Ah, the camper van. It’s such a dream. To be driving across a country, seeing new cities and landscapes that take your breath away. Of course none of the joys of camper vans and van camping with kids is without difficulties.
Like anything in life, to achieve something amazing, you have to navigate through obstacles.
After months of traveling across the United States in a Ford Transit with just my two year old and 4 year old, I’ve learned how to navigate the difficult parts of van travel & van camping with kids.
Van Camping With Kids Tips
Space Saving Tip: Bed Platforms
Maximizing space while van camping is important. Add kids to the mix and it’s like the number #1 objective while preparing for a van camping adventure.
You’re going to want to either buy or build your own bed platform for you camper van. Making sure that your stuff can fit under the bed and that you still have enough room to sit up on the bed as well.
There are pre-made options like The Camper Box.
Or you can follow a simple DIY guide to make one yourself. For my version of a DIY bed platform build, you don’t need any prior experience.
My guide to building a bed platform for just $86 is here.
Or follow this guide to a more advanced, fancy bed platform here.
How to do laundry
Let’s face it. Even with an expertly packed and organized van, there is just simply not much space in a camper van.
On trips longer than a week, you’re going to have to wash laundry some how. There’s 3 main ways to do this while van caping with kids. I’ve tried all three and they all come with their own positives and negatives.
Method 1: Laundromat
1. Arguably the most effective method of cleaning your laundry
2. Is especially good for washing large quilts, pillows, etc.
3. You can pay extra to have laundry mat employees do your laundry for you, then come back and pick it up.
1. Cost money each time you go
2. If you don’t pay extra, you have to sit at the laundry mat while your clothes wash
3. You aren’t always in a location where you have a laundromat close by
Method 2: Tote & Wash Board
Use a tote like this and a wash board like this.
You can hang your clothes on your open van doors or on a clothes line with clothes pins to dry.
1. You can wash your clothes where ever you are
2. The tote can be used for other things. (I use ours as a way to bath my toddlers while camping and as a kiddie pool on hot camping days)
3. Inexpensive. You probably already have a tote at home you can use
1. You may be someone who would find having to wash your clothes by hand annoying
2. You’ll have to be in one place for long enough for your clothes to air dry
3. You need space in your van for a tote
Method 3: Washing Bag
Use a washing bag like this one.
1. Super light weight
2. Super compact
1. Even the largest washing bag listed above only holds a couple outfits which isn’t a great for family travelers
2. $50 upfront cost
3. Risk of mildew and mold in the bag if it isn’t properly air dried
4. You may not like to wash your clothes by hand
5. You need to be in one place long enough for your clothes to air dry
Where to go to the bathroom
Just like washing your laundry, you have a few ways you can go to the bathroom while van camping with kids. They all have their downsides. It’s about finding what works best for you and your kids based on their ages and needs.
My daughters and I use all three of these options while traveling and camping in our van.
Method 1: Public Bathrooms
With this method, you just need to go to the bathroom when you pass gas stations, stores, or any other place that has bathrooms. It’s also really easy to just make sure you use the bathroom before you leave tourist attractions and parks.
The trouble here starts when you are at a campsite that doesn’t have bathrooms or not around any public restrooms. (which absolutely does happen often when road tripping and van camping)
Method 2: Travel Toilets
If you have toddlers.. bring a little travel potty. Toddlers suck at holding it in. You can literally just pull over and let them pee, then dump it out. If they wake up in the night and need to pee, they can. Easy Peasy. This is also great because if it’s raining you don’t have to go out in the bad weather.
Parents, buy a camping or RV toilet like this one.
Whenever you’re at a campsite with no bathrooms and there are other campers around so you cam’t just pop a squat outside… you’ll be so glad you invested in one of these.
You can buy this chemical odor control so that it doesn’t stink up your van. (I like the lavender scented one)
When your toilet waste tank needs dumped you can dump it in a regular toilet or at a dump station. Dump stations can be found at some outdoor stores, gas stations, and campsites.
To find a dump station near you, use the Campendium app or website.
Method 3: The Great Outdoors
I’ve peed outside at a lot of the campsites we stayed at. If you are going to do this, you’ll want some privacy.
You can buy an outhouse-esque tent like this one.
When I’m peeing outside or changing my clothes outside, this is what I do…
I put up the back hatch of our van and hang black sheets up using binder clips to make curtains. Super cheap. Super quick & easy. I prefer this method because I already had black sheets and binder clips.
As a budget traveler, I’m always a fan of not having to buy anything.
There are definitely rules you need to follow when peeing in the woods. AND ESPECIALLY pooping in the woods. REI has a great article on this, I really recommend looking at it.
Give Them What They Want
I mean in it though. Give them what they want.
Although the joys of travel are endless, so are the struggles. Travel can be stressful & difficult for adults. It can be even harder for our kids. I’m obviously not advocating for creating spoiled brats that always get everything they want.
However, keeping your kids happy should be on your list of travel priorities. If they want a new little toy while you’re at the grocery store buying camp food…. get it for them.
If you are driving by an ice cream shop and they want some, but you really don’t want to stop… consider stopping anyways.
Your kids attitudes and happiness matters while traveling. I know it can be super tempting to see as much as possible in one day and only do things that adults would enjoy. But this is going to make some super unhappy kids which will make your super unhappy too.
