What van life really looks like as a family?

If you are considering trying the sweet van life as a family, I bet you have millions of questions! At least we had before we started! More so if you are young parents of babies and toddlers!

Knowing we were not (and still aren’t) seasoned campers (we never camp really!) we had no experience whatsoever about this way of traveling. Nothing, zero!

We had to learn the basics on the go and though we are still not experienced campers we have two or three useful things to share with you!

I will be completely honest and practical. I promise! But we do love van life so I’m naturally positive about this way of travelling!

Here I will be talking for those who, just like us, never, ever, tried van life before and are considering their first trip already as a family!

If that is you, welcome here! You are at the exact right place!

Quick story about our beginnings at van life as a family

In 2021 we had the opportunity to stay at an Airstream in Joshua Tree and this experience captivated all of us, kids, and parents alike!

The main question for us was about our adaptability to a such small space as a family of 5!

And I can say we passed the test brilliantly and since then we only wanted one thing: drive around in our “own” family camper van.

A year later we decided to do one-week road trip in Norway and definitely fell in love with van life so deeply we are seriously thinking about doing our own camper van! But that’s a story for another time!

What vanlife really looks like for a family?

For a good couple of years, we considered to do a road trip in a campervan with our kids, but we had too many questions. Practical ones, you know?

We all know what to expect of a hotel or holiday apartment. Even a camping site is straight forward for someone like us who does not usually camp.

But vanlife is a completely different thing.

Practical things like “where do we go to the bathroom?” “How do we cook?” “Where can we park?” were some of the multiple questions we had!

A campervan is somewhere in-between an aparthotel with very small bedrooms, an even smaller kitchen and usually with no toilette or shower, right?

So, what life looks like for a (big) family with small kids, in a campervan?

I will try to answer the main questions we had before our first trip.

1.     Going to the bathroom

Motorhomes or big vans are usually equipped with a chemical toilet and a hot shower.

This is not the case in the compact campervans, the more current and affordable and easy ones.

Some rental compagnies offer the possibly to rent a chemical portable toilet but it will not only cost you additional money, but it will use a lot of precious space inside the van.

For those reasons we never chose to have one with us.

So how do we manage going to the bathroom, specially with young kids?

In the morning

If you choose to overnight in a camping site usually, you will have access to the toilets for free (included in the parking price). That’s the simplest solution, but the more expensive to.

We always prefer to overnight in the wild. In this case we just go outside, in the wild.

Travelling with a toddler it can be useful to pack a baby potty with you. As it is smaller and lighter than a chemical toilet it may be a good solution.

During the day

If you are adventuring in the wild you already have your answer.

When you are exploring a village or city going to the bathroom is also easy. There is always a coffee shop, a restaurant, or a shopping mall where you can simply use the toilet. Museums, cinemas, and hotels are great choices too.

When we are travelling with young children people tend to be quite understanding and helpful. We always managed to find a solution.

In the evening

In the case we are staying in the wild we always try to find a bathroom before arriving and setting up for the night.

It can be a restaurant or a shopping mall or simply a gas station.

As we highly recommend arriving at your camp site before sunset, it won’t be the last visit to the bathroom. But we think that for kids (at least our kids) it is still simpler to go to a proper toilet so usually we do a quite pitstop for that purpose.

No time to read now?

That’s alright ! Save it for later on Pinterest !

2.     Bathing

I’ll be bluntly honest! When we do road trips in a camper van we just assume that we won’t bath every single day.

We usually overnight at a camping once every three nights to have access to hot showers.

If you are traveling in the summer or in a tropical destination you can easily bath in the wild. Just make sure you use eco-friendly shower gel and shampoo.

sometimes campervans are equipped with a small freshwater tank and an outdoor shower. Unfortunately, this is rare to find in campervans for 4 or 5 people as it takes quite some precious storage space. In any case this is not a real solution if it’s cold outside.

3.     Cooking

Typically, rental campervans are equipped with a considerably basic kitchen module. The composition and functioning of this module may vary, but usually it has everything you need to prepare and cook complete meals.

Bear in mind that inside a campervan space is limited. And more often than not, rental campervans have the minimum equipment possible. Everything is functional, and it is perfectly possible to cook for a family but don’t expect for a complete kitchen as you have at home.

For this reason, we usually cook the first couple of meals at home if it is possible. And we use our stay at a camping site to cook some meals in a proper kitchen too.

So, what it looks like cooking in a campervan?

Stove

Sometimes the kitchen module has a small integrated gas stove. But it is also possible to have a camping propane stove. We really like this option as it allows us to cook outside.

In any case the stove often runs on gas as like this it won’t take energy from the campervan batteries.

Sink

Not all campervans have an integrated water tank and a sink with running water. Thought this solution is more convenient sometimes campervans only come with a collapsible dish basin.

