The Vanlife Movement has never been stronger; more and more people looking to connect with nature, live a life of adventure and presence, create a simpler, more sustainable existence or save money, are all discovering that their needs can be met with four wheels and the open road.
Drool-worthy images of self-converted vehicles are all over the internet, showcasing people’s creative talents and expressive abilities as they take a mode of transport and turn it into a beautiful, bespoke home.
Combine that with the ability to then take your home with you wherever you go, waking up beside beaches, mountains, in forests and towns – it’s no wonder so many people are choosing to ditch the conventional to become part or full-time Vandwellers.
But what if you have children?
Vanlife with children
The uncertainty and unpredictability of Vanlife might be part of the allure for some, but would undoubtedly put off many families, unsure of whether you can provide stability and a nurturing environment for your children if you are not tied to one place.
On the one hand, the idea of introducing your kids to different cultures and ways of life, and providing positive experiences through travel and exploration is certainly appealing. But what about the day to day struggles and the reality of living in a small space with such large personalities?
Personally, this is something which has been on my mind more and more these days. We spend so much of our time travelling in our own converted minibus that we sometimes joke we should just move into it. Currently on our 3rd month in mainland Europe and gearing up to go home, I already know I will be desperate to get away again before we are even through the door.
Our 11-year-old son has well and truly got the Vanlife bug, and has spent much of this trip either planning his own future van conversion or begging us to consider buying a bigger vehicle that we could move into straight away. Our 9-year daughter is less certain, but even she has taken to doodling various bedroom layouts in her notebooks and putting in requests (“I must have a porthole window in my bedroom cubby!”).
The seed has been sown…a slightly larger vehicle could accommodate all our individual needs. But could we possibly live like this long-term? I decided to get in touch with 3 Vanlife families who have experienced long-term travel with kids:
- Rachel & Sam (The Dixie Tribe) spent 5 months travelling with their 2-year-old son Ellis in their converted minibus and are now in the process of building a larger home on wheels
- Sarah, Mike and their two boys, Harry (aged 10) and Luke (aged 8) (Bowyer Adventures) have been working, exploring and road-schooling in their converted van since Feb 2019
- Missy, Dom, and their 10-year-old daughter Rosie (Those Weirdos) have been living full time in their yellow submarine (along with 2 dogs and 2 cats!) since June 2019
(Additional social media links at end of post!)
Sarah, Rachel and Missy have been kind enough to answer some of my burning questions, Mum to Mum, and share their thought processes about life on the road:
What prompted you to choose this way of life?
#vanlife on Instagram! I came across the hashtag in July 2018 and was so inspired by photos of people living simply in vans, travelling to beautiful places, having campfires and meeting new and interesting people.
I spoke to my husband Dom and suggested that we could make a 3 or 5-year plan to save up, build a van and reduce our possessions. He jumped right on board and said let’s go next year! Within a couple of months, we had a van and we set off in June 2019.
Travel & adventure has always been a massive part of our lives – we are both pretty intrepid and have always enjoyed being outdoors and exploring new places. We didn’t want that to change once we became Parents!
Parenthood also really made us question what was important to us, and we became critical of how our actions tallied to our intentions. We wanted to spend more quality time together. We wanted to live more meaningfully and sustainably. We wanted to be free – outside of modern living. And importantly we wanted Ellis to experience the beauty of the World at a young age so that he could develop his own love and appreciation for Nature.
Vanlife just really offered us a means to fulfil our dream – minimal & sustainable travel while really immersing ourselves in Nature.
We have always said we wanted to travel more with our boys and knew that in our current situation with us both working full time and the boys being in school that it wouldn’t be possible to visit all of the countries we all wanted to see just in the school holidays.
So initially for some time away at weekends, we bought a caravan and we went away a couple of times in the UK, until we discovered the base was rotten. So after spotting others converting vans into campers on YouTube and Instagram, we decided that a van conversion would be a better option for us instead of towing a caravan – Mike initially trained as a mechanical engineer, so he is pretty handy with tools.
We got fed up of not seeing each other, just working to pay bills and decided to take the plunge to living full time in our van. Mike was already working self-employed as a software developer before we bought the van, so with financial security, we set off on our adventures in February last year.
What have you found to be the biggest struggle of raising children on the road?
We haven’t had any struggles raising our children as such, I suppose one thing that Harry and Luke initially struggled with was having the confidence to talk to other children, where language barriers were an issue.
It didn’t take long for this to pass though and they were soon happy enough to interact with other children – all it often took was a football!
The positives far outway the negatives in this lifestyle, but for me, the biggest struggle was knowing we had made a decision that meant we were taking Ellis away from all of his close family; all the people that he loved to be around.
The longer we were away, the more he began to miss everyone and would get sad that we couldn’t go and see them easily.
I think the fact that we were also travelling through predominantly non-English speaking countries meant that it was hard for him to make new friends on the road too. And these factors compounded made him miss home quite a lot.
The biggest downside for Rosie is being so far away from her friends. We make an effort to plan meetups every time we’re in England, and sometimes change our plans on the road so that she can play a while longer with new friends.
We plan our route so that she can drop in on the Worldschooling community in Andalusia to see friends there, and we plan phone calls or online gaming sessions with friends that she has made on the road. It’s an effort that we are glad to make for her!
