Oh, how our friends laughed when we told them of our plan to spend three weeks in August driving around California in a small camper van with our young children, Meike, eight, Joe, six, and Ivo, one. But we’ve got a tent as well, we said. ‘Do you know how to put it up?’ one asked. ‘You’ll only last a night,’ another predicted.
As it happens, it was our 1997-reg VW Eurovan camper that only lasted a night. After picking it up in Las Vegas and driving it across Death Valley – waiting for the cooler late afternoon before venturing across the world’s hottest place – we spent our first night camping in the desert at Panamint Springs. Despite the fact that we couldn’t get the stove to work, nor find the campsite washrooms in the dark, the children enjoyed the chaos. The message was clear – if they think it’s an adventure, the young will put up with (almost) anything.
So, inevitably, they enjoyed it rather more than we did when, a few hours later, a head gasket went in the camper van’s engine, smoke billowed everywhere and the local sheriff had us towed to a nearby garage.
When the mechanic confirmed that we were going nowhere for the foreseeable future, we booked into a simple motel where the children rediscovered the joys of a proper swimming pool and a bathroom with hot water. After a night crowded into a hot van, it doesn’t take much to impress them.
It soon became obvious that our camper van road trip dream had come to an end and we had to downsize to a much more humdrum people carrier that we packed to the gunnels with all our camping equipment.
At least personal space was no longer an issue – the double row of seats kept the children out of arm’s reach of each other – and us. Separate tents (don’t worry, they were next to each other) were also a useful discovery, and the kids seemed to enjoy the independence as much as we did.
As with life in general, variety is the spice of the family road trip. If you can alternate the nights under canvas with nights in a luxurious hotel, it breaks up the journey very effectively. California’s spectacularly varied geography also helped – we went from desert to mountain to forest to city to coast to another city and back to desert in a matter of weeks. And we traded afternoons spent at children’s attractions with long walks on deserted beaches, or treks up mountain peaks with a few hours in the natural water slide.
We kept in mind a few other guidelines: avoid really long stretches on the road and provide the children with lots of distractions (that preferably don’t include the driver). Finally – and this can be a particularly painful sacrifice unless you don’t mind hearing Blondie’s Parallel Lines a dozen times on the trot – let them occasionally decide what goes on the CD player.
Meike, eight, says…
"Our road trip was brilliant. Despite breaking down and being stuck in a car with two noisy brothers, it was one of the best trips of my life. Camping was really fun, but I liked the hotels too with their swimming pools (and indoor bathrooms).
The part I didn’t like was all the packing up and moving on – I would have preferred to stay in each place a bit longer. That way we might have made more friends. Two pieces of advice: sleep on air mattresses instead of flimsy sleeping mats and bribe us with s’mores (marshmallows toasted on the campfire and sandwiched with a piece of Hershey’s chocolate between two Graham crackers) – it worked every time."
WAY TO GO
British Airways flies to Las Vegas from Heathrow. Visit ba.com.
Emma Kennedy talks to Robert Elms on board about her family holidays in her new book The Tent, the Bucket and Me (on selected flights).