Van Life With Kids
Have you been dreaming of van traveling for a while, but you’re unsure how that should work with kids? Or are you a seasoned van traveler and wondering how you can make that work now that there is or will be a little one?
In this post we’ll share our experience of van life with little kids and give you all the tips and info you need to make it work for you as a family. We’ll look at the practicalities and help you decide where to go, where to camp, how to keep your kids happy when driving, tips for sleeping, cooking and much more.
We’ll also talk about the specifics of traveling in Europe as it’s a bit different from van life in the US. We are based in Switzerland and spend 4 months per year traveling by van with our two young children in Europe. It’s what we’ve been doing for the last 10 years or so and just kept going after our oldest was born.
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Why Traveling By Campervan With Kids Is So Great
As a family we spend a lot of time outdoors when we are at home, but when we are traveling with our van the amount of hours we spend outdoors rises exponentially. Like, we will usually only sleep in the van and sometimes eat, if we need some shade or if it’s raining. Van traveling takes outdoor life to the next level!
My daughter told me this morning how nice it is to meet so many children (or people;)) when we travel with the van. And I agree, we often meet some really cool people to spend a few days with. Usually they are van travellers as well.
I also love how you get to meet the locals when you travel by van. We often have some good chats with locals, when we just are looking for drinking water or asking around to find a grocery store. This happens the most in places where there aren’t so many people traveling with van. And when you have some adorable little ones with you, people just walk up to you to have a chat.
Always The Same Bed
Van life requires a lot of flexibility from all family members. This flexibility makes van life so cool, but it can also be tiring for everyone involved. To make up for this, the big advantage of van life is that everyone sleeps always in their own bed each night, which gives a feeling of safety.
Another thing we love about van traveling is the minimalism. You can’t take all of everyone’s favorite toys, clothes etc. with you. For us that makes life with our daughter much easier. At home we often have long discussions about what she wants to wear, which shoes, jacket etc.
As choice is very limited in the van, the weather kind of decides for her. And most of the time she runs around barefoot and (half) naked, putting on only a dress if we need to go shopping.
Immersion In Different Cultures and Languages
If you travel in Europe for example, you can enter a new country only after a couple of hours driving. And most border crossings mean a different language and culture. I personally love that, because it makes me really feel like traveling the world, even when we are only a couple of hours driving away from home.
Renting A Campervan
If you don’t own your own van and would like to try this out this way of traveling with your family, their are a few things to consider. Obviously first of all, how many people you need seating and sleeping space for. How do you sleep at home as a family and do you want to sleep similar to that when traveling, for example co-sleeping? More about that later.
How much space and comfort do you need? What kind of bathroom, if you need one at all, would like to have in the van? Do you want to camp off-grid or will you mainly be using campsites? This has a big impact on how much power and water you need, what kind of kitchen and bathroom you’ll want to look for. If you travel with a lot of outdoor equipment, you’ll need enough storage for that.
If you decide to rent a van for your next travel, you could use a platform like Outdoorsy or RVShare in the US or yescapa in Europe for instance. In Europe every country has its own platform as well, so you might want to google for the specific country you want to travel to.
This blog post contains a pretty extensive list of van rental options in the US.
When traveling with children you’ll obviously need carseats for your rental van. In case you’re renting the van from a company you can usually add the carseats during the booking process. Of course you could also always bring your own carseats. If you rent from a private owner via a platform, you should check with them before booking your van.
Where to Travel
When van traveling you’ll want to choose an itinerary to meet everyone’s needs and wishes. This is important for everyone to be able to enjoy traveling as much as possible. With children it’s even more important to think ahead of where you want to travel to. We’ll list a few things you’ll want to think about when deciding where you want to go.
Figuring Out Everyone’s Wishes and Needs
Do you or your kids love certain activities or sports, then you’ll want to look for places to travel to where you can enjoy these activities of course.
Does anyone have any other interests, like do you want to visit cities or do some cultural visits? Maybe your child loves a certain animal, than you might want to see if you can observe that somewhere along your trip.
Do you guys like to be warm when traveling or do you fear cold and rainy weather? Think about seasons and where you’re going, because when van traveling you won’t really be able to hide from the weather much as you’ll be pretty much living outside. But you are flexible and on wheels of course;).
Are your kids happy to sit in their carseats for several hours or are they done with being strapped after an hour or so like ours? If you plan to drive quite a bit, be sure you can keep your kids happy, or it can soon become a stressful trip instead of the perfect holiday.
More about how to keep kids happy when driving longer distances later. You know your child best!
Less is More
Don’t plan too much, leave time and room for changes and adding stops spontaneously. The greatest experiences often happen totally unexpectedly. Maybe you see this interesting looking sign on the side of the road, go have look, it could be a great surprise!
Check The Forecast
After a long winter in the Swiss Alps we usually choose a warm and sunny destination for our spring time travels. I’m always so glad when after a winter of dressing and undressing the kids a zillion times, we can just jump out of the van in the morning, wearing whatever we want or nothing.
