Living in a Van on the Road with Kids
In 2018 Lydia Zamorano and her husband Sonnie Trotter left home on a year-long climbing road trip with a 7-month-old baby and a 4-year-old in tow. They lived mostly in a Scamp trailer towed by a Ford Transit Van – a total of 75 square feet that they called “the Family Can.” The trip was full of new experiences, but one of the most interesting parts turned out to be the questions they both received about traveling in a tiny space with kids for months at a time. So, Lydia did the obvious thing: She asked Becca Caldwell and Zoe Hart – two other moms with lots of experience living on the road – about their experiences and shared her own as well.
Lydia: I ask for one hour a day for my yoga practice. Sometimes I get three hours and sometimes I get half an hour. On the road this happened at various times and often on the kitchen floor of the Scamp trailer with the kids sleeping in the double bed. The key for me is consistency, and that really satisfies my need for autonomy in close quarters. Sometimes I’ll go on a big hike on my own or climb something that isn’t a boulder to be kid-free for a day. Sonnie needs some kid-free time when he’s working on a climb, so we do a lot of back-and-forth.
Becca: The easiest is probably to just go for a walk, hike or bike ride, but I’m not always the best at this. But I do feel like it’s important, especially in close quarters. So usually that happens outside the van, or everyone else goes outside and you can sneak some time inside the van, alone.
Zoe: This is the hardest thing. Kids are awesome but nonstop. Max and I try to find space where we can each have quiet. I like to read, and this requires some space where I am not needed for things. But I wake up early and that seems to be my time. Max stays up late, often doing his thing and that is where he finds his time. Usually our quiet time is on the water while one of us is kitesurfing and then we trade. But it is important to find a break. When I travel solo with the kids it gets harder. Even when I shower or go to the bathroom the boys want to be right next to me. Now that they’re a little older, they are more independent. They read, draw, listen to stories and we all have quiet time.
Lydia: I was afraid that my 7-month-old wouldn’t sleep well, my son would miss home, and I wouldn’t get any alone time. All of this resolved the first month on the road. Mesa Pearl slept the best ever in the fresh air. Tatum loves traveling as much as his parents. And Sonnie is always an incredible partner and we worked together to give each other the space we needed. We’d traveled a lot with Tatum so we knew what to expect, but it was new to have two kids in tow.
Becca: I wasn’t afraid of much. When we first brought Fitz on a trip in the van there were some safety issues – like making sure he wasn’t going to roll off our high bed or fall out of the van itself with the door open, but other than that we were just excited. One thing we’ve learned is that sometimes with kids, aspects of van life are just easier. They often get to spend all day outside and usually sleep pretty well after that. Now our kids get really excited about going on a van trip and the time together.
Zoe: I guess I was a bit blissfully ignorant when it came to the van adventures. I didn’t have much stress going into it. Maybe I was also a bit naive. When Mathias was six months old, we traveled in Australia for six weeks by van and it seemed like a great idea. He slept well, we fed him his first food in the van, it was super easy. Later on, potty training became a challenge, but we adapted; we brought a tiny potty everywhere we went.
Zoe Hart pulls a crash pad full of kids. Photo: Sonnie Trotter.
Lydia: We had a van with our crash pads in the back for a sleeping option and then we had the trailer with a single bed in it and a double. If someone was super tired, they could take the back of the van, which was used mostly for storage. We got better at sleeping together in the trailer eventually. One of us would sleep in the double with both kids. The other person would sleep on the single. When Sonnie and I wanted to snuggle together we would spoon on the kitchen floor with a bunch of blankets for a bit and then retire to our separate sleeping arrangements. We got really good at it by the end of the year and I think the kids loved it. I can’t say I don’t appreciate our king bed now though.
Becca: We have a short full-sized custom bed in the back of our Sprinter for me and Tommy (we opted for a short bed so it wouldn’t take up as much space, and Tommy was willing to sleep with his legs bent or at a diagonal. I’m 5’3″ and can stretch out perfectly). And then we have a drop-down bed that’s a little bigger than a twin that the kids both sleep in. It has netting all around it to keep them from rolling out. Occasionally one kid will end up in bed with us, and sometimes both, which makes for a pretty tight squeeze, but it’s good family snuggle time!
