Camping at Rivers Edge RV Park in Wilder, Idaho. Credit: Natasha Dillinger
I have to confess, long road trips have always intimidated me. Spending hours in the car with two young kids, figuring out a dinner plan around my husband’s food allergies and then setting up a tent at the end of a long day? All this made me break out in hives every time I thought about it.
But something about this year nudged me to take the risk. It seemed like the perfect year to visit a few bucket-list national parks. I landed on a camper van rental as a solution to minimize some of the road-trip stress factors.
Here are our top takeaways after experiencing a taste of #vanlife.
1. Decide how much driving you want to do in a day.
Are you going to power through or mosey along? A tool like Smappen can help by showing a drive-time radius. We averaged about four hours of driving per day. More driving would have been painful with our 2- and 5-year-old kids, whereas shorter transit drives would have meant less time in our key destinations.
2. Consider the height and sleeping styles of the family.
My husband is 6’5” and ended up sleeping in the fold-down bunk bed since it offered the most room to stretch out. My wiggly toddler slept on a sleeping pad on the floor. Despite an efficiently organized rental van, we still regularly bumped into things, but we definitely appreciated the bug-free and temperature-controlled interior!
3. Plan some stops ...
Especially at the most popular destinations like national parks, but let roadside signs be … well … a sign. Some of our favorite stops (including Tamástslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, Oregon) were completely unplanned. We discovered them by spotting intriguing placards on the side of the road.
4. Mix up your campgrounds.
You can’t beat the scenery in national parks, but the campgrounds were so spread out that we had to drive to recycling and laundry in Yellowstone — where the showers were all closed! (Thank goodness for a tiny shower in the back of the van.) RV parks typically offer laundry and Wi-Fi (and sometimes a pool), but you’ll be up close and personal with neighbors. We loved state parks as a perfect medium — room to roam with fewer crowds!
5. Leverage your house on wheels.
Early in the morning, we drove straight to the parking lot of a few popular spots such as Old Faithful in Yellowstone and Jenny Lake in Grand Teton. Once we’d snagged the coveted parking spot, we made breakfast, got dressed and gazed slightly smugly at the folks circling around looking for parking because they’d slept in or cooked breakfast at their campsite. This approach is also helpful for early morning wildlife spotting.
6. Take time to splash at the spray park or play on the playgrounds.
True, we didn't rent the van and take the trip so our kids could do the same activities they can access at home. But everyone will appreciate a break among the more scenic or historical stops.
Home on the road
7. Find a place for everything and (almost) everything in its place.
You’d think that a small space would make it harder to lose things, but you’d be wrong. Our rental van came chock-full of the gear we needed (and we brought some of our own), but we still managed to leave a couple of things behind and always seemed to misplace one or more of the kids’ jackets or shoes. Thank goodness for gracious van owners! We might have prevented some of this with a clearer assignment of responsibilities (“I’m dressing the kids, you make sure all the shower supplies are packed up.”) Hey, at least we made it back with both kids!
8. Institute a flexible chore plan.
Even on the road, you’ll still need to do laundry and go grocery shopping. Knowing which stops have grocery stores that carry your favorite snacks or onsite laundry facilities is key (especially for those with dietary restrictions or young kids who get head-to-toe dirty every 10 minutes). In case you forget things, it’s also nice to know where the last Target is before you lose cell service.
9. Bring along a few spare meals and snacks.
You might find an amazing roadside stop that results in you getting to camp late — which is okay, because you don’t have to set up a tent in the dark! Precooked daal and rice were a favorite on this trip.
10. Have an enforced quiet time if you can.
Long hours in the car are draining for everyone. For some families, this can be solved with time on the tablets, a tool that we leveraged. Since our younger child still naps, we popped on a podcast (our favorite is Wow in the World) for the older one. Occasionally, they’d both drift off to sleep and we got some peace and quiet!
So, are we ready to be a full-time van family? Not quite. Evidently, we’re just too klutzy and too tall to maneuver well in such a small space. But our experience gave me newfound know-how — and appreciation — to apply to our next summer road trip. I’m thinking maybe we’ll experiment with a trailer and take a tour down the Oregon Coast … stay tuned, I’ll report back.
Our most memorable stops
What’s a road trip without a few detours? Here are some of our favorite stops.
Rica’s Frutaletas and Ice Cream (Othello, Washington)
Cowboy Coaster at Snow King Mountain (Jackson, Wyoming)
Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park (Whitehall, Montana)
A Carousel for Missoula (Missoula, Montana)
Jerry Johnson Hot Springs (Lolo, Idaho)
Editor’s note: This article was first published in 2021 and most recently updated in 2023.