Ahh … the freedom of the open road. Dreams of long, lazy summer days. Escaping from the crowds to find the perfect beach-side camping spot.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it ?
This is what we would like to imagine when planning a family campervan holiday but in reality how many of us experience something rather different ? Fraught journeys, over-tired kids, grumpy grown ups and awful campsites anyone ?
Planning your holiday carefully may not avoid these experiences you’d rather forget completely, but it can certainly increase the chances of you surviving the holiday unscathed. And if you have a campervan the objective is not only to have a good holiday but to repeat the positive experience again and again. Camping represents some people’s nightmare but to me it can provide some of the best memories ever: memories that will stay with your kids and hopefully embed in them the desire to go camping themselves when they’re older.
My top ten tips below are based on our own family’s experiences of both tent and campervan camping over the years. We’ve learned from mistakes and have also adapted as the kids have grown older (they’re now 13 and 9). So these ten tips are well tested and have kept us sane.
While some of my tips are specific to campervan holidays, most are equally applicable to tent camping. Essentially, the experience is the same: you’re cooped up in a vehicle journeying to your destination for hours on end and then you spend the next fortnight in a similarly small space.
Hopefully you’ll find some practical suggestions to make your next trip just that little bit more enjoyable.
10. Choose a destination that has something for everyone
It’s sometimes tempting to assume that the kids will just tag along with what the adults would like to do. Keen to visit some museums or art galleries ? Visit some quaint, historic towns ? You can bet this is precisely what the kids will hate (unless they’re very young).
For us, it’s all about compromise. If Dad wants to visit that photogenic Tuscan hill town then it’s a day at a water park the next day. If the daughter wants to go shopping then a family cycle ride also needs to be negotiated.
The beauty of a camper van holiday is that you’re likely to be staying in a number of different kinds of locations over the course of a holiday – there’s enough variety to tick everyone’s boxes. So do your research and find those locations and campsites in advance that are going to give you the range of family experience you’re after.
9. Pack wisely
Many years’ camping have taught me that packing can be very stressful. I can remember packing the car to the gunnels, finding just the right-sized space for every bag and object, and having to adjust my packing to make sure the boot can finally close. Then the bike rack goes on and any final bags that haven’t fitted in the boot need to sit at people’s feet or in the middle of the back seat. We’ve all done it – and it’s a common site on every campsite in the summer.
But why ? Does everyone really need their bike when you can hire them for the occasional time they might be needed ? Are the kids really going to play cricket and badminton and football when on holiday ? Are you really going to wear all of those clothes ?
Whether you’re travelling by car or campervan my advice is to pack light, take half of what you think you’ll need (particularly clothes) and take things that serve multiple purposes. And guess what ? Anything you don’t have that turns out to be essential can be bought or hired when you get there. Fortunately campervans typically have more boot space than your average family car but nonetheless, you don’t need to fill it – and you’ll get on better if you don’t.
Less stuff = less stress = a better holiday.
8. Pack an ‘activity box’ for each of the kids
Long journeys can be a real bore. It would be amazing if the kids didn’t get grumpy, or Mum and Dad didn’t have a major argument navigating the M25. We’ve found that kids love to pack their ‘essential’ games, books, puzzles, toys and DVDs when they’re about to go on holiday. This get them in the holiday mood when you’re packing the more boring stuff. So give them a special box or bag each that contains all of their favourite things to keep them occupied and they’ll be much happier on the long drive to and from your destination.
We’ve found seat-back DVD players invaluable since the kids are occupied, quiet (ie not arguing) and the time passes much more quickly. With DVDs to watch we plan on driving for three hour stretches rather than two, which makes a big difference.
7. Be organised
If you’re going to be spending much more time than usual in close proximity for a fortnight it pays to have ‘a system’. For us, this means everyone having their own bag of clothes and having a space for everything in the camper van. You can’t afford to turn everything upside down to find little Johnny’s teddy at night – you need to agree where it’s going to be kept so you can immediately locate it when you need it.
Besides packing, there are lots of other ways to be organised (without taking it to extremes). For journeys on the Continent we print out routes using the AA Routeplanner website (detailing roads, times and distances) and also photograph the journey on Google Maps on the iPad before we leave, so the co-driver can just flick through these. (We don’t have a satnav and this works fine for us).
Plan some simple but tasty meals in advance (taking essential, hard-to-find ingredients from home if you need to) to avoid defaulting to pasta every night.