In Autumn when we’ve had a few months of warm weather I find it much easier to travel to wetter and colder destinations. This is often the case when you pursue a sport like surfing.
If you check the forecast and choose for not so wet destinations it’s easier to be outdoors all day. Even the cosiest van gets quite small after a couple of hours in there with adventurous kids.
Where To Camp on a Van Trip with Kids
Choosing a family and child friendly location to camp makes van traveling easier for you and more fun for everyone. Factors like age, safety, entertainment, noise and lights all help you find the perfect camping spot, no matter if your free camping or on campsites.
Ages Of The Kids
With very young children you’ll want to avoid being in a risky camp spot. Choose locations that have lots of space, so your kids can run around and play. Older children might enjoy some challenging natural features to play on, like trees to climb or rocks to build with, a river or lake.
Safety Of The Camp Location
The most important aspect to consider when finding a place to camp is if it’s safe for children to play freely without constant supervision or nearby danger. This of course depends on the ages of the children and what they are used to.
On our last trip with our baby learning to walk we mostly chose free camping spots on a grass field by the beach, but not too close to the shore. This meant no rocks to eat, cliffs to fall off, cars to overrun the baby, water to drown in… We knew it’s only a short phase where we have to limit to certain locations. Soon he’ll be older and won’t just run off and eat rocks.
An Entertaining Camp Location For Kids
Some people like to choose spots that have integrated activities. Some entertaining options include a campsite with a pool, an RV-resort with a nearby pump track, or state or national parks with ranger programs.
Look For A Quiet And Peaceful Location
For us as a family with not-so-great-sleepers, we like to choose locations where it’s quiet at night without any disturbing noises or lights. On campsites or parking lots we try to avoid parking to close to street lights.
How To Keep Kids Busy And Happy On Longer Drives
Van traveling obviously includes longer drives. Some kids are easier on those than others, but for all kids (and parents) it’s good to come prepared with some tricks to keep your kids happy. Team member Jackie wrote a great blog post about creative ways to connect with your (slightly older) children instead of them zoning out on long car rides.
When driving with young children you’ll need to find different ways to keep your kids happy. Often including snacks or a parent entertaining the child with games, books, songs and lots of silliness. Our daughter often doesn’t want to do anything by herself, she just wants to talk to us and play simple games, like ‘I spy’ when driving.
Snacks And Treats For Longer Drives
So first thing we all think about is snacks when driving, right? With very young children it will still be an important way to keep them happy. I try to look for healthy snacks they like, so they can eat as much as they want of them. I tend to keep them in a secret spot, so I use them only for driving. That way they look forward to those snacks.
In between they’ll get a treat on really long drives, like an ice cream when it’s hot, a lollypop, or some cold drink they usually don’t drink.
Books To Read When Driving
We’ve put together a list of some great outdoor-themed books for families. This is another collection of must-read outdoor adventure book series for kids. But make sure to pack your child’s favorite books, for them to read or for you to read aloud.
Even our baby son could enjoy himself for quite a while with some touchy feely books for babies.
Travel Games For Van Traveling
Our daughter’s favorite for a long time is ‘I spy’. For very young children these busy boards are great. Babies still sleep a lot and can usually kept content with their favourite baby toys or an adult entertaining them.
Drawing Pad and Activity Books
Since our daughter was two, she likes to do activity books or sticker books. So before traveling I stock up on them and keep them in hidden spot. For extra long drives I’ll take out a new book as a surprise.
A simple drawing case filled with your kids favourite pencils or crayons and maybe some special paper can make for a couple of hours of fun.
Audio Books And Music
Audiobooks and music can be a wonderful way to connect with your children as you’re listening all together to some good stories for all ages. We’ve got a great list of podcasts for nature loving kids. Check out our list with music for outdoor kids as well, this music is fun for everyone to get in the mood for some great adventures.
Electronics For Van Traveling with Kids
Screens or no screens, most of us have strong opinions about this. No judgement here, there is no right or wrong. Many families will choose to use some electronics or screens occasionally or more regularly.
A popular alternative to screens are music players. There are even very simple music players which be can independently used by young children. We have a Toniebox for our 4 year old daughter, she uses it to listen to songs or short stories. Older children could use regular music player or an old phone just for music, if you don’t want them to have their own phone.
Tablets are also used by many families for listening to music, playing games or watching movies. Our children are not using screens at home until now, so we don’t use them when traveling either. Our daughter gets easily bored and complains loud (!) about it, but we observed that the longer she’s bored, the calmer and more creative she becomes.
Good Spots For Breaks on Van Road Trips with Kids
Longer drives get much easier to master when the stops along the way make for great memories. Jackie gives some cool ideas in her post Road Trip Hacks for Kids. I’ll give you our personal go to’s for road trip breaks with children.
Look For Water Along The Route
We usually look for beaches, rivers or lakes along the route. We will use google maps to look at an area at a certain driving time away from our starting point and see if we can find any cool places by the water to play and get some energy out.
