Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for tips for a travel trailer or small RV, this post will be more helpful. My spouse was incredibly lucky to have Summer 2020 off for parental leave. I was staying home with Baby Outdoor Beginner (Baby OB), and at the beginning of 2020, we had lots of grand travel plans for this once-in-a-lifetime time off.
Then the pandemic threw a big wrench in that.
Once it was less dangerous to leave home, we started considering how we could travel locally without exposing ourselves to other people. Enter the camper van: self-contained sleeping, eating, and transportation.
We dove headfirst into #vanlife with Baby OB, renting a very vintage VW Eurovan before upgrading to a Dodge Ram conversion. We learned a lot along the way, including that vacation with a baby isn’t *quite* a vacation. (Yes, this may seem obvious in retrospect but we are new parents with no idea what we’re doing!)
But it’s also not not a vacation…so even though doing anything with a baby is hard, I hope you’ll give it a try too! We went on two trips with a seven-month-old, non-crawling (but rolling) baby.
How do you know if the car seat will work in a campervan?
Test it out ahead of time. Surprisingly (maybe not to non-parents) “people with a baby” aren’t exactly the van rental companies’ target audience (that would be “single people maybe with a dog”).
Most conversions aren’t done with a car seat in mind, so we had to eliminate several rental companies solely because there was nowhere to safely put one. The best way to test this is to bring your car seat with you and try to install it when you take a peek at the vans.
Testing car seat installation yourself is especially important if the staff doesn’t have kids. This isn’t a judgment, non-parents just probably won’t know how car seats work (I didn’t know this either before having a kid). One company said the jump seat in the van would likely work with a car seat, but once we got there and tried it ourselves it clearly wasn’t going to happen.
We were referred to Rocky Mountain Campervans in Lakewood, CO since none of the conversion van rentals were working with a carseat. The owners, Boyd and Erin, have extensively campervanned with their kiddos. If you’re in the Denver area, they are incredibly wonderful people and SO helpful! Their passion for camping with kids is infectious.
Our car seat worked in the Eurovan Full Camper, but it had its own challenges which I’ll get into shortly. As of 2021, Rocky Mountain Campervans also has more modern, non-VW vans which I would definitely check out next time! For our second van trip, we were able to find a converted Dodge Ram through Outdoorsy (get a $25 credit using my link) from people with kids.
Where should we go for our first family campervan trip?
Close to home! Seriously. We were way too ambitious the first time out and ultimately realized that being within two hours of home was ideal.
How do we feed the baby and ourselves while camping?
I was dead set on the idea that bottles and formula were going to be way too difficult. Fortunately, I was wrong.
By the time our second trip rolled around I had stopped breastfeeding. I only ran into trouble trying to make formula in the middle of the night with ice cold water. The formula wouldn’t dissolve because the water was too cold, Baby OB was screaming, I had to shove the bottle under my clothes to warm it up. It was a little bit of a mess but ultimately fine. So par for the course for life with baby!
The biggest challenge is not having a place to put a baby in a van (except for their car seat). For our first trip, we fed Baby OB in our laps which got very old very quickly.
For the second trip, I found the Hiccapop Omniboost Travel Booster Seat. I like it much more than the very-popular Summer Pop because the Hiccapop’s straps are are better designed. I also liked the Hiccapop better than the Ciao Baby, which has an even more poorly-fitting, awkward strap situation.
The Hiccapop isn’t a very rigid chair, so it only worked for us because Baby OB could already sit up on their own and wasn’t flopping over anymore.
The Hiccapop came in handy for a place to park them while we fed ourselves, too. We didn’t have enough room to bring a pack n’ play, but that’s an option to consider if you do have the room.
Dinnertime for Billy and I was tricky. Once Baby OB was in bed at 6:30, the van was off-limits. We had to either eat super early (but then get hungry before our bedtime) OR think through everything we needed for dinner ahead of time.
We settled on one person being in charge of baby bedtime and one person in charge of pulling everything out for dinner. Generally, dinnertime was less of an issue at campgrounds with bear boxes where we could store food outside of the van for the entire time we were there.
