The Bench Seat Problem
Those of you who love getting away from it all but also have kids are probably all too familiar with the question of how to have family vacations in a small DIY camper van. There are a million advantages to a van that doubles as a camper, but accommodating extra kids is not one of them.
When my kids came along, I wanted them to experience the outdoors early, like I did in my parents’ camper van. To complicate matters, my mother-in-law wanted to join in some of our adventures, so I needed seating for three in the back.
My solution (that I have to admit I thought was brilliant at the time): a three-person bench seat/sofa that folded flat into a bed. I had visions of quiet kids wide-eyed at the scenery by day and slumbering peacefully by night. Sadly, our first road trip didn’t exactly go as planned. First, I couldn’t attach the car seats tightly, given the seat only came with lap belts and no Isofix attachment points. Then after some hours of driving, my mother-in-law started complaining about how uncomfortable the seat was - turns out the flat bench seat had pretty lackluster foam and support. Moans, groans, grumblings and then screeching hurtled forward from the rear bench. When bedtime rolled around (and boy was I ready for a good night’s sleep) I discovered another problem: the “bed” was way too small. With half my body falling off the small seat during the night, I was as cranky as the kids by morning.
Don’t get me wrong, we saw some wonderful sights and have some great memories from that trip, and I’ll never forget the magic of waking up to an ethereal mist rising off the bison in the pre-dawn at Yellowstone. But I would rather forget the thorn in my side otherwise known as the rear bench seat. When we pulled into the driveway at the end of our vacation, my wife looked at me and said “I love going on road trips - but not with that so-called seat-bed. There has to be a better one.”
A Better Camper Seat
Like so many things related to campers, our friends in Europe have some more options available, like the RIB campervan seats I came across in my search for a better seat/bed combo. Made by the French company Scopema, RIB camper seats (like the RIB Altair bench seat/bed shown below) are designed to be comfortable seats for driving, but can also easily be converted into a perfect bed.
The RIB Altair is a three-segment seat that includes a double backrest and a standard front seat segment. The seat is contoured, not flat, so it fits your body better while driving, and the seat foam and construction give your body better support and comfort for long drives. It also has three-point seatbelts, optional integrated headrests (like those shown), optional central and side armrests, optional concealed Isofix child seat attachment points, and comes in 2-person or 3-person versions. The rear segment can even be lowered and used as a shelf, as shown here.
The RIB Altair can be easily and quickly set up flat as a bed, and you can also recline just a portion of it to prop yourself up in bed to read or use your computer.
The three-person Altair seat shown here is 59 inches wide, but versions are available in 51-inch, 47-inch and 44-inch widths. When extended flat, it's about 76 inches long.
The Altair is available in a wide variety of OEM fabrics, so you can match your van's upholstery. And it's built on a strong powder-coated steel frame which has been pull-tested (with proper under-floor through-bolting) to stringent CE certifications.
Check out this video that shows how easily it converts into a bed - this is a far better piece of engineering than the available US options (and yes, this is for any van, not just VW camper vans!).
One more thought - buying a two-person version of the Altair means you have the extra driving and sleeping space you need for 4 people, but you can still extend your galley cabinetry all the way into the sliding door space, like in many European van designs. This is another clever way to make use of a ton of space that would be wasted, especially if you only need a 2-person second-row seat.
Want a RIB Altair seat (or another RIB seat model) for your camper van build? Unfortunately, they aren't available in the US, only in Europe. And ordering a single one of these from Europe will cost you thousands in import fees, customs and shipping, if the company would even sell to individuals.
But here's your chance: I've been doing all the legwork with US and international shippers, US Customs, the NHTSA, and Scopema, and I've negotiated a deal for Campervan HQ customers. Scopema shuts down during August for summer holidays, but after that I will be putting together an order of seats direct from France for the fall, with about a 13-week lead time. Exact prices will depend on how many people are interested, but will probably be from US$2500-3500 (varying with options and model) shipped direct to you.
Check out the Scopema Web site to see the full selection of seat models, seat fabrics, sizes and seat configurations, then drop me a note to tell me what you want by this Friday, July 15th, and we'll go from there.
Here's to getting that van done and out on the road!
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