Before #vanlife was ever a trending hashtag, many of us (myself included) found ways to make the most of our vehicles to make life on the road a little more comfortable. It really doesn’t matter what vehicle you have – there’s probably a way to make it work. But for many of us cyclists, the Honda Element is a popular choice. Considering its relatively small size, there is still a ton of interior room that with the right build out, can be used for bike transportation or even car camping. However, it doesn’t quite live up to the promises in those early advertisements of seats that fold flat into a comfortable bed. However, since it’s an Element you can remove the seats and build yourself a perfectly flat sleeping platform that will make sleeping inside your Element far more comfortable.

While I initially built this sleeper platform just for myself out of necessity, I’ve had enough questions about it that it seems like a worthwhile topic for our #vanlife series. One of the best things about the design is that it’s fairly modular, meaning with a few tweaks it could easily be modified to sleep two (just mirror it to the other side), or even be adapted to other vehicles. #Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element

When I set out to build this platform, I had a number of very specific design criteria that will explain why I did things the way I did:

  1. It needed to fit a full size standard Therm-a-rest sleeping pad
  2. I still wanted to be able to store bikes inside the vehicle along with the platform
  3. There had to be room for my storage crates underneath, and they had to be easily accesible
  4. The front two seats still had to be useable
  5. I wanted to be able to set up the sleeping platform without having to get out of the vehicle
  6. It needed to be removable, and easily stored in the garage

Materials Needed

  • 1x 4′ x 8′ sheet of 3/4″ plywood (preferably pre-sanded)
  • 2x 12″ piano hinges (one 24″ hinge would work if you could find it)
  • 4x 14″ long 1/2″ steel NPT pipes, threaded on both ends
  • 4x 1/2″ to 1″ NPT adapters
  • 4x 1/2″ NPT floor flanges with screw fittings
  • 3x D-Rings with mounting brackets
  • 2x ratchet straps
  • 1x pack of 3/4″ pipe insulation
  • Construction adhesive
  • appropriate screws
  • scrap wood or a 2″x4″ plus 2″x1″ for adjustment pieces

#Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element #Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element

To make most of those a reality, the resulting platform needed to be hinged. That allows you to fit a full size Therm-a-Rest pad while still using the front seat. At its widest point, the platform measures 24″, while the rest is contoured to fit the inside of the element as snugly as possible. To create a template for the overall shape I used a piece of cardboard from a bike box and cut it to fit the inside of the car (seats out, no cover for the seat mount on the wall). Once you get the shape right, you can then transfer this directly to the platform for shaping.

#Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element

Note that the front of the platform (the side closest to the front of the car) has to be shaped to clear the door and arm rest when un-folding the platform.

The bed is made from two pieces of 3/4″ plywood (cut from a single 4′ x 8′ sheet). I chose 3/4″ to give it more structure, especially if you plan to sit on it, stack gear on it, etc. I used interior grade unfinished ply – if I did it again, I would probably choose pre-sanded. I wanted to make sure the wood wouldn’t snag on pricey sleeping bags, etc, so sanding the surface was the most time consuming part of the whole project. Pre-sanded is more expensive, but in this case, probably worth it.

Depending on how friendly the hardware store is, you might be able to get both of these pieces cut to size before you leave. Everything can be cut from a single 4′ x 8′ sheet. The starting sizes are 49″ x 24″ and 26″ x 23 3/4″. The two pieces are held together with two 12″ piano hinges mounted side by side. This is key if you want to be able to use the front passenger (or driver) seat, yet fit a full size thermarest. These are cheap and found near the gate/fence hardware usually.

#Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element #Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element #Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element

The legs are all made from steel NPT piping. You can get Home Depot to cut this to custom lengths in the store, then they’ll thread both ends for you. I used 14″ legs, with 1/2″ to 1″ adapters for the feet. They thread into the bed with the round floor flanges which attach with 4 screws (Find stubby screws with coarse threads – a few will need to be 3/4″ or less so they don’t poke out through the other side). If you’re taller, you’ll probably want to make the legs shorter for more headroom, though you’ll sacrifice storage space underneath – and you’re limited to the overall height by the height of the front seat.

The Element floor is not flat, and to get the bed to sit level I had to use different spacers – the front two I used a scrap piece of the 3/4″ plywood from the base, and for inner rear leg, I used a 1/4″ piece of scrap. You could get legs that were different lengths, but that might be more difficult to get them cut to size (they won’t be exact), and your floor may be different than mine. You’ll have some adjustment with the threads, but I didn’t have enough to level it out. These fittings are all pretty expensive (probably the most expensive part) but it was the cheapest way I found that I could adequately support the bed while allowing it to break down for storage, plus still fit a storage crate under the bed in the E.

 

#Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element #Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element #Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element #Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element

The other bits of hardware include 3 D-rings with mounting brackets. This allows you to secure the bed with two ratchet straps to keep it from moving (more importantly vibrating and squeaking) while driving. The straps easily hook to the floor and mounting rings in the car – two up front, and one rear diagonally.

#Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element

Finally, I used 3/4″ pipe insulation to make a soft edge where the bed meets the interior. Without this it will scratch the plastic a lot, and be pretty noisy. You can get packs of 4 pieces for about $0.99. I glued it on with some construction adhesive I had lying around.

#Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element #Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element #Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element #Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element

To use the sleeping platform, you start by removing the head rest of the passenger seat, push the seat all the way forward, then recline it fully, and flip the platform fully. Depending on your Element, you may need to build some sort of seat rest. I have the SC version of the Element, so my seats have thick side bolsters that I was worried about the sleeping platform crushing when unfolded. So I made sort of a tiered seat rest that distributes the weight evenly against the entire seat back. If your seats are flatter, you may need to adjust this design to fit your E.

And while it looks like the front section of the sleeping platform is tilted upwards, once you lay down on it, the foam of the seat compresses and yields a perfectly flat platform – remember to include that detail in your build.

#Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element

When in the storage position, the seat rest takes up a decent amount of room, but there is still quite a bit of space on top of the platform for storage of additional gear.

#Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element

In hindsight, I should have trimmed the rest to allow for my center console to open fully, but only the SC models will have this issue.

#Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element #Vanlife: How to make a DIY sleeping platform for the Honda Element

Two additional modifications that are a must for Element car camping – an interior release for the trunk, and a pull handle to close it from the inside (should I do another how-to on these in the future?).

Overall, my DIY sleeping platform has been one of the best things I’ve built to make car camping a little more comfortable. I can’t remember the exact price of the materials, but I believe it was under $100, and has more than paid for itself in hotel and campsite fees while motoring across the country and sleeping in various Wal-Mart parking lots. But it’s also been equally useful while solo camping at various spots across the country, race weekends, etc. As mentioned, you could double the build and make this into a two person sleeper platform with the bikes outside to double your fun!

 

14 COMMENTS

  1. Thats cute. Or you could just push the front seat forward, lean the back seat all the way back, and sleep on that. Its perfectly flat and you don’t need an air mattress. I kept one seat in my E normally and slept in it that way many many times with a bike inside as well. I had a manual 09 for almost 7 years.

    • What model did you have? The SC? I can assure you mine is not perfectly flat (the two halves of the seat vary in height from about 4-6″ on the back and front, not to mention all the hard plastic inserts for the cup holders, head rests, etc.). I have tried that many times, and it was one of the most uncomfortable sleeping experiences I’ve ever had in ANY car, not just the Element. That was what inspired this build in the first place – I tried to sleep on the stock seats in the flat position the night before a race, and I got so little sleep that I was completely wrecked the next day and had to skip the race.

      • I had an EX. When packing light the wife and I even slept inside quite well with the same setup with all the seats inside and bikes locked to the roof rack. It wasn’t perfectly flat, but the seats were almost perfect for someone who is 5’9 and 5’6.

        • I had high hopes to be able to do exactly that, which is one of the things that attracted me to the car in the first place. But I can say that on the SC, at least for me, it’s not even in the realm of possibility to get a good night sleep on the stock seats. I’m 5’8″ so either the seats are vastly different between models, or you’re much better at sleeping in the rough!

          • Former Element owner who remembers a review from way back about folding down the seats to create a flat sleeping area:

            “If you don’t mind sleeping on a pile of footballs, it’s totally acceptable.”

            Also, your pull handle/trunk release is probably the most ingenious aspect. The lack of these things seemed like a trbl oversight on Honda’s part.

          • Gotta agree on that. The Element seats are less than ideal for sleeping on.

            I’ve built similar (less sophisticated) platforms over the years, and use the same NPT legs anchored by floor flanges. Since Home Depot cuts to custom length, I figure things out using 2 x 2s then get each leg as close as possible.

            On the bottom, I use rubber caps (maybe for ironing boards?) and can do fine length adjustments by inserting washers inside the caps prior to pushing them onto the legs.

            Love these van life articles. Always get a new idea or two.

  2. Element is overpriced , I bought and old Rondo kia and delete the rear bench seat completely . Delete the rear false floor too , to get a deeper cargo area and dump the plastic underfloor bin . Then , I put a plywood to equalize the entire rear floor . I’m 6’4” and I just have to put the Fr. passenger seat in the foremost position without touching the seatback . Just adding a removable 12” x 30” long plywood to the one of the rear cargo . et voilà .

  3. When my wife and I went across Canada we had a custom foam mattress made to fit the back of our Element. We placed that on top of the six rubbermaid totes that we were using for storage and coincidentally happened to fit almost perfectly in the back.

  4. Way over complicated it.

    I’ve got a platform with some particle board and pvc. It’s taken me all around the west coast. Raced multiple stage races out of the back of my E with no need for hotels. Some fork mounts for the bike on one side, and a mattress pad on the other leaves space underneath for all the essentials. Can have it built or unbuilt in about 15 minutes if I need to put seats back in and carry bikes with wheels on.

    Truly gonna miss my E when I sell it.

  5. Thanks for this, Zach. 10-year Element EX owner here, and I can agree with the ‘sleeping on a bag of footballs’ comparison. I’m sure everyone commenting already knows there’s a fantastic Element owner’s forum with a ton of these platform build-outs, and I have one myself, but it’s nice when we get to see how someone else has done it, too. And, yes on the door release and pull handle projects, too.

  6. I absolutely love my two thousand 6 element loved it for the plastic floor boards easy to clean when you have a Australian Shepherd shedding is a problem the only problem came up with me owning an element was my wife she thought it looked like Frankenstein so we had to buy a new SUV so I lost my car and gained a car payment

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