How does baby sleep in the van?
We didn’t co-sleep, so we got a PeaPod for Baby OB to sleep in on the floor. Leading up to each trip, we acclimated Baby OB to the PeaPod while we were still at home. By the time we left, they were already napping and sleeping in it for at least a few days.
Note: at the end of our trips, I found a warning label that PeaPods aren’t meant for children under one. We didn’t have any issues but I am in no way a professional or guaranteeing that’s the case for your kiddo. PeaPod at your own risk!
Overall, I was shocked at how well Baby OB tolerated the cold, particularly because they were too little to wear a hat while they slept (at least for our comfort level). We dressed them in well-fitted layers without a hood under a fleece sleep sack.
We did our normal bedtime story/bottle/song in the adult bed part of the van, and then put Baby OB in the Peapod while we gingerly stepped over them and tried to quietly shut the door. There was some crying involved, but it was brief and we were comfortable with letting them fuss for a few minutes. The van door closing is always loud, so we resigned ourselves to the fact that Baby OB couldn’t fall asleep and then stay asleep through a door closing, so we just tried to get it over with right after we put them down.
Check to make sure the van comes with some sort of black-out curtains for the windows. Bring your own if not. We didn’t have a white noise machine because there was no way to plug it in. This ended up not being an issue, even when we had to keep the windows and vents open during the day when it was hot.
What about naps while you’re camping?
Baby OB was taking two naps a day when we did our trips. We decided to make Nap 1 “on the go” so we could actually get out and about during the day. We would hike in the morning and Baby OB would nap in the backpack. Or, we would be on way to our next stop and they would nap in the car while we drove.
For the second nap, we did the same thing we did at bedtime and hoped for the best. Typically, we did get at least 45 minutes of a nap in. It wasn’t as long as normal, but we did our best and chalked it up to being on vacation.
Take some downtime for yourself and also rest for at least one of the naps. We were all getting up WAY earlier than normal and not sleeping as well overnight, so we were eager to also nap with Baby OB. If we didn’t want to also lay down, we’d read in camping chairs outside the van. Similar to dinner, we made sure to grab everything we needed since the van became off-limits once Baby OB was down.
I was very anxious about Baby OB not getting enough sleep during the day, but ultimately I decided I would rather go on this trip and have things not be perfect than to just stay at home (where, spoiler alert, things are also not perfect).
That sounds very nice and breezy, but this was VERY hard for me. I didn’t do it perfectly. I had some panic attacks about their sleep. But looking back months later, I am SO glad we went for it and did these trips.
Obviously, sleep is a Hot Button Issue for parents. I’m not saying what we did is THE ONLY WAY TO DO IT. It’s just the way we did it, and hopefully the context is helpful for you.
For more naptime/bedtime/eating information, read my post about road trips with a baby here >>
Which van was better for a trip with a baby?
Five Days in a VW Eurovan Full Camper
I’m not going to lie, there was a VERY steep learning curve of the Eurovan. Coupled with the learning curve of camping with a baby for the first time, this was a difficult first few days. There were multiple times when I was on the verge of tears and THISCLOSE to telling Billy we had to go home. But I think it was still easier than tent camping.
Hardest part of the Eurovan with a baby
The biggest challenge is the main thing that makes the Eurovan cool – it’s retro and quirky. However, the quirks became very anxiety-inducing once we were in the thick of trying to make things work.
For example, the bed needs to be put away if you’re going to use the kitchen. You pull/push the bed out but it’s quite rickety and tricky to do. I tried doing it with Baby OB in one arm, but the panel around the handle that I was yanking on suddenly flew off. We both fell over, I dropped Baby OB (they were okay), and we both immediately burst into tears.
Not having a place to put Baby OB down was tough. It was easiest to put them on the bed, but we couldn’t keep the bed set up and make food. It did feel exhausting for one of us to constantly be holding or supervising them.
Driving the Eurovan
This van isn’t particularly tall or long, so it’s very maneuverable. However this is an old vehicle (obviously). We were flooring it up mountain passes and going like 30 miles per hour.
