We’ve just come to the end of our west coast Australia adventure, and our camper van stint of our travel. Having been camping for all of NZ and the east coast of Oz, the camper has been an entirely different experience, with a new set of challenges with the little man (who was 10 months old when we started this part of our journey), and so we thought we’d give a few tips for anyone considering a similar adventure. Here are our 5 top tips…
(1) Choose your camper van wisely
We did a fair bit of research on this ahead of booking our van, and there are a few things to consider. The first is the overall size of your camper. Yes, there may only be two of you plus a baby, but that doesn’t mean that 3 person campers will do the trick. Think about where the cot will fit, the configuration of the seats for a baby seat (most campers only have two seats in the front, and some have none suitable in the back for a baby seat), and your general living space day to day.
We ended up with a six berth camper, as we wanted a toilet, and didn’t want a divider between the driver and passenger area (otherwise it would have meant one of us permanently in the back with Otis, and the other on their own doing some pretty long driving stints. This means we can start with one of us in the back with him, and they can transfer up front once he’s nodded off. Six berth sounds huge, but it’s really not - but it does mean that we have our double bed set up at the back permanently, doubling as a chill out area, and play area for Otis. The other table / bed area is where we squeeze his cot in, and his car seat is permanently set up there; and the upper bed area is where all of our stuff is stored.
It would be feasible to do in a smaller camper, but you’d have to put the car seat away daily to change the area into a bed (a major hassle), and realistically you’d be co-sleeping all of the time. Also have a think about how you’d stand and soothe a baby back to sleep with night wake ups. If it means you’d have to exit the van, for me that’s not a great solution for a long period of time.
(2) Make driving time, happy time
We schedule our drive times around when Otis is due to nap, which makes for a happier baby, and much more relaxed parents! We always have a decent (often 2 hours) lunchtime stop, and try to find somewhere that has some space for him to roam about and stretch his little limbs. In the absence of this (it was pretty difficult in the dry dusty bush of Northern Australia), the back area of the van provides an area for play and practising standing.
It’s good to be willing to be flexible about when you stop. If your baby is having a miserable day, it’s better to call it quits and stop somewhere, something that the van allows you to do easily. It may not be your ideal, but it’s good to give them a break where you can. The reality is that you can’t cover the same miles with a baby that you can when it’s just the two of you. We try to keep it as 4 as a maximum, with the odd day of more than that, but with scheduled days of no driving whatsoever. The balance has to work for them too.
To this end, thinking about ways to keep them entertained in the van when they are awake is also good. We tied dangly toys into the overhead cupboards with clothing pegs, providing entertainment that Otis can’t manage to chuck out of his car seat (just yet, anyway). Snacks for negotiating going back into the seat after driving breaks are also useful.
(3) Keep sane in a small living space
As with our experience in a tent, it’s essential to have a system. When everything has a place, it makes a small area much nicer to live in. I’d also buy a dustpan and brush if one doesn’t come with the camper. Kids come with inevitable crumbs and food scraps and ants and bugs love them!
If you have the space in your van, buy a high chair for your trip. It’s nice to be able to eat your meals outside together, and avoids all sitting on a rug with bugs around. We also bought a brilliant product called a Wonder Bag (www.thewonderbagshop.co.uk) - essentially a material slow cooker that uses no energy, but enables you to cook brilliant curries and stews for hours on end. It transformed our meals for the duration of the trip.
(4) Plan where you camp (but embrace the spontaneity!)
One of the best things about having the van is the ability to bush camp (e.g. free or very cheap camp sites), but doing this has implications. Think about the fact that you won’t have power, and therefore you’ll need in chargers that work as you drive for your phones. Anything you cook will be on gas, so plan some meals for the baby that work quickly via this route - scrambled eggs are a winner.
Look out for campsites with grass, they’re a god send when you have a little one crawling around. We had a lot of red dirt / gravel sites in the north of Australia, which made it harder for him to roam. When we were bush camping we had to think about where he could crawl as well (e.g. things like scorpions are around). In places like this we’d have him play inside where we weren’t saying ‘no’ every two seconds and we knew he’d be safe, but that’s not great for long trips, so grass is your best friend. Likewise, campsites with pools are great. Even if you’ve had a long day driving, it’s lovely to arrive and all have some play time in the water together and cool down.
Think generally about where to pull in when you stop - where your awning will be to create shade, and also where your back window faces (a good view is everything), particularly where the sun sets or rises (nice views during meals makes even a roadside lay-by pretty special). Also try and park near the water and electricity when you’re in a proper campsite.
Temperature is still a potential issue in a van, and is affected by your camping location. When you bush camp you don’t have air con, so it can get hot during the day, but likewise, pretty cold at night. Layers are key for the baby and you, particularly as you’ll probably be eating outside. It’s also a good idea to close the curtains in the van during the day so that it doesn’t overheat.
(5) Make the most of it!
As with anything - enjoy it and relax! Your little one will probably get dirty. They will probably want to stand up and crawl over stuff you won’t want them to, but that’s the same thing as in a house. It may take a few days (and a few arguments) to get into a routine and feel comfortable, but you will find your feet with it. As long as you’re careful, it’s all totally feasible, and being able to park up in the great outdoors with an awesome view, birds joining you for breakfast, and new sights every day will be something that changes your baby and their outlook for life.
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