Van life is often a solo or couples adventure, but it’s also great with a small family. We wanted to share our first-hand experiences on how to full-time van life with kids.
When we told people we were going to live, work, and travel in a van for 9-plus months with our 2-year-old daughter, Finola, we received mixed reactions. Everyone was happy for us but some folks said, “You guys are brave, there’s no way I could do that.”
Several people have asked us how it’s going, what we’ve learned, how long we plan to do van life, etc. After answering these questions so many times, I realized the information could be a good resource for anyone considering van life or an extended road trip with your kid(s).
We have found a rhythm after several months of working and traveling in the van with a toddler and wanted to share some tips with anyone considering this lifestyle.
Additionally, I’ve listed some gear items we’ve come to love.
Things to Consider and Prepare for Van Life With Kids
Best Timing for Van Life + Life Changes
There’s never a perfect time to try life on the road. At the end of 2021, we finally decided to stop dreaming and researching and just go for it. We didn’t have a real plan or know what we were doing, but we were determined to keep an open mind and figure it out as we went.
Our thought was, it might be best to do full-time van life while Finola is younger since she’s not tied to a school, friends, activities, etc. At this time, we only have one kid and she’s a toddler, so this guide is written from that perspective.
Your kids might be different ages, which would affect your plans differently. A teenager, for example, is going to take up more space and need more privacy than a toddler.
Both my wife, Natalie, and I switched jobs to accommodate the change to living on the road. We even rented out our house for 9 months to earn some extra income while we were away.
Build or Buy Your Van With Kids in Mind
Buying Versus a Custom Build
We looked online for months at used vans, hoping to find something with three to four seats. After a fruitless search, we connected with a builder in Minneapolis named Colin Timm who owns Fair Is Fair Creative. We knew a custom build would result in the campervan we wanted, and for us, that has been the best way to go.
We chose a van over an RV or trailer because it’s easier to drive, park, and turn around. Our Transit is the longest and highest roof that Ford offers. We’ve found it fits well enough in parking spots, campgrounds, and roadside pull-offs. Anything longer would be too cumbersome for us.
If you’re able, try to get in a van or rent a campervan to get a feel for the size. We’ve seen everything from a converted school bus to a minivan, which shows that everyone has a different preference for vehicle size.
Seating and Sleeping
It was important to us that Finola has a legit, crash-test-proven factory seat so our builder incorporated that into the layout. He also added a bunk for Finola to sleep in, and we sized it so she could grow into it.
Step one in your custom van build or buying choice should be to make sure that it accommodates all your creatures securely and comfortably. This includes pets if you plan to travel with them.
If your kid is young and needs a car seat, don’t forget to factor that extra bulk into your build or any van you buy. We didn’t do this — Finola transitioned from a rear-facing to a front-facing car seat the day we left. We had to bring the van to Buy Buy Baby to get one that would fit with our fold-down table. It worked out for us, but we should have planned ahead.
Kids’ Play Space
Finola has one main spot in the van where she plays, reads, etc., and it’s on our bed. She didn’t do that at home, but we’ve found this is great in the van since it’s out of the way and she can spread out.
She also gets into everything and we have a few latches and locks to keep her out of some drawers and cupboards.
If you’re planning to travel to cold locales, make sure to properly insulate the campervan and get a heater. Our very first trip was in northern Minnesota and our Espar heater kept us warm in 15-degree weather.
Got More Kids?
We optimized for our current three-person family, but we do want to have another kid at some point. With a few tweaks, our van can be used with four people. We made sure to keep that in mind with the build.
The bottom line: Plan for the future whenever possible when designing your ultimate camper van.
Consolidate All the Stuff
At home, we had a ton of toys and baby gadgets we’d inherited. Needless to say, the plastic slide and giant unicorn didn’t make the final cut. We’ve learned that a toddler doesn’t need a lot of stuff to stay entertained. We brought a few favorite toys for her treasure chest and some books.
We packed 2 weeks’ worth of clothes and put them in these flexible organizers we found on Amazon to keep everything tidy. The ones with small compartments are perfect for toddler clothes as well as adult socks, underwear, and T-shirts. Pro-tip: These also work great for packing kids’ clothes in suitcases.
We are able to fit everything we need to live plus adventure gear: two bikes, two packrafts, two complete fly fishing setups, backpacking gear, some rock climbing gear, and more.
Set Reasonable Expectations
This was one of the most important learnings of my life. Not every day is epic. That’s as true in a campervan as it is in a house. If you set reasonable — even low — expectations you’ll be happier at the end of the day.
The “I woke up here” photos you see on Instagram aren’t always the reality. If you go into it with that expectation, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment.
For me, this is an appropriate expectation for the day: hang with my daughter and wife, work, see something new, spend more time outside than I would have at home, eat a quesadilla for dinner, and sleep in a Walmart parking lot. If I use that as my base, it’s easy to exceed that and be happy at the end of the day.
