We’re about to embark on another big family trip. Mama, papa and our four-year-old daughter — that’s Tania, Ronnie and Layla — are finally leaving after a very long wait. We hope to head north and make it up to Darwin once the NT border opens.
We have three months to travel (cut down from five due to all of the restrictions) and I’m excited to be able to share our experiences travelling in our van with our daughter, and see how the travel landscape looks mid/post COVID-19 and recent bushfires. Is travelling with children any different from packing the van and heading off with just two? You bet it is. Here is what I have learnt along the way.
CAMPING WITH A BABY
Sure, we have been camping in winter before, but now we have a baby. If it’s cold once the sun goes down, we can’t just escape into the van to continue on the party/board game/reading/watch a movie. Such a small space means lights inside must be kept off once baby’s asleep — 7pm! This means cold weather camping nights are solely to be enjoyed by the fire. It’s still enjoyable, but don’t forget to bring the firewood or you’ll be up for a very early night indeed.
Prior to children, we would never have been caught dead in a caravan park and paying for power. Ha! What for? I’ll tell you what for: Being able to heat up milk or snacks easily using the microwave in our van as opposed to getting out the cooker/pot/cooking utensils to heat up half a cupful of food that will most likely get thrown on to the floor.
Kids love to explore
I am known to be very paranoid about where we park and who our neighbours are. I know nothing can ruin an evening more than loud/drunk/late partying within earshot. What’s changed is that I am now even more paranoid about who we park next to, as I know it’s not just my sleep that will be affected when we are woken at 1am by drunk teenagers.
Long-wheel Base Versus Short-wheel Base
We couldn’t afford a LWB, but that extra 30cm would have changed our life in that first year. 30cm? That’s right, the difference between a LWB and SWB — the difference between being able to fit a porta cot in your van and not being able to. We made do by creating a safe sleeping space for baby in the pop-top roof bed, but how we miss the possibility of being able to pull down the roof of a night time to avoid outside noise and make the most of Ronnie’s wonderful insulation job in the van.
A power supply is imperative with kids on board
CAMPERVANNING WITH A TODDLER
After 12 months on and off with our toddler in our campervan, sometimes I wished we’d stayed home. Some of the time, I had to admit the way we travelled before needed to change. It was tough, but when we made a few changes to our travelling style, everyone was happier and we had a much more relaxed time. By the end, we’d created a way of living that was sustainable long term.
The Easy Bits…
Always have a pack of baby wipes in the van, even if your toddler is toilet trained. There will always be accidents, so it’s better to be prepared. Always keep a spare set of bed sheets in your van with you.
Wasteful but Stress-free
This next camping hack is completely wasteful and goes against everything I believe in, but you only need to utilise it for the shortest time until the ‘learning and accidents’ stage has passed, and it will save you a lot of stress when on the road. Before you leave on your trip, make a visit to the cheapest shop you can think of that sells kid’s clothes (it was Kmart for me) and buy the cheapest bulk pack of undies. I got them for 70 cents a pair. At that price, a ‘big’ accident meant the undies went straight in the bin and I saved myself some messy washing.
Have a stash of healthy ready-to-eat foods on hand for when you won’t be able to make dinner by dinner time, or will be going to a pub or restaurant and don’t know if they’ll offer anything for your little one. As an example, we always have at least a couple of tins of baked beans, tuna, an avocado, wholegrain crackers and peanut butter on hand.
Music to Your Ears
If you are as unlucky as us and have a toddler who hates car travel, you’ll find road-tripping distances in Australia a nightmare. I’ve also got a slight problem with using our iPad as a babysitter, so I came up with another idea — music. If we played her music, she was much more likely to sit there happily for an hour than if we played our music. How lovely, a road trip listing to the Hokey Pokey on repeat for an hour. Enter the best purchase we’ve made in a long time: a pair of children’s Bluetooth JBL headphones. These are so wonderful that I could write a blog on the headphones alone. No cord, safety volume feature, comfy, great sound, long life (I rarely charge them) and not that expensive ($50). You can play your child’s music on your phone and you don’t have to listen to it. Bonus tip: try calling grandparents and friends and letting your little one have a private chat to consume another hour.
