Roadside camping

Travelling with children – life in a van

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By Hayley Spurway
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A van trip can be an exciting, rewarding, and, at times, thoroughly testing way to travel as a family. After a month on the road with a one- and three-year old, Hayley Spurway learned some valuable lessons about family van life.

At the end of a wet Cornish summer we decided to load up the van, hop on the ferry to Roscoff and head south, imagining life on the road to be filled with freedom, sunshine and adventure. However, driving through the night accompanied by waves of whinging from our uncomfortable little travellers trying to sleep in their car seats, I quickly realised that – despite countless weekends away in the van – when it came to long distance van-tripping we were mere virgins. Our vehicle wasn’t even kitted out to house a family of four, its creature comforts consisting of just a rock-and-roll bed. Yet, a month later, invigorated by adventures from France to Portugal and back, we’d somewhat nailed the art of life in our roving tin can.

If you’re planning a family van trip anywhere in the world, here are a few factors to take into consideration.

Cooking breakfast in a van
Hayley’s kids enjoy breakfast in the van

Your Wheels

Do you want a full-blown motorhome (maximum space and amenities, cumbersome to park, slower and more expensive to run than a medium-sized van), a fully-equipped campervan (the convenience of a stove, sink, fridge, beds and storage solutions in something little bigger than a car) or are you happy to throw a mattress in the back of a van (not so nifty for storage, seating or organisation)? Setting off in an unconverted VW T5 wasn’t the best-laid part of our plan – it would’ve been much wiser to invest time and money into decking out our wheels to suit the living and sleeping requirements of a family before embarking on our adventures.

Sleeping arrangements

Although – with a little ingenuity to stop him slipping into the foot well – one of my boys was happy to bed down on the front seat, while the other tucked up in the rock-and-roll double with us, a pop-top or high top van with room for two children to sleep in the roof space would’ve been more comfortable and practical. As well as the obvious drawbacks to our sleeping arrangements, once the kids were in bed the only space for the adults to relax was outside – fine in balmy Med climes, not ideal in gales and rain. An attachable awning is another solution to creating more living and sleeping space, but these can be time consuming to erect (opt for the pop-up type) and you need space to pitch them.

Campsite cooking

Packing

Just because you’ve got your own wheels and there are no excess baggage charges, don’t cram the van with vast piles of toddler paraphernalia and leisure gear. The less junk you have to shuffle around in order to eat, play and sleep, the easier life on the road will be. Essentials include a water container, cool bag, bedding, camping lantern, multi-tool, loo roll, washing-up liquid and travel wash. Take camping chairs and folding table, or a waterproof-backed picnic blanket as a more compact and versatile backup. The best toys are the kids’ bikes – fold-up three-wheelers for tiny tots, and balance bikes for older toddlers. Consider getting a cycle rack and taking bikes for grown-ups too – with tag-alongs or a trailer for the kids, the whole family can explore while leaving the van setup at camp. If you’re really stuck for space, it’s time get a roof box.

Camping with kids

Overnight spots

The beauty of being self-sufficient is that you can free camp – and there are plenty of spots throughout France, Spain and Portugal where you can park beachside or deep in the pine forests. Van trips should be about slow travel, lingering to experience the places you find, but if you do want to cover huge distances make use of the free motorhome stopping places (Aires de Services – or look for a sign with a motorhome and a waste tank) throughout Europe (for a list see http://www.eurocampingcar.com). Particularly useful for late-night stopovers – once you realise that driving until 5am isn’t feasible with young children – these offer basic facilities such as drinking water, toilets and in some cases electricity hook-ups. In order to make the most of quiet roads and night driving, we’d tuck the wee ones up to sleep in their car seats after their usual bedtime routine, drive until around midnight then pullover in an Aire and convert the van to sleep mode so we all got a semi-decent kip.

Campervan cooking

Cooking on two rings doesn’t limit the menu to baked beans and Pot Noodles. Take a basic larder of herbs, oil, olives, tomato paste, tinned mackerel, tinned tomatoes, stock cubes, pasta and rice, and stock up on local produce en route. If you’re short of inspiration pack The Camper Van Cookbook or something similar. With little passengers onboard you’ll need to access food on the go, so ensure there’s not bikes and beach gear piled in front of the cooler. As well as having sandwiches packed for long journeys, always have a stash of snacks such as breadsticks, bananas, mini cheeses and raisins (avoid sweets and sugary treats). If you’re not prepared for meals on the road, McDonalds is a decent breakout now that they serve a healthy(ish) children’s menu and often have a play area where wee ones can let off steam.

Hayley Spurway's children on the beach

 Have you taken your children on a campervan holiday? Share your experiences and tips below.