Whenever we went travelling in our converted van tinyhome, people would always be surprised to find out that we were travelling with our toddler son. For some reason, people seem to think that vanlife adventures have to stop once you have had a kid.
We are happy to say that’s a huge, steaming pile of baloney. Travelling and living the vanlife lifestyle with your kid or baby is one of the most fulfilling experiences you can have together as a family. That is, of course, if your van is prepped to travel with kids.
We’ve created this article to help collate some of the top considerations you need to be aware of when building your van or planning your travel with your kid or baby. Keep these tips and tricks in mind and we can assure you that your vanlife adventure will be every bit as amazing as you anticipated.
After all, travelling in a van with kids is fun and it can add a new dimension to your travel journeys. The best part of travelling with your kids is that they get to experience the nature and the beauty of this planet that they simply can’t experience in a book or tv show.
In this post, we will share van conversion tips and tricks that will help you set up the ideal van for your family and kids. So read on, as vanlife with kids is one of the greatest adventures you can embark on!
Choosing your Van
Choosing what van size, model and specs you need is probably one of the most important factors while travelling in a van with kids. The van you end up going with is essentially a nursery on the move, so needs to be baby proof. We’re not talking rainbow and baby deer decals on the wall, but the van certainly needs to be:
- Big enough to sleep 2 adults and # of kids
- Have enough storage for living and child items (think: prams, baby carriers, nappies etc)
- Roadworthy and fairly trustworthy mechanics. Nothing will strike fear into your heart like being stuck in the middle of nowhere with a broken down campervan, a screaming hungry toddler, with low water / food on board.
While it may take some digging to find out the perfect kid-friendly van, ensure you shop around and compare rates so you can find a good van that fits your budget. We’ve compared some of the most family-friendly vans on our transit vs sprinter page here. After you have decided on the perfect van, definitely consider getting roadside assistance insurance so you’ll be able to get a tow if needed.
Child car seat
It goes without saying that if you’re going to experience vanlife with a baby, there needs to be a safe seating option for your child when you’re on the road. This may mean that you need to install anchor points in the van so that your child seat can hook in to be securely attached, if any accident should occur. When we got our anchor point installed, it set us back a good $800 for a mechanical engineer to install it.
You’ll also need to consider some of the safety guidelines regarding child seat placements for front seats. While it’s recommended that child seats are in the rear seats of a vehicle, unless your van has an engineer approved bench installed in the cargo area, chances are, the seat will be in the front of the van, in between the passenger and driver.
In Australia, it’s illegal to use child seats in the front passenger seats if there’s a passenger-side airbag. You can have a mechanic remove the airbags, though this can cost a pretty penny, especially if you need them to reconfigure the airbags to just go off on the drivers side.
Also, you should never use a rear facing infant seat in the front seat. That means that your child seat should always be forward facing if in the front row seats of the van. Not such a bad thing, in our opinion, as our son was able to look out and enjoy the scenery next to us as we travelled.
The next important thing is selecting a car seat for your child. If you’re travelling with a baby, consider buying a car seat capsule that can be detatched and used on the stroller as well. This hack can help you save precious space in the van as you won’t need to store a large stroller in the van, but rather just the stroller base that the capsule clicks into. That being said, this is probably just a solution for newborn babies to about 8 months as they will eventually grow out of the capsules.
Height of the roof
Having a high roof in your van is a must for a happy vanlife experience with your kids. A high roof of your van will ensure that you can pick up your kid while in the van (as opposed to medium roof vans where you’d have to pick up your child and stoop while holding them). We know from experience how often you need to rock, bounce or hold your baby to sleep in those first few months. Do yourself a favour and make the experience more comfortable for yourself and invest in a high roof van so you can can hold them comfortably when you need to.
One of the best parts of converting a van is creating those homely touches. You know, the fabric you use on the lounge and seat, as well as any backrests. However, anyone who has had a child knows that wherever there is a child, a grubby fingerprint is not far behind. Which is why it is SO important to ensure that you’ve chosen the right stain resistant fabrics and paints for your van’s interior.
We recommend choosing fabrics that are stain, water, and odour-resistant marine-grade fabrics as they can withstand the ways of the road. Fabrics that are durable, easy to clean, and fade resistant are also top qualities that may cost more than their alternatives, but will stand the test of time when it comes to living in a van with a kid. Any paints that you use should be gloss paints so they don’t take on any fingerprints or smudges, and can easily be wiped clean when needed.
Running boards or stepping stools
Running boards are safe and easy for little feet climbing in and out of the van. The running boards serve as steps to help shorter and shakier passengers get into the van more easily.
If you don’t want to consider running boards, purchase a little step stool that you can put next to the sliding door so that your child or toddler can easily enter and exit the van. We did this with our conversion, and were also able to use it as an impromptu seat when we were sitting outside. Its portability meant that we could place it pretty much anywhere, and when we were ready to go we simply put it in the van before we headed off. The grip on the bottom of the step meant it wouldn’t slide around with our travels.
