Updated: Oct 23
A look at my 5th generation 4Runner sleeping platform design, storage cabinet, and my favorite car camping accessories.
It's been a few years since I first set up my 5th gen 4Runner for car camping. I always knew the first build was unlikely to be perfect, so I kept it as cheap as possible while still accomplishing what I wanted. I then gave it a couple years so I could determine what worked well and what needed improvement.
Earlier this year I started over from scratch, armed with far more detailed plans for a new sleeping platform and additional storage space. I'm happy to say I now have what I think is one of the best 4runner camping builds I've seen in terms of simplicity and function without spending a ton of money.
For a complete walkthrough of my entire 4Runner camping setup and favorite accessories, you can watch my in-depth video:
If you want to understand what didn't work and what I learned from my first build, go ahead and read the first section. If you just want to see my second build, and get the build instructions, jump to the second section.
Please keep in mind that all my measurements and the final design are based on a 2020 4Runner TRD Pro with the sliding cargo tray. Aside from the tray, the design plans should work for just about any 5th generation 4Runner without a third row. If you don't have the sliding tray, you'll need to build a leveling platform, or adjust the height of the sleeping platform accordingly.
Earlier this year I started over from scratch, armed with far more detailed plans for a new sleeping platform and additional storage space
I've also removed the second-row seat bottoms. This will be a required step, if you wish to follow these plans, as their removal provides more lengthwise space for both the sleeping platform and the storage cabinet. An added bonus is that doing so also provides more storage space below deck, as it were.
Regardless, I assume no responsibility for your individual build, the safety of the build, or anything else should you choose to replicate it or use it for inspiration for your own build.
Table of Contents
My First Attempts at a 4Runner Sleeping Platform
My first try at "building" a sleeping setup for my 4Runner involved buying a camping cot that I could place on top of the folded down rear seats. I then bought a memory foam mattress to use on top of the cot. This would have worked fine, in theory, but the supports for the cot didn't really allow for any effective under-bed storage aside from small, random things stuffed in between gaps in the supports.
I had planned to test out the setup during a 10-day trip from Texas to Utah in March of 2020 but, well, we all know what happened right around then... I ended up cancelling the trip the morning I was due to leave.
Never really happy with how the cot worked out (I ended up just using the foam mattress without the cot on a subsequent trip to Colorado that summer), I tried my hand, with the help of my girlfriend's father, at building a proper sleeping platform for the 4Runner before a spring trip to Oregon in 2021.
I had a rough idea of what I wanted - a platform with room for storage bins underneath - but more or less winged it. I had already bought several plastic storage bins at Lowe's and made sure the platform would be high enough for them to fit... and that's about as much pre-planning as I did.
while it was usable, the first platform was too tall
I used the setup as it was built for the trip to Oregon and, while it was usable, the platform was too tall, requiring me to fold myself in half to get in and out of bed. Due to its height, I also couldn't get into bed directly from the door side of the platform, which meant I had to leave (wasted) space clear behind the driver's seat, since the platform was on the passenger side.
Note: I do not recommend securing a 12V refrigerator with bungie cords as shown above. That was just a temporary solution for the pre-trip test run!
We also overbuilt the sleeping platform to a point where I'm pretty sure it would have survived a small nuclear explosion:
Mistakes aside, it did serve its purpose. After the trip to Oregon, I ended up removing the legs from the platform. This gave me more headroom and, most importantly, allowed me to get into bed directly from the rear passenger door, but it also meant I lost all the underbed storage.
That wasn't a huge issue as I no longer had to keep the driver's side clear for access to the bed so I could stack the bins there, but a new problem arose when I brought my dog along as his bed needed to go behind the driver's seat.
I found myself having to shuffle around bins, my camera bag, my duffle bag full of clothes and toiletries, and the dog every time I set up and broke down camp. It wasn't the end of the world, but it was an annoying dance I had to perform at least twice a day (and far more annoying if it happened to be raining at the time).