Use A Playground Finding App
If we can’t find any water or if the weather isn’t really calling for a refreshing dip, we’ll try to find a fun playground, or sometimes just any small playground in a village will have to do. For now, as long as our kids hear the word playground, it’s like we’re going to an attraction park:). We have this simple app for it, called Playground Buddy, it works all over the world.
Do Some Geocaching During The Breaks
To be honest, we haven’t started geocaching yet, but it’s something I want to start doing, now that the kids get a little older. Team member Jackie explains how to start Geocaching with kids in this post.
Use An App To Find Great Parkings In Nature
We are using the Park4Night app to find (free) overnight camping locations. Often we’ll use this app also when we are having to do longer drives, to find some quiet parkings in nature off the highway. We’ve found some really awesome spots to spend a lunch break or a few hours to wear out the kids.
Food Planning And Preparing When Van Traveling With Kids
We have some great camping meal plans available for you, as well as an awesome Easy Camp Cook Book. You should definitely have a look at those to get some ideas for cooking when camping. I’ll share with you our tips for easy meals and snacks when van traveling with kids.
Plan ahead so you can shop all you need, in case you’re dispersed camping. We like to stay for a couple of days or even longer in pretty remote places without access to grocery stores or restaurants.
So we need to plan ahead and make sure we shop enough food, snacks and drinking water (in certain countries without safe tap water). Until you get into a routine it’s a good idea to plan and make lists, to not forget anything and not buy too much fresh food which could go to waste.
Go For Family Favourites
I’m sure you have some meals you cook often at home and everyone loves. Stick to those recipes that you know work and cook them often. Definitely if you’re often doing shorter trips, you could easily prepare the same few meals every time.
Always Have Plenty Of Snacks
Van life is full of surprises, that’s what makes it so great. Often that means eating a bit later or skipping a real meal, that’s why it’s good to always have plenty of healthy snacks ready for these moments. So you can be spontaneous and enjoy your time to the fullest.
Be Ready For Campfire Cooking
Campfires make magical memories for the whole family. Always have some treats for the campfire on hand so you can take the opportunity when there is one. Be careful to check laws and fire restrictions for the area you’re traveling in.
Keep It Simple
Many of us love to experiment with new recipes, but in the middle of boon docking, setting up camp and with hungry kids this might not be the right moment for it. Keep it simple so you can feed those hungry mouths and have more time to enjoy your outdoor holidays.
Add Oven Dishes To Your Repertoire
I know we said to keep it simple;). But with this portable oven, our Omnia we made already the most delicious treats in our little van kitchen. You can literally bake anything in there, that you would bake at home in your baking oven. I’ve baked already countless birthday cakes, pizzas, breads, grilled potatoes and vegetables and much more in this genius little oven.
Sleeping Well When Van Traveling With Kids
Try To Keep It Similar To At home
The advantage van life is that your van becomes your home and you can adjust your sleeping set up to your individual needs. It’s a good idea to try to keep your setup similar to how everyone sleeps at home.
If you’re a co-sleeping family then you probably want to continue this when you’re van traveling. If your kids have their own beds, make sure everyone has their own bed. Or maybe your kids are happy to all share a bed for this trip.
We co-sleep at home and sleep the same way in the van. We take our blankets and pillows from the house and our children’s water bottle and night light.
When our kids were babies we used a baby nest to keep them safe in their own corner of the big bed, just like we did at home.
Bring Your Child’s Favorite Things For The Night
Make sure to pack your child’s favorite pajama’s, stuffed animal, sleep sack or blanket.
Often children will sleep like a baby in the van after an active day outdoors and with the cool air in the van. We like to open as many windows as possible.
Packing For A Van Traveling Trip With Kids
Packing for a family holiday is always the hardest part of the trip for me! It can feel so stressful to having to remember everything for everyone. To make it a bit easier for you we made this comprehensive RV Packing List and we’ll give you some more tips.
Less Is More
Don’t pack too much, you’ll be moving things around constantly. Every trip I note what we’ve actually been using from all the stuff we took with us and try to pack less next time. Although usually we end up packing other things instead which seem essential for one member of the family, haha. But really you don’t need much. Clothes is the smallest part of our packing list, making space for more equipment, like wetsuits, bikes, climbing gear etc.
Take Your Kid’s Favorite Things
When kids are small I tend to decide for them what to pack, looking at what they play with most. Our 4 year old would take toys with her which she won’t play with and that would just take up space.
Her balance bike or now pedal bike always travels with us. She can pick one stuffed animal and a small paperboard suitcase filled with toys she gets to choose.
I fill another box with craft material for rainy or lazy days. Some water paint, pencils, paper, glue and scissors.
Prepare For All Kinds Of Weather
We like to choose a destination for the drier and warmer climate, but in Fall in Europe there will always be quite a few rainy days. Even on summer trips we pack for all kinds of weather, so we can enjoy the outdoors everyday. Base layers, mid layers and rain gear for everyone are a must. Rain boots, flip flops and some hiking shoes get us a long way.