Zoe: We don’t have a pop-top or a huge van, just a normal-sized VW T5 Multivan type. We have removable individual seats behind the driver’s seat and we have a bed built into the back. We sleep on the bed in the back and stock stuff under the bed and in the seats, or even under the van – it’s a bit of juggling. I feel like for longer trips we’d need a roof box or maybe just a bigger van with more storage, but so far this is working. When Mathias got bigger, he started sleeping in the front. We take a crash pad and put it on the seats, and stow the car seats and extra bags. Mika sleeps with us in the back. Soon Mika will be too big and we’ll have to readjust. It seems like it’s fluid depending on the length of trip, the stuff you have, and the size of your kids. They are still too young to sleep solo outside in a tent but that will be an option soon too.
Lydia: Over the year we spent on the road, I think Sonnie and I had about three day-dates, and that was because we had some help from Grandma and Papa. Mesa was still clingy, and probably more so since she was with us one hundred percent of the time, so she was harder to pass off. When the kids went to bed, that was usually our time together. Every month or so, we would get a hotel and put the kids in one bed and have a whole bed to ourselves. We budgeted for that before we left because we knew it would happen. Close time for Sonnie and I was definitely the crux of the trip but I think it’s also the crux for a lot of people in those first few years with two young kids.
Becca: We are still trying to figure this one out! We’ve occasionally had people offer to hang with the kids, but we know it’s not a guarantee going into time in the van and we just kind of embrace it as close family time and for what it is.
Zoe: For the most part our van trips have been shorter, except for a few longer trips when the kids were very little, or I have been solo with the boys. That being said, alone time in family life is generally challenging. On the trips we have done together, we have been lucky to meet up with friends who were willing to take time to hang with the boys and let us climb, eat, talk and spend time together alone.
Lydia: We have our struggles communicating sometimes, but the stressors were low on the road and we were working less, so we had less to grapple with. I’d say the close quarters were positive for communication struggles because we had to work things out quickly so that we could have harmony in a small space, and usually the kids were right there with us as well. We didn’t have as much time to wallow on our own, and were kind of forced to deal with miscommunication right away.
Zoe: I find that when we are living in the van, I am more patient and present. When we drop back into our “normal” busy lives at home I try to keep this Perspective, but I feel like the busyness or routineness of home life makes it more difficult.
Becca: Our communication does really well when we are constantly checking in with each other, staying present and making an effort. We do great sometimes and struggle other times, and I’m not sure having lived in the van together has changed that one way or the other. But maybe it has, and I’m not even aware of it. You definitely have to always be in constant communication though because so much of our time and space is shared.
Practicing finger strength and somersaults. Photo: Austin Siadak.
Lydia: I’d say we spent more during our year on the road than at home. We didn’t have the space to have large quantities, and after huge days out if we could access a restaurant we did that way more often than we would at home. We hardly eat out at home. We ate a lot of the same things. Avocado toast, eggs, greens, noodle bowls, stir fried veggies, rice, beans, quesadillas. Toward the end of the trip we got bored and started using the oven. Chocolate chip cookies never tasted so good. I also found that single-use packaging is much harder to avoid on the road. I used some really good U-Konserve containers and glass reusables, but at home we use a lot less [single-use packaging].
Becca: I’d say it varies because the kitchen space is smaller, so we keep meals on the road pretty simple, though sometimes we choose the more convenient option due to space or lack of multiple cooking pots, and that can sometimes be expensive. And some places (like the stores in Yosemite) are a lot more expensive than normal grocery stores so you spend a little more on every item and that adds up quickly
Zoe: Sometimes food feels easier and sometimes it feels more complicated. We have never had a fridge in the van, just coolers. One trip in Sardinia we food shopped nearly every day. It became a part of our day. I like that pace of life. But when travelling in more remote places it’s not possible. I find though that the rhythm of the van life allows for more time to be spent shopping and preparing food, that is just a big part of the day, as is cleaning up. We integrate the kids into the plan and then they help with the whole process. Sometimes when the weather is bad, or we are tired or arrive late we end up eating at restaurants which seems to expand the budget, but for the most part I feel like it is often cheaper, because we don’t eat or buy as much meat for the sheer fact that storage is hard.