Summary of Version 1.0 Issues
Sleeping platform too tall with the legs installed
Using smaller storage bins required shuffling to access all bins as needed from beneath the bed
Without the legs installed on the sleeping platform, I didn't have room for the dog and the bins
Constant shuffling of bins and other gear when setting up and breaking down camp
Sleeping platform tremendously overbuilt/heavier than needed (and too bulky)
Slat design was not sufficient support for the foam mattress without some form of firmer bed support (I could feel the gaps in the slats when in bed)
Version 2.0 of my 4Runner Camping Setup
Based on the lessons learned from that first platform build, I had eight main objectives with version 2.0 of my 4Runner sleeping platform.
Main Objectives for Version 2.0
Recover storage space under the sleeping platform
Keep the platform low enough so I could still sit up somewhat in bed
Keep the platform low enough so I could still get in and out of the truck via the bed-side rear door
Design and build a far lighter and more space-efficient sleeping platform
Provide hidden storage for my camera bag
Provide storage for my clothes and miscellaneous items to eliminate the need for bringing my duffle bag
Eliminate the shuffling of things around at any point just to access something I regularly need
Retain use of the sliding cargo tray at the back of the truck
Let's take a closer look at both major components: the sleeping platform and the storage cabinet (or you can watch my full build walkthrough video).
1 - The Sleeping Platform Design
For reference, I weigh about 185 pounds, and am 5'11". This sleeping platform design is based more on my height than weight, but I did factor in my weight when determining what to use for the mattress base.
I knew this was going to be the trickiest thing to design and build as I needed a sleeping platform that was both tall enough for the storage I wanted and needed, yet low enough to easily get into and out of bed from the rear passenger door. Having to keep the space behind my driver's seat clear as with my first build would keep me from achieving some of the other goals I listed above.
Given how (extremely) overbuilt my first platform was, I knew I could go with far less material on the second attempt. I opted to use 2x6 boards for the main sidewalls of the platform, with 1x2 "footers" running along the bottom of them (more on that below). Alternatively, I could have used 2x8 boards and ripped/notched them down as needed.
I knew I could go with far less material on the second attempt
For the platform itself, after some research on van builds and other 4Runner sleeping platform discussions I found, I decided to go with 1/2" birch plywood. Several people recommended 3/4" boards but given the narrow span - only 24" - I felt comfortable that the thinner boards would be more than enough. I have had zero issues with it sagging, whether I'm stretched out for sleep or sitting up slightly.
I ended up using precut plywood boards I purchased at Lowe's: one (1) 24" x 24" and one (1) 24" x 48". The longer board went towards the back of the truck where my feet and legs would be, and the smaller, square board was under my upper body. This is one thing I would change if I built this same design again: I should have gone with three (3) 24" x 24" boards (more on that below).
Why, you ask? I designed the platform so that the 24" x 24" plywood section would be directly behind the front passenger seat. That section is attached to the larger 24" x 48" section only (not to the support boards underneath), using hinges, which allows is to swing up and open to access a little hidden storage space below. The larger 48" long plywood board is permanently attached to the rest of the frame towards the back of the truck.
I left the bottom of this little storage cubby open but will likely add some kind of base to keep odds and ends from falling out through the gap between the end of the folded-down seat and the end of the platform frame.
What I didn't account for was secondary "emergency" access to my under-bed storage from the back of the truck. Typically, it's not an issue, and the current design works perfectly fine... unless I have my Coleman stove set up on the sliding cargo tray and realize I need something out of the larger under bed storage bin I bought. With the stove in place, I can't slide the bin out, which is when it would be helpful to be able to just flip up another 24" x 24" panel in the back.
Alas, I didn't think of that scenario until I was in Utah and realized I needed something out of the bin while I had the stove going! The 24" x 48" panel is glued and screwed down, so changing it now isn't really possible without rebuilding the entire platform. Thankfully, it's a minor annoyance and something I can account for by not forgetting to get everything I need out of storage prior to setting up the stove.
Aside from that one minor issue, the sleeping platform has otherwise been just about perfect.
2 - The Storage Cabinet Design
For this new car camping build, adding storage space in general was about as important to me as redoing and optimizing the sleeping platform (which also obviously addressed some of my storage needs).
From a general storage needs standpoint, I had a few major pain points that I wanted to solve:
Have storage for my clothes so I didn't have to find a spot for my duffel bag (and dig through it trying to find items)
Have a place to store my Jackery battery unit and solar panels
Most importantly, have hidden storage for my camera bag
Let's start with that last bullet first.