Pack Extra Activities
Van life teaches children to get creative in the outdoors, as there aren’t a ton of toys to distract them. We do take some extra activities for indoors and outdoors for the kids, so we get to relax as well. For our kids this includes a (balance) bike, beach toys, a wetsuit, craft supplies and books which she can use independently.
Pack Emergency Items
It gives peace of mind to pack some basic emergency items. Even if you’re mobile enough with a van to drive to get help, it’s good to have some essentials with you.
- Headlamps for each family member, to read in the bed or for nighttime bathroom trips
- A good first aid kit, we have one to leave in the car and a lighter one to take with us on hikes an trips. Here is a really good post about first aid kits and what to include.
- Sun screens and bug spray
- Enough water and non-perishable food for an unexpected extra day or two.
Make Sure Everyone Has Their Own Space
It’s good to give everyone a spot in the van to claim their own to keep their books, toys and personal items. It could be a box, packing cube or drawer.
In our van every person has their own shelve for all their clothes. Then each person has a spot for their other stuff. We have a place for all bathroom items and also organize our ‘garage’ (that’s what we call the back of our van) so, that all beach items are together, bike stuff is one box and so on.
Bathroom And Washing When Van Traveling With Kids
Toilets For Vans
One of the most asked questions about van traveling is probably, what about using the toilet? The more people are traveling, the more this will be something to prepare for and think about. As a family with kids you’ll definitely need some sort of camping toilet. We’ll explain the three most common types of camping toilet for vans, wag bag toilets, chemical toilets and composting toilets.
When it was just me as a van lifer I’d use a small PortaPotti. Later as we were the two of us we didn’t have a camping toilet for a long time. I used a ‘pee jar’ (oops) and we’d look for public toilets or dig a cat hole for number two’s.
When our daughter started to use the potty we had to rethink our toilet setup. She would use a potty and we’d pick up the poop with a dog poop bag and dispose of it in the nearest garbage bin.
Recently we tried a Boxio, which I think is something in between a wag bag toilet and composting toilet. I’m excited to test a real composting toilet, the Cuddy, on our next trip.
Here is a very comprehensive blog post about all kinds of camping toilets suitable for van life. We’ll have a look at the three most common ones here.
Wag Bag Camping Toilets
A wag bag toilet is basically a toilet seat or bucket with a plastic bag inside to catch your poop. This is a good option for people who want something small, compact, cheap and portable and will use a public bathroom when they are available. I would only recommend them for part-time use or emergencies in combination with a pee jar, as they are only for poop.
A disadvantage is that the bags can start to stink when you can’t dispose of them immediately. They also don’t offer the same comfort as a real toilet.
For our last trip we got a Boxio composting toilet, as it’s advertised by the company. I would put it more in the wag bag toilet category. It’s basically a box with a bucket where you put a compostable bag inside to catch the number 2’s, in front of it is a urine canister.
As the solid waste bucket is quite small, and you add some grit to it after every use, one bag will only last for 8-10 uses, which makes it not really fall into the composting toilet category for me. We often disposed of the bag whenever there was an opportunity (garbage container, as posed to when it was completely full, as we don’t always know when will be the next time we find one.
A real wag bag portable toilet, is designed for single use plastic bags to dispose of solids. This GO Anywhere Complete Portable Camping Toilet is foldable and very compact, easy to store in a small space in the van. The cheapest wag bag toilet would be the Luggable Loo.
Cassette Toilets Or Chemical Toilets
The second option is a cassette toilet. The use of this feels most like a normal toilet and are a good option if you want access to a normal toilet in the van, but don’t want to install anything permanent.
There is a fresh water unit and waste unit on top of each other. Urine and solids go in the same container and get treated with chemicals to minimise the smell. To empty the toilet, you separate the holding tank from the bowl and empty it in a black water dump station. The one I used was the Port Potti 365, a very common, medium sized one.
This is an affordable option, easy to move around, although heavier than a wag bag toilet, due to the fresh water unit. It requires frequent dumping at dump stations which is not a fun job. The smell of it, despite of strong chemicals makes it a chore most people avoid.
There are still many campers happily using cassette toilets, so it really comes down to preference. But there are also more and more people changing to (semi-) composting toilets.
Composting toilets are the more expensive option and great for people who want to use their van toilet full-time, for both pee and poop and who go off-grid frequently.
These have separate containers for pee and poop to prevent smells. They are the easiest to dump and need less frequent dumping. This is because the composting process makes the solid waste drier, it will smell less and you can just shake it out of the solids container. Here is some great info on how to responsibly empty your composting toilet.
Most composting toilets need to be fixed into the van and require venting to the outside and usually 12V power, the Air Head Composting Toilet is one of these. The Cuddy is a pretty new composting toilet which doesn’t require external venting (although you do have the option), as it has an internal carbon filter. It needs only a 9V battery for their LED indicator to let you know when the pee canister needs to be emptied.
We have only just received our Cuddy and will be testing it on our upcoming van trip in the fall. But it looks promising and is very small, fitting perfectly into the storage space we had built for our Porta Potti 356.
