Updated: May 19, 2021
Preparation is key: with a little planning, a camping or campervan adventure with a young family will leave you with many happy memories of exploration, adventure and fun.
I cannot even count the number of times I was met with an "oooooh, you're brave!" when mentioning that my husband and I were taking our not-quite-18-month-old son camping.
Fast forward 3 years and the addition of another happy camper and we're still at it - having upgraded the tent for a campervan, (but still more than happy under canvas when 'Morvoren', our beautiful VW T6 camper conversion is out on hire).
I think the biggest cited fears of this type of holiday with little ones is that the toddler won't sleep, the baby won't be warm enough at night, or just that the routine will go out of the window.
However, with a relaxed "go-with-the-flow" attitude to these concerns, (remember, you are on holiday after all!), you will find that a camping or campervan trip makes for a fantastic family holiday. In this post I'm going to focus on campervan holidays - even better as an entry point into the world of family camping, as you have a holiday home in miniature - AND its on wheels!
We have two little mischief makers boys, who are now 4 and 2. The picture above is of our firstborn's first camping trip (at just under 18 months old). Less than a year after this, his brother was a mere 9 weeks for his introduction into the wonderful world of camping.
In our experience, kids love to be outside, exploring and discovering, running and climbing. Raising 'free-range' and happy children is very much our parenting ethos (and we know how blessed we are to live in Cornwall - with nature's playground on our doorstep).
The joy with the campervan holiday is that when nature calls, or energy levels run low, you have a conveniently located place for an afternoon snooze, to shelter from a rain shower, some shade from the midday heat, the option of a cuppa and a snack, and even a quick wee (without the long queue for a smelly public loo, only to discover there's no toilet paper and an empty soap dispenser!)
What I have learnt as a camping Mummy of little ones you can read here: the hints and tips I am sharing are based on our personal family experience. If you're well prepared for your 'adVANture', it will be a brilliant holiday to remember.
Being outdoors wears them out a treat!
Come bedtime, they are going to be ready for sleep! When you're on a campervan (or camping) holiday, from the moment your little cherubs wake up (which admittedly might be at sparrow-fart-o-clock), they are going to be mainly outside, and on the go; breathing in a lot of fresh (sea) air, rather than bleary-eyed and watching the telly.
They're going to be burning more energy than usual, so expect frequent complaints of belly-rumbling and constant demands for snacks (yes, even more than usual!). You might also find you need to be wary of an afternoon "danger nap" - especially if your little one has recently dropped their daytime nap, so plan your day to avoid travelling anything more than the shortest distance at danger-hour!
You'll want a heft supply of easy to grab, fuss-free and easy to store snacks. Our favourites include raisins, fruit or cereal bars, flapjacks and juice boxes.
Divide and conquer
If you're lucky enough to be travelling with more than one adult (or even an older, more responsible child), we have found it very useful to agree roles for arrival at the campsite.
If you're camping in a tent, or have a side-awning for the campervan or motorhome to erect, make sure you have a plan in place for arrival and set up, as this can be the most stressful part. After a long journey, the kids want to run off steam, and you will find that toddlers playing with tent poles and tugging on guy ropes, trampling over the canvas or bouncing on a mattress you’re trying desperately to inflate are not, I repeat, NOT conducive to a relaxing start to your holiday.
Unless fate is on your side and the little darlings have just dropped off, drooling away in their seats as you pull up to your destination, it's best to toss a coin and decide who’s taking the kids, and who is setting up home. In our family, I tend to keep the boys occupied with a quick exploration and trip to the playground (after visiting the onsite shop to buy Mr H a beer to lubricate the building work!) whilst the tent/awning goes up, then we swap, and I’ll do the interior organisation, whilst he plays with the boys.
If you have early wakers, in the mornings you can take turns for the lie in, whilst the other adult does the early morning run about or playground trip before breakfast.
Its all about layers
From the unpredictability of the Great British weather to the need to preserve body heat once the sun goes down, layering is absolutely key - this is just as true for the grown ups as for the mini-adVANturers.
Fleecy onesies and wellies are ideal for pulling on over PJs and playing at the campsite in the mornings, when the ground is wet with dew, and there can still be a nip in the air before the sun gets its burners on.
In the day, a lightweight waterproof or pac-a-mac is a wise investment, as well as layers to shade from the sun or an unexpected cool breeze on a cloudy day.
At night under canvas, once the sun has set, and especially on a clear day, the temperatures can drop quite fast, but when you’re first putting your little ones to bed, the air can often still be pretty warm. Putting your children to sleep in PJs, sleeping bag and blanket will only lead to them roasting in their own sweat, and once they are sweaty, they are damp, and can chill.
