Having spent nearly two years in and out of living in a van, with a hyperactive child, aged two to four years old, I learnt the hard way what was needed on the trip; what was missing; what was superfluous; what worked and what didn’t work in terms of organising the space and so on. If you are planning to live in a van; build a campervan; or go on an extended trip WITH YOUNG KIDS, I have some tips that will hopefully make your life easier, or help with building or packing. These recommendations are for summer living, but I can make recommendations for winter too if you are interested, just let me know. And this list mainly revolves around making life easier with the kids, rather than being a list of mechanical and caravanning essentials. That is another list for someone else. That I ignore.
So, 30 essentials I would recommend:
1.Easy-to-erect awning for essential shade.
When it gets really hot, van dwellers search for shade like a drug. If you can carry some with you, it definitely makes summers more pleasant, and keeps the kids out of the sun.
2.One of those plastic weave rugs you can throw out the door and the kids can play on.
Most people take a fold-up table and chairs when they go camping, but young kids want to play on the floor. Having a carpet means you can keep them cleaner, at least some of the time. Our rule was that ‘indoor toys’ were allowed to go outdoors if played with on the carpet. It seemed essential to have a separation of indoor and outdoor toys because access to water to clean the toys is not always easy, and dirty or sandy toys hanging around in a small space is horrid. Outdoor toys belonged in the car ‘boot’ and indoor toys stayed clean on the carpet and were packed away under the sofa after. Yes, that was the idea anyway.
3.Floor space inside.
If you are building your own campervan or adapting one you have, and you have young kids, I can definitely recommend trying to plan some empty floor space (or a platform of sorts) where they can play inside also. We used to have a seated table area and a sofa area, and almost zero floor space, but we took out the seating area and made about 1.5m square empty area which could be multifunctional. My son could play on the floor, especially useful if its raining outside (or you want to contain the kids inside because they are causing trouble outside- a frequent occurrence for us). We could also erect a fold-up table there and sit at the sofa and eat, or one of us could lay on a mat and nap there in the breeze.
Our son is four and getting into Lego now but Duplo is a much better bet in a van, despite being larger pieces to store. Lego is much too small and bitty for van life. And heaven-forbid it finds its way outside. Duplo is easy to find, easy to pack away and easy to clean.
Our son’s favourite most-used toys at the moment are his toy cars and transporter for which we often construct makeshift ramps around the camp.
6.Bucket, spade and dump truck.
We have spent a good few months where, as soon as we parked the van our son would be out of his seat and out of the van, digging in the sand/ dirt/ gravel/ mud with his beach toys, happy as Larry. Apart from some sticker books, most of the other toys I brought with us were superfluous. Jigsaws, puzzles, activity books, board games, colouring books, have all failed to interest. (I thought magnetic alphabet was a great idea because we could stick them on the van, but then my son scratched the paint-work with them and they were banned). In the house we do puzzles and board games all the time, but when the outdoors is available, more active-outdoorsy-play seems to capture.
7.Kids books and audio books.
I’ve brought about ten books (story books and learn to read books) and we regularly ditch books and grandmas send more, because we cannot find English language books on route. About ten is more than enough to cycle. Audiobooks are obviously an amazing idea: we are only just discovering them and my son is not taking to them yet.
8.Octopus clothes dryer
This is really useful to hang the swimming clothes on daily, or to hang the kids clothes on that you are hand-washing daily, when access to a washing machine is scarce. We carry line and pegs too but this little contraption has been so handy because we can hang it on the wing mirror of the van as soon as we are parked, or the hook in the bathroom when we are driving, and the clothes dry in no time.
The trug has multiple functions as kids bath, paddling pool, washing up and laundry bowl. It can also act as ‘random stuff storage tidy’ when you’re traveling.
10.Large, high-sided bowls for feeding the kids.
There isn’t a lot of space in a camper van to make a mess. And spilled food can get forever stuck in crevices. Meal times are actually quite stressful. High-sided but sturdy-bottomed dishes (like a dog bowl) meant less spilled on the seat, or floor, or the furnishings. It also means you can do soupy dinner or dry dinner using the same item. Less stuff to carry.
11.Organic sugar-free peanut butter and vegan chocolate spread.
These two foodstuffs ended up as a staple on our trip, and when we found it, we stocked up. Even if the fridge was broken, or empty, or switched off, when our son cried out ‘I’m hungry now!’ I could climb into the back of the van and make a sandwich and stretch the journey time out some more, without it involving a sugar-high of sweets and biscuits from a petrol station.
12.Swimming/ beach shoes.
We spend a lot of time on rocky beaches or hiking through canyons, so water shoes are essential.
13.Swimming T shirts.
I do not really like suncream and nor does my son. A much better alternative is to cover up. My son has spent every summer in the water wearing a lycra swimming top and consequently has no sunburn at all.
14.Cigarette lighter extension cable.
Despite building our camper van ourselves and choosing where the plug sockets are placed, we still find occasion where we need a socket in a different place or an appliance in a different place (e.g. the navigator or the fan). Our 2m one has been really useful and its not something you can find on route.
15.English plug adapter.
