It took us 2 years to do it, but we finally took our Ford Transit van on a major road trip with our entire family.
A few years ago before the pandemic…before van life was a major thing… Ned and I went to a local car lot and saw an old camper van. I fell in love with that ancient thing and a little seed was planted in my heart. I wanted to get a camper van and take the kids on a huge summer road trip.
I didn’t tell Ned about my thoughts right away, but as time went on I did realize that new camper vans were steeply-priced. I wasn’t looking for the equivalent of a second mortgage. I just wanted something that could give me the freedom to go to new places with my kids.
Eventually, I told Ned about my dream, and he was 100% on board. He’s better at planning these things than I am, and he loves looking for vehicles. So he did some research and we decided to get a Ford Transit van. It wasn’t a camper van, but it could be used for traveling as well as a daily vehicle for our family.
For the record, we have 4 kids and you’d be surprised how many vehicles aren’t available once you have that extra kid. Ned had also been wanting a truck for hauling around things, but we figured a giant van would also be suitable for hauling the majority of things we wanted it for (such as slabs from the Granberg chainsaw mill, or orders from Azure Standard).
Skip ahead a few years, and we went on our first major road trip that traversed a large portion of the country. We started in Pennsylvania, drove west as far as South Dakota, dropped down through Wyoming, visited a friend in Colorado, and came back through Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia, Ohio, and then back to Pennsylvania.
I’m telling you, it was a trip of a lifetime.
We also learned A LOT about van camping with kids, and we can’t wait to share our information with you.
So here we go: 22 Tips for Van Camping With Kids. Everything you didn’t know you needed to know about taking your family on a big road trip in a van.
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Table of Contents for Easy Navigation
What Kind of Van Are We Talking About?
Some of you coming to this post might have a camper van or a van that has been refinished with living quarters, a kitchen, and the whole setup.
Our van is a Ford Transit and the only thing we changed about it was taking out some seats in the back and building a bed. Our van is a place to sleep but our camping is more similar to tent camping than it is to camper or RV-style camping.
Even if you are using a camper, RV, or camper van, many of these tips will still be useful to you, but you might see a couple of points that aren’t relevant if you have more resources at your disposal.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #1: Meal Plan Ahead of Time
If you want to save money and make sure that you have meals when there’s no fast food available, I highly recommend having a pretty sturdy meal plan set up ahead of time. Yes, you have to haul a lot of food, but it’s so worth it to know that you have food for everyone and know exactly what you have available to you.
I found that making food ahead of time and freezing it was really helpful. Things like soup, chili, muffins, and pizza rolls can be frozen ahead of time and put into a reliable cooler like our Otterbox cooler.
If you need meal plan ideas, check out my 5 Day Camping Meal Plan!
Van Camping With Kids Tip #2: Don’t Overpack
I’m a classic over-packer. Ned’s advice would be it’s better to under-pack than overpack because you can buy something along the way if you need to, but you probably won’t need to.
My advice is to take short camping trips to find out what you really use and what you think you’ll use but never do.
Also, you probably don’t need as much clothing as you think you do and it’s OK to re-wear clothes. You’re camping.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #3: Be Patient With Everyone Involved
On a trip like this when everyone is crammed into one vehicle for an extended period of time, you will quickly become aware of everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.
You’re going to irritate each other.
Kids are going to do what kids do. They’re going to be annoyed when someone breathes in their face or when a sibling touches their arm or when someone falls asleep on their shoulder.
They’re going to ask you how much longer it’s going to be when you leave your driveway, and then they will ask you again every ten miles.
Someone is going to have to pee, even if you just stopped to go pee.
People are going to be grouchy at times. Maybe not everyone at the same time, but everyone at some point is going to be a grump. Some of you are going to be more prone to grumpiness than others.
You’re leaving your routines. You’re leaving your beds. You’re leaving your showers.
As the parents, you’re going to need to exercise the most patience, but you’re going to have to be patient with yourself too because ya ain’t perfect.
You’re not failing if someone gets annoyed with someone else or if one of your kids has a particularly challenging day.
Some ideas to help keep your sanity:
- Take turns taking breaks from the kids. If you’re traveling with other adults, I highly recommend taking turns taking mini-breaks from kid duties. Even if one of you sets up the camp while the other takes the kids for a walk, that peace and quiet can do a lot to rejuvenate your spirits.
- Talk to your kids about what’s bothering them. Try to be in tune with the reason your kids might be struggling. Are they hungry? Are they missing home? Do they simply miss their routines?
- Try to establish a camp routine. Kids thrive when they understand the way things function. If camping isn’t a regular part of your life, going on a van camping trip might make your kid feel like things are out of control. Try to establish a routine as best as you can while you’re camping. We downloaded a show on my iPad and watched it at bedtime with the kids. This was one small routine that gave them something to look forward to at the end of the day.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #4: Push Through the Hard Part
At one point in our travels, we were ready to pack up and go home. The kids didn’t seem like they were acclimating, they were bickering, there were meltdowns, we were exhausted, and everything we did required a lot of work.