A longer wheel base means extra space
Travelling Short Distances
This one’s pretty obvious, but you may be tempted to push it, so don’t bother. Travel short distances at a time (1.5 hours) punctuated by 30-minute playground breaks. Google maps is great. You can open your map, show your location, and then just type in ‘playground’ to show them on the map. You can even see ratings and photos if there are any, plus walking or driving directions.
Stay a Bit Longer
As we all know, toddlers are creatures of routine and familiarity, and these things make them feel happy and comfortable. Sesame Street didn’t play the same episode at the same time for one week as its primary marketing activity for no reason at all. Sleep in a different location every night and your toddler’s likely to feel (and act) a little unsettled. For this reason, we suggest planning to stay longer in each place than you usually would and trying to avoid staying anywhere for just one night.
Avoid Big Cities
This one was discovered in Europe where there are more attractive big cities that I’d traditionally loved to have visited, but it’s similarly true in Australia (one night in Newcastle was stressful and disappointing after a few blissful weeks in tiny coastal towns). With a toddler (and I say this with gritted teeth), sometimes it’s better to avoid cities altogether. Cities mean it’s harder to get a carpark, there’s sometimes traffic, the campground might be out of the city, meaning you have to work out ways with public transport or walking to get into the actual city centre. At the end of the day, what do we want to do in a city anyway? I’ll tell you what. We want to go shopping (or at least window shopping), see the sights and go out for coffee, dinner, drinks. Let’s be honest — none of these things are particularly toddler-friendly. It’s better to save that city stopover for a weekend away without the kids.
Travelling with kids requires some prep
CAMPING WITH A PRE-SCHOOLER
Another year of camping with our little one and, all of a sudden, she’s now a little girl. Although even more enjoyable, we feel that she almost needs more entertaining and communication than the two-year old of last year. Although many of the toddler tips are still relevant this year, we’ve got a few additional tips and tricks we use to make our camping trips more bearable, more enjoyable, and more magical for everyone.
Tell Them What’s Next
When you are on the road and moving around, we often find that sitting down every morning and clearly explaining the plans for the day really helps. What’s happening today, why we are leaving, where we are going, how great it will be when we get there, and what exciting activities and yummy snacks they can have in the car while we drive there.
Let Them Help
You’ve probably heard this one before (and it’s also great at home), but all anybody really wants is to feel useful, so giving your pre-schooler the same little tasks to ‘help’ set up/pack up each day will ensure they are kept busy and don’t get bored. For us, this means drying the dishes (not glasses or knifes), watching us fill up the water tank and saying when it’s full, and helping prepare food for meals.
Stick to Your Routine
This one’s clearly just our personal opinion but, especially in Europe, you often see little kids up later than I’d usually go to bed. It’s great until they wake up at normal time in the morning and are cranky and tired the whole next day. We try to keep the same routine as much as possible, as close as possible to the same one we have at home. This means the same time eating dinner, same before-bed routine at the same time, and same morning routine.
When travelling, we try to integrate one activity into our day, every day, that our little one loves. For example, some beach time building a sandcastle or going for a swim. Otherwise we usually make a trip to the closest playground even if it’s just for half an hour. Good driving activities for three and a half year olds include: sticker books, puzzles (the ones from Ravensburger where you can do the puzzle in the box lid are great for car trips), Crayola washable textas, and the free but invaluable Australian kid apps like Kinderling or ABC radio (you’ll also need kid’s head phones — the JBL ones are great).
Some of our must-have healthy snacks include: vegetable juice, cheese sticks, cucumber, tomatoes, peanut butter, wholegrain healthy crackers, avocado, tinned tuna, baked beans and corn.
Take Their Toys
This last tip is contradictory to our values and camping life in general, but bring as many of your little one’s favourite toys on the trip as you possibly can. This goes against minimalism and packing light but, at the end of the day, you want them to feel at home in your home on the road, and moving from place to place is disconcerting enough for them.
On a recent five-week trip, we took three out of four favourite soft toys, with melancholy and sadness for home rearing its head after about week one because she missed the left-behind toy. We ended up organising for grandma to drive to our house, post the fluffy purple unicorn in the mail to the campground we thought we’d be at in a few weeks. Enough said; lesson learnt. Bring their favourite toys so they don’t have anything to miss back home. Instead, make sure YOU pack super light!
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Written: Sat 01 Aug 2020
Printed: August, 2020
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