Home for a year. Photo: Sonie Trotter.
Lydia: Everything has its place and it is best to put it back after using it. But when things do get messy it takes very little time to do a decent house cleaning. We became more minimalist on the road and that was a gift we received from our year because we pared down our stuff substantially when we got home. Every time I brought something new (and usually it was used) into the Scamp I got rid of something. This helped tremendously with keeping down clutter.
Becca: We try to stay organised, but inevitably the van seems to get into a state of disarray after a bit of time. That’s when we take 10 minutes and put everything back where it was meant to go. We meticulously planned out every inch of our van to maximise its storage and space. Everyone has a clothes drawer, there is a place for the food, bungee pockets, places for kids toys, books, electronics, etc.
Zoe: Getting ready to leave takes a ton of time and unpacking. Now we have stuff in boxes set to leave, and I know what to take. But I’ve also realised most of the stuff we bring we don’t actually need. The best approach is minimalist to cut down on organising. We spend a significant amount of time putting things back in the right place throughout the day. It seems to work better than the chaos approach where you organise at the end. We definitely do need to spend more time every few days cleaning, but it’s not much different than in a house, and it’s quicker.
Lydia: We are both self-employed, have the ability to work on the road (although we worked less than usual), and we sublet our place in Canmore to offset travel costs. That’s how we make it work. After a year on the road, it’s really nice to be home for a bit. But I also find myself packing up the van and taking the kids on a mini-trip once or twice a month. Both Sonnie and I love to see new things and the kids seem to as well! We have found it’s really hard to keep up with paperwork, taxes, our normal income and organisation on the road, so we’ve decided to take between 6 months to a year before we plan another big trip. But once we are able to travel again, I’m open to homeschooling my son on the road, and my daughter is almost two now.
Zoe: This was the first year we had a school-rhythm, so we were programming holidays and weekends. Sometimes I get worried we will get weighed down by managing normal life and never move, but once we get going, it’s totally worth it. I try to keep perspective that busyness is relative and that the best moments in our family life are on the road in whatever way that is.
Becca: We have decided that living in the van is just a part of our life. We don’t do it all year long, but we do spend extended amounts of time in the van every year. We will sometimes do shorter weekend-style trips, but we often commit (usually to Yosemite) and go for six weeks or more. This is often the best way to travel and spend time in climbing areas in the US, and it’s really affordable. It’s also great for our family. It simplifies life and I think it’s really good for all of us. It’s easy to get comfortable at home, and while I don’t think comfortable is a bad thing, I also think it’s good to redefine comfort occasionally. We homeschooled Fitz this past year to keep our schedules open, and we haven’t fully decided what we’ll do next year, but I’m guessing at some point we’ll get to a point where we need to be more “homebound” and then it’ll change again. I really love being able to move between it all.
The consensus is very quietly.
Lydia is a yoga educator and mountain lover who bounces between Canmore, Alberta, and Squamish, British Columbia, with her tribe Sonnie Trotter, Mesa Pearl and Tatum Rein.
Zoe was the fourth woman to earn her IFMGA status. She and her husband Max are currently raising their two boys – Mathias and Mika – in Chamonix, France.
Becca is a registered nurse from Estes Park, Colorado. She started the Little Explorers Club, which rallies parents and children to get outside, get in the dirt and experience the natural world. Becca, her husband Tommy, and their two kids Fitz and Ingrid travel the better part of every year.
Banner image – Snuggle time in the Caldwell van. Photo: Courtesy of Becca Caldwell.