It was initially stressful, but then I really got into the forced slower pace. I noticed so much more of our surroundings, even on the part of 70 that we’ve driven a million times! Plus, the whole point of vacation is to just be together. I really enjoyed the extra time to just hang out with Billy.
Sleeping in the Eurovan with a baby
If you’re co-sleeping, it would be a tight fit for two adults and a baby in the bed. The van rental company suggested sleeping one adult and the babe on the bed, and then having the other adult sleep in the pop-up top. We ended up using the pop-up for storage (we probably packed too much) so this didn’t work for us, plus we weren’t co-sleeping.
If you’re not co-sleeping, there isn’t enough room on the ground for a pack n’ play once the bed is pulled out. That’s the other reason we went with a PeaPod (at our own risk).
Kitchen and amenities
I think it would’ve made more sense to ditch the full camper model with the fridge/kitchen and propane tank. The propane tank makes the van lower clearance, and we could’ve gotten the model with a bed out out all the time instead.
A normal camp stove and no fridge would’ve been totally fine, which is the main difference. We didn’t need a real kitchen after all! Our combination of AO Cooler and Yeti ice pack kept everything much colder than the propane fridge.
If you cook a lot of complicated meals (you probably aren’t camping with a baby?) the sink could be worth it, but we didn’t use it enough to justify having the whole kitchen area.
Charging phones turned out to be really tricky because the adapters and plugs the rental company offered didn’t work. We should’ve brought our own or had a back-up solar charger.
Three days in a 22-foot Dodge Ram conversion
A converted van is a van that used to be something else, like a delivery van, and then was “converted” into a camper van. You may also see them referred to as “custom conversions.”
The van we rented from Outdoorsy was significantly bigger and more modern than the Eurovan. This made everything easier, including packing. Not having to shuffle furniture around was also a game changer. The bed was always a bed (and it was really big) and the kitchen was easily accessible.
Hardest part of the converted van with a baby
The doors are heavier and much harder to discretely close without startling a baby. The electricity panel also was super bright at night and we had to get creative to cover it up so we could all fall asleep. Honestly, that’s it. I loved the converted van.
Driving the converted van
22 feet is a LOT OF FEET. Parallel parking this bad boy on our street in Denver was a little anxiety-inducing. But I drove it from Commerce City to Denver in rush hour traffic and got the hang of it very quickly.
The power of a modern, diesel engine was really nice. There was no issue getting up any hills, which did give me more peace of mind than the Eurovan.
Driving perhaps also felt like less of an issue because we just didn’t go as many places. We drove to the campground and then stayed there for multiple nights. This trip was also all paved roads, and very tame compared to the Forest Service “roads” we went on with the Eurovan (and survived!).
Sleeping in a converted van
The van was bigger, so the bed was bigger. The queen bed was WAY comfier for us to sleep on. I actually slept through the night several times, which is unheard for me when camping. If you’re co-sleeping, this is a more realistic fit for two adults and a baby.
Kitchen and amenities
We had a basic DIY-converted van, so it wasn’t anything Instagram-worthy (which was totally fine). The kitchen was a camp stove with no running water. We were right about not needing a fridge or running water – this basic set up was all we needed.
I also loved that we had solar electricity in the van. This made charging electronics a breeze. We probably could’ve also figured out how to bring our white noise machine, but we didn’t bother.
Camping with a baby ain’t easy. But let’s face it, nothing is. Just like having a baby, though, it’s worth the hardship! We may not have been super well-rested at the end of either trip, but we were mentally restored and so glad that we went.
It’s also okay if you want the nice, big, custom conversion van. I didn’t think I was “that kind of person” and then I very quickly realized that there was absolutely no problem with being a Big Van Person. Or maybe just a Modern Van Person? I’d love to check out the smaller, but more modern options available at Rocky Mountain Campervans now. But I’d also happily re-rent the big 22-footer!
I know this is a lot of information, but it’s all information I was desperately looking for when we were planning our trips. I hope it comes in handy, and don’t hesitate to let me know if I missed something!