Van Life with Kids: A Toddler’s First Van Camping Trip

For our first campervan trip with a toddler, we learned a lot. We both agree that van life with kids is definitely something we can do.

Co- Written by Vanx Ceo David Lewis and Contributor Sierra Eberly

Two years ago we had our own campervan and traveled for weeks on end. We were even full time “van lifers” for an entire year before deciding to pause the lifestyle and focus on having a family. One of our last long trips in a van was when Janine was five months pregnant with our now two year old son, Summit.

Now that Summit is a toddler we decided to take him and our dog, Luna, on an inaugural campervan trip. For pure nostalgia we decided to take a route through the Blue Ridge Mountains, which was an area we explored when Janine was pregnant.

Since we didn't have our own campervan anymore, we decided to utilize a rental campervan option. We easily found a perfect option for our family through ExploreVanX’s campervan rental directory.

Itinerary / Destinations for the week

This being Summit’s introduction to van life, we chose the Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg, Tennessee to be the highlight of the trip. We didn’t get a chance to see these locations the last time we were in the area. It was fun to plan a return trip, and we were excited to share the experience with Summit.

We had gotten a recommendation about Lake Jocasse and Devils Fork State Park, so we decided to book two nights there and hoped to Boondock the rest of the nights. In our previous experiences, boondocking always took some work. Many times we could have several spots in an area and we would end up driving between them for an hour or more for those spots not to work out. This campervan trip was no different.

Day 1: The Hunt for a Camp Spot

After picking up the converted camper van in Atlanta from sCAMPer Vanwe headed North to an area near Nimblewall, GA. There were National Forest dispersed camping spots that we had found on iOverlander that we had high hopes of utilizing. After stopping off at a riverside spot so Summit could play and Luna could swim they headed to the first spot they had marked.

This spot was 15 minutes from our morning destination of Amicalola Falls, the largest waterfall in Georgia. Arriving around 6pm, we found a sign stating the entrance road was only maintained for 4wd and high clearance vehicles. This was not something we wanted to risk in the front wheel drive Dodge Ram Promaster camper van rental, so we continued on to spot number two. This entailed another 35 minutes of driving to another spot, only to find it was also taken.

Now 45 minutes after already driving 5 hours of that day with a toddler and a dog, we pulled into a hiking trail parking lot, which was our last marked spot for the day. Luckily there was a forest road and several primitive camp spots at this trailhead, so we happily parked for the night. All things considered, Summit did okay but was definitely cranky after being in his car seat for so long.

Day 2: Waterfalls & Winding Roads

Day two brought us to an amazing waterfall and a short hiking trail. A perfect reprieve for a toddler and dog, not to mention two parents tired of driving. We did a few hours of work hooked up to our Renogy Solar set up, and then headed North to the next planned destination.

Driving the van on winding, ascending, and descending roads was a pleasure. Our campervan rental handled great, nearly like a car. We found an inviting camp site at an established National Forest campground and set up camp (aka: parked). Here we caught up on work, and then set up a campfire to enjoy the evening.

Day 3: Smoky Mountains & Potty Training

Day three we headed to Smoky Mountains National Park and then planned to head to Gatlinburg. By this day Summit had already started to tire from all the driving and fought mom and dad whenever getting into his car seat. This proved to be a very troublesome time with multiple hours of driving planned for the days ahead.

Summit started potty training in the beginning of August, just six weeks prior to our trip. He understands the concept and tries to be good, but is not fully there yet. We prepared for this trip by bringing Summit’s toddler training potty chair along and stopping frequently for him to be able to use it. This was definitely one of the harder aspects of the trip. Each time we would take Summit out of his car seat, he would not want to get back in.

Summit’s patience was wearing thin. Having planned to stay near Gatlinburg that night but knowing that putting Summit through more driving was not the right thing to do, we discussed options. This night was supposed to be the first trial of our Harvest Hosts membership, but we had to make the choice to change plans.

To give Summit a break we chose to spend the day in Cherokee NC, and then found a quiet boondocking spot from iOverlander for the night. This was no sacrifice, and we were happy to pivot and learn from these experiences to do what was best for our son. Van life with kids is a daily learning experience. We toured a few parks and let Summit play in a stream, which is one of his favorite things to do. Happy Summit = happy David and Janine.

Day 4: Amazing Views & Car Seat Struggles

The following day we set out to land at our final destination, Devils Fork State Park. This entailed another 2.5 hours of driving up and over the Blue Ridge Parkway, something we had looked forward to. We quickly learned that Summit wouldn’t enjoy the scenic drive nearly as much as we would.

Taking it slow and letting Summit out every other pull off, we took pictures and tried to make the experience as fun as possible for Summit. He still struggled with going back in his car seat after each break. Our saving graces were the motorcycles and other RV’s Summit was excited to keep seeing as we continued our route. Finally, we headed back down the mountain to Whitewater Falls, yet another epic waterfall. Devils Fork State Park was next, and our final destination.

Devils Lake State Park was exactly the reprieve we needed. We enjoyed the amenities of having showers and bathrooms nearby. Not having to worry about boondocking was a welcome break. Knowing that Summit didn’t have to stay in the car for extended periods of time was relaxing.

The final trip home

We definitely realized that van life with Summit requires everything to slow down. Simple tasks take longer, driving has to be split up more, breaks take longer. Van life with kids requires more amenities along the way.

Summit was exhausted by the final day of our trip, and slept most of the 6+ hour drive back home. This was a relief since the rest of the trip revolved around monitoring drive time to allow for Summit to move around more.

Overall it was a successful camping trip with a toddler. Some things worked out perfectly, and other things we will change on our next trip. The most important lesson learned here is that van life with kids is definitely something that we can manage, and plan to try again in the near future.

Boondocking vs campgrounds: what’s better when camping with kids?

For our first campervan trip with a toddler, we learned a lot. We both agree that van life with kids is definitely something we can do. If our campervan was more equipped, boondocking would have been easier. The hunt for the perfect spot is always challenging, but if we’d had more amenities in the campervan, boondocking would have been more comfortable.

Developed campgrounds were a great piece of mind and refreshing. We had a guaranteed place to park, water, bathrooms, garbage disposal, and even showers. We knew our trip was only a week so we chose our campervan rental purposefully. It was also a good reminder that we would want a more robust setup for extended trips or full time van life with kids.