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4 Tips for Camper Van Vacationing With Kids

Want to plan a convenient and cost-effective family trip? Hop in a camper van.

U.S. News & World Report

4 Tips for Camper Van Vacationing With Kids

Mother with children and dogs camping at campsite in woods.

Consider these factors before hitting the road.(Getty Images)

In the age of peer-to-peer vacation rental sites and all-inclusive beach resorts, it can be hard to believe that renting a recreational camper van (a smaller, planet-friendly version of an RV) to elevate the traditional camping concept is catching on as an adventure-tourism trend. But for thrill-seeking families clamoring to avoid a cookie-cutter trip, touring an unfamiliar place by camper van offers a sense of discovery and nostalgia, explains Harley Sitner, owner of Peace Vans Rentals, a vintage Volkswagen camper van company based in Seattle.

Long a popular, gas-efficient vacation choice in New Zealand and Australia, camper vans are making a comeback and companies are popping up across the West Coast, with those like Lost Campers operating in California and Utah, and Jucy, in California and Nevada. Plus, with reasonable rental prices and a low carbon footprint compared to larger, gas-guzzling RVs, camper vans are both eco-friendly and affordable for road-tripping families.

Toying with the idea of traveling by camper van? Here's what you need to know for a smooth, stress-free journey.

A family in a camper van.(Courtesy of Cambria Cox/Peace Vans Rentals)

Select Your Van Strategically

Before choosing your vehicle, familiarize yourself with different vehicle models and their available amenities and add-ons (think: running water, a gas stove, a minifridge and even a rooftop sleeper). Peace Van Rentals, for example, has locations in the Pacific Northwest, which is ideal for those itching to explore Idaho, Washington and Oregon. And its fleet of fully refurbished Volkswagen campers are equipped with a sink, stove and accommodations for four. You can rent a vintage van for $1,290 for a six-night minimum during the peak season (May to September).

Meanwhile, Escape Campervans offers cost-effective rentals in popular markets such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami. The company's Maverick model starts at around $110 per night (with a four-night rental minimum) for May rentals, and can sleep up to three guests. Among its perks? A sink, dual-gas cooker and an inside table. Other reputable companies include Orange County, California-based Vintage Surfari Wagons, which features old-school Volkswagen campers for less than $1,200 weekly during the high season, and Colorado-based Adventure Travel Sport Rentals, which has souped-up vans outfitted with kitchens, coffee makers, propane grills, coolers, camp chairs and other frills, with varying prices according to the model selected.

To ensure a satisfactory experience, make sure you rent from a reputable outfitter, Sitner says. Remember, this isn't equivalent to picking up a rental car, he cautions, emphasizing that you want to choose a company with a venerable insurance policy, on-call mechanics and backup vans. A variety of van outfitters cater to different price points and preferences, from vintage to contemporary, no-frills vehicles to decked-out models, so make sure to select a van that's appropriate for you and your trusty sidekicks.

A camper van parked on a street.(Courtesy of Peace Vans Rentals)

Consider Your Companions' Needs

As with any travel adventure among friends and family members, it's important to assess individual needs, tastes and preferences to ensure that your idea of a gratifying vacation experiences matches theirs. Consider factors such as pace, budget and comfort level in the great outdoors away from technology and the creature comforts of home; account for a mix of downtime and activity, particularly when traveling with kids in tow. "Manage expectations," suggests Tim Warren, director of customer service at camper van rental company Lost Campers, with locations in California and Utah. While camper vans provide a fun, cost-effective room-on-wheels option, they do not offer perks such as showers or added space that you might expect in an RV, Warren notes.

That said, thanks to their smaller, less-cumbersome size, camper vans allow you the chance to get off the beaten path because "they have decent clearance and [their] weight distribution is great, allowing for great traction," he adds. And if you're traveling with youngsters, the rooftop tents available on most camper vans tend to be a hit with kids, he adds, noting that tent setup is an easy and fun family bonding activity.

For vacationers looking to unwind and recharge on the beach all day with a margarita in hand while the kids build sandcastles, camper-van tripping might not be the ideal route for you, Sitner cautions. This sort of trip is best for curious wanderers yearning for an unforgettable family drive rather than a traditional carefree beach getaway. The camper van life offers a "connection to a simpler, more nostalgic time," Sitner says. With a growing desire and demand for authentic vacation experiences, families are turning to camper van trips as an offbeat way to get outdoors and camp, he adds.

Pick the Right Locations

Whether you're clamoring to explore America's prized national parks or a lesser-known national forest, keep in mind: Campground space is limited in the peak spring and summer season. Reserve your spot early, Warren says. With a wealth of parks and national forests in the area, he recommends carving out some time to find secret, under-the-radar destinations beyond places like Yosemite, along with overlooked state parks and forests.

Sitner also points to country and state parks, and free Bureau of Land Management campgrounds as less-frequented and enticing alternatives to the popular grounds managed by larger networks like Kampgrounds of America.

Stock Up

"I think most people bring more stuff than they need," Warren says. He suggests packing light and ditching extra items (think: an extra heater with an extension cord, a rooftop storage bin or a bike rack, all of which you can easily rent). Most vans are stocked with essential items, including camping gear, cooking utensils and equipment and bedding, but to optimize comfort, you may want to consider bringing an additional minifridge or cooler. Also, make sure to bring practical items such as a flashlight or lantern and bath towels.

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