By now, you’ve probably seen #VanLife on Instagram: Those pictures of people — usually singles or couples — discovering all the open road has to offer. There are gorgeous beaches, stunning mountainscapes, and skies full of stars; exotic food, exciting adventures, and strangers-turned-friends.
A lot of the #VanLife photos make it all look so easy, too. It’s glamorous not in the swanky, 5-star hotel kind of way, but in an effortless wind in your hair, tasting the world, and enjoying life that only seems possible when you’re young and relatively uncommitted.
Recently, however, more and more families are embarking on the #VanLife adventure, too. Babies are seeing the world, kids are learning on the road, and parents get to raise a family in a way many of us dream of — showing us that family van life is, indeed, possible.
But before you hop on the van wagon and get your kids to start packing, it’s important to note that the family van life dream isn’t always the same as reality. Sure, you probably would’ve guessed that on your own because Instagram isn’t always the most truthful place, but there are certain realities to living on the road with kids that you might need to know first.
Table of Contents
What Is Van Life?
For the uninitiated, van life is exactly what it sounds like: It’s when people modify vans into a living space so they can travel — and live — wherever they want.
Many vans today come ready for this type of digital nomad lifestyle, but you can also customize your own to better suit your family’s needs.
Not everyone is suited for van life, but if you find that you and your family are, then it can be very rewarding to live, work, and learn together on the road.
Dreams vs. Reality, Family #VanLife Edition
Children grow up fast, and sometimes it’s hard to appreciate them becoming their own person when there are bills to pay, packed lunches to prepare, a house to maintain, and a boss to please, among many, many other everyday worries.
While worries don’t magically disappear if you do commit to a life on the road, the main benefit to van life as a family is that you get to spend as much time together as possible in as many places as you want. Unlike regular vacations, you’re not dreading going back to school and back to work, and you’re not rushing to experience everything your destination offers.
When living the van life, families can experience the world together, according to their different interests and at their own pace. There are, however, several distinctions between dreams and reality when charting your own course.
On Living Spaces
The dream: You’ll have everything you need within a few square feet.
The reality: “What you need” is going to have to be a very short list.
While it’s easy to say that all you really need is your family by your side, the reality is that you and your kids are going to need a lot more than each other to live a comfortable life on the road.
Van life is different from living in a regular home, even if you do already live in an apartment or small house.
For starters, because you’ll be living in a van, you’re going to have to live without regular plumbing or a sewage system. Many van lifers equip their vans with water containers, which you can refill regularly, in order to have running water. Many also take advantage of campground showers and bathrooms. Meanwhile, the sewage problem is solved by using compost toilets.
There’s also very little space for your things, which can be a good thing. The small space means you’re going to be more inclined to explore natural or cultural attractions wherever you go as long as the weather permits. Plus, you’re less likely to buy and accumulate clutter, like the mountain of plastic toys your children might currently have (but not really play with).
This can translate to a smaller footprint, even though you are technically burning fossil fuel. That’s because less waste, more mindful shopping, and more cautious use of water every day can definitely add up when it comes to sustainability.
The dream: Park and live anywhere you want.
The reality: It depends on the size of your van.
The vehicles often used for van life tend to be smaller than your regular RVs, which means that you’re able to have more options for places to explore and to park for the night.
Standard travel trailers and RVs tend to be limited to special campgrounds while driving around in a van means you have more freedom to start driving without a specific campsite in mind. Some tent-only campsites even allow smaller vans, and this can be cheaper and closer to nature than special RVs campgrounds which, by the way, tend to get crowded in certain months of the year.
Plus, moving around urban areas is going to be much easier with a smaller van. Not only is it more discreet when parked on roadsides, but you can even get drive-thru food if the kids are ever craving or if you don’t have time to prepare a meal.
The dream: You’ll have a steady income without a regular office job.
The reality: You can have a steady income without a regular office job.
Here’s where the dream can align with reality.
Living on the go doesn’t mean you can’t earn a living, and though there are some professions that would be difficult to practice on the road, there are also plenty that on-the-go parents can choose from. Indeed, the van life is best suited for digital nomads who need only a computer and some form of wifi connection.
The good news is that these days, there are plenty of ways to earn money online: You can make a living selling stock photos, providing virtual assistance, running an online business, or even teaching English. Others might choose to do transcription, translation, or even analytics work remotely.
If you’re a two-parent family, one adult can drive while another one works. One-parent families, meanwhile, can still make the most of van life by scheduling work hours around travel activities. The key really is to be able to plan out your schedule in a way that allows you to focus when it’s your working hours and enjoy when it’s non-work hours.
It’s also worth taking the time to sit down and chart out a budget. This way, you’re less stressed about meeting your family’s current needs, which tend to be less expensive anyway, because of the more mindful spending we mentioned above. This will also help you think more clearly about investments and savings for your kids’ future.
On Raising Kids
The dream: Your kids will love it and will behave all the time (ha!).
The reality: Parenting is never easy, and the challenges don’t go away with wonderful views.
Living the van life as a family means you get to be there for your kids as they grow up, instead of leaving them at daycare or school for most of the day, and having them asleep (or grouchy because they’re sleepy) for the rest of it.
Now, it’s not always going to be a positive experience. Despite their oft-cited resilience, kids will still get uncomfortable or overwhelmed while on the road. Maybe they might even get homesick or not understand what’s going on, so it’s important to still be ready for a breakdown.
But the good things can definitely outweigh the bad. You can manage the bad by visiting family and friends on the road, or keeping a travel journal with your kids so they can write down their
favorite memories. You’ll also be “road schooling” them, so everything — from hiking and exploring museums, to listening to audiobooks and reading maps — is an opportunity for engaged learning.
You’re not saying goodbye to tech while on the road either, so you can definitely use online materials for learning. Just be sure to regularly communicate with your kids about what they’re feeling and how everyone can be happy in your little home.
The dream: Van life means freedom.
The reality: Even freedom entails a lot of planning and caution.
Okay, so you’re leaving behind a regular 9-5, mortgage payments, utility bills, and a practiced, comfortable routine. But that doesn’t mean you’ll have nothing to consider, plan for, or worry about!
The truth is that having a happy van life — especially one for a family — entails a lot of planning and organization. Part of it is the limited living spaces mentioned above, but it’s also all the practical requirements of growing children and everyday family life. You need to make sure kids are fed, well-rested, clean, and happy while on the road, and all that doesn’t happen on its own.
Plus, it’s also important to have basic survival skills and van maintenance knowledge for you and your family. There’s no telling where you’ll be if an emergency strikes, so it’s important to know what to do if someone’s sick or something goes wrong with your vehicle.
Of course, there is room to relax. Unlike normal getaways, you’re not on a time limit to enjoy a destination in, say, 3 days and 2 nights — your family can take your time and really learn more than just the highlights of a city or state. There’s no rush; you just have to set your own schedule for it in a way that suits everybody’s needs.
This type of freedom requires building new, more flexible routines that strike a good balance between stability in your family and excitement with everything else. And that, like parenting and life in general, takes a little work.
Ready to Hop on the Van Wagon?
No matter what your living situation is, being a parent can be a challenge, but it’s one that we can always rise to with joy and excitement. And if your family is willing to sacrifice a little space and some amenities in exchange for flexibility and adventure, then van life might just be the challenge for you.
It can allow you to explore places you never would have otherwise, teach your kids lessons they may never learn in a classroom, and meet new people and dive into new experiences as a family. What others might perceive as a lack of space can be a way to bring you all closer together, and for exploring all that the open road has to offer.
Just be sure to temper your excitement with a little practicality, as that’s what it’ll take to make your van life dreams a reality.