Prior to this build, I was in a constant state of concern or inconvenience. I either had to take my camera bag everywhere I went - not always feasible or reasonable - or hide it under my sleeping bag and blankets. Neither "solution" was ideal.
Prior to this build, I was in a constant state of concern
So, I knew from the get-go that I wanted a cubby where I could store the bag out of sight. I also knew it would have to be behind the driver's seat as the bag is too large to fit elsewhere.
When the door is closed, it is impossible to see into the bottom cubby where I store my camera bag.
If you don't have solar panels to account for, you could opt to just have large cubby spaces for storage, or even go with a shorter design for the cabinet overall. I designed the slot for the solar panels so it can fit all four that I have, but I usually only take two of them on trips (I bought a bundle during a Jackery sale... in hindsight, two panels is enough and I rarely use even those).
With just two panels stored in the tall slot, I ended up with the perfect spot to store my Weathertech custom fit window coverings (all but the windshield and tailgate). They also work to keep the panels from knocking back and forth against the cabinet while I'm driving.
The Jackery battery unit itself goes in the cubby to the right of the panels slot.
I will admit that it's not the easiest to get to the plugs and buttons on the Jackery with this setup, but I wasn't too concerned about that as I just set up the cables I'll be using ahead of time and run them where I need them, leaving the applicable ports turned on.
The biggest drawback to this placement of the Jackery battery is it cannot be removed from the truck without removing the sleeping platform. Again, not a huge concern for me as, so far, I think I've only ever had to charge it up via AC power in a hotel room once. The big advantages of its location are it's out of sight, and it can't fly around the cabin if I'm in a bad accident (I do need to add a tie-down system, though, for extra safety and stability).
Looking at the cabinet from the other side, you can see a couple other design decisions I made.
First, I wanted a "nightstand" next to the bed so I would have a place for my phone, wallet, keys, Kindle, etc. while in bed.
Secondly, I left an open platform above the Jackery battery cubby. I knew it would be used for clothes storage, and my initial plan was to reuse the bins I already had from the first sleeping platform build. I soon realized, though, that stacking bins on top of each other would still lead to shuffling them around to access items in the bottom bin.
I subsequently tracked down the plastic drawer unit shown in the above photo. Drawers eliminate the need for shuffling bins and using them instead of building out drawers as part of the cabinet helps keep the weight down tremendously. It also gives me flexibility to use the space for something else as needed.
This design does have some drawbacks, although nothing too major:
The plastic bin I have on the other side, facing the door, rubs against the pull handle on the door and has worn the plastic down
I wish I had included a little shelf in the "nightstand" section about halfway up; that upper space is kind of wasted at the moment
The cabinet does limit my visibility out the back slightly (not too much since it's directly behind the driver's seat); I also have the Anytime Backup module installed, so I can flip on the backup camera if I need a better look at what's behind me while driving
It significantly reduces what I can see over my left shoulder to check my blind spot (solved by the addition of a wide-angle mirror in the corner of the standard driver's side mirror)
The first night I slept with this new setup I discovered I sleep with my elbows extended out a bit, and my right elbow was hitting the cabinet every now and then
I'm still searching for a two-drawer plastic storage unit that's a little taller and a little wider than what I currently have; it's a bit tight fitting some of my clothes in there right now
Overall, though, I am really happy with how this setup has worked out with real-world use so far.
I do need to figure out a solution for traveling with the dog since I've once again lost the open space behind the driver's seat. My plan is to build a small platform that can go over the front passenger seat and extend forward a bit to act as a base for his bed. He'll just have to get in and out via the driver's side instead of hopping right up into the passenger seat.
My top accessories for Car Camping in a 4Runner
This is a list from big ticket items to the small odds and ends that I've found helpful for car camping. If you have any questions about anything, please use the comments section at the end to ask and I'll get back to you as quickly as possible!
I may earn a small commission from purchases made via the following links. Please note that I've only listed items I actually use and recommend, or comparable alternatives.
