.  It’s also important to remember to unplug the 12v cool box when the boards are in place as they restrict the airflow to it and might cause it to overheat.  The good news though is that it’s not necessary to completely pack everything away again before resuming your journey if you don’t want to.  The front boards can be slid back over the rear board to clear the area in front of the rear seat base.  Plenty of room for the front seat backs to return to position and a good clear airflow for the cool box.  It still stays plenty cool enough overnight here in Scotland without being plugged in!

My wife also sewed up some blinds for the rear and side windows using some left over black weed control fabric from a garden project.  There’s also a big curtain that covers half of the front door windows and goes across the width of the car level with the rear view mirror for added privacy.  It’s not blackout material, but even in the middle of the day they cut out the light enough to be able to sleep if required.  Being black they’re also virtually unnoticeable from outside due to the tinted windows, which I like as it doesn’t draw attention to the fact that I’m sleeping in the car.  

This was my set up for my first trip away with the i-Free…2 nights to the Isle of Skye.  It worked out extremely well considering, although it was disappointing that none of the rapid car charging points on the island were working and there was only one public slow charger available.  Fortunately my car has a petrol engine to generate electricity too, so I was still able to go anywhere.

Photos from my trip to Skye…

After my first trip I had a couple of improvements in mind.  I wanted to have a work surface that I could stand the gas stove on and also a wipe clean surface for preparing food.  I’m not talking Masterchef here, just basic stuff like bacon butties or warming up tinned food.  This was my next little project.  Again it had to be non destructive and I decided that replacing the standard parcel shelf with one made out of 12mm ply would be the simplest way.  I used the standard parcel shelf as a template, but I squared off the rear edge as I wanted a slide out section to stand the stove on.  I was concerned that without this section that the heat from the stove would be too close to the interior of the car, especially the headlining.  The shelf is covered with carpet tiles the same as the base boards, and the slide out section is covered with self adhesive vinyl so that it can be wiped clean easily.  I used a pair of gate bolts to snap the shelf into the existing parcel shelf mounts.  That self adhesive vinyl is a nightmare though…I couldn’t avoid getting a few wrinkles in it even with the help of my lovely wife.  There’s a central leg that drops down into the boot latch area to support the extended shelf.

The finished thing looks ok though, and importantly it works extremely well.  I dined much better on my last trip!

My last trip was just a few days ago.  I wound my way up towards the Moray Firth.  I’ve never been up that way before and so it was an enjoyable experience seeing new places.  Here are a few photos from the trip.  I haven’t finished processing all of them yet.

When all the bedding is packed away there’s still space left in the boot, and plenty of space on the rear seat.  The biggest limitation to how much stuff you can take being what can be stored in the front seat area and on the parcel shelf when the main space is needed for sleeping.

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