One of the main reasons that my boyfriend Aaron and I chose a school bus to convert into our home (as opposed to a van) is that we wanted to be able to stand up and walk around inside it. We quickly learned that there are a plethora of different bus bodies available, and several types of modifications you can make to change the interior height.
What’s the Standard School Bus Interior Height?
The short answer is about 6 feet. However, most manufacturers have a second height option, which is about 6 feet 6 inches. These height measurements are taken from the center of the ceiling to the manufactured floor. Ceilings are generally curved, although the amount of curve varies.
Older buses tend to have a more pronounced curve where the center height might be 6 feet but where the ceiling meets the side walls the height is only about 5 feet 2 inches, whereas many newer bus body styles have flatter ceilings and might only range from 6 feet in the center to 5 feet 10 inches at the sides.
Of course, there are all kinds of buses on the market that were custom ordered or have been modified already, so your best bet is to bring a tape measure with you whenever you are going to check out a bus!
What Types of Modifications and Workaround Can Be Done?
When it comes to increasing school bus interior height, there are really only three main factors. Let’s start with the most drastic change:
Raising The Roof
This dramatic option basically involves chopping off the entire ceiling of the bus, fabricating support struts to elongate the existing ones, replacing the severed roof onto the higher struts, and then sealing all the gaps with sheet metal and so forth. Our friends Adam and Elizabeth of Deliberate Life Bus did a 14-inch roof raise on their full-size bus, and it feels so airy and open inside!
They also put in bunk beds for their two daughters, and that added height gives the girls some extra headroom in their bunks as well. Raising the roof definitely makes the space feel bigger and less cramped, which is a huge deal when you have an entire family living in a couple hundred square feet.
Insulating the Floor and Ceiling
Unlike raising the roof, these modifications will actually take away from the overall interior height, so they are also important things to consider when buying and building out a bus. The bus that Aaron and I bought was just a hair over 6 feet at the highest center point when we bought it.
Aaron is exactly 6 feet tall when he stands up straight, so we did not want to make any significant changes to the ceiling or floor that would result in us losing height. Our stock ceiling was actually very nice, so we just kept it as is, although we sometimes regret not taking it out and building in recessed lights, putting in a Maxxair fan, etc.
We did peel out the disgusting rubber and vinyl floor, removed all the wheelchair anchor points that had been recessed into the floor, and filled and sanded the existing plywood floor. The plywood was in good shape and we had seen no indication of rust or other problems, so we saved a few bucks by just keeping the original wood. We then covered the entire floor space with stick-on vinyl “hardwood” pieces.
This type of flooring is only a few millimeters thick, roughly the same as the stock flooring, but infinitely nicer looking and has proved durable so far.
How you design your floor plan also affects the need for higher ceilings. For instance, since Aaron can only stand fully upright in the middle of our bus, we designed our layout so that there is a center aisle where he can stand to get dressed, work at the countertop, stand at the sink, etc. and then a couch along one whole wall where he can obviously sit with plenty of headroom.
We both have to duck our heads to fit into the bathroom door and we can’t stand fully upright in there, but it’s less of an issue because obviously we aren’t spending tons of time in there.
Some of the bigger buses we’ve seen have more creative layouts since they have so much more space, with a hallway running down one side of the bus, which requires a higher ceiling so as to still be usable.
Additionally, if you choose to put in a shower stall, unless it’s in the center of the bus, it would be a huge help to have a roof raise so that you can stand up straight and have the showerhead mounted above your head. We don’t have a shower inside our bus, so this wasn’t an issue for us.
So How Important is Ceiling Height?
Well, that depends. If you are shorter than 5 feet 5 inches, chances are you will be able to comfortably stand in any bus. If you just plan to use your bus for weekend adventures or only as a place to sleep, being able to stand up might not be as important for you.
For Aaron and me, it was critical that he could at least stand comfortably in the center of the bus, and we are so glad we had that stipulation because there have been days where it’s been snowing or raining outside and we have spent all day in the bus. Thanks to the ability to stand and stretch inside, we can go a couple of days without getting cabin fever or going insane being stuck inside.
I also asked our friends Dustin and Tonya of @roadtrip_n_venture to share their thoughts on interior height, because they have a unique perspective on this issue — when we met them at a tiny home festival a few months ago, they had a tiny bus with a 5 foot 5 inch ceiling that they had outfitted beautifully for weekend excursions.
However, Dustin is 6 feet 3 inches and Tonya is 5 feet 8 inches, so neither of them could fully stand up inside. This bus served them well for many fantastic adventures, but now they are heading into a new phase of their lives where they want to be able to live and travel comfortably full-time in a bus.
So, they bought a new bus! This bus is super similar to ours, except that it has a beefier engine, and the bus body has been raised up about 6 inches higher above the chassis so that there are no wheel wells taking up floor space.
The interior height in the center of the bus is 6 feet, but since the body has been raised up like that, they have an additional step just behind the driver’s seat, which means the landing area up there is 6 feet 8 inches in height. I’ve never seen a bus with this exact setup and it was such an amazing find!
They are currently working on building out this new bus, and it’s been super fun watching their progress on their YouTube channel.
I asked Tonya what some specific challenges were in the old, shorter bus and she said that having to sit on the bed to cook and hunching over to wash dishes were the biggest annoyances for them. She is very excited to be able to stand upright throughout this new bus, and Dustin can stand straight in the front landing and only have to hunch a little bit to fit in the rest of the space, which is a vast improvement.
Finally, I asked if she had any final thoughts or words of wisdom about choosing a school bus’ interior height, and here is what she had to say:
“The height of the interior is all dependent on the person and the experience they are looking for. When we bought the first bus it was for the sole purpose of a weekend rig. Once we changed our idea to live in it full-time we knew the ability to stand was something we had to have. We both love to cook and be able to move freely throughout to do meal prep.
The first bus didn’t allow that. We also try not to sit for long periods of time. We wanted something that would allow us to stand, stretch, etc. as we work remotely.”
Tonya really summed it up well — the optimal school bus interior height definitely does depend on the person. I know a relatively short guy who lives alone in a 40-foot bus and he raised the roof a couple feet just to make it feel more open, but I’ve also met families of three who live in 25-foot buses with 6-foot ceilings and they are perfectly comfortable.
My best advice when considering what ceiling height is right for you is to tour as many buses as you can before you buy, whether these are non-converted buses for sale or buses that have been fully converted already. Tiny home festivals and buslife meetups are great places to do some research!
Cat is originally from Seattle, WA but has traveled around the US and Canada full-time in a self-converted school bus with her boyfriend Aaron since April of 2018. She enjoys rock climbing, paddleboarding, hiking, and generally being outdoors!