Location of switches
Switches are necessary to control the electronic items in your van. Whether you’ve got aircon, fans, fridges, lights, power management systems – you name it, it’s likely you’ll have a switch somewhere in the van to turn the individual elements on and off. Which is why the location of the switches plays an important role to ensure stress-free vanlife with kids. The switchboards should be installed in a location that is either out of sight, or out of reach, from little children. Unless your child is ridiculously well behaved, it’s almost a guarantee that at some point the lure of pressing buttons and pushing switches will tempt even the most well behaved toddler.
This is mostly a concern for younger kids; older kids tend to be able to understand not to muddle with switches and placement isn’t as much of an issue.
When travelling in a van with kids, designing the cooking area gets a little challenging. Due to space constraints and to maximize the utilization of space you need to design the van in such a way that the little hands don’t have access to the knives and cutters. We used an induction cooktop to reduce the likelihood of our son touching a hot plate and burning his hand after we used the stove. An induction cooktop cools in no time so we thought it was a safer option than some of the gas or electric alternatives out there which can take up to 30 mins to return to room temperature.
Potty seat / Portable toilets
When embarking on vanlife with kids (in particular, toddlers), a toilet in the van is a must. If you’re at the stage of toilet training your child (usually anywhere from 2 – 5 years old), you’ll need to make sure there’s a toilet available quickly and within reach, especially in the first few weeks. Check out our guide on how to choose a portable toilet for your van.
It’s amazing how much stuff you need to travel with once you have a kid. We always prided ourselves on travelling light, however that all went out the window when we decided to embark on valife with our son. All of a sudden, our ‘garage’ was full of scooters, soccer balls, hiking carriers, a travel pram, toys, books, nappies, you name it! We suggest writing a list of everything that you may need when travelling with your baby or child, and ensuring you have adequate storage for all items. Luckily, we had quite a lot of internal storage and a huge storage section under the bed, so everything had a place. However, small spaces such as converted vans can easily be overrun with your child’s travel gear.
There are various storage options for your Vvn which makes optimum utilization of space. Things like storage behind seats (if you don’t have a cabin/cargo divider wall), as well as under-shelf storage, hanging storage, or rooftop carriers. For bigger things like a baby stroller, we’ve seen vans store them under the bed or on the ceiling by making a hangar that attaches to the roof. While we didn’t do this, it’s something to consider if you have a high roof van.
Toys for vanlife with kids
Here are some of the tips we have to share about storage for your child or baby.
- Pack toys that can be multi purpose. As an example, we packed a bunch of wooden blocks (squares, rectangles and triangles) that our son turned into bridges, towers, obstacle courses for hotwheels cars, etc, depending on his mood and what games he wanted to play. To a child’s imagination, a block can be anything, so a simple few blocks of assorted shapes and sizes suddenly became 5 different toys with 5 different purposes.
- Bring small toys that don’t take up a lot of storage space. For example, our son is super into superheros (which toddler isn’t?!). Instead of bringing 5 x figurings that are 20cm high each, bring 5 small superhero figures that can easily be stored in a small tupperware container. With limited space to play, the size of the toy doesn’t matter. It’s how you use it!
- Bring a few diverse toys to keep it interesting. We had a little tub of figurines, blocks, hotwheels cars, and magnets for our son to play with, and he came up with a surprising amount of different games to play.
- Visit second hand shops every few weeks to mix up your toys. Swap out your old toys (or donate them!) and replace them with some preloved toys. We guarantee that taking your child into a second hand store and giving them $10 to spend on their next set of toys will be one of the most fun experiences for your kid. Plus, it saves on landfill and teaches your child that second hand items are just as (if not, more) good as brand new items.
- Think outside the box when it comes to creating games for your child to play in your van. We would sit on the bed and play with our son with his matchbox cars. The plank of wood we used as our foot extension board for our bed was converted into a bridge, a ramp, a road, a divider, and a huge slide from the bed to the floor. We’d play with magnets on the fridge one day, then above the bed on the metal skirting on another day, or play with them on the outside of the van. There are a million different ways to play with the same old toys or items, so think outside the box and inspire a little creativity with your kids.
As the saying goes, if the baby isn’t sleeping, no one sleeps! For a comfortable journey, one of our biggest tips is to ensure that the sleeping space you have for your baby is adequate to their size and needs. We had a queen sized bed that we installed a dividing barrier on, so that we could co-sleep with our son without having him impede on our sleeping space. This worked really well for us, as the barrier was fixed from the head and foot of the bed. This meant we could still share linen and blankets with him even though he couldn’t roll over to our side of the bed.
Other vanlifers who travel with their baby or toddler have installed a hanging cot that is suspended from the roof with chains. This is also an option to consider, however once your child grows out of the space they will need a bigger sleeping option available.
Consider the age of your child, and how long you are planning on travelling and living in the van, when planning your family’s sleeping arrangements. If only for a year or so, it’s unlikely your child will outgrow their cot space dramatically. If for longer, perhaps consider building a sleeping space that can either grow with your child, or is big enough to last through several growth spurts.
Height of platform bed
If you have a platform bed, try to ensure that it’s at a height where you can comfortably sit on it without having your head hit the roof of the van. This will make it easy to sit up and nurse your baby at night. It’s also worth considering with you build how your little one will climb safely in and out of bed. Do you need to install stairs so they can get in and out themselves, or are you happy to lift them onto the bed every time?