It’s all about balance.
What time to get to the campsite
During peak camping season (which varies by region you’re traveling through) campsites can fill up fast. Knowing what time to arrive is really important.
First, I never like to arrive at a campsite in the night. It’s nice to get a feel for the area you’re in, see how many people are at the site, know the different exits to the camp site, etc.
You also need to make sure you get a site before the campsite fills up. You won’t always have to worry about this, but it’s something that needs to be considered.
When camping in May-August, I keep this rule of thumb…
Be at the campsite before 5pm.
There has been times when I arrived at a campsite at dark and there were only a couple other campers at the site. I’ve also arrived at sites at 5pm and there were no sites available at all.
However, I find that arriving at a campsite by 5pm is really a safe bet during peak camping season.
Finding the right campsite for you
One of the most frequently asked questions that I get from people on Instagram is “How did you find that campsite?”
I start by roughly planning the route I want to go on Google Maps. Then, I head over to the Campendium app to find campsites along that route.
Campendium allows you to search for campsites that are free or for campsites that you have to pay for. You can tap on “free”, “$”. “$$”, “$$$”, etc. to find sites in your price range.
The app also allows you to search campsites by type. (public land, RV park, etc.) It can also show you dump stations, sites with partial or full hookups, or a site with cell service based on your network.
It’s super easy to navigate and filter through the campsites. You can see where they are on the map + see pictures and reviews that people have left about the sites.
MY BACKUP APP: Boondocking
If I can’t find a place to stay on the Campendium app I head over to the Boondocking app.
Boondocking has sites that are more primitive and a lot of time the listings on there are parking lots, public land that isn’t always easy to find, and other things like that. However, it is still super relevant and useful.
I recommend downloading both apps. It’s good to have backups incase one crashes or doesn’t show any camping spots near you.
Everything we bring in the van
Everyone is so different and everyone has very different needs and preferences on what they consider essential.
I thought it would be the most beneficial for you if I gave you a list of everything I pack with us when we are taking a road trip & van camping.
We travel in a 2014 Ford Transit Connect.
Momma (me), Elsie (4), & Mairead (3).
Clothes & Shoes:
-4 outfits each
-lots of extra underwear for the girls because toddlers are gross
-1 extra bra
-a poncho for each of us.
-a hoodie & hat each if it’s cold climate (just 1)
-1 pair of tennis shoes each
-1 pair of sandals that can also be worn in the water
-1 bathing suit each
-sunglasses for everyone
-a sunhat each (the girls wear these)
Food & Water:
-gold fish, granola bars, apple sauces, etc,
-gallons of water-used for felling up our reusable water bottles when there isn’t another water source
–a cooler bag for when I want refrigerated foods (can fold up small when not in use)
-bread & peanut butter
-small packs of sauces, salt, etc
-1 fork/spoon per person
–bio friendly detergent
-binder clips to hang clothes to dry
-tote (I use a short flat one that fits in the floor board)
-small bag of toys for the girls
-notebooks and pencils
-a little bit of cash & coins
-trash bags & grocery bags
-1 beach towel for each person
-1 wash rag for each person
-medicines, bandaids, bug spray, sunscreen
-shampoo & body wash (I don’t bring conditioner to save space and plus we are camping, I’m going to look rough the whole time anyways)
-2 extra quilts (for cold nights and to lay out on the ground to sit on)
-folding camp chairs
–small folding table
Staying Connected/Working Online
In order to stay connected and work on my website while we’re traveling and camping, I did these three things.
1. Updated my phone plan
I have unlimited data and a high GB amount of hotspot data through AT&T. (I can’t remember exactly how many GB)
2. I check cell service ahead of time
I use the Campendium app to look at campsite reviews. Users will leave a review with the amount of cell service they had at the site and the service provider they have. I choose sites with service over sites with poor or no cell service.
3. Bought one of these to charge my devices while I drive
This is a great budget option. The downside is you can only charge when your vehicle is on. I use it to charge my GoPro, Mac Book Pro, and Nikon DSLR
I also travel with this smaller portable battery pack to charge my phone. However, I rarely need to use it.
Another option is to buy a Jackery Portable Power Station that you can charge before your trip and use to charge your devices at any time during your travels. They also offer a separate solar panel that can go with the power station.
When I first bought our Ford Transit, I wanted amazing curtains installed, but really couldn’t afford them. I considered several options, but ultimately decided on the cheapest option.
I first tried suction cups and then command hooks. Both methods failed. The suction cups kept sliding off and the command hooks adhesive wouldn’t stick to my van interior. (I wasted around 20 hooks and strips on trying to make this work. *eye roll*)
So, I tried binder clips.
This option allowed me to use things I already had. I used 3 black bed sheets and the binder clips. Putting them up before bed is a really simple process and can be done on all of the windows in about 2 minutes or less
Comfort is key. Following this guide will help you:
-find a campsite that is right for you
-have a reliable way to do laundry
-always know where to go to the bathroom
-save space in your van
-keep your kids happy
-maximize creature comforts while van camping with kids
If you have any questions about van camping with kids that I didn’t answer in this post, contact me on Instagram or leave me a comment with your email address. I’m happy to help!