Our campervan has several UK 240v sockets which we use almost exclusively to change our laptops, which are UK lap tops, with UK plugs. But when your laptop charging cable breaks in Spain and you have to buy a replacement that has a Spanish plug, do you think you can find a EU to UK adapter in Spain? No.
This is useful to fix things or attach things to other things. For example we have used it to attach the curtains to the wall, so they don’t flap around when driving, to fix up mosquito net semi-successfully. (Gaffa or Gorilla tape is also essential).
17.Rubber at various thickness.
We spent a year carrying boxes of tools and spares that we never used, and the most useful thing in it, by far, was this. Basically you can use it as a packer. And it’s flexible and waterproof. We found our toilet was fitted too low and kept pinging off the wall-mounting. We fixed it on route by using 5mm rubber sheet cut into strips as a packer to raise it off the ground. And we put locks on the cupboard doors, using 2mm rubber as a discreet packer. Very useful.
I’m now verging into mechanical and caravanning territory but I do know we have blown and changed various fuses on route, and the type of fuses for our solar system baffle any electrician we have come across outside of Europe. You cannot get them.
Our camper van has no mosquito screens so we bought a hanging net which we get out at night and hook over the bed in the worst of the mosquito season. How many beds do we have? Two. Why did we buy one net? Because it was quite expensive. Bloody wish we had forked out on the second net. By the way, mosquitos are worse in areas with stagnant water like lagoons and creeks, and they usually only bother you for about an hour at dusk.
It is often surprisingly difficult to find these on route, yet with long hair, in the heat, I find they are essential. They can also double up as curtain ties; for sorting games or toy; or securing open food packets.
There really isn’t room to bring lots of toiletries and beauty products. Nor is it de rigeur. We carry one shampoo, one conditioner, an olive oil soap, one shaving foam, one toothpaste, one bicarb, one hairbrush, Calpol for emergencies, disposable razors, nail clippers, tweezers, one sunscreen, one coconut oil. Coconut oil doubles as food stuff and moisturiser, and you can make your own sunscreen with this and zinc oxide. Have I done it? No? I just carry the ingredients around with me, wishfully. I have minimal makeup with me, for which I am far too sweaty, and too much in-and-out-of-the-shower, sea, or pool to bother with.
Self explanatory. Useful as kids’ bibs; dad’s sweat rag; seat covers at meal times; kids’ picnic mat; kids’ bandana; sunshade in the buggy.
(Oh and yeah, I brought the buggy. But mainly because my child is hyperactive and extremely difficult to go in any shop with, unless restrained. Ordinarily I would only bother bringing the buggy for babies. Most places we go the terrain is not suitable. A sling is better).
23.First Aid Kit.
Obviously there is going to be a minor accident at some point. It’s useful. We’ve got some basic medicine in their as well. Antibiotics, anti-histamine, indigestion remedies have been great in emergencies. Generally though, we have found you can access what basic medical aid you need wherever you are. Even in a remote town in Morocco, where my son had a terrible cough that wouldn’t shift, we walked into the medical centre and they saw him straight away and gave me some children’s antibiotics for free.
24.The doomsday book of medicine.
A great directory for dealing with health ailments on the journey. The author, a qualified medical doctor and prepper, advises a list of essentials to carry and how to treat a list of common ailments yourself, from snake bites to wound care; diarrhea to head trauma; UTIs to anxiety.
25.A 12v fan.
After having to abort one summer in the van and move into a house because it was just too hot to sleep at night, for the next summer we bought a 12v fan (well actually we bought two, but one died-a-death as soon as we used it for 8 hours straight. The one that fared well was the Fan-tastic Endless Breeze 12v fan). It saved us in the height of summer.
26.Lots of cloth shopping bags.
Useful for shopping, but also great to hang fruit and vegetables in the kitchen (a fruit bowl is a pain in a moving vehicle); great to store toys in: choke-hazard-free; also really useful to sort clothes into different categories in the cupboard for easy access.
27.A reusable water bottle each.
Initially, we were getting through so much single-use-plastic it was disgusting. It also means you can all take a drink to bed with you that doesn’t spill. Trust me, there are a lot of spillages. In a small space. Over multiple items. In crevices. Enough to bring you to tears.
28.Sheets and a blanket instead of a duvet and duvet cover.
It is more versatile. You can wash the (very sweaty) sheets quickly and easily, and you can pack the blanket away when its too hot and just use the sheet.
29.A cagoule in a bag each.
For rainy showers, stored by the van door.
30. ‘Piddle pads’
Piddle Pads are waterproof, washable, cloth inserts that fit in the child car seat to catch any wee-wee accidents. And drink spills. You need two on rotation. I only had one, which was not that useful once it had been wee-weed on. If you are potty training you also need two waterproof mattress protectors. Or you can buy disposable incontinence sheets. Very useful to slip under a child who falls asleep on the campervan sofa with no nappy on. On the subject of wee wee, obviously you need the potty. That goes without saying.
I hope that helps somewhat on your trip-planning. Any questions or suggestions please comment below. I’d be interested to hear tips from others traveling or living in a van with young kids.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, you need a six tonne van to carry all this. 😉