How do you pack for a 3 year old boy, 2 baby girls, and 2 adults into a single duffle bag? Take a car that carries everything else. With the first kid on board, we adjusted our travel style. When the twins came along, we knew a radical change was needed. That’s when our romance with camper-vans started. We consider ourselves professional amateurs – full time is not for us (yet), but a year without several weeks cramped in a small space is not a good travel year.
This is a camping story by Bara Liska, our fellow camper.
Why is camper a good idea when you have kids
First and foremost, logistics. If you like traveling around, a campervan will save you a lot of time and nerves. You pack only once. No more last minute toy search before check-out, no more digging for diapers in a full trunk on a dodgy parking lot. You can cook on the road for those ever-hungry kids. You don’t have to spend hours booking a kid-friendly hotel or negotiating a baby cot.
Campervan gives your kids a chance to always stay outdoors, while having a comfortable “backstage”: escape from rain, a nap place, a diaper changing table, a fridge. You can easily adapt to the mood of the day, which we find especially useful with three small kids around.
It’s not all rosy, of course. Camping is hard work with all the driving, cooking, and cleaning.
Forget all-inclusive service or parking in city centers. And forget me-time. You are in this together, as a family, living in a small space. For us, it’s a part of the adventure, for some it’s a nightmare. When you are not sure, give it a try.
What to pay attention to when…
…choosing a camper?
Whether you are considering buying a camper, or just renting it for a couple days or weeks a year, you will soon find out there are millions of styles, types, and combinations you might get. To keep things simple, here are some elements it’s good to pay attention to when you have kids:
Number of seats
Sounds basic, but you’d be surprised how many times “sleeping places” do not actually correspond to actual seats for driving. While you might easily share a bed with your little baby, you will not be able to share a car seat. For a family of five, like ours, it usually means renting a big camper. Size matters – the seat needs to be safe enough, however not too big.
Remember, you will live in the same space as all your car seats are. Unfixing them every time you want to pull out a dining table is annoying, it’s best to arrange a set up you’ll be ok with as is. Also, always check the baby and kids seat requirement in the given country to avoid surprises. For example, it is forbidden by law to drive with a baby seat in the front in New Zealand and Australia. In most European countries, it’s perfectly ok.
Small campers usually do not have a built-in toilet, which is fine for nature-loving adults. It is manageable with kids, but it can be a nuisance. Imagine explaining to a 5 yr old, in the middle of the night, to hold it in while you are putting on shoes to carry him out to the nearest tree. I’ve also heard heated arguments whether the toilet should be in the same space as the shower, or separated. If you are particular about it, make sure to pick a layout that works.
…packing all the toys
Being able to unpack only once – a dream of every parent. But careful here – you are unpacking in a house on wheels. Everything that you unpack has to be locked up in a cabinet by the time you start driving. There’s nothing more annoying than flying toys and a forgotten lego piece underneath your left foot. Pack smartly. For example, we allow our kids only one small backpack of toys and it works for us.
As for some essential camping gear for kids, we found following useful:
- Plastic/Bamboo tableware: small space, small kids, moving house. This simply makes sense.
- Kids camping chairs: makes them feel important and might sit still for a couple minutes.
- Picnic blanket: first thing to get ready when we park the camper. Place to eat, draw, play, relax.
- Broom: no way kids will take down their shoes every time they enter the camper, or eat only outside. Especially with small kids around, we had to clean up several times a day. Sleeping in cookie crumbles is not our favorite thing.
…getting a good-night sleep
Sleeping in a camper is usually comfortable, but it’s good to be able to improvise. Make sure the camper has a net around beds (they usually do), to make sleeping a bit safer. With small kids, you will most likely want to share a bed to avoid the risk of them climbing around the camper at night. It is in some cases possible to place a small portable bed on the floor for small babies, but that requires a lot of measuring upfront.
As the kids get older, it gets easier. They can manage a ladder and they don’t need to be immediately supervised once awake. In any case, it’s a small space and requires some flexibility.
…entertaining kids while driving
Obviously, that’s not the job for the driver. For all others – yes, get ready for long drives and potentially annoyed (and annoying) kids. In the end, the point of the camper is to drive around. We’ve heard of some people letting kids sleep on a bed while driving long distances. For us, that’s a no go. Car seat is the safest place and let’s leave it at that.
So what activities usually work? Drawing, singing, reading, playing, whatever they are in mood for. What works for us is food, we are always ready with some small nibbles. And if nothing else works, there is always the possibility of turning on TV or an Ipad. In any case, if your kids fall asleep in a car like ours, choose to drive in these times. Saves you a lot of nerves on the road.
How did you survive camper with 3 small kids
That’s a question we get very often and the answer is simple: by choosing the right destinations. Before our big adventure in New Zealand, we did a test ride – three weeks in Italy and Slovenia. Mostly well-equipped camps, always staying in one place for a couple nights.
We’ve learnt a lot, starting with the technical side of taking care of the car – water, grey water, waste, chemical toilet, gas tank…We have also realized, we really don’t mind being in a small space with our kids, because the majority of the time we are outside the car. Italy was easy – sandy beach around the corner, pizza at every camp, and a general love for kids everywhere. Slovenia was beautiful and calm – mountains, lakes, and rivers.
We felt ready to fly to the other side of the Earth to spend a month camping across the South Island of New Zealand. We mastered the apps, we combined wilderness and small camps, and we thoroughly enjoyed every day. Even the rainy ones. I am still convinced there is no better way to discover New Zealand than in a camper. Our son was 3,5 years old, and the twins celebrated their first birthday on the road. Camper was comfortable, safe, and reasonably cheap. New Zealand has a great infrastructure for campers, and we could really capitalize on the freedom it gave us – minimum bookings, adjusting the itinerary based on the mood of the kids and weather.
We did not have enough and the same year, we flew to British Columbia, Canada – and spent a month traveling around national parks. We quickly realized the unwritten rules are completely different – people reserved their “spots” by leaving gear behind, and unthinkable faux-pas in New Zealand. We had to quickly adjust as we arrived at a camp without booking, late in the evening meant that most likely, we will have to sleep in a shopping mall parking lot. We also realized campers come in all shapes and sizes – and that our 7 m long, expandable home is a dwarf compared to some luxurious giants we’ve seen. A very different camping experience, but same feeling of closeness to nature and to one another.
Campers are a community – helping each other, judging each other, endlessly discussing gear and styles and routes. Comfortable seniors, young adventurers, families with kids, all united in the love of tiny spaces and a lot of freedom. We still have not made the decision to become owners, but cannot imagine a summer without at least a couple weeks in a house on wheels.
Tips & Tricks shared by Bara Liska from foxonboard.com
Adventurous family that loves traveling so much that not one, not two, not even three kids has stopped them. Follow their Instagram account for the latest adventures.
Not sure where to start? Need help when it comes to campsites? Check these three babyfriendly campsites:
Get inspired with many articles about campers and this adventurous lifestyle:
- The Very Basic Questions Every Indecisive Future-Camper Asks
- Get Your Travel Insurance Now: Don’t Let Anything Destroy Your Happiness on the Road
- Up for a Challenge? Get a Camper, Travel and Enjoy Life Like Never Before
- Special Tips for Newborn Campers: Checklists and Essential Gear
- All You Need to Know About Traveling With a Camper