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 2- or 3-person RIB Altair seat for your camper van build? They are now available in the US, starting from around US$5250 plus shipping. You can drop us a note to tell us what you're interested in, and we can let you know current lead times and available models.
Here's to getting that van done and out on the road!
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