On a recent weekend morning this fall, we hitched the latest Airstream Bambi trailer to a borrowed Land Rover and got ready to set out for a couple days of recreational vehicle (RV) camping near Santa Cruz, California. As we prepared to pull out of the driveway, I turned around to check on my three-year-old son Niko and nine-month-old daughter Catalina and asked Niko if he was excited about our upcoming camping adventure.
“No. No, no, no, no, no, no,” he said.
And with that high level of enthusiasm we were off for an experimental weekend of testing out the Airstream trailer with a baby and a toddler in tow. We were under no illusion that the weekend would go seamlessly given the age of our kids. But my husband and I were up for the challenge.
It was hard not to be, given the hardware we were working with. The recently released Airstream Bambi travel trailer (there are 16- and a 20-foot versions—we had the latter, which retails for $54,900) is a gorgeous remake of a model first introduced in 1961. The reborn version combines that classic, shining-silver, retro Airstream design on the outside with all the modern bells and whistles on the inside. There is a gas stove, air-conditioning and heating, a microwave, a fridge, a bathroom with a standing shower, a dinette that converts into a bed, and another comfier two-person bed with a memory foam mattress. It is also lightweight enough to be towed by a mid-sized SUV, all of which provided an ideal starter RV experience for us rookies—we were not exactly roughing it.
Our destination was promising as well. The Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA campground, just south of Santa Cruz and a mile from Manresa State Beach, was recently overhauled with new deluxe cabins and outdoor activities, including ping pong and bocce ball. The campground even has Airstreams that remain on-site for those who want to stay in an Airstream but don’t necessarily want to drive one. We could not have picked a better destination. The campsite is a utopia for families and kids, with nonstop activities and ample amenities, including a pool, a general store for food and supplies, a bike rental shop, occasional train rides, beer and ice cream vendors rolling through, and a jumping pad. You could hear the roar of children’s laughter the minute you pulled onto the property.
Despite his initial hesitancy, our toddler loved the whole experience—the novelty of camping in a chic trailer and all the games and activities at his disposal in the campground were a huge win. For us adults, it was not the most restful weekend given how young our kids are (the baby’s sleep, or lack thereof, was particularly challenging), but that had nothing to do with the RV and everything to do with the fact that our baby wasn’t sleep trained yet.
Do we have any perfect, Instagrammable photos to show for the experience? Nope. But did we share countless laughs and memorable moments? Absolutely. Would we do it again? In a heartbeat. Here are some of the tips and tricks I would recommend to families considering taking their kids on the road in an RV or camper van.
Research your vehicle
There are so many options when it comes to recreational vehicles and camper vans that, quite frankly, it can be overwhelming. One good way to test out different models to determine which is right for your family is by renting them from owners in your area through the app Outdoorsy. The sharing economy-style booking tool lists some 50,000 RVs and camper vans, including Airstreams, teardrop trailers, tricked-out Class C RVs, and more. The rentals range from around $50 per day, all the way up to $800 per day, with most falling in the $100 to $250 range.
If you’re interested in a camper van–style vehicle, Australian company Jucy also rents out green and purple vans with a pop-top and an interior bed for sleeping, a gas stove, a sink, and a fridge, which are available from locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver.
For us, we knew we needed two beds to accommodate all four of us, and we wanted something relatively easy to navigate for first timers—in other words, nothing too big. The Airstream Bambi trailer was the perfect in-between. Large enough to offer us plenty of space and amenities, but not so big that it would feel overwhelming driving it.
Also, if you aren’t using a tow vehicle and trailer, make sure to consider how you will transport the kids. If you need car seats, think about where those car seats will go in the RV to ensure that the kids are safe during the drives.
Strategize your sleep
This may seem obvious but given how different the sleep setup can be in a RV or camper van compared to at home or in a hotel, you will definitely want to give this more than just a passing thought. Consider the ages and sleeping abilities of your kids and be realistic about how that will translate into the confines of a recreational vehicle. You may want to look into sleep aids and gear that could help. If you have a smaller baby, measure the space to see if a pack ’n’ play might fit or consider something like a DockATot cosleeper. You might look into a bed bumper or rail for smaller children, if you want to ensure they don’t roll off the bed.
We also brought a battery-powered white noise machine for the baby that helped drown out any noise inside or outside the vehicle, and we brought headphones for the toddler so he could quietly watch a movie after the baby went down. All kids are different, and the older the kids, the easier it will be, but just make sure that a plan is in place that corresponds with your crew and the space you have.
Choose your routes and camping locations wisely
Depending on the size and style of your vehicle, think about the roads you will be on and whether they would be more difficult to navigate with a larger RV. One of the reasons we chose Santa Cruz was that it wasn’t too far, and we knew that we wouldn’t have to drive on terribly winding mountain roads.
As for the camping locations, Kampgrounds of America (KOA) are a great option when you are with kids because so many of them have added features, such as pools, jumping pads, playgrounds, and loads of events and activities. They really are like summer camp heaven. The KOA network is massive—there are more than 500 KOA campgrounds throughout the United States and Canada. And of course, there are plenty of campgrounds throughout the country’s national and state parks in the kinds of dreamy destinations that define this style of travel—a big draw to RV travel is being able to wake up right on the beach, among towering forest trees, or steps away from senic rivers and lakes.
Control your temperature
One of the major advantages to RV travel versus regular tent camping is that many RVs have heating and cooling systems. This feature makes this style of travel conducive to year-round adventures, and it also makes it more amenable to traveling with kids of all ages who will benefit from a more comfortable indoor environment.
If you have a vehicle with a heating or cooling system, be sure to test everything out and land on the right controls before bedtime. One of the challenges we had was finding the right temperature during the night. Coastal California gets notoriously chilly after dark, so at first it was too cold. Then, we turned on the heat and it got too hot. Fiddling with temperature controls in the middle of the night when everyone is trying to sleep is not ideal.
Take advantage of your traveling kitchen and bathroom
Having a working fridge, kitchen, and bathroom that comes with you is a huge plus. We loved that we could stock our fridge at home with drinks, snacks, and food, and that everything would be cool and ready for use during a snack break on the road and upon arrival at the campground. We also could use our trailer for potty breaks on the road, another big bonus when traveling with kids.
Ask for help
One of the things I immediately loved about RV travel was the community atmosphere. When you are setting up an RV, there are a lot of little things to figure out: how and where to plug it in, how to set up a waste hose (it’s not as nasty as it sounds), and even how best to park it. Don’t hesitate to lean on your experienced neighbors for advice and assistance.
Remember what matters
If you are new to this form of travel as we are, recognize that you’re not going to get everything right the first time. Mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned, and that’s part of the fun and the experience. Did we get the best sleep of our lives? No. But there is bound to be a learning curve. As much as you can try to plan for every scenario that will come your way, you can’t anticipate everything. Embrace the newness and adventure of it all, and you will ultimately have a blast.