When we started planning our road trip for this summer, we knew that our normal sleeping in the car routine wouldn’t work. Lucy is long enough for us to be comfortable if we take out the back seat and lay out flat, but the nightly shuffle of gear from back to front seats wore us down after 1 week, and led to many pointless arguments about who made what mess of a shabby organization system. We decided to build a sleeping platform with storage underneath, so we could easily roll up to a safe spot, spread out our sleeping bags and crash for the night. While there were plenty of similar styled car platforms out there, I didn’t find many great guides on doing this for a Subaru Outback, so I figured I’d share our process and design (preview: it’s so easy!)
STAGE 1: THE PLAN- (always the most important part)
Decide What You Want
Our priorities were sufficient storage for 8 weeks of stuff, a comfortable and stable sleeping surface, and minimal things to move in order to sleep. Your priorities will inform your design. For us, we were willing to sacrifice some headroom in order for 8” of storage underneath (good clearance for most medium sized storage bins, an essential component for our storage system). Also important to consider is how much you want to be able to move in the car. It could be better to use shallower bins and have more headroom if you want to be able to sit up. Also, I don’t know if it would be possible to do a system in a Subaru without a roofbox, unless you bring very little stuff and not a lot of activity gear (fishing poles, backpacks, etc).
Do Your Research
Before you start designing anything, make some measurements, look online for ideas, and decide how you’re going to store your stuff. Knowing that we wanted to use bins that ranged from 5.5” to 7.5” high, we set a minimum height of 8” for our underbed storage. We found PLENTY of bins (including all the ones we already had) that fit this requirement. You can and should take measurements of all the interior car dimensions, but you can also find them online, if you don’t want to fuss around with taking out seats and such just for initial planning.
Draft Your Design
We drew up a few ideas, using our car measurements and storage needs as a guide. We then tweaked it to make something we could actually build. Simplciity was a priority as well- we were in an apartment, owned no power tools, and were super busy in the months leading up to our adventure- not a ton of time to mess around with complicated carpentry. We came up with a design that utilized one piece of ¾” plywood and a few 2x4s. We were able to get the larger piece cut at the lumber yard for a few extra dollars, saving ourselves a lot of time and mess. We basically woke up at 10 am on a Saturday, went to the lumber store with a clear idea of what we needed, and had our platform built by 3 pm. If you had more time and resources, you could design and build something much fancier, but after 7 weeks, our simple design has played out as well as we could imagine.
For Reference, Our Design:
A main platform 6 feet long and 3.5 feet wide, supported by three spines each 4 ft. long and 8” high. We added two off-set 2x4s to the underside to stabilize the spines and keep them from wobbling. The spines were placed at the rear of the platform, with support for the front 2 feet provided by the duffles underneath. At 8″ high plus padding, the platform also sits flush with the wheel wells, making the bed feel wider than 3.5 feet. This design allows for access to gear at the rear side doors and at the tailgate. Once we built the platform, we covered it with carpet padding and tacked a sheet over the top to keep everything clean and presentable.
STAGE 2: BUILD IT! (the most fun!)
Get everything you need together
The supplies we used:
- One sheet of 4’ by 8’ plywood, cut into the following sizes (see diagram below):
- 6’ x 3’6” (main bed platform)
- 3 sets of 8” x 4’ (these formed the spines)
- We were left with a 6 ft by 6in. section that we chopped up into smaller 8” chunks to use as stablizers if needed (we didn’t end up using them)
- Carpet padding or some other foam- we just walked into Carpet Liquidators and asked for scraps, and they happened to have something big enough. Carpet foam provided just enough extra padding to make our Z-lite mattresses comfortable for nightly sleeping, but was stable enough we could set things (like beer) on it and they wouldn’t fall over.
- A sheet (covers the foam and wood, keeps it looking fresh, and is soft enough to sit on)
- Tools: a drill, 3 dozen screws, chalk line (so you don’t screw it up), strong glue
Make It Work
With the pieces already cut for us at the lumberyard, assembly took less than an hour. We raised the main bed platform off the ground using the scraps from the lumber yard and positioned the spines underneath. We used the chalk line to mark where the spines were, and then horizontally to make a guide for where to place screws. We screwed the top platform to the spines, then flipped it over and placed the 2×4 braces just offset and attached those as well. BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING ELSE, PUT IT IN THE CAR! Sit on it, lay on it, ooh and ahh at it, then take it out and continue. (Unless you decide you want to make changes).