The toilet will be full before poop is fully composted, so unless you have access to a backyard compost pile you will still need to put the poop/compost mixture into a bag and throw it in the garbage. But this will much more pleasant of chore than emptying a chemical toilet. It also isn’t using any nasty chemicals to minimise smell, just some composting fibres (like coco coir) to support the composting process.
I will be updating this post after we get the chance to fully test our Cuddy.
Potty For Toddlers
We still take a potty with us for night time pottying for our four year old and used it instead of a camping toilet until she was big enough to comfortably sit on the camping toilet. For our little one we’ll be doing the same. We have this Pottete Plus portable potty for the van. We take it with us on day trips and hikes as well. It has a reusable silicone liner for easy emptying and can be used as a seat reducer as well, great for traveling and public toilets.
Showering When Van Traveling
So when people ask us about showering in the van, I’m always first a little confused. This is because we do have an outdoor shower at the back of the van, we can even use hot water, but we hardly ever use it.
We love taking daily natural baths, often swimming in lakes, rivers or the sea once or many times per day. During our last two month van trip, we probably used our outdoor van shower not more than five times.
We did shower on campsites whenever we would go there to do our laundry, usually every ten days or so. And sometimes I would really crave a shower when we were off grid and we would all shower outdoors behind the van. Washing my hair is usually my main need why I want to shower. It’s good to change your expectations when van traveling, not just about showering.
Let’s have a look at the different ways you can shower when van traveling.
- Inside of the van: Some vans have build in showers with cold/hot water, depending on the size of your fresh water tank you are of course limited with the amount of water you can use.
- Outside of the van: Other vans, like ours, have showers with cold/hot water to use outdoors, depending on the size of your fresh water tank you are of course limited with the amount of water you can use. Be careful to use biodegradable soap or shampoo or avoid using it at all and to shower far enough away from any water sources.
- On a campsite or at another facility: Whenever we are at campsites, swimming pools or when there are beach showers, we use those. In Portugal we found even some public showers you can use for a small fee.
- Natural baths: We mostly take natural baths, in rivers, lakes or in the sea. Make sure to not use soaps or shampoo, following the Leave No Trace guidelines.
Doing Laundry When Van Traveling
Adventuring outdoors with children doesn’t keep your kids and their clothes clean. So when traveling with the van, if the weather isn’t so hot that you can just spend most of your days in bathing suits, you’ll end up being dirty.
Honestly when we are traveling, I think we only look clean right after a shower, which isn’t very often. Lower your expectations about cleanliness and relax.
If you’re doing shorter van trips of a weekend to a week, there is no need to worry about doing laundry during your trip. Just wash when you get home.
When we are traveling on our two month trips, we wash every ten days or two weeks or so. By this I mean washing with a washing machine, in between I will hand wash some underwear or some essentials.
Depending on the country and area we’re traveling in, we’ll either look to spend a night or two on a campsite with washing machines or we’ll look for a laundrette to use while grocery shopping. Traveling in Europe in late fall means almost no open campsites, so that’s where we look for laundrettes. Traveling in Greece means not so many laundrettes available so we looked for campsites.
I usually hand wash in our van kitchen sink or use a small collapsable bucket for this, some biodegradable soap and a clothes line is all you need.
We tried a Scrubba Bag as well, it can help you to save some water, but over many years of van traveling I’ve become pretty good at saving water when doing dishes or laundry. So for me personally it doesn’t make a big difference. Try out what works bets for you with your specific van set up.
Be sure to follow Leave No Trace Guidelines when hand washing.
What Gear Is Useful For Van Traveling With Kids
There is some equipment that we don’t want to leave at home when van traveling. These things just make van life so much easier and more fun for everyone.
Bringing Bikes When Van Traveling
We always bring at least one adult bike when van traveling. First of all it’s really handy to have a bike available when you’re camping off-grid and you want or need to do some grocery shopping a few miles away. This way you avoid having to pack up the van and bringing the whole family on a shopping trip.
It’s also just fun to be able to go mountain biking whenever there are fun trails around. Our kids also love to go on little bike tours, riding on the Mac Ride or the older one on her own bike. We just got a bike rack so we can bring a bike for every family member on our next van trip. It will be fun to go on little tours altogether or visit a town without having to park the van in the city centre.
Bringing A Bike Seat Or Bike Trailer
If you decide to bring a bike when van traveling with kids, you should of course bring a bike seat or bike trailer as well if the kids are still too small to ride their own bikes.
We opt for the Mac Ride bike seat as it’s the most compact. We simply don’t have space in our van for a bike trailer the way it’s built right now. But If we would have a good spot for it, I would love to bring our Thule Chariot as it’s so versatile. We could use it as a bike trailer for kids and gear as well as a stroller.
Panniers For Van Traveling
If you go grocery shopping for the whole family, it gets quickly too heavy to comfortably carry it all in a backpack when biking back. Some light weight panniers are great for grocery shopping as well as for day trips.