I'm currently running the Jackery 1500, which appears to have been replaced by the 1500 Pro. I've had the 1500 for about 2,5 years (as of August 2023) and it has worked flawlessly for me, powering my 12V refrigerator, charging camera and video equipment, running/charging my laptop, and more. The new Pro models include handles that fold down, which is something I definitely wish my model had as it would be easier to stow it away in the storage unit I built. Visit the Jackery Amazon store
I purchase the 45 liter VL45 Pro 12V refrigerator from Iceco at the same time as the Jackery battery and solar setup. Although I did have an issue with a fan error that I ignored too long - it was intermittent - Iceco customer service was fantastic when I finally followed up on it two years after my purchase. They replied quickly to my email and had a replacement fan unit at my house within a week. This refrigerator has worked wonderfully otherwise, and has held up to mild offroad adventures, including severe washboard dirt roads. Visit the Iceco Amazon store
I bought this mattress over three years ago now and have been really happy with how it has held up. The tri-fold also helps with storing it on the rare occasion it's not in the back of my truck, and it includes a nice, zippered storage case. The mattress cover can also be removed for washing, which was a must-have feature considering I often don't shower for multiple days when out in remote areas! I am considering adding a foam topper for a little extra padding, if I want it.
I bought a 4-pack of these VICOODA magnetic LED work lights after watching another 4Runner build video in early 2023 (I unfortunately don't recall which video it was). The brand of lights they recommended were no longer available, but I found this set and decided to give them a try. Using them on a boondocking trip in southern Utah quickly made them one of the best things I've bought for my 4Runner camping setup. They are extremely bright for their size, the brightness can be adjusted, there's a red-light mode, and the magnets are more than strong enough to attach the lights to the 4Runner wherever I need them. The folding design makes them easy to stow away, and also allows for aiming them exactly where you need the light. Purchase the set here
Unfortunately, the mesh window screens I bought for the back doors of my 4Runner are no longer available on Amazon, but there are countless others available. When there's no rain in the forecast, I throw the screens over the window frames and lower the windows at least a little bit to provide some airflow and prevent condensation buildup inside the truck. If you have your vehicle added to your Amazon account, you should be able to easily verify that your selection will fit. Unfortunately, many of the product descriptions don't provide dimensions given the elastic nature of the screens. Find and buy screens here
Before I bought the mesh window screens, I purchased this Roadie car camper window covers set. The mesh covers are my go-to when the weather is nice, but I keep these as my emergency backup if there's rain forecasted. They include an awning that extends out a bit, letting you keep the window partially open for ventilation without worrying about rain getting in. Just like a standard tent, you can also zip them up for privacy. They are a bit tricky to install correctly to avoid leaks around the door seal (they stretch over the entire door), but you can still have them set up properly within a minute or so. This set worked great for me when I was in Colorado for a week back in 2020 where it rained almost every night. Purchase the set here
Continuing on the ventilation theme, I always pop up my sunroof to help minimize condensation buildup inside the truck while I sleep. To keep flying and crawling bugs out, I searched for far too long to find a magnetic sunroof screen that was big enough for the 4Runner. This is plenty big to cover the opening if the sunroof is opened completely, and just big enough to stay sealed to the roof when the sunroof is popped up instead of slid backwards fully. Purchase it here
It may seem like I'm over-obsessed with condensation buildup inside the 4Runner while I sleep, but I've read too many nightmare vanlife stories that involve condensation and eventual mold and mildew growth. Personally, I don't want to deal with that mess! In addition to cracking windows and the sunroof, I always run a small fan overnight to help direct air away from me and towards the sunroof or an open window. This particular fan includes a rechargeable battery that just about lasts the night with the fan running on the low speed setting, but I just keep it plugged into my Jackery - or even a more standard power brick - via USB. Purchase it here
This is the last item related to condensation! In the past, I've used the more traditional DampRid "buckets," but they aren't reusable and create more waste than I like. I'll be switching over to this DampRid Drop-in system, which will allow me to just keep spare tablets in my storage bin to refill it as needed. Purchase the starter kit here