The only problem was we were three days travel from home, so it wouldn’t have solved anything in the immediate.
I also had a hunch that if we buckled down things would start to get easier, and if we turned around at that point our only takeaway would be that it was too hard.
We persevered and I’m telling you that things DID improve tremendously. The kids adapted. We adapted. It was SO amazing to experience it.
I think it’s well worth it to overcome the initial hurdles of traveling and keep going until you figure out your routine.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #5: Bring Water With You
If you’re camping in dispersed or primitive camping spots you may not have access to water, and bringing your own is imperative. Even if there’s water near your campsite, you’ll want to have some reliable jugs to haul water.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #6: Be Prepared for No Electricity
Some campsites provide electricity, but many do not. You may not have the need for electricity on your camping trips but it can be helpful for things like charging cell phones, having lighting, or running a fan.
In these instances, we really like using our Jackary Portable Power Station. It comes in a variety of watt-hours with each model, from 300 up to 2000. We have the base model and it worked well for what we needed it for, but as you increase Wh you can do more and more things with a Jackary.
We charged our Jackary while we traveled long distances in our van, but you can also get solar panels to charge it if you’re going to be staying in one destination for a longer period of time.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #7: Be Prepared for Weather
One thing that we noticed about van camping is how extreme the weather can be and how unpredictable it can be as well.
In the summer of 2021, we took a few shorter camping trips in our van. We had planned a destination north of us, but the day we left we discovered that there were going to be heavy storms the entire time we were camping.
To avoid the storms, we rerouted our trip and went south instead.
This year we went on a much longer trip out west and encountered many different types of weather. Although we mostly avoided rain, we did experience heavy wind, thunder and lightning, and temperatures that ranged from 35 degrees to 90 degrees.
We were glad we brought shorts and we were also glad that we brought warm clothes and sleeping bags that help you stay warm in cold temperatures. In this instance, it may feel like overpacking but you can’t predict the weather so I do recommend bringing clothing and supplies for different occasions.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #8: Utilize Rest Stops
If you’re planning a big road trip, we highly recommend using rest stops for more than just pee breaks. Your kids (and you) are going to be exhausted from being stuck in the van for a long time, so use rest stops for eating something, running around, and letting them be kids.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #9: Have Do-Nothing Days
People who hike the Appalachian trail will sometimes take something called “zero” days… essentially days when they don’t hike and just rest or enjoy the town they’re in. These are important when you’re van camping with kids as well. We found that some of the best days were spent when we didn’t have anything major on the itinerary and we simply hung around the campsite.
You don’t have to see a major site or spend tons of money to have a good time with your kids, and you’ll all likely appreciate some relaxation.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #10: Pack Snacks
Each of our kids got a snack bag at the beginning of the trip. I refilled it after each major stop, and they could get their snacks out whenever they wanted. When the snacks were out they didn’t get a full replenishment until the next big stop, so they knew to ration the snacks a little bit along the way.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #11: Bring a Backpack of Activities
Our kids each had a backpack they filled with fun activities/toys/art supplies. They were placed under their seats so they could take them out whenever they wanted while traveling or when we made it to our destinations.
Some ideas for things to bring include:
- Sketch pads
- Colored pencils
- Sticker books
- Magnet and travel board games
- Coloring books
- Maze books
- Mad Libs
My girls also really enjoyed these Magic Painting books from Usbourne.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #12: Listen to Audiobooks
We really enjoyed listening to audiobooks on our trip and it definitely helped pass the time on long driving days. You can get an Audible account, purchase audiobooks on Amazon, or find audiobooks through your local library for a free option. You can borrow books on CD from your library or download digital audiobooks.
On our trip, we listened to:
- The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
- Matilda by Roald Dahl
- Fantastic Mr. Fox also by Roald Dahl
Some other good options for good read-aloud books are:
- Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
- The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
- Mary Poppins by Sophie Thompson
- The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
- The Magic Treehouse Books by Mary Pope Osborne
- James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
- A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
- The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
- From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
- Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
Van Camping With Kids Tip #13: Screen Time is Not the Enemy
Listen, you’re asking a lot from your kids to have them in a vehicle for many hours traveling. Don’t feel guilty if they play some video games or watch a couple of movies (or a lot of movies) along the way. You’ll have plenty of time to do non-screen activities along the way as well.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #14: Include the Kids in Helping
It’s not always easy. It’s not always convenient. They may complain about it at times, but trust me… you’re all going to be happier if your kids help out with setting up your camp, making dinner, and cleaning up.
Kids want your attention, and they will often interrupt you scurrying around to get tents pitched and dinner started. If you let them (or encourage them) be a part of the process they will have your attention, they won’t be so easily bored, and you’ll be able to get things set up quicker.