Pack A Baby Carrier When Van Traveling With Babies And Toddlers
One thing I wouldn’t know how to travel without, with two little children is our baby carrier. We use it every day, for hiking, grocery shopping, to walk to the beach or visit a monastery. It’s always great to have.
I love our soft structured carrier (SSC) as it’s so versatile and compact when not in use. Both of us parents can use it comfortably and both of our kids, a one and four year old, are still comfortable being carried in it. We have an Oscha Toddler Cairis, but there are many great SSC out there. TMM team member Kristin is a big fan of the Kinderpack, she wrote this informative blog post about it.
Van Traveling With Kids In Europe
Renting A Campervan For Traveling With Kids In Europe
In Europe just like in the US you’ll see all kinds of camper vans and RV’s, but in general people travel with smaller vans. You won’t find very big RV’s for rent either. Rentals will start with a 4WD car with a roof tent and go up to RV’s for up to 6 people. Most rental vans will be something like a VW T6 California or maybe a Mercedes Sprinter.
Main reason for this is that roads and parking lots are narrower and it just isn’t possible to drive big RV’s everywhere. Roads and cities are not made for big vehicles mainly because many cities are really old and the houses were built long before there were any cars.
What should you consider when looking to rent a van in Europe for van traveling with kids?
- Size: Are you prepared to drive a big car in a world made for smaller vehicles? Or do you prefer to drive a van which fits in most parking lots but has less space inside? How big is your family, how many seats and beds do you need?
- Space for gear: Are you traveling with a lot of gear and sports equipment, like surfboards, bikes etc? Do they fit in the storage of an RV or do you rent a van with a bike rack for instance?
- Preferred camping style: Do you want to camp mostly on campsites and so you don’t need a lot of space inside or a big water tank and fixed toilet? Or would you rather camp free and want to be prepared for a couple of days away from it all, needing more water, a toilet, better kitchen etc.?
- Season: Will you travel in summer or in colder seasons? Think about where you will be in case of a few rainy days.
- Price and location: Prices may vary greatly depending on where you start from. Renting the same kind of van might be much cheaper in for instance Spain than it will be in Switzerland. It’s worth checking this before booking your flight and planning your itinerary.
Where To Camp With Kids In Europe
You have rented your van and are ready to hit the road. Where will you camp tonight? There are mainly three options in Europe for camping with a van. You can stay on a campsite with full services, pick a camper stop with basic to no facilities or you could free camp. Let’s have a closer look at what fits best to your needs.
Campsites In Europe
- What it looks like: Most campsites offer well defined camping spots in a not so natural environment and all facilities like sanitary blocks, restaurant, WiFi, small grocery store, washing machines, sometimes swimming pool or playground, barbecues etc. Quality of campsites varies widely.
- Are they good for camping with kids: Yes, as you have all facilities you need, life with kids is easy on campsites. They are safe because there won’t be much traffic and are usually fenced in.
- Advantages: All facilities easily available, easy for kids to make friends with neighbouring campers, good for doing laundry, filling up fresh water, using the dump station. You can spread out and get out table and chairs.
- Disadvantages: Usually not the best view, campers are close to each other, not much privacy, lights at night. It can get expensive in high season and you need to reserve.
- How to find them: There are many online platforms to look for campsites in Europe, Camping.info and Eurocampings are to of the better ones. Try searching for nature campsites to find campsites in natural settings.
Camper Stops In Europe
Most European countries provide official places for you to stay overnight. These are generally referred to as camper stops. Each country may refer to them by their name and signpost them accordingly. In Spain and Portugal they’re called “Area de servicio para autocaravanas”, in France and Belgium “Aires de Service”, in Italy “Area di Sosta”, in Germany, Austria and Switzerland “Stellplatz”.
- What it looks like: They are officially designated places for staying overnight with a camper van. Camper stops range from carparks in town centers to remote locations and beachside spots. We’ve even seen them in National Parks. Some are free of charge and at some place you’ll have to pay a fee per night.
- Are they good for camping with kids: Some are, others aren’t. As some are right in the busy city centre on a big road and others in the middle of tranquil nature, you’ll have to do your research and find the ones that fit your needs. We’ve found some really great free camper stops and also some really expensive terrible ones and everything in between.
- Advantages: They are often cheap or free of charge. You know that you are legally allowed to stay at those spots. Some have WiFi, drinking water, a dump station or maybe even a toilet, but other spots have no facilities at all.
- Disadvantages: These camper stops are for staying overnight, not for camping. This means no pitching a tent, winding out your awnings, hanging out laundry, or putting out your camping table and chairs.
- How to find them: There are apps like Camperstops and park4night where you can find most of them. Often they are also sign posted when you drive through villages. See the different names in different European languages above.
Free Camping In Europe
Throughout Europe, you will find ‘tolerated’ spaces and remote locations that are perfect to park overnight. They don’t offer any facilities but if you find a perfect spot, you could always give it a go. Just bear in mind, that these are not official places so you could be asked to move on. On the Freecamping Map website you’ll find all information you need about travels rules for free camping in Europe.