The full set of window shades from WeatherTech are a must-have in my opinion. I use them not just on trips, but whenever I'm going to be parked in the full sun on a hot day for more than a short trip into the store. They fit well, and have held up extremely well considering how much I've used them. In addition to helping to keep the truck cooler, they also do a fantastic job of blocking out light for those early evening calls to bed or lazy mornings when you want to sleep in. Purchase a set here
As noted in the 4Runner walkthrough video, I've only used the awning twice, primarily because it's been windy (looking at you, Utah!) or I haven't felt like messing with, especially in the mornings when I'm aiming to get out for a sunrise shoot. That said, I'm weirdly glad I have it for those times when I know I'm going to be set up in one spot for a bit and want to just hang out and relax (or protect myself from rain). Having the sidewalls provides peace of mind for a time when I may encounter bad weather or just want/need more space and some added privacy at camp (see: camp toilet). Purchase the awning here / Purchase the sidewalls here
First things first, I bought this model largely because it does not have an ignitor switch. In my experience, those always fail and aren't worth the added cost. That out of the way, I've been nothing but happy with this stove. There's not a lot to say: it's a stove. It's a good combination of lightweight but sturdy. I suppose my only (small) complaint is that it can be somewhat hard to regulate the temperature when cooking, but it just takes some getting used to. Purchase it here
Thanks to my partner whose mother was British, I've become addicted to tea. And there's nothing like a mug of hot tea when shooting in cold temps! I also have an MSR compact burner but find myself using the Coleman stove and this kettle more often than not. I pour the proper amount of water into my mug, then dump that into the kettle to avoid wasting water when I'm out where I can't get refills quickly or easily: the stove heats it up to boiling quite quickly. The main thing, though, is how compact this kettle is. I can easily stow it away in my under-bed storage, which is less than 6" tall. Purchase it here
As noted in my comments for the tea kettle, I don't find myself using this MSR stove kit too often. Since I'm carrying Coleman fuel cannisters anyways for the 2-burner stove, bringing this along just takes up additional space. It is a bit more convenient for small jobs like heating up water for tea or dehydrated meals, though, and it's certainly good quality. Purchase it here
I haven't had to use this yet, but I do like the assurance of having a camping toilet stowed away just in case (I have Crohn's Disease, for what it's worth). Rated for 400 lbs., the build and stability of this toilet are great: I've used plastic 3-legged camping toilets before and always felt like I was in the middle of a balancing act with potentially disastrous consequences. It also folds up nicely, to the point where I can keep it tucked away in its storage bag between the refrigerator and the side of the truck. At some point, I plan to purchase a rooftop storage box, as well, and it will be able to fit inside that to get it completely out of the way. Purchase it here
I don't have the luxury of having enough space inside the back of the 4Runner to store a larger plastic folding table, and this Coleman rolltop table has worked out really well. It's easy to assemble and break back down, and in its storage bag it only takes up about as much space as my main photography tripod. It is a little small: when I have the Coleman 2-burner stove set up on it there's not much workspace left over, but it works. I often set up under the tailgate where I can use the 4Runner's sliding cargo tray for the stove, leaving the table free for cooking utensils/supplies and to give myself a place to eat. Purchase it here
Full disclosure: this is not the chair I own. I had a gift card to REI and bought their comparable version; if I were using my own money, I probably would have gone with a cheaper brand. There's nothing wrong with the REI chair, but I don't know that it's worth the higher price. What I like about this camping chair on Amazon is that it comes with a zippered storage case/bag, whereas the REI one comes with a bag that has a simple cinch cord on it that doesn't do a great job of keeping the opening closed. As an added bonus, this one comes in green that looks similar to the 4Runner Army Green. Priorities! Purchase it here
Let's get the obvious out of the way: if you've looked into traction boards for your 4Runner, you've probably seen MaxTrax boards 99% of the time. Nothing against them, but given the type of off-roading I typically do, and my desire to avoid having things on the roof rack adding drag (and reducing the already iffy MPG), I wanted a different solution. Upon receiving the GoTreads, I was very impressed with the quality (and the customer service when my order went missing). Based on the reviews I read and watched, I'm confident they should do the job should I ever find myself stuck. You can also snag a handy storage case to pack them back away so you're not throwing dirty/muddy treads back in your truck after a self-recovery! Purchase here
