Comfort. A state of well-being; happiness.
It’s easier to find comfort in things that are tried and true. Recipes that you’ve made a hundred times that always hit the taste buds the right way. The pub down the street where you know that you’ll always get a seat at the bar. The recliner that puts its arms around your body and lets you sink in. Thinking about comfort through the lens of traveling as parents, you could easily picture a hotel chain where you know what the rooms will look like, what the bed will feel like, and what amenities you know will be there. Whether it’s a budget highway motel or a boutique hotel, you know exactly what to expect; and it will leave you feeling comfortable. Your state of well-being comes at the intersection of expectations and reality.
Five years ago; my girlfriend Erika and I flew to Iceland, meeting two other couples at the airport for a week-long2 camping road trip. The only things we had locked in were 1 night’s accommodation out of 8 (our last night in the capital), and a Defender that would fit all of us and our camping gear. We were also early adopters with the Pack Up + Go concept and only opened our envelope with the details once we were fully packed in the car, ready to hit the road. We embraced travel with a “figure it out as we go” approach. From local trips to international trips, comfort would come to us in the form of excitement for discovery vs knowing exactly what to expect.
Three years ago, she became my wife. A year later, we welcomed our daughter to the world, adapting to this new reality rather than putting our interests and passions to the side. To the best of our ability, we maintained a steady stream of traveling as parents to new locations; from weekend trips to nearby areas or flights around North America. We continued to play outdoors, hiking and camping. It was important for us to share our passions with her even if it meant that we might have a trip that went sideways, with no easy way out. Two years ago, we got pregnant once again and intended to stick to the same plan.
Everything took a turn in 2020 though. Travel plans we had already booked, and ones we had talked about lining up – they were all canceled or kicked indefinitely down the road. Our son joined the family and planet Earth during a period when the freedom to travel as we had in the past didn’t exist. As a result, we ended up with only a short window where we felt comfortable heading out on a vacation, keeping it local. We’re in love with everything that BC has to offer, so it was a welcome restriction to consider a local vacation vs an international trip. We ended up with three weeks of overlapped paternity and maternity leave where we could escape the realities of a stressful year, and enjoy time as a family of four (and a dog).
Over the years we’ve had countless conversations about getting a van for short-term trips. There would have been no “what if” conversations when it was just the two of us, but the new dimension of traveling as parents with two kids left us with quite a few concerns as to how they would handle and enjoy it. This seemed like the right opportunity to test how that would work for us as a family. We had to find the right balance between risk and reward, chaos and monotony, and discovery and complacency.
When we started to lay down a real plan for this trip, there was little that we could build expectations around. Little that we could lean into knowing that it would comfortable for us, traveling as parents, and for the kids. We had only slept in a van once, had never used a sani-dump, had never gone on such a long road trip with our daughter, and had never traveled with our newborn son.
We could have opted to rent a brand-new fully stocked Canadream or equivalent RV for the trip, bringing down the risk factor and dialing up the amenities. But… that didn’t feel right for us. After a few days of searching, we found the perfect vessel for our voyage, Harvey the RV, from Camper Van Andrew. A 1981 Vandura, with a mix of original parts (pretty much everything in the cab), to the remodeled kitchen and a few other upgrades that seemed to set us up for success on our trip. While the idea of heading out on a road trip with a vehicle as old as us had its fair share of concerns, it also foreshadowed a more adventurous trip. One that would stick out over the course of our lives.
While we’ve had trips with little planning, traveling as parents was a situation where we wanted to be in control; where we wanted to eliminate as many variables that could lead the trip into a spiral of tantrums and complaints. We planned, tightened, and re-planned our itinerary until it was really dialed on all fronts. It leaned heavily on discovery, but with a calculated schedule to keep it manageable. No more than four hours behind the wheel on travel days, and at least two but ideally three nights at every destination. We mapped it out from Vancouver, hitting Kelowna -> Revelstoke -> Lake Louise -> Banff -> Jasper -> Clearweater -> Williams Lake -> Spence’s Bridge, before returning home. At every single location except one, we’d lay our heads down at night inside of Harvey, staying at a mix of private campgrounds, BC Parks, National Parks, and on the front lawn of a friend’s house. It slotted in perfectly to our three-week window.
There was little that was tried and true to it. A few familiar toys, loved stuffed animals, and our daughter’s bike. Everything outside of that had us swimming in an ocean of variables and potential catastrophes. There was no inherent level of comfort as we prepared to hit the road and start traveling as parents.