Have a list of the key sights/attractions/places you want to visit before you leave home so you feel prepared. Can you get discount tickets to any of these ? If so, organise Tesco Clubcard vouchers (or similar) in advance. Is there a best time to visit those popular attractions ? You can find all of this out on TripAdvisor or other travel forums. Is there a great cafe just near the must-see attraction ? Again, other travellers have already posted this advice up on TripAdvisor.
6. Stay on campsites with lots of other kids
No matter what language they speak, kids will always find friends. I remember my daughter, then aged about three, proudly parading her doll around the French campsite in its little pushchair, accompanied by her two Dutch friends. Or my son playing ballgames with his new Dutch pal when in Holland. Most of the time they couldn’t understand a word the others were saying but they communicated just fine. Having other kids to play with will transform their holiday experience, I promise you.
If you can get a pitch on a site where you can watch your kids on a playfield or at the playpark then this is ideal.
Happy kids = happy adults.
5. Minimise the driving days
I’m guilty of wanting to pack a lot in. It’s tempting: so many places to see, you feel the need to see as much as you can. Especially if you have a camper van (home on your back and all of that …).
If we’re away for a fortnight we now plan on staying 3 or 4 nights in each place, selecting locations to use as a ‘base’ that have sufficient interest in the vicinity. You can relax more when you’re not having to pack and unpack every other day and holidays are arguably more about experiences than places in any case. A three-centre holiday over a fortnight can give a lot of variety and a campervan holiday shouldn’t feel like a road trip.
4. Develop morning and night time routines
This is the tip that is probably most specific to campervan owners. Remember how the song goes: “… and the little one said, roll over …” ? If you don’t have effective routines then you’re in danger, perhaps not of falling out of bed but of getting in others’ way and waking others up.
Campervans are small spaces and this is where you definitely need to be organised. What works for us is to allocate responsibilities and to divide the tasks. For example, if I’m first up and off to the shower block to get washed then we plan on the others getting dressed so that when I return they can go off to get washed. When they return I will have already packed up the beds, put the bed back in its normal position and be putting the kettle on for breakfast. If it’s good weather, it’s best to let the kids have a quick play so that breakfast’s all ready to eat when you call them in.
Similarly at night, it also works to reverse the routine so that one adult takes responsibility for organising the van and the other for organising the kids.
It needn’t be a military operation, just ‘a system’ that works for you.
3. Ignore normal bedtimes
If your kids are of primary school age and older then a key lesson we’ve learned is to suspend normal bedtime ‘rules’. When it’s light outside (eg in Scotland) until almost 11pm in mid-summer or a busy campsite’s still noisy until the same time, you can’t fight against this. Just go with the flow and chill out. It’s best to get up and go to bed at the same time as a family when it’s dark and quiet. What’s the worst that can happen ?
2. Be flexible
Sometimes things don’t go to plan, irrespective of how organised you are: you need a Plan B. This is a more general tip and is really about being prepared to be flexible to ensure that you have a successful camping trip and you all stay sane.
For instance, if you get a few days’ rain why not treat yourself to a night in a hotel or B&B to dry out and keep spirits high ? If your campsite is over-run by midges, leave and go somewhere with a breeze and/or away from trees and water. If it’s a noisy, horrible site, leave. We’ve done all three of these. One time in France (in 2004) it was so hot in a tent that we had to book into a mobile home on a campsite near the coast to get some welcome relief from the heat.
My daughter’s just turned 13 and ‘teenage-hood’ has hit big style. When peer pressure matters more than anything and your Dad happens to drive this weird campervan that no “normal people” own, it’s highly – and I mean highly – embarrassing. While she was happy to come on family holidays in the van when she was younger she’s unsurprisingly less then thrilled just now. But it’s a phase that will pass (I hope !). So this year our main holiday will be a fly/hotel holiday to Turkey at Easter. We’ll only have family holidays with her for a few more years and so what matters most is that we enjoy these times together as a family; we’ll get lots of chances to go off in the van when she’s not around.
Here’s a light-hearted story about campervans through the eyes of 12 year olds.
1. Build in family treats
Living in a confined space on top of one another in a strange place produces its own stresses and strains: it would be unrealistic to expect otherwise. So we’ve learned that those little treats can really give you something to look forward, boosting family morale and providing incentives and ammunition for those all-important negotiations.
Treats could be special trips out (eg to a theme park), a meal out in a nice restaurant or just an ice cream. On occasion we’ve stayed at sites with ‘entertainment’ laid on in the evenings: not my idea of fun but the kids have loved it and in fact, the trips to the weekly bingo night or karaoke have provided highlights of the holidays.