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family camper van

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The family camper van makes for easy adventure

Beautiful places, no roughing it required. RV'ing also has built-in social distancing.

Editor’s Note: This family camper van article was first published in June 2018 when proper social distancing was not something we thought about when planning a getaway with kids. Now, after a year in a pandemic, recreational vehicles of all shapes and sizes and more popular — and make more sense — than ever.

By Tiffany Pitts

Kids love camping. Tents, dirt, rocks, campfires, marshmallows — some kids are so sweetly naïve that they even love air mattresses. Such innocence!

Getting back to nature is a wonderful and worthwhile goal for your summer, but the experienced Northwest parent knows that getting back to nature around here also means potentially getting back to slugs. And tree sap. And spiders. Sometimes, bears. One time, a raccoon tried to steal my backpack. I caught him in the middle of the afternoon trying to hoist my Jansport up a tree.

Happily, there’s a way to marry this love of adventure to the desire stay somewhere without teenage trash pandas stealing your stuff.

Enter: the recreational vehicle

Motor homes, camper vans, pop-ups — all of them add a magnitude of comfort and, let’s face it, awesomeness to your camping experience. Don’t have a campsite reservation? Not a problem, just roll on down to the next campsite or head to an RV-friendly Walmart parking lot. Terrible at starting cooking fires? You’ve got a tiny folding kitchen! Wildlife getting too friendly? Raccoons are known to have a terrible time with door locks. And best of all, campers have actual beds. Done right, camping vans add easy amenities in the outdoors and speed up campsite setup and breakdown, which comes in handy on crowded weekends.

Wrangling tents, campfires and small children was more difficult than doable, thought Monique Chatterjee, Xbox industrial designer and mother of two, when her she and her husband tried tent camping with their young kids. They wanted to camp but not camp. On a whim one day, Chatterjee declared that if there was a local camper for sale she would buy it on the spot. Within hours, her husband, Gabe Biller, found a 2002 Eurovan online; it has since transformed their lives. Camping has become an easy adventure. With no extra camping gear to worry about, they can buckle their kids in and be ready to go anywhere within minutes.

And it’s not just camping trips where the Eurovan comes in handy. It’s become an oasis in a sea of congestion. From home base at street fairs and Saturday afternoons at the beach to afterschool pickups when a quick change into sports gear is needed, the Eurovan rolls almost daily — in town.

“I’m also a working mom. I try to my best to balance all the meetings and conference calls, while also having to shuffle my kids around. I often use it as a mobile office. I was just parked outside of my son’s preschool for the last two hours working at the pullout table before picking him up.”
This summer, they plan to visit the Oregon Dunes before taking longer trips. Someday, Chatterjee hopes to get to Yellowstone National Park.

Renting Family Camper Van and other RV Vehicles

Not yet ready to commit to owning an RV? Try renting. Websites like Escape Campervans, Lost Campers USA and Outdoorsy offer rentals on everything from full-sized motorhomes to two-person trailers. Spend an hour cruising through the available rentals and you’ll start to wonder what you’ve been missing all these years. One renter even offers a “spice package”:  for $3 they’ll load up the kitchenette with all those spices you may not think to bring; just because you’re camping doesn’t mean the carne asada has to suffer.

Of course, this level of comfort comes with a bit of a downside. With low fuel-efficiency and long road trips, renting a camper isn’t much cheaper than renting a hotel room. And maintenance costs can add up, especially if your RV is older.

“Vintage camper vans can be a little bit like fragile old ladies. They need a lot of care and upkeep. You can plan to spend about $1,000, every time it goes into the shop. They’ll always find something else that needs to be fixed,” writes Wendy Schwartz, whose family has an ’82 VW Westfalia of Instagram notoriety.

Then, of course, there’s the, ahem, facilities. No matter where you go, the question of how you go will definitely be part of your plans. Starting out, many choose not to deal with the hassle of onboard facilities. Thankfully, in this part of the world you don’t have to. State parks like Birch Bay and Bogachiel offer the perfect blend of natural wonder, camping fun and public toilets. They even have an online reservation system.

Once you have a few trips under your belt, you may want to step up your camping game: Learning how to carry and dump your own black/grey water will allow you to bypass busy campsites and take the family to the middle of nowhere where nature is wild, the sky is full of stars and your closest neighbor has four paws.

When the kids grow up and there seems to be less urgency for family camping excursions, take a tip from Wendy and her husband, Dave. Their youngest will be off to college in the fall, but that hasn’t deterred them from weekending in their ’89 VW Westfalia. The difference? It’s wineries over wilderness. And sometimes, they don’t drive. But they still use the Westy:

“Sometimes we just sit in the driveway and have a glass of wine for a quiet moment away from the kids.”

Read about one family’s first adventure in a full-size RV trip to the ocean beach:

The Newbie’s Guide to a Family RV Adventure.

And if you want to stick to tent camping:

17 tips for making car camping comfortable and successful

More on getting outdoors with kids:

Hiking? Camping? No thanks | Getting “rad,” even with a baby | Family Hiking 101: You can do it | A full-time RV mom shares 6 amazing places for camping