- What it looks like: As they are free camping spots, they can look like anything, from parking lots to wild beaches or a field high up in the mountains.
- Are they good for camping with kids: Some are perfect for families as they are super remote, quiet and in the middle of nature, offering a giant natural playground. As those places or not designated, you get to choose what is a free camping spot for you and if you take the chance/risk to stay there. We often if not mostly free camp, but we choose wisely. We don’t want to install ourselves, put the kids to bed and then be asked at 10pm to move on. This needs a bit of experience to figure where you can stay and where you shouldn’t.
- Advantages: You get to choose where you stay, you might be completely alone and have a great view.
- Disadvantages: You shouldn’t wind out your awnings, hang out laundry, or put out your camping table and chairs. Keep it discrete and this might sometimes be not so easy with children. It’s not everywhere allowed, in some place you might be asked to move on or even be fined. In Europe laws are different in every country and even regions within one country, so you should research carefully.
- How to find them: There are apps like park4night, or you could use Google Maps to look for spots. Often the best free camping spots are found accidentally by driving by.
What Activities To Do When Van Traveling With Kids In Europe
Anything Is Possible
Because Europe is so small and there is such natural diversity, you can pretty much do anything you could think of within relatively short driving distance, even when you only ave two or three weeks for a van trip in Europe.
You could be on top of a high mountain peak one day and the next be at the beach or surf some great waves. The world is yours:).
Cycling With Children In Europe
Cycling is big in some countries, with great cycling paths. This is mostly the case in Northern Europe, like the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries.
There are often well developed long distance cycling paths which are mostly flat and made very safe and thus great for cycling as a family.
Stand Up Paddling With Children
We love our SUP. I like to go by myself or one parent takes one child for a little exploring. There will usually be some water body around, may it be a river, lake or the sea.
Try Out A New Activity
You can choose to do activities you love as a family or you could go try out something new. It’s possible to rent sports equipment in many places. Some van rental companies even offer sports equipment for you to rent together with the van.
Hiking With Children In Europe
Hiking is big in Europe, after the pandemic it got even more popular. This means that most places have web developed and signposted hiking paths. From easy hikes around a lake to great hikes in the Alps, hiking is a wonderful activity to do with children. Try looking for kid’s friendly hikes with some entertainment along the way, like a river, lake or boulders to scramble around on.
Visiting Places Of Cultural Interest Or Natural Wonders
We like to look for waterfalls, canyons or monasteries which aren’t accessible by road. We love to combine visiting places with short hikes. Kids like hiking better when there is the motivation to reach a goal and discover a cool new place.
Practicalities Of Van Traveling In Europe
Filling Up Your Fresh Water Tank When Van Traveling With Kids In Europe
The more people you are traveling with, the more fresh water you’ll need obviously. So it’s important to know how long your fresh water tank lasts for your family, so that you can fill up in time. We do this usually ahead of time, to avoid finding a great free camping spot, but having to leave early because of running out of water.
In every European country it will be a bit different to find fresh water for your tank. In France there is fresh water at most of the camper spots, sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee. In Greece we always filled up our fresh water tank at gas stations or at fountains in mountain villages.
In Spain we usually find water point through apps like park4night. When you arrive in a new country it’s always wise to ask other campers where they fill up their water. In every campsite you can of course also find drinking water.
Black Water Dumping When Van Traveling In Europe
Just as for filling up the fresh water, dumping grey and black water will look different in all countries in Europe. Campsites are always good for that, as well as many camper stops. Along the highway you might also find some black water dump stations. In apps like park4night you will find a lot of information about where to do this.
Cooking In The Van Or Eating Out When Van Traveling With Kids In Europe
We like to combine both. Most often we cook for ourselves in the van and enjoy eating outside. Once in a while we like to eat out to taste some local specialties. In many southern European countries eating out is rather cheap and good quality.
We save a lot of money by free camping and cooking in the van. But the experience of eating out in foreign countries is also a big part of getting to new a new culture for us. In most southern European countries the people love children and they will treat them like little princes and princesses.
Grocery Shopping When Van Traveling In Europe
If you need to go grocery shopping during your van trip in Europe, it will look very different depending where you are. Opening hours vary greatly across Europe, more about that later.
In France for instance they love to centralise everything in ‘big’ shopping malls on the outskirts of big cities, they feel huge to me, a Belgian mom living in Switzerland, but probably feel very small when you arrive from the US.
In Switzerland you’ll find tiny local shops in every village with all the essentials you’ll need, and bigger stores in the bigger towns. Wherever we travel we like to look for local open air or farmer’s markets for fresh produce.
In southern Europe they often sell local products on the side of the road, those are great for buying fresh seasonal fruits, vegetables, honey, olive oil and the like.
Buying Affordable Outdoor Gear
You unpack your luggage in the rental van and find out that you forgot your hiking shoes? Or your bike broke and you need some new parts? Or you decide you rather rent a kayak for your trip or a part of it?
