If you’re considering family van living rest assured that it is completely achievable! Find out more about the logistics of the experience and how to prepare for your amazing journey below!
Family van living can be extremely affordable for all! The upfront cost will vary depending on what you are looking for, though cargo vans (which come completely gutted) are often available for only a few thousand dollars and are among the most popular choice.
When it comes to family van living, pre-designed options will be harder to come across. RV’s are expensive and makes stealthy camping gnarly impossible, they are built to hold larger families. If you want to avoid making renovations of your own and are willing to invest a bit of money, this would be the easiest option. However, anyone looking for a true van living experience should strongly consider purchasing a van and completing the build themselves. This will allow for customizations perfect for your family’s needs and save you a lot of money in the process.
Many families will choose to engage in stealthy camping. Walmart offers free overnight parking, as will many businesses, but be sure to get permission first if you are able. By utilizing this system, expenses become limited to gas, food, and fun! Even when staying overnight at RV lots or national parks, ‘rent’ only comes out to about $600 per month.
Be sure to keep an emergency fund of at least one thousand dollars set aside for repairs and hotel stays. This is very important, especially with a family, to ensure that you don’t get stuck or left without a place to sleep for a night.
Bed Designs and Layouts
Murphy beds are a great option if you’re concerned about having enough space during the day. These beds fold up into the wall and easily come down for a quick day to night transition. If you plan on traveling with a newborn, a miniature murphy bed can be installed practically anywhere in the van!
For a three person family van living set up, one great consideration is a full (or larger) bed on the floor with a twin bed on top. With younger children, you may consider cropping the bed to fit into a smaller custom frame so it will take up less room and require less stabilization. This makes converting the top bunk into a murphy bed quite easy. With the bed folded up, the larger bed below gains headspace and can easily be used as a couch for additional seating.
When it comes to larger families, utilizing vertical space becomes very important. Bunk beds and elevated beds to allow storage beneath are a must in these situations. One traditional set up for a family of four to six puts the parents in a raised bed with a large amount of storage space beneath. Two children can be put in a bunk bed, which is often built along the length of the van. By adding a table that lowers and a couch with removable cushions, you can easily create a convertible space to provide an additional bed, which can fit one to two people. A raised twin or full bed above this table can allow for even more sleeping space. Utilizing all of the spaces outlined in this setup, you could fit up to eight people, though there is only a total of five beds if everyone needs their own.
For a bigger group that doesn’t mind sharing bed space, the ultimate space-saving option if triple beds in the back. Where the trunk doors open, simply divide the interior height into three sections and add platforms to the top two, leaving space on the floor. Then put a full-sized mattress on each of the three created beds. With three people on each bed, a total of nine passengers have a space to sleep. Family van living becomes largely about finding enough beds as the group gets larger.
If stealthy camping is a priority, you’ll want to make sure all beds are located inside your van. However, if your family plans on paying for overnight stays anyway, a van or RV with a pop-up tent on top is another great option for additional sleep space. It requires additional set up and tear down time each day and is more exposed to the elements, but can provide more seclusion and separation.
How do you plan to spend most of your time?
Since van living can be quite cramped, particularly when housing a whole family, most choose to spend the majority of their time outside unless bad weather prohibits it. There are tons of options for getting outdoors, whether you are looking for a backwoods or in-town experience.
If your family does intend to pass the time mainly in the van, a variety of comfortable seating options is a must. You may also want to consider building in an electricity system, such as solar panels or a generator to provide more room for personal devices and entertainment systems. Building in cabinets to store games would also be ideal.
If your family loves mountain biking or kayaking, you will need to consider transportation systems for these. While kayaks and bikes can both be securely attached to the top or back of a van, bikes can also easily be stored under elevated beds.
For the least equipment and conversion necessary, invest in a good pair of hiking shoes or boots so you can always explore the local trails. Try finding museums and zoos in the area you are visiting with free admission. If you are looking to spend a little more, a one-time purchase of a season pass can be very valuable in many cases. National parks offer yearly passes granting you free or reduced admission when required. Amusement parks such as Six Flags also offer season passes which are good at any location. Find something your family enjoys which has nationwide locations and invest before you leave. It will ensure you have something fun and exciting to do without having to worry about extra fees on the road.
Family van living is inherently more based for outdoorsy people, though what you do once you have your van is completely up to you! If you have lots of friends in cities across the nation, traveling to them in your van and staying there for a few nights will allow for a less rustic experience if you’re worried about too much changing.
What are the ages of the children traveling?
Depending on your kids needs, there will likely be different priorities in building. Family can living makes privacy hard to find in such close quarters as everything naturally exists in proximity. There are a few creative ways to try and create separate spaces. One option for privacy is hanging curtains above the bed which clip together to filter to provide a separate enclosure that blocks out some light and sound. They can easily be hooked to the wall during the day to leave the space available for seating. This is especially helpful for small children who may have an earlier bedtime. They can get the space they need to sleep in without the rest of the family having to go to bed themselves. Pop up tents, sometimes used for additional sleep space, require set up and tear down for every use and are at the mercy of the weather. While not an option during travel, use at stops can allow for alone time and privacy.
One important thing to think about is seatbelts. It may be tempting to just add some lap belts to a couch, but safety should be a high priority in case of an accident. Once you’ve settled on a design for your van, be sure to research appropriate methods for attaching seatbelts to whatever seating you have decided on.
If you plan to travel in a van long term or full time, consider how your school-aged children will be educated. Will they be attending virtual online classes or being homeschooled from the van? Refrigeration, electricity, and water can each be added to a van, though it is up to the individual. More renovation is required to include either of these options, and the price is continuous, but they can make life feel more comfortable. It will be a change, but living without these things is totally possible and often considered part of the van life experience, if you are looking for a challenge.
Family van living is completely plausible, but will not be easy. Parents with prior experience will have an easier time helping their children adapt, but it is important to communicate thoroughly, efficiently, and often throughout the process. Since there is no space to run away from problems, the most effective method is to face them head-on.
As your family grows and gets older, what is needed from your van may change, so be open to new ideas. Making group decisions about what activities to do is also important as it’s likely you’ll often be going as a unit. Try alternating who gets to choose what to do or have each person make a list of the top five places they want to visit to ensure everyone is having a good trip!
Whether you are already a part of the family van living community or just starting to consider, I hope you found these tips useful! Let us know what the most rewarding part of traveling with your family has been below!
Mykala Repati graduated from Northland College with a B.A. in Writing and from Tulane University with her Master of Social Work (MSW).