Granted, I’m talking about kids who are five and older. I understand that this will be different if you’re taking toddlers and babies with you. I will say that toddlers LOVE to help, but you’ll have to balance that with efficiency so you can give them smaller tasks to keep them busy while you do other things that aren’t age-appropriate.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #15: Incorporate the Kids’ Ideas
One thing that we found helpful in maintaining the peace and ensuring that everyone felt like they were enjoying the trip was including them in the decision-making when it made sense. There were some days on the trip when we asked the kids what they wanted to do and planned accordingly. We felt like this made things go a lot more smoothly and the kids had more fun!
Van Camping With Kids Tip #16: Budget for Gas
Gas was by far the most expensive part of our trip, which is no particular surprise since the cost has been quite high recently. Even if gas prices weren’t as high as they are right now, I still think it would be the most costly part of van camping (unless you plan camping trips local to your home).
Van Camping With Kids Tip #17: Plan Ahead for Campsites
When it comes to planning your camping trip, there are some places you can book on the fly…but there are other places that you will need to book well in advance.
For instance, Yellowstone camp reservations must be made way ahead of time. We planned our trip for June and started booking a campsite in January and still had trouble finding much availability.
In our experience, KOAs tend to be a little easier to find without a lot of ahead notice, but these can be filled up too depending on how popular the location is.
There are also first come first served campsites which we have utilized on the spur of the moment, but of course, there’s no guarantee they will be available to you when you need them.
I think a good solution is to have several camping sites in mind in case one or more doesn’t work out.
FYI, you’re also able to camp for free in National Forests or Bureau of Land Management areas for dispersed camping options, but it’s a good idea to check the website or call ahead to see if this type of camping is available where you want to go. Know also that you will forego amenities.
Another option is to sleep in your van in a Walmart parking lot. Call ahead to the Walmart you’re interested in to see if they allow people to camp overnight in their parking lot.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #18: Encourage Your Kids to Save Up For the Trip
Your kids are likely going to want things on your trip, whether you’re camping locally or hours from home. Remind your kids well before your trip to save their birthday money and allowances because there’s a good chance they’re going to find something they really want while they’re traveling.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #19: Leave Room For Sentimental Items
You want to use space conservatively when you’re living in your van, but don’t be too scroogey with it. Your kids will likely experience different emotions while van camping, especially if you’re going on a long trip away from home. Let them bring something that makes them feel comfortable when they’re not able to be home.
Our daughter brought two items that meant a lot to her. The first was a Yoto music player that she used to listen to music with her headphones and helped her relax when she was feeling overwhelmed. The second was her large stuffed bear that she can’t sleep without. Yes, he was allowed to come on the trip even though he takes up about as much space as our youngest daughter.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #20: Take a Lot of Pictures
You think you’re taking too many pictures but you’re not. You’re really not going to regret taking more pictures. When you think back on all the things you did on your trip, it’s easy to forget certain details. Years from now you’re going to be glad you had all those pictures to help you remember the time you spent together as a family.
Van Camping With Kids Tip #21: Be Ready for Altitude Sickness
We’re from the eastern side of the United States. Where we live we’re about 1300 feet above sea level. We traveled to places where we were 8,500-13,000 feet above sea level. This transition did result in a mild form of altitude sickness for some of us. Mainly we felt tired, had a headache, and felt really really thirsty.
Altitude sickness is sometimes called mountain sickness, and it occurs when the body reacts to the change in atmosphere and oxygen levels.
If you experience symptoms of altitude sickness, make sure that you’re drinking lots of water, get some rest, and moderate your temperature (try not to get too hot or too cold). It is easier to become dehydrated at higher altitudes so you may notice you need to drink more.
Livestrong.com explains the need for more hydration at higher altitudes like this:
Humidity is lower at higher altitudes. Sweat evaporates quickly and you may not realize how much water you are losing through exertion. The lower oxygen levels also make you breathe in and out faster and more deeply, so that you lose more water through respiration. According to the Wilderness Medical Society, you lose water through respiration at high altitude twice as quickly as you do at sea level. High altitude can also make you need to urinate more often and can blunt your thirst response, putting you at even greater risk of dehydration.
We keep water bottles with us at all times and refill from our camping jugs as needed. Our kids use RTIC water bottles and they’ve held up well to a lot of abuse and do a good job keeping their water cool (trust me, we’ve been through a lot of water bottles).
Van Camping With Kids Tip #22: You May Not Be Regular
Sorry, not sorry. When you’re traveling away from home, the honest truth is you may not poop as much. There are a lot of theories about why this happens. It could be stress, changing time zones, a different diet, or simply the inherent discomfort of using a strange bathroom.
Vacation constipation is extremely common and statistics say it affects up to 40% of travelers.
Some things you can do to help prevent this poop strike is:
- Stay hydrated
- Take a probiotic
- Eat fiber and other foods that help keep you regular
- Try to maintain a poop schedule (do you normally poop in the morning? try to make sure you get to the bathroom around this time)
- Get exercise
- If things get pretty dire you can try a stool softener
What Family Van Camping Tips Would You Share?
Fellow van camping friends, what did I miss? What tips would you share with other van campers with friends? What tips would you share with other van campers without kids?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments with any tips, questions, thoughts, or casual observations!