Ready for a family stay in the great outdoors, mama? Check out our guide to campervan travel with kids for some key tips on how to plan your trip!
Travelling in a campervan can be one of the most memorable ways to explore a country, conjuring up images of freedom and adventure. It might not appeal to everyone, as the reality of campervan travel means being on the road often, long drives, sleeping in a confined space, dealing with makeshift spaces, and making do with communal amenities at campgrounds. Add a few toddlers to the mix and it can either be a stressful affair (as we very quickly learnt during a trip to Italy from Austria with our 1-year old twins), or, if you are lucky, the holiday of a lifetime.
So if you plan on renting a campervan and embarking on a little road trip for your next family holiday, here’s what to expect and a few tips on camping with toddlers:
Researching Your Destinations
New Zealand is a great place to camp, with easy access to campsites and multiple types of camping options that cater to everyone. Australia, Austria, Italy and Iceland are all beautiful places to embark on a campervan trip, in my experience. Once you’ve decided on a destination, it is worthwhile to pre-book campsites, especially in the summer. Look for those with amenities — you’ll be thankful for that warm shower, especially for the kids. Leave the freedom/wild camping option (despite how romantic and spontaneous it sounds) for when the kids are older or when you’re camping without them.
Planning your Itinerary
One of the most enjoyable moments of campervan travel is the feeling of spontaneity and freedom: waking up each morning not knowing where you would end up sleeping that night. But, with kids, I would suggest staying at least three nights at each campground. This allows you to really settle into the routine and enjoy the stay, as well as minimise logistics for setting up the camp base. That said, nothing’s stopping you from doing otherwise if you’re feeling more adventurous.
When on the go between destinations, plan with your toddler in mind. For instance, travel around your baby’s naptime if possible and schedule in a break every three hours or so. Our longest drive was up to eight hours with two breaks, and that was really stretching it.
Booking your Campervan
Check ahead with the campervan company if they provide car seats for your kids, and make sure that the van is designed such that the car seats / all passengers can be secured safely. We made the mistake of not checking this prior to the trip, and while the two babies were secured properly with a 3-point harness, there were two other adults who had just a lap seat belt on a makeshift berth for the entire length of the trip, which was not ideal for long drives.
Other items to enquire:
- Retractable awning: Super useful for scorching hot summer days.
- Outdoor camping chairs and folding tables. Deck chairs will be a bonus.
- GPS / maps.
- Bedding, pillows and blankets.
If you plan to camp in New Zealand, Britz, Wilderness, Maui, Jucy and Apollo are the key campervan rental companies, or at least the ones that we saw most on the roads. We went with Wilderness and would happily recommend that to fellow travellers.
What to Pack – A Few Essentials (for Toddlers)
- Use soft luggage bags: For easy storage.
- Season-appropriate clothing. Anything that is multi-purpose, easy to wash and dry will make your life easier. Lightweight long-sleeve tops and pants are essential if the place you are visiting is prone to mosquitoes and sandflies. Big muslin cloths are great, too and can serve many purposes.
- Basic baby supplies: Diapers, milk powder, wet wipes, sunscreen. Bring enough to last for the first few days and stock up the rest at your destination.
- Comfort objects and toys: Something familiar and special from home for your little ones. Toys that are easy to clean are a bonus.
- First-aid kit: Always good to have in case of emergency. Don’t forget a thermometer.
- Stroller/baby carrier: Especially useful during naptimes if they can’t fall asleep in the van.
After picking up your campervan:
- Food & Drinks: Stock up on all other essentials and fresh fruits/meat/vegetables at a big local supermarket. Make sure you have some bananas, fruit bars, fruit pouches and the likes for quick refuel on the go.
- Additional baby supplies and sundries: Saves you the trouble of lugging along bags of diapers.
- High chairs: Useful during meal-times.
- A bucket for bathing. Double-up as a fun object to play with.
- A long rope: Great for hanging laundry! Find two spots (trees) to anchor it.
Expect a fairly basic set-up, but that’s the beauty of it.
The actual facilities depend on the type of campsites you book. For example in New Zealand, there are campsites that just provide toilets, probably not the most ideal when you’re travelling with kids. Then there are those like the ones we booked in Italy that come with swimming pools, play areas for kids, a mini-supermarket (I love how they serve freshly baked rolls every morning), laundry and dryer room, common dishwashing room, as well as common toilets and shower areas. Each campervan should have a generously allocated spot. Bring a big mat, which serves well as a play area for the kids. Set up a table, bring out the chairs (and deck chairs), and you’re good to go.
The Camping Life… is a good life
A camping holiday requires a fair bit of work, and that is compounded when you camp with young toddlers. There’ll be lots of stressful moments, but equally memorable ones, too. I loved the fact that camping in summer meant that after the kids went to bed (around 8pm), we were still able to sit outside and enjoy a quiet moment just before the sun set.
Activities: This varies depending on your location and your personal interests. The day can be spent going to the beach, cycling to a neighbouring town for a day trip, going for a small hike, or just soaking in what the campsite has to offer. Kids generally love the beach!
Eating: This is the best part. If you enjoy cooking, you might surprise yourself by how much you’ll enjoy cooking in the van (and in the wild), and sampling the fresh local produce. For the kids, make sure there are always staples like yogurt, fruits, pasta, cheese, eggs, bread and butter so that there’s always something available to make a quick meal if need be.
Sleeping: Likely a rather cramped affair. For a campervan that sleeps 4 – 6 people, there’ll usually be a bed right above the driver seat area, and one at the back of the van. This will differ from campervan to campervan but just make sure that if your baby has to sleep on the upper part of the campervan, always ensure that the netting is in place to prevent them from falling over.
Cleaning: Embrace dirt, especially when camping. At 1 year old, the kids are at an age when they put everything they touch into their mouths. For babies who have not learnt how to walk, it’s so much more fun (and easier) to bathe them in a makeshift tub/bucket instead of doing so in the common showers. For the adults, while campervans sometimes come with attached showers and toilet, we preferred to use the ones at the campground so as to eliminate the logistics of frequently emptying the grey/black water tank!
Finally, expect the unexpected: We had a campervan break-in on the first day during a pitstop at the supermarket (nothing major but we ended up with a broken window for half the trip). An aircon malfunction in the heat of Italian summer (which made the long drives extremely uncomfortable for the babies). Halfway through, the twins caught a nasty bug, and at one point, we ended up at the hospital.
I first fell in love with campervan travel back in 2012 during a month-long trip in New Zealand (sans kids). But travelling with kids does add a very different dimension to the experience. While the trip turned out to be more tiring than relaxing, it’s definitely one with lots of stories to tell in years to come.
Happy planning and good luck!
Lead image by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash. All other images courtesy of the author.