Life’s over. At least, that’s what everyone told me when our bundles of joy arrived. However, I have ODD (that’s oppositional defiant disorder) tendencies, so I said no. I’m going to roll my kids in the dirt, chuck them off cliffs, and teach them how to wrestle with carnivores. To that end, my wife and I made the sound and sane decision to garnish ourselves with the means of a van. Honestly, it was mostly her decision.

We’ve been doing our impersonation of #VanLife for about three years (we started when our kids were five and nine) and have learned quite a bit. We tried getting pointers from the vast cacophony of idealized videos found on YouTube but found that many content creators: (a) didn’t have kids, and (b) were sharing completely contrived situations. So, with parenting pizazz and enthusiasm for travel and the outdoors, we stumbled along ourselves.

Just because we had to learn on the fly—or perhaps better said, on the road—doesn’t mean you have to. Here’s what we’ve discovered van lifing with kids.

Van life with kids
Credit: David Godfrey

Ask Yourself, Is This Right for My Family?

Like all things when you’re a parent, there’s a balance of positive and negative. For example, there are good times, like seeing the look of wonder in your child’s eye when the sun rises over a totally different landscape from that of the day before. Some times are less fun, but equally memorable, such as late-night games of 20 questions because the one you haven’t answered is where to stop to sleep.

Other times the positive and negative times get blended. For instance, having a meal as a family that you cooked together using local produce from the farm you stopped at a few miles down the road, seasoned with the thought that the meal was cooked just a few feet from where the whole family goes to the bathroom.

The key is to understand that you’re not going to get everything right the first time. Trust me, our family’s first trip in our newly-christened van was less than ideal. For our shakeout trip, we headed to Big Deer State Park in Groton, Vermont, for a long weekend. Notable for its quiet and seclusion—translation: a super-long drive and no cell phone service—it seemed like everything went wrong. It rained half the trip, it felt like it took forever to get set up, and we brought way more stuff than we needed. Summed up, it seemed like the parents ran around like chickens with their heads cut off and the kids were bored. However, looking back, there were good moments too—like sitting around the fire, enjoying each other’s company, and getting outside.

Plus, there was plenty of opportunity to improve, and with each trip, we got progressively better at family van life.

Making Space

Making the most of the tight confines of a van takes a combination of structure and common sense. Although my children naturally have no boundaries, ensuring that everyone has their own designated space in the van has been key to our success.

When driving, the adults sit in the front and the kids sit in the second row. No excuses. Even when my daughter whined, “But in Nebraska you only have to be 8 to sit up front.” When someone has to use the bathroom in the van, all eyes face front, so they have the privacy to do so. Most importantly, at night, the adults sleep in their “room” and the kids sleep in their separate “rooms.” The adults’ room is a fixed bed in the back of the van and the kids’ rooms are bunked cots in the front, each with their own sleeping pad, blanket, and pillow.

Having clearly defined spaces and explaining to kids why they exist makes traveling much easier. For example, dinner and school time take place in the same space, but at different times. Similarly, the kitchen and bathroom are located close together, but never used simultaneously. And, we may pile into the adults’ fixed bed for a movie night, but everyone goes back to their own room when bedtime rolls around.

Van lifing with kids
Credit: David Godfrey

Coming Clean

It’s easy to get itinerary-driven when traveling, but taking the time to clean, straighten, and reset the van is invaluable with children. Performing routine cleanings keeps the van feeling bigger and everyone in good spirits. Plus, a van isn’t very large, so it doesn’t take much time to neaten up.

We use an aromatherapy general cleaner for wiping down counters, walls, and seats which keeps everything smelling and feeling fresh. In the van, we use a compact vacuum for any big spills and messes—pro tip, get one that works on the same battery as your other power tools—and a small dustpan and broom to stay on top of dirt and grime that gets tracked in daily.

Just as it’s key to keep the van tidy, it’s equally important to ensure its passengers are spic and span. We store hand sanitizer next to the toilet paper, so that the kids won’t use one without the other, and have dish soap in a spray bottle for both dishes and really messy hands. Everyone has a shower kit packed—which includes soap, shampoo, and quick-dry towels—and we’ve always had good luck finding public showers, whether at a YMCA or town recreation center.

Going Light on Luggage

The saying you can’t take it with you takes on new meaning for van life. We pack almost the same for a long weekend as we do for a month-long adventure—we’ve found there are key things we repeatedly use in life and filter out the rest. Space is limited, choose wisely!

Everyone in our family gets one 10″ x 13″ x 4″ packing cube for their wardrobe, which allows just enough space for four to five days of essential clothing and makes you realize that it doesn’t hurt to wear a set of pajamas for two or three days in a row. It also makes you grateful for the prevalence of laundromats on the road and how well detergent pods travel. With strategic packing, these cubes have seen us through some substantial swings in weather, like a spring trip to Colorado that saw temperatures ranging from 10 degrees to 80 degrees.

In the end, packing for a family van trip is a lot like packing for an outdoor adventure. The more versatile layers you have, the better you’re able to adapt to changing conditions. Synthetics tend to take up less space and dry quicker than other materials, which is why van lifers and outdoor athletes alike prize them.

Can life with children
Credit: David Godfrey

Passing Time in the Passing Lane

Under the kids’ seats is an entertainment bin we help them pack before every trip. There are some rules as to what can and can’t go in the bin: things that require wiping up, vacuuming, or will cause a mess if they fall on the floor are prohibited. We do let the kids have electronics, but there are also books, sketch pads, and card games accessible. One favorite is a kids’ atlas, which we read when we cross state lines and helps encourage the kids to look out the windows, rather than at their screens.

It takes a while to get accustomed to long drives and we built up to bigger trips slowly. Our aforementioned first overnight family van trip was to a local state park campground just 20 minutes down the road. Our next van trip was two hours away. The one after that took four hours on the road to get to. These days, the kids can do 700 miles in a day—almost 10 hours on the road!—albeit with some breaks thrown in.

One trick that worked for us was to avoid the Are we there yet? attitude and adopt a more adult mindset. The kids know where we’re going, how long we expect it will take, and are excited about the progress we make.

Journey or Just Another Day

My kids thrive on routine. So much so that I even keep a visual schedule for my youngest in the van. We’ve found having daily routines—particularly at the start and end of the day—has a stabilizing effect. This can be simple stuff, like getting up, getting dressed, and having breakfast in the morning, a regular mid-day meal, or a certain bedtime routine. More important than specifics is consistency.

A big part of the appeal of van life is the flexibility and the unknown of adventure. It’s possible to capture this with kids, it just works better when framed with a daily routine. Planning a day in van life with kids strikes a balance between pragmatism and flexibility. Plan, but not so far ahead that you think you know the exact amount of time and mileage between each event.

For example, it’s fine to have a day where you know you’re going to visit a specific landmark, but it’s much easier and more practical to say after that, you’ll find a good burger stand somewhere, or have some chill time at a local field or some other place nearby that looks fun. After that, end the day with the kids’ established routine.

Kids love van life
Credit: David Godfrey

Hit the Road

Above is just the tip of the iceberg of van life with kids. Van life with kids is like any other adventure—there seems to always be something new to discover a little further down the road.