What It’s Really Like to Van Life With a Kid
Van life gives us the freedom to explore more and go at our own pace. In a van, our “home base” is moveable so we don’t waste time driving back to an Airbnb each night like other vacations.
Instead of rushing to see everything in a week before heading home, we get to wander and take it all in. It’s fun to be at our next adventure spot when work is done or when we wake up.
The small space is easily overwhelmed by two adults, an energetic toddler, and the items we need to live.
Everything takes longer living in a van and it requires more patience and flexibility when things don’t go as planned — like a breakdown or when our kid gets sick.
I’ll also add sky-high gas prices as a major con!
Plan to Go Slowly
My wife and I used to make the 18-hour drive to Wyoming from Minnesota in a single shot. With our kid, we limit most drives to about 4 hours. In rare cases, we’ll push it longer. Sometimes we’ll drive at night while Finola sleeps. We stop more and need extra time to run around each day.
Beyond that, everything else is a slower process. Making a meal, washing dishes, laundry — it all takes more time so be prepared for a slower pace. I found trying to go faster resulted in frustration since it felt like I couldn’t ever get to everything we had planned for the day.
How to Work Remotely From the Road With Kids
I’m working full-time and Natalie is working part-time. The way we work has changed a lot. Two to three times a week, Natalie gets up early for 6 a.m. meetings since her job is in Minnesota and we’re now on the West Coast. She uses this time to get some of her work done and we trade childcare duties later in the morning.
We built a workstation into our van with a standup desk and an extra monitor. We can work with all three of us in there, but it can be chaotic. A better solution is to park at a playground or beach. While one of us works, the other two can play.
We often use a weBoost cell-signal booster to add a little extra speed when we’re in areas with one to two bars.
Libraries are the unsung heroes of van life with kids. We utilize libraries a ton since they are free and reliable. Often, they will have a kid section that will keep Finola occupied for a while. When she gets bored, she can go play in the campervan or the nonworking parent can take her to run errands, to the park, etc.
Van Life With Kids Is a Lot of Family Time
For me, the 24/7 together time is a double-edged sword. The upside here is that I’m not missing the moments of my child growing up. We’re developing a bond that is closer than ever. Natalie and I have become a much better team and we both know Finola better than ever.
I remember when she was a baby and we first sent her to daycare. She came home and was awake for 1 to 2 hours each night before going to sleep. I thought, is this all the time I get with you today? It was sad. Well, I’m making up for lost time now.
The downside to traveling with a toddler is that they require a lot of attention and can’t do very much without assistance. That’s coupled with the fact that everything takes a little longer with van life, we have learned to adjust and be flexible.
Before leaving, we were both working full time and Finola went to daycare. I was working at home and had 8-plus hours to myself each day. That has changed!
Truthfully, I’m still adjusting to that but I severely underestimated the effect that it would have on my work and my mood. I learned I need more alone time than I thought and my wife needed more too. We’re trying to work that into our trip each week so that neither of us goes crazy.
Plan to Spend a Lot More Time Outside
With less space to live in, we spend way more time outside, which was part of our goal for the trip. Unlike living in a single place there’s always something new to see.
We love working from a trailhead, eating an early dinner, and going hiking until bedtime. That’s something we never did back home.
My wife and I love to be in nature, and I hope that we’re fostering that same love in our daughter.
Start With Small Adventures
This builds everyone’s tolerance. This is true of all adventures with kids. Start with a small hike or ride and build on it.
Also, if your kid isn’t feeling it there’s no need to force it. Plan to go slow and take snack breaks.
Once your kid can tolerate several hours on the trail, the next step is to choose appropriate ones. I’m still learning this lesson. On more than one occasion I’ve chosen something that is a little too gnarly and we’ve had to turn back or change our plans.
Bring a Lot of Snacks
Always having lots of snacks on hand has to be a top rule of parenting. It’s even more important in the van than it was at home. Get a variety and bring 25% more than you think you’ll need.
Go on a Kid-Led Hike
I found this idea on Instagram and we’ve done it several times. Most of the day’s decisions are made by parents and it leaves little freedom for kids. Giving them a chance to lead slows the pace and it’s fun to see what they get into.
Seek Out Fun Places for Kids
We’ve visited more aquariums, recreation centers, pools, playgrounds, beaches, and parks than ever before. We even went to a bug zoo.
The indoor places are especially good when it’s rainy.
How to Van Life and Drive Long Road Trips With Kids
Every parent has a different philosophy about screen time. Ours changed once we moved into the campervan. We try to plan our drives so Finola naps for part of the time, reads for some, watches the iPad for some, and then we drive a little more once she falls asleep for the night.
When we’re double-booked for meetings or have important work to get done, we also let her watch something. For better or worse, it’s a good babysitter and keeps her calm and quiet.