After trial and error, the method I always use now, and recommend to any friends embarking on a camping adventure, is to start just with pyjamas and perhaps a very lightweight blanket or cover; and for babies a light weight (0.5 summer tog) sleeping bag. You can then check on them and cover them over with extra layers when the air cools (once the sun has started to set), and then another check and layer adjustment when you turn in.
Luckily in the very well insulated campervan, you will find that the temperature change is much less, and especially with the zipped ventilation vents in the canvas of the pop-top, you shouldn’t find temperature changes so much as a problem as in a tent (plus for the colder months, our camper has a fantastically efficient heater which warms up the van super fast.
Factoring-in nap time
If you're campervanning with babies/ toddlers who still need a nap in the day, figure out what is going to work for your family. For us, we knew both our boys would quite happily sleep at the beach - either in the buggy with a sunshade or in our pop-up beach tent.
For active families, the mini adVANturers will fall asleep in a comfy backpack carrier (such as the Little Life range)- so the day's exploring doesn't need to come to a stop.
If you prefer to be back at base for naps, the beauty here is that you only need to factor in a quick walk back to your home on wheels in the car park, as opposed to a drive back to your holiday apartment or cottage (where you then risk your tired monkey falling asleep in the car and hoping to do the transfer without waking them!
You might well also find that when camping and campervanning, your day starts earlier than it would back home, which certainly has its benefits when securing a parking space at a popular beach. We love to get up and and dressed, grab a quick snack like a banana, and hit the beach early, either cooking up breakfast in the campervan, or taking a BBQ down to the beach for bacon rolls after a morning paddle.
We will often then be heading "home" for lunch and nap, just as the beach starts to get busier - crossing paths with the majority of beach goers laden down with coolboxes for their picnic lunches.
With little ones in tow, this is good for a variety of reasons: namely that you avoid the intensity of the midday sun, and the beach tends to be less busy - it's easier to let the kids play and run about without losing sight of them, and you still have half a day for exploring a second beach, or heading out for another post-nap adventure in the afternoon.
If you want a full day at the beach, just repair to the campervan for lunch/a cup of tea and pop the top for a peaceful snooze, before heading back for an afternoon sunbathe and swim, or even stay for a BBQ dinner on the beach too.
Keeping a routine
You may find it handy to keep the usual bedtime ritual as "normal" as possible and as close to what you'd usually do at home - we are creatures of habit after all.
Whilst we at Kernow adVANtures will more than happily provide bedding, toys and books, you'd be wise to pack a couple of favourite bedtime stories, most loved teddies and a familiar pillow or blanket.
Some campsites are very well set up with families in mind - and you'll find family bathrooms and changing facilities, making bath time a breeze. However, even if you find yourself at a site with little in the way of facilities, or a night of wild camping, bath time can still be on the cards: our campervan comes with all sorts of useful equipment and one such item is a large plastic Flexi-tub, of which one of its many uses is a bath! Just fill with cold water, boil the kettle one or twice top top up to the desired temperature, chuck in your rubber duck and voila!
Where camping and campervanning differ when it comes to bed time, is that it is so much easier in a van to block out the daylight! Our campervan has thermal blackout blinds for the side and rear windows, plus a super useful black out which wraps around the windscreen and cab windows. Perfect for encouraging a nice calm sleeping environment, and packs away into a little pouch when not in use.
Final tips and tricks
The best trick we ever encountered was a couple of years ago - we watched our "tent-neighbour", a busy camping dad of 3 energetic boys) repeatedly kick a rugby ball across the otherwise empty camping field. All three children would race after it, return it to him and it repeat. I can't imagine how far those kids ran, but Camping-Dad assured us that it was a sure-fire way to earn a peaceful evening for him and his partner!
Relax - if naps don't happen or sleep takes longer to come by in the evenings, don't force it. Readjust your expectations (easier said than done sometimes, I know!) Go with the flow, enjoy your family holiday and new experience. Life will return to normal soon enough.
Pack snacks. More than you would ever consider necessary. Then pack a few more.
Don't forget the waterproofs.
Don't waste valuable packing space with bulky items such as nappies, they can be purchased on arrival.
Beach tents are brilliant. Our favourite is the Coleman Sundome Beach Shelter. It is sturdy, and a decent size and height, you can zip it up for privacy when changing , it's also great to pop up as a shelter in the garden at home, and you can find it here.
I'd love to hear your own experiences, hints and tips, and if any of my advice has worked for you please let me know below!
Happy camping folks!
Love and and adVANtures,
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