How to explore #vanlife with a toddler and a budget

Team OutdoorsyAugust 4, 2021

How to explore #vanlife with a toddler and a budget

This post was written by Maureen Nicol.

You’re planning the campervan trip of your dreams. You search Google and Instagram for tips, routes, and inspiration, what do you see? There are over 10 million posts under the hashtag #vanlife and the majority of images are white, hetero couples in their mid-20s and 30s journeying through California…Big Sur to be exact. From a quick scan through the hashtag it becomes increasingly apparent that people of color and families with young children are not represented. Historically, Black people have been disenfranchised from the outdoors, nature, and state parks. This directly impacts the narratives of who can explore and adventure, and additionally how it can and should be done.

family rv travel

As a Black mom with a toddler, I find it necessary to model to my curious 15-month-old, Adi, that she is deserving of everything in this world. Therefore, despite the lack of visuals and resources for how Black people, Black moms, Black families with a toddler and campervan, do it, we decided to try it.

Thanks to Naomi Grevenberg’s work with Diversify Van Life, I had some courage and inspiration to call the Charlton, a Mercedes Benz Sprinter, our temporary home while we explored our tolerance for the unknown, how to exist in a small and cozy space and of course all of the splendor of Oregon. 

With my toddler, I also wanted to partake in #vanlife to explore what it means to temporarily live a life of adventure and new horizons without being inhibited by time or space and to really explore whether this way of life or journeying is just an “aesthetic” or if it’s more nuanced than polished Instagram photos would have you believe. Additionally, what could this experience look and feel like with a toddler?

After a week exploring Oregon in The Charlton, a Mercedes Benz Sprinter, I can now say you can camper van with a toddler. It is possible and wonderful and hard and full of treasures of new knowledge. 

Why the Charlton and why Oregon?

To begin, Adi and I were living in New Orleans for the summer. I decided to camp and venture through Oregon because the weather would be cooler. Additionally, the state has it all – beaches, mountains, forest and is incredibly family-friendly. Because of Oregon’s natural beauty, the state has over 250 state parks, 50 of which offer camping. I found myself overwhelmed with choices. It took about three weeks to research destinations, our route, travel times between routes, and campsite facilities. A lot of these decisions were fundamentally easier to make because of the amenities of the Charlton and having clarity about a few things.

Mercedes Benz Sprinter Van rental

Our van came equipped with: 

  • Fridge 
  • Induction stove 
  • A sink with water hook-up 
  • All the lighting 
  • USB hookups 
  • Cookware and eatware 
  • One queen-size bed and one full-size bed
  • An extra row of seats for us to hook a car seat in that is not in the main cabin. A lot of vans do not have this. 
  • There was enough storage for two large suitcases, a stroller and cabinet space for all the things (diapers, clothes, and the list goes on). 

The Charlton was a no-brainer because I knew with a young kiddo I could feel stress-free about always having a warm, dry place to sleep, a way to store food, prepare food, a source of water, and have electricity from the solar panels

Non-negotiables and routines

Given the age of my toddler and our needs concerning the van, there were a few non-negotiables my co-parent and I outlined when traveling with my now 15-month old. 

  1. Travel times from one destination to the next could not be more than two hours.
  2. Campsites needed to have a spot for the camper van. All reservations were made for a regular campsite (NOT RV HOOK UP) ahead of time.
  3. Campsites needed to have a bathroom and warm showers. 
  4. Campsites needed to have water hook up to fill the van’s water storage. 
  5. Though there is a lot to see I would still keep to a routine with Adi.
  6. We would move at our own pace and do what felt right and leave room for modifications. 
  7. Campsites should have a playground.

Our Route

rv travel with a toddler
Adi swinging at her nightly playground session.

With these parameters in mind, this was our route: 

  • Fly into Portland, spend the night and set up the van. Organize and get ready for the road the next day.
  • This was a big push. Since we flew in we needed time to put Adi down to sleep after a long day of travel, eat dinner, meet with the Van owner for a 30-minute tutorial and then spend about 2-3 hours unpacking groceries and our suitcases.
  • Memaloose State Park 
    • Hood River
    • Lavender Farms, Fruit Loop, and Vineyards 
  • Cove Palisades State Park
    • Bend 
    • Smith Rock 
  • Silver Falls State Park 
    • Salem 
  • The last day: McMinnville then Portland 
    • It took us about an hour to clean and unpack the camper van before returning it 

Budget and Food

To be budget-conscious before the trip, I made a thorough packing list and menu. I cooked weeks leading up to the trip and froze portions of food for the trip in advance. We ended up taking a freezer bag of essentials and meals.

All other items were picked up via a curbside Target pickup. Our Target shop was about $80 and we ate out twice (first night in, and breakfast bagels in Hood River, and the last night out). Once we discovered the excellent grilling facilities at the campsites we bought materials to grill and make s’mores. I would say in total we spent about $200 on food including eating out, groceries and coffee runs. Everything else was prepared in the van following this menu: 

Camping menu for six days for two adults and one toddler 

Meal Food list
Breakfastoatmeal, pancakes, eggs, fruit + granola + yogurt
Lunchtacos, salad, pb&j, bagels  
Dinner grill, chili, salad, salmon 
Pantry items and Snacks fruit, Adi’s animal crackers and bars, chips + salsa + guac, tea, coffee, hummus + carrots, fruit and applesauce pouches for Adi, wine, cider, and milk

****The campervan is a gas guzzler and took about $70 to fill up on diesel. We had to fill the vehicle up about three times for our 6-day trip in which we drove about 500 miles. Aside from food and gas, we did not spend any money because the backdrop of Oregon was our entertainment. It felt incredibly special to pull off at viewpoints and onto hidden lookouts to have lunch and pause when we needed to.   

Lessons learned, tips, and tricks

Zoom in on that face! Adi all smiles at the lookout.
  • If you are flying into a destination I would arrange for airport pickup and have the campervan waiting for you at the airport after a long travel day.
  • Download All Trails to find nearby trails that align with your capabilities and desires. I needed easy hikes with Adi, no more than one to two miles with views, bathroom facilities, and picnic tables to pause and snack.
  • Every day you spend in the campervan it will get easier. It is a small space to exist in and there is a learning curve to figuring out storage and understanding how to move through and function in it. Give yourself grace here. 
  • Wherever you land, find something that really grounds your little one when things get hairy. For us, it was the playground. When she was fussy we took her there and also made sure to give the playground a visit before bedtime. 
  • Before booking a campervan, I recommend asking the van owners about car seat hook ups and the general space so you can determine how your kiddo will explore and sleep safely. 

Because of our campervan, we were able to have a comfortable and chill journey through the beautiful and varied landscapes of Oregon. It was a complicated learning experience but it grew easier with each passing day as we learned how to make the van work for us.

If you hope to see the outdoors and can afford the experience, it is a Godsend not to have to camp in a tent, and our Outdoorsy van provided us with a premium camping service, which is even more important with a toddler. The combination of nature and a toddler means there will always be elements you cannot control, but traveling in the van offered control and agency in ways that mattered. 

About the author

Maureen shares her motherhood journey, personal pursuits, travel adventures, style, and lifestyle with her followers. Through her honest posts that engage her Instagram community, Maureen shows she is committed to equity, living joyfully, and defining her life on her terms.

Team Outdoorsy, Outdoorsy Author

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