In what ways has Vanlife benefitted your children or your relationship with your child?
We are much closer as a family now and have so many incredible things to talk about!
The freedom that we all now have has meant that Harry and Luke are happier in themselves and that has greatly improved our relationships with them both too.
We have settled into a great home and work/life balance now – working for ourselves, homeschooling Harry and Luke and enjoying life each day is something we didn’t think we do, but it’s perfect for us right now.
Also, the boys previously spent more time apart than together, but now their relationship is stronger and they have found they have much more in common now than before (don’t get me wrong they still argue like most siblings!).
Rosie has grown so much in our 8 months on the road. She started a business selling crafts at a market, entirely self-directed! She has thrived meeting lots of new people – she’s an outgoing people-person so happily introduces herself to the new neighbours and invites them to our campfire!
We have definitely spent more time together than we would have if we still lived in a house. We’ve had deep conversations and shared wonderful experiences like when we both swam in a lake for the first time!
The freedom to go anywhere and park up is incredible.
Ellis’ “backgarden” became a vast glistening lake, or dramatic mountains or dense woodland with deer outside the window. Every day he woke up, he was immersed in Nature and learning a wealth of knowledge just by experiencing it himself.
At only two years old, he has visited 18 countries; has seen the Aurora Borealis in Finland; witnessed centuries-old traditional sheepherding in the Polish Tatra Mountains; explored abandoned German war bunkers; hiked mountains with breathtaking views; clambered up waterfalls; been exposed to so many different cultures and languages and just about been on every train related vehicle we could find in Europe. He loves trains!
He often recalls his own memories from his travels, even at such a young age, so I’m confident that these last few months have had an excellent impact on his life!
For Sam and I, it was a dream to have true quality time with our son that was free of distractions and work. We felt like it bought us all closer together, focused purely on the incredible moments that we were sharing as a Family and creating lifelong memories to cherish forever.
We witnessed first hand the incredible deep learning that children benefit from by just experiencing the world around them.
How do you meet your individual needs for privacy and space?
The boys have their own bunks, with a curtain across that they can go and hide in if they want to be alone, or they have the freedom to run around outside. Vanlife for us means we are outside a lot more than in, as we prefer warmer climates and a lot of the time there is a beach for us to sit, play or swim at.
We do try to make sure that Mike and I get some time to ourselves, so one of us will entertain the boys whilst the other can have some peace.
We also make sure that on each of our birthdays we stay in a hotel to give us a break and some temporary space too.
We are still figuring this one out. During the five months of living in the minibus as a family of three was challenging at points. And the need for space was the primary concern – eventually, we figured out that a loose daily routine that enabled Sam and I to have an hour each to go and do whatever we wanted would be really beneficial.
Both of our beds have curtains, so any of us can retreat to bed and draw them – it’s like going to your bedroom and shutting the door!
We also have noise cancelling headphones, so on the rare occasions that someone needs total peace but cannot leave the van, they help a lot.
I have noticed that I feel a lot less need for personal space or time alone since moving into the van. Perhaps because we spend so much time outside, I feel less hemmed in, or because spending time in nature is naturally grounding and calming.
We also have some time to ourselves when we visit places of interest because one of us always stays with the van and all the animals, so we take it in turns to visit or stay in!
What do you wish you’d known when you started out on this journey?
That the cats would settle within a fortnight and end up happier than when they lived in a house! And that it’s better to travel slow, and stay put for a few days at a time.
We wish we would have tried our van out a bit more in the UK before we left for Europe. We found ourselves listing the things we would change whilst we were on the road. So since we arrived back in the UK we have stripped the van out, changed the layout slightly to give ourselves more space and make life a little easier for our next adventure back to mainland Europe in a few weeks time.
At some point, we may find somewhere we want to stay put, but for now, this is our life.
Perhaps we would have started with a much bigger home on wheels had we realised we would grow out of a minibus so quickly! But other than that, nothing!
We were SO ready for this journey that every exciting adventure, every breathtaking moment, every practical hurdle was just a part of the beauty of it all!
We are currently back to living in a conventional house for a few months as we complete our next home on wheels project! Having loved the five months of full-time travel in our minibus, we decided to pursue the full-time van living in something better equipped for a growing family. Watch this space!
There are hurdles and obstacles to be overcome in all walks of life. Learning to balance everybody’s individual needs within the family unit is simply part of the deal – the size or location of your home really has no bearing on that. Speaking to these inspirational families has firmly cemented in my mind that Vanlife with children is not only possible but could actually offer numerous benefits over more conventional living arrangements.
I have LOVED hearing how these families are making the most of their time together and creating unforgettable memories for their children. Spending quality time with one another, strengthening bonds, providing an exciting, educational and inspirational view of the world we live in for their children as well as establishing a life long appreciation of the beauty of the natural world.
Vanlife can teach our children first hand about community, togetherness, family, nature, language, geography, culture, wonder and beauty. Vanlife is freedom. And what more could we wish to able to offer future generations?
Special thanks to Rachel, Sarah and Missy for their insightful contributions to this post. You can follow their family adventures here:
Rachel, Sam and Ellis | The Dixie Tribe
Sarah, Mike, Luke and Harry | Bowyer Adventures
Missy, Dom and Rosie | Those Weirdos
YouTube: Those Weirdos