Pro tip: Get a YouTube Premium account so you can save shows to your downloads and access them whenever you want.
Consider purchasing an iPad or phone holder so the device doesn’t slip out of their hands 10 times a day.
If they are holding the device — and you use Apple — turn on “Guided Access,” which restricts them to the app you choose so they don’t mess with anything else.
Where to Park and Sleep
We use the iOverlander app to find spots to park. Ninety-five percent of the time, the free spots are great but there are a few that have made us uneasy due to safety, so we’ve had to find another one.
We use campgrounds sparingly to save money. Check out these other GearJunkie articles for more tips on dispersed camping and boondocking.
Create a Spot for Everything
I’m an organized person normally but it becomes a necessity in the van. If we just shove stuff wherever then we eventually run out of room. Everything has a spot in the campervan and we’re committed to putting items away so we can find everything when we need it.
Plan Rest Days Into Your Schedule
Van life can be as wild or chill as you want. We learned early on that a slower pace was better with a kid. We now plan a rest day approximately every 10 days to avoid burnout.
Life Happens During Van Life Too
Things like getting sick or having car trouble happen just like in normal life. I don’t have a solution for all of these things but being flexible is key. Van life is fun but it’s certainly not as problem-free as it seems online.
Going to the Bathroom
We opted not to have a toilet in our campervan and it’s worked fine for us. There is always a toilet available at a campground, store, library, etc. We have some wagbags for emergencies and have only used them once.
Right now, Finola is using diapers out of convenience, but she’s ready to start potty training. We will likely start that process when we’re visiting family for Christmas. I expect there will be some mishaps and we’ll just have to deal with that.
Showering is a little more difficult with a toddler. We did baths at home but did some shower practice before we left. We have a shower option out the back of the van, but the way we set it up is a little cumbersome and we often look for alternatives.
The ideal experience is a community pool that has family showers in a single room. Finola loves the pool and we all get clean so it’s a win-win. If there’s not a family shower, one of us takes Finola into the men’s or women’s shower room and it’s a bit more of a process.
Make Simple Meals
I love to cook and make fancy, delicious meals. We still make great meals but they are simpler.
We’re limited to a stove with two burners. We have three one-week meal plans to keep grocery shopping easy and ensure we have enough space for the food we buy.
Cooking with three people in a tiny kitchen can be tricky so we will use books, songs, or the iPad to keep Finola busy and safe while we prepare food. We also make sure to cook extra each meal so we have leftovers.
Interacting With Other Kids
Finola was at daycare before we left and we worried about what a lack of interaction with other kids might do to her development. I’m honestly not sure of the possible effects, but we do seek out places with other kids so she can play with them. Libraries, playgrounds, beaches, recreation centers, pools, and other van lifers with kids are good for this.
Kid Gear for Van Life
For us, a kid’s rain suit is a must-have item. We always put Finola in it when it’s raining, windy, or when we want to keep her relatively clean at the beach.
There are several options. We went with the fairechild onesie because my wife liked the style and colors. For a burlier option, check out OAKI, which another GearJunkie editor swears by.
Kids’ Crocs and Rain Boots
We put Finola in Crocs or rain boots 90% of the time since both of these items are so easy to clean. The Crocs are great for public showers as well.
Quality Clothing and Layers
Most of Finola’s clothes are cotton, but we have a few nice items that we trust to keep her warm on cold, wet days. We found some great merino wool base layers from Polarn O. Pyret and tiny Patagonia jackets on Facebook Marketplace. We’ve also heard great things about iksplor layers.
We brought a mountain bike and gravel bike on the trip for individual and family rides.
Again there are plenty of options to fit your bike and we opted to use the Thule Yepp Nexxt Maxi bike seat and the Shotgun child seat since they fit our bikes and fit in the van.
We knew we wanted a child carrier backpack for our trip. We use the Osprey Poco LT since it’s built for longer hikes, is comfy, and collapses down making it travel-friendly. For more details, check out my full review of the carrier.
I’m convinced my toddler drinks more water than I do. We have a CamelBak water bottle just for her that doesn’t leak and can withstand plenty of drops.
Since Finola is still in diapers, we carry odor-proof bags on hikes and have another handy in the van to keep the stench down until we can properly dispose of the diaper.
Is Van Life With Kids Worth It?
For us, van life has been a fun family adventure, but it’s not without challenges. Honestly, I don’t think van life with kids is right for everyone. But with some planning and an open mind, it can be a memorable and fulfilling experience for plenty of families.
Also, van life doesn’t need to be a year-round, full-time road trip. Campervans can be just as fun to use on the weekend at a local state park or for a week-long trip to visit family or friends.
We won’t stay in the van forever, but we’ve committed to having an adventure vehicle of some kind so we’re ready for spontaneous trips. Having the van packed and ready makes it easy to go when an adventure presents itself.