Decathlon, a huge sports equipment store, is present in most European countries and has really good rental services for sports equipment as well. You’ll have to google the Decathlon website for the specific country you’re traveling to. Decathlon is originally fro France, so that’s the country with the most stores, but you’ll find them in most bigger towns around Europe.
Differences Between Van Traveling in the US and Europe
Smaller Vans For Van Traveling In Europe
As mentioned before, most people in Europe travel with smaller vans or RV’s. Our 7.4 meter long Volkswagen Crafter (the blue one in the pictures) is often one of the bigger ones on the parking lots.
It makes traveling easier, as you’ll have access to more places. Going into small villages with narrow streets or following a narrow dirt road going down to a remote beach will all be doable with a van. Bigger RV’s might have more difficulties reaching these places.
Distances In Europe
Europe is rather small and distances between places are shorter. You can do a lot in a short time!
Campsites In Europe
Typically campsites in Europe are well organised and often feel not so very natural. They have well defined pitches and look more like holiday villages, often with stores, playgrounds, swimming pool, bungalows to rent and much more.
If you are used to camping in nature and are looking for campsites, it’s a good idea looking for the smaller ones. Huttopia is a chain of bigger nature campsites in Europe.
Roads In Europe
Be prepared for smaller highways, narrower roads and playing Tetris to park your van in a city. This is all normal for Europeans but might be a bit of challenge for people coming from overseas, see at is a challenging game!
Opening Hours In European Countries
Opening hours vary widely in Europe. In western Europe shops, banks etc usually open around 8am, make lunch break from 12pm to 1 or 2pm and close again around 6 or 8pm.
In southern Europe everything tends to open later, like around 9 or 10am, close between 3pm and 5pm or so and are open again until 10pm.
But best is to inform yourself whenever you arrive in a new country. You won’t find any shops open 24h! Even gas stations on highways usually close their shops and restaurants around 11pm to open again around 7am.
Languages In Europe
Almost in every country in Europe a different language is spoken. This makes traveling in Europe really interesting and exciting but can also be a bit of a challenge. A Belgian friend of mine wants to move to the US because he finds it difficult when van traveling in Europe to not be able to communicate well with everyone.
I personally love it, as I also like to learn new languages and try to pick up a few new words wherever we travel. The kids also seem to think it’s pretty cool and ask lots of questions about the new languages, picking up words along the way.
That said, more and more people in Europe speak really good English. More so in the north of Europe and a bit less in the south. France might be one of the countries with the least English spoken among the people, even the young ones.
Free Camping Laws
As mentioned before free camping laws are different in all countries and even vary between different regions in one country, like in Switzerland. Have a look at this map for some basic info on free camping rules in Europe.
We usually don’t take out any camping table or chairs, we just put a picnic blanket in front of our van and eat and play on there. For us it feels better, it’s more like parking than camping. It looks funny to other people but we have gotten used to it and we have never had to move on or got fined.
Some Of Our Favourite Destinations In Europe For Van Traveling With Kids
We love Sardinia! It’s easy to free camp and there are some good campsites as well. We love it because of the natural diversity, it has everything from mountains, over rivers and lakes to the most gorgeous beaches.
You can go rock climbing, stand up paddling, surfing, wind surfing, hiking, cycling and mountain biking and so much more! The Italian food is great and pretty cheap as well and the climate is perfect in spring and fall.
With France having all the options and possible landscapes there is something for everyone and every season. It’s very easy to free camp and there are tons of kids friendly campsites.
The food is good and affordable. The climate is different in different regions, so with not too much driving you might go from cold and rainy to warm sunny weather.
We love the Atlantic coast for surfing and the central regions for rock climbing and mountain biking. But you can literally do any activity you would like in some part of France.
We just discovered Greece and we totally fell in love. We went in May and June and the weather was great, not too hot yet but warm enough for the kids to spend many hours playing in the sea.
The food is absolutely delicious, people are extremely welcoming and they love children, always offering them present and being very tolerant in restaurants etc.
Nature is stunning and there are some amazing free camping spots to be discovered. There were enough other families traveling, so our kids always made some new friends.
We went rock climbing, surfing, wing surfing, hiking, visited beautiful ruins and played on the beach a lot.
Spain is a long time favourite for us. We’ve been traveling there since before we had kids and keep going as it’s such a wonderful destination.
Just like in France you can find all the possible landscapes and do pretty much any activity you would like somewhere in Spain. The food is delicious and cheap, people are warm and friendly, they love children, nature is absolutely stunning and it’s easy to free camp in many places.
We love it for surfing, rock climbing, hiking, stand up paddling and much more.
Van Life With Kids
We hope you could pick up on our passion for van traveling with kids, and take away some tips and tricks to make your dream adventure happen.
Van life is a great way to travel with kids as you’re so flexible and can adjust life to your personal needs as a family. Living outdoors all day every day is a wonderful experience, while still having the safety of your own ‘home’.
Go and have fun traveling with your kids!
Van Life With Kids
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