Ok, this one isn't really for car camping, per se, but this adapter to add wireless CarPlay to my 4Runner has become one of my favorite accessories and comes in handy when I'm constantly getting in and out of the truck for whatever reason. It connects fairly quickly, I rarely have any issues with it, and it's super convenient to gain the benefits of CarPlay without having to plug my phone in every time I get in the truck. Purchase it here
For the life of me, I cannot find a similarly sized under bed storage bin on Amazon. I stumbled across this one while I was browsing options at Lowe's, and it seems to have been made specifically for this sleeping platform. It's the perfect width and height, and basically the perfect length, as well... and I didn't find it until after I had built the platform! The split/flip lid design works great as I keep my most-used items in the back half (towards the tailgate), and I can pull the bin out halfway and it supports itself easily. With the bifold lid, I can just flip up the half of the lid to access the items I've stowed away. If I need something from the other half, it's sturdy enough to remove completely (or I can extend my 4Runner's sliding cargo tray and use it to help support the bin when it's pulled all the way out). Purchase it at Lowe's
Thankfully, I've never had to use this compact jump pack but it gives me tremendous peace of mind, especially as my car battery is approaching 3-years old. So often, I'm off on my own with no one around and having this as an emergency solution should I wake up to a dead battery eliminates that worry. Purchase it here
This throttle booster is a life/knee saver! A common complaint with the 5th generation 4Runner is poor throttle response: I didn't really have too much of an issue with it until I made my first trip out of flat north Texas and into the Rocky Mountains. Going up mountain passes was killing my knee due to the amount of throttle input needed via the gas pedal. After that first trip I immediately ordered the Pedal Commander. It's not a tune or anything; instead, it basically amplifies the throttle signal from the gas pedal, giving you more response with less input. It has a slew of sensitivity settings so you can dial it in as you prefer, and you can easily change the input difference as needed (for instance, I turn it down or off when I'm home, or when I need fine throttle control off-road). Purchase it here
One of my most used items: if I'm traveling solo without the dog, I keep the trash bin hanging on the front of the passenger seat for easy access. If the dog is with me, I just flip it around to hang down the back of the seat and move it back to the front when it's time to settle down in bed. It has a removable and washable liner, but I usually stuff a plastic shopping bag inside to avoid having a mess to deal with later, and it makes it easy to carry the trash to a bin at gas stations, campgrounds, etc. Purchase it here
This foldable shovel is another item I thankfully haven't had to use, but I consider it an essential off-road recovery and/or camping accessory that I keep in the truck at all times. It's nice and compact so it fits on the floor behind the front passenger seat, below my sleeping platform. Purchase it here
I don't air down a ton, but when I do, I obviously need a way to air back up and there's not always a handy gas station at the end of the trail to do so. This air compressor clamps onto the 12V battery terminals and can air up a single tire in just a few minutes (depending on how much you've aired down). Purchase it here
Carrying a pair of goggles may seem like an odd thing to consider essential, but when you're at a sandy or dusty campsite and the wind starts whipping through, they can be a lifesaver. As an added bonus, and the real reason I bought them - they work phenomenally well when hiking and shooting in sand dunes! Purchase them here
I have multiple Canon battery chargers for my cameras, and after a long day of shooting, or even just a productive shorter outing, I can find myself wanting to quickly charge up batteries. The problem with most power strips is wasted outlets as the Canon charger bricks are rather bulky. This square strip works perfectly, allowing me to plug in four chargers at the same time while still not taking up much space. Purchase it here
If you own a 4Runner, you know the center console storage unit is quite large. While that's a great thing, it's just a huge empty void, making it impossible to keep things organized. Enter this center console tray. There are countless options, some with additional USB ports, others include lower storage dividers, and more. Purchase it here
Download my 4Runner sleeping platform plans
Currently, I'm only offering the design plans for the sleeping platform as the storage cabinet is pretty specific to my needs. If there's enough interest (let me know in the comments below!), I'll draft up design plans for the cabinet, too.
The design plans are being provided at no-cost. That being said, I put a lot of time and effort into this design, and then subsequently creating 3D models for the build guide, so voluntary donations (or purchases made through the above Amazon affiliate links) are greatly appreciated, if you find all of this helpful.
Simply jump over to my Free Downloads page to download the sleeping platform build guide.
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