Make it Comfortable and Functional
We attached the carpet padding with a few nails around the edges. I added a second layer of foam underneath the top layer because we had extra- probably not necessary, especially if you plan to use a more serious mattress on top. Finally, I took an old fitted sheet and cut it to wrap around the whole platform. I used a serious glue to attach it, although tacks, nails, or hot glue would work too. Nice to sit on, cleaner looking, and no splinters! Once we were on the road, we ended up covering up the platform with an additional blanket and an old ground tarp (see picture below). At night, we folded the blanket down over the tarp. By day, the blanket was folded up halfway, allowing for a big surface that was easily wiped down after prepping food, changing after a rainy run, or various other messy activities.
Also, sleeping in random spots (and parking all your belongings at trailheads for a few days) warrants some privacy modifications. We made very simple curtains from old sheets and pillowcases, and attached them with binder clips- you could get a whole lot fancier, but I don’t sew and again, simplicity was a priority. We kept the back shades up at all times and attached the side window shades each night and if we parked for a long time. Dark fabric kept out sunlight, and therefore heat, and glare from overhead lights in rest stop parking lots.
STAGE 3: TEST DRIVE & ORGANIZE
Well before your planned journey, load the platform into the car. Lay on top, move around, sit on the back, make sure it works. Then load in your stuff. Pay attention to what you need to access the most, and which stuff is more daily. With our platform system, a series of medium (shoebox-sized) plastic storage containers and a few larger containers (like our pantry bin) were sufficient to organize smaller stuff like toiletries, kitchen gear, camping accessories. The $1 shoebox-sized storage containers are great for most stuff, but a stronger bin like the rubbermaid one we use as a pantry is a lot more dependable for daily use and storage of heavy things. Look at Goodwill before you buy anything 🙂 We put our clothes into a duffel that could slide in and out at the side door. The outermost items at the rear access were kitchen equipment, toiletries and a big food bin- all things we accessed several times a day. The deeper items were things like first aid, backpacking accessories, personal gear (my longer distance running stuff, Justin’s cords and photo accessories, and spare running shoes- stuff we needed once a day or less. The biggest perk of this system is to get to ANYTHING, we only had to remove at most 2 other items.
We were left with some room behind the seats, which we used for more daily/on the drive access. Behind the drivers seat is the dish bin that holds a reusable grocery bag full of snacks and water bottles that can be easily reached by the passenger when hunger strikes, trash bags, and a big bottle of Bronners (sitting in the bin next to the grocery bag prevents it from falling over and leaking). Behind the passenger seat is the minibar box (another hardsided container), and Justin’s photo pack on top of that, so his camera can be reached by turning around in the passenger seat- meaning we can pull off at any moment and he can start taking shots. All that ends up on top of the platform during the day is our cooler, pillows, and sleeping bags in stuff sacks (these could go in the roof box, but since we use them every night, it doesn’t make sense). In the backs of the seats are other need-quick-access things- toilet paper, shovel, hand sanitizer, and shopping/storage bags for groceries.
STAGE 4: MAKE IT PERFECT
We’re still adjusting our set up- we’ve added little “libraries” behind each wheel well, for a few books, a headlamp and a place for our sandals to sleep at night. Dealing with wet gear is a pain- the best solution we have is to throw it in the roof box and wait for some sun to dry it out. Paying close attention to the organization initially and keeping almost everything in a bin helps tremendously- it keeps us from cramming stuff everywhere, which we’d probably do otherwise. It also helps that almost every inch of space is used – things have to go in their place or it doesn’t work. Spending 15 minutes a day maintaining the organization means we save 30 minutes of shuffling every night when we’re ready to sleep. It’s probably the smallest home we’ll ever own, but she’s perfect.
FURTHER TIPS ON ORGANIZATION:
Keep like with like: beyond just separate bins for food and first aid, putting all of my running gear, or all of our games, or all of Justin’s fishing gear, means we know exactly where to find anything we might need, and can get going much faster.
A place for everything and everything in it’s place: We spent a miserable 3 days without a poop shovel because I’d placed it on top of one of our deeper, never accessed bins, instead of in its proper spot next to the TP.
Minimize how many things you need to move to reach something: Hard-sided bins are easiest to maneuver around, and we’ve found medium and large bins to be the perfect size to hold one category of stuff. A large and medium bin fit side by side under each side of the platform. Knowing the measurements of your storage space lets you select boxes that work with your design perfectly. Soft-sided storage works best for things that fluctuate in volume, such as groceries, clothes, and dirty laundry.
Pay attention even to the small things. A mass of cords swimming in the front passenger seat is an easily-avoidable annoyance, but a small bag (like the ones that our Pack Towels came in) make great storage sacks, and are small enough to put in the glove box.