Leading up to the day we packed up Harvey and jumped on Highway 1, we had tons of conversations bouncing our concerns back and forth about our family being confined to a 120 sq ft camper van. If our son cried for a night feeding, would our daughter wake up and join in, or have trouble getting back to sleep? If it was raining and our daughter wanted to play inside during one of our son’s daytime naps, how could she avoid the bubble of white noise around his bassinet?
We could have – and should have – guessed that our kids would love this trip. Our daughter is enamored with the outdoors, and this trip focused on it, in some of the most beautiful places in BC and AB. From nature walks, river swims, and glacier walks, she lived each day to the fullest. For the first time in her entire life, she had worn herself out and asked us if she could go to bed because she was tired. Our son – a new being, fragile, needing our support for everything, slept through all of the beautiful sights we stumbled upon, but was also incredibly chill at all of the ones he was awake for.
The hypothetical trip-ruining scenarios while traveling as parents we had shared concerns over faded from our minds as we checked off nights on the calendar. There were never any moments where things started to unravel. No downward spiral of not being able to cope with whatever one child was going through with the other so close. In fact, it was the opposite. Everything seemed to find a collective harmony that, in some ways, became easier than life at home. We found a groove that worked for everyone.
That isn’t to say that everything was perfect. Our daughter did wake up every night and asked for a parent swap. If I went to bed next to her, at 2AM she’d be up and asking for “mama.” The convenience of the RV was that I simply stepped over Erika; she rolled onto the bed with Waverly, and I lay down next to the bassinet with Hunter. Within two minutes the situation was resolved and everyone was back on their way to sleep.
Harvey had its fair share of mechanical issues. The diesel heater never worked, which we only realized as we hit the colder sections of the trip, leading to two mornings waking up to a 13 / 14 degree household. Fine for us; but concerning for the newborn that we can’t put blankets over out of fear of suffocation. The speedometer only lifted up past zero a few times in 21 days. It’s okay though, I was never concerned that I was speeding. Over the entire trip, I’m pretty sure we only passed two vehicles on the highway.
We blew the 30amp breaker and, as the electrical system was all original parts, couldn’t find a new breaker to replace it. This led to the house battery no longer charging without us realizing it. The fridge started beeping, then the CO2 alarm started squealing right after pulling into a campsite, prompting an evacuation. After a few minutes on the call with Andrew, we diagnosed the problem and had a solution. I picked up some electrical skills cheating the system by putting a 15amp breaker on the 30amp circuit – and we avoided 30amp hookups for the rest of the trip. This limited what we could plug in, but overall had the necessities going.
The engine stalled a few times on the highway, and once at a campsite. Fortunately, the carbureted engine roared to life after coasting to the shoulder and whispering some encouraging words each time. Although we had those mechanical issues, they never caused a major problem for us, and Andrew was both incredibly responsive and able to help us find solutions to everything remotely. In a way, it all added to the experience; Harvey left us with even more peaks and valleys in the story of this trip.
The cliché of traveling as parents is that whether you’re going for an overnight or a week-long vacation, you need to throw the same copious amount of shit in the car with you. Diapers, changing stations, extra clothes, toys, etc. But we only had to pack it once, and unpack it once. It’s easy to envision that the comfort of an Airbnb or hotel room would supersede the tedious task of emptying and refilling the vehicle every few days, but we discovered the comfort of having everything we needed with us, at all times, had us in a constant state of well-being. From day trips in each location to moving from town to town, we conveniently had everything we needed within arm’s reach. And the transition from day-time setup to night-time took all of five minutes.
The private campgrounds offered more in terms of services – water hook-ups and sani-dumps, bathrooms, etc, but in the end, we realized that the luxury of those amenities paled in comparison to the beauty of the provincial and national campgrounds. We can chalk that up to experience, but doing it again we wouldn’t stay at any private ones.
A few years ago on the ferry ride hide home from a mini-honeymoon trip to Tofino with Julien (from Go-Van), he asked us what our rose, flower and thorns were. It was new to us, but it got us talking about the highlight of the trip (rose), what we liked the least (thorn), and what the biggest surprise was (flower). It’s become a staple for us on all trips since. For Erika and I the flower was the same – we were amazed at how comfortable the entire trip felt. Anything that did go wrong didn’t derail the trip, and there were countless situations we had played out in our heads prior to leaving that never came close to materializing. We reached our state of well-being in the infancy of the trip, and built on that happiness at every stop along the way. While comfort can be achieved more easily from what is tried and true, it’s only by trying something new that you’ll find a better level of it, which you can then sit back and sink into over time.