Fridge

Campervans also have a small fridge. It can be integrated to the kitchen module or a separate volume. Neither the two options allow for a big storage capacity, but it is enough to stock groceries for three or four days for a family of 5 like ours.

Work bench

The kitchen module often comes with a small benchtop where you can prepare your meals. Sometimes the work bench is formed by a cooking board acting like a sink cover, to optimize the space.

You can use the camping table if the campervan comes with one or the diner table inside the van if it is independent from the kitchen module.

As you certainly understood, the main idea here is that inside a campervan space is limited and the secrete is to mutualise some areas for different tasks. Organization is key.

4.     Having meals

Eating outside, enjoying a beautiful view, is one of the main perks of vanlife.

A lot of campervans come with a camping table and some chairs and are equipped with a roll up awning. This solution is perfect when parking in the wild or in a camping site. If the weather allows it, of course.

But in any other situation, in Europe, it is not allowed to instal this kind of equipment beyond the limits of the vehicle.

This means that if you are parked anywhere else (or if the weather is not that pleasant) you must eat inside the campervan. So how this works?

Usually the “dining room” is formed in the space between the back and the front seats by installing the dining table in the free space and rotating the front seats so everyone faces the table.

The dining table can be fixed on one side pivoting from there. In this case it is usually independent from the kitchen module, and you can open the table while using the stove.

Or it can be a removable table. In this case it often uses the kitchen module as an anchorage, and it is hard or not possible at all to use both table and stove at the same time.

This is a point to be considered if you get to choose the campervan.

5.     Sleeping

Campervans can be equipped with two types of beds:

Fixed beds

These are built in. In this case the space configuration does not change between day and nighttime.

This solution is simpler and more practical but implies a bigger vehicle and even so it’s hard to find campervans like this for big families.

Foldable beds

This solution easily allows for a bigger number of sleeping places and is way more common in rental campervans suitable for families.

In this configuration you’ll find two beds

  • One is formed by sliding the back seats to a horizontal position.
  • The other is formed by opening the top part of the van in a tent like structure

The down side of having foldable beds is that every night you have to open them, changing the configuration of the van. And in the morning, you have to rearrange everything to be able to ride.

6.     Finding a place to overnight

When we rented a campervan for the first time, we had plenty of questions about this topic. But two of them really bothered us.

The first question is where can we overnight?

In fact, you can choose what type of overnight you want amid quite different possibilities: camping sites, Parking lots (when allowed), Farm stays or in the wild are the more common ones.

What varies between them are the amenities or facilities you have (or not) access to and, obviously, the price.

But, in reality, our main question was how to find a place to overnight?

We soon realized that nowadays we have easy access to several apps that solve this problem for us!

Apps like 

These apps give you plenty of options, with users’ reviews, prices and even pictures.

The downside is that everyone uses the same apps and in high season it would be wise to find your place to overnight in advance and arrive earlier to save your spot.

7.     Visiting and exploring around

Vanlife is great to enjoy nature and explore wilder areas as it gives you great freedom and autonomy.

But for someone who does not have a lot of experience camping, a more varied trip, mixing nature and city escapes, can offer the right balance for starting the vanlife and fall in love with it.

If you are thinking about visiting villages or cities during your trip you have two options:

Driving around with the campervan

and parking inside the city limits. Depending on the size of your campervan you can even park in indoor car parks.

In a certain way this solution can give you more flexibility. If you are traveling with babies or young kids, or if it is raining and it is harder to hop-on hop-off public transportation, you may prefer to drive around.

But it can be more expensive, time consuming and in some cities it isn’t even possible, as campervans aren’t welcomed in the city centre.  

Park and ride.

This is when you park the campervan outside the city limits and then take a bus or a train to get to the city centre.

This solution can be simpler as the park and ride parkings are usually suitable for vans.

It can also be less expensive depending on the number and age of your kids. For a big family as ours it is not always the case, but it is worth verifying.

This also works if you are staying several nights at a camping site not far from where you want to visit.

In that case it can be easier just to leave the campervan there and take public transportation or even a taxi from there.

Both solutions have their pro and cons. Yet again, the true beauty of vanlife is the flexibility it allows you. Every day can be different, and you can choose the solution that serves you best at each step of your trip.

Do you have any other questions ?

I hope I answered the most frequently asked questions when considering van life as a family. At least these were the questions that made us think harder when considering a road trip in campervan with our three kids.

If you are not convinced about doing a road trip in campervan with your kids just read a little bit about the true advantages of van life for (big) families!

Soon I will be sharing a blog post on how prepare for the first ever campervan road trip with kids. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, let me know in the comments if you have any other questions about van life as a family or what you would like to know about van trip preparation.

Safe travels!

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