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Minivans. The Camping Revolution?

I resisted a minivan for years. Instead I preferred to shove a kid, a dog, a weeks worth of camping/outdoor gear (and on one occasion 3 chickens) into or on top of our wagon. There was zero floor space anywhere, I couldn’t move my feet, rarely could you see out the back window, it smelled like dog breath and because we didn’t have tinted windows I once saw someone taking a photo of us with their cell phone. It was apparently a sight to behold.

I finally caved after Isaac was born. It took one road trip with an additional kid/car seat and I was done, a 2001 Toyota Sienna it was. You may be asking why not an SUV? Well, minivans are just far superior. Theeeey ummm, well, they… Ok, maybe superior isn’t the right word, how about practical? Economic?

Things I’ve learned (and trust me, this took time) to love about our minivan.

1. We paid cash for it. I wanted a Honda Pilot, which would have meant taking out a loan, which would have meant going into debt, which I’m really glad we didn’t do.

2. It’s versatile. Around town we only have the front seats in, this allows maximum child access for the driver and  plenty of room in the back for gear. On road trips we switch it up and only have the back bench in. This allows space in the middle for a cooler, a crate of food and a crate of toys/books and the bouldering pad (which is great for changing diapers, taking naps or eating lunch on road trips in the winter. Oh, or bouldering). All other non essentials are piled up in the back on our makeshift shelving system or on top in the rocket box.

3. We can sleep in it. And quite comfortably actually, unless you count the time I slept on my arm funny and couldn’t move it for 2 weeks. This configuration involves the back bench, the bouldering pad folded out and a hammock along the roof.

4. Safety and reliability. A older VW van was also an option. We just didn’t think it could handle the 10,000+ miles a year we typically put on our vehicle. Also, when your trying to get from point A to point B with little ones, speed of travel is a factor, so is not blowing over in a wind storm.

5. Gas Mileage. We also considered an extended cab truck, and minivans don’t that great of miledge, but they do get better than a truck.

6. Roomy. Change you and the kids in and out of snow gear, biking gear, swimming gear, etc. I also love that I can walk from the front to the back just by bending at the waist.

And things you may not be able to handle about a Minivan:

1. Clearance. It’s no truck, it’s not even an Outback, but ours does ok. A big reason we went with an older Sienna (without stow-n-go) was the clearence factor.

2. 4-Wheel Drive. This and clearance has been the hardest one for us. Sure limits your exploring capabilities.

3. People Automatically Assume You Drive Slow. It’s true, after a stop light they don’t even give you a chance to accelerate at a normal speed. They just zoom around and get ahead of you as soon as possible.

4. The Hip Factor. I know this is debatable, but despite Honda and Toyotas video efforts to change the Mini’s image, I just don’t know if it’s working? Maybe if we camping minivan owners band together we can have better luck? That is until I jump the minivan ship for a 4-door Toyota Tacoma with an extended bed and camper a shell…

What’s your family camping vehicle?

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37 Comments so far

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  1. I think a minivan would be great–even without kids. But I sympathize on the clearance issue. Nothing beats clearance for allowing one to get away! If only Jeep made a minivan that was lifted!

  2. Lauren

    We are so attached to our Element, but I can definitely see all the strengths you have outlined in the minivan. Who knows…as the family quickly upgrades to 4, we might be on the market [but I am secretly hoping with can make the Element work...at least for a while] :)

    • Lauren, You could totally make it work in the Element, just add a second rocket box to the top, bikes on the back and put the dogs in a side car!

  3. Marshall

    Much needed site. The lost connection with nature and the outdoors in this technology age is has some potentially troubling consequences. I applaud this effort, keep it alive and help people unplug and reconnect with nature.

  4. Nancy

    What a fun read. I think you are a perfect example of “Where there is a will, there is a way”. If you want to do something bad enough it will happen, regardless of what kind of vehicle you have. Personally I had a hard time sleeping in a tent on the hard ground, then I still couldn’t sleep on an air mattress in a tent, or out of a tent. We eventually had a thin mattress that we could put our double sleeping bags on, but by then there were 8 of us in our 8-man tent and if one person woke up, we all suffered:) Hence, you didn’t get your love for sleeping in the good old out-of-doors from me.

  5. Sus

    You can walk from the front to the back by bending at the waist a bit? Wow. It’s a bit more challenging for me and Alex : )

  6. Mandi

    This is GREAT Lindsey!! You are such a good writer and very funny. People will love this site!

  7. trieste

    I needed this blog! Thank you! PS what kind of family tent do you have?

    • Trieste, we have an older version of the REI Half Dome 4 http://www.rei.com/product/794298. With 2 kids, 2 adults and a dog it’s snug but we use it for both car camping and backpacking so we wanted one that was smaller. Plus we usually camp out in the BLM backcountry where it’s hard to find a very big flat spot. I would be interested to know what other families use, I’ll have to do a post on tents and ask for feedback so we can gather more info. What have you guys been using?

  8. Crystal (Topham) Walker

    Had our Minivan since October…I admit I drug my feet, but now I’m the BIGGEST minivan activist! And damn if I’m not stillone HOT Momma innit!

  9. Wanda

    We had a mini van, We loved it….Move the back seat out and haul the camping gear. (Sport Equipment), Beach, stream or lake fishing, and picnicking. We had four individual seats and a bench seat. Which was great-The Youth had their Own air space(as we called it)-I could see from the driver seat in the back mirror- who crossed their line or air space. Now, with the children grown, We spend a lot of time in a truck4x4 with a camper shell- backpacks, cameras and a memory foam pad with sleeping bags back to the great outdoors.

  10. Nick Z

    Take a look at a used Dodge Sprinter next time your up for a van. They’re commercial vehicles so they are insanely tough with a cavernous interior. The best part they can seat 12 but they are rated 40mpg combined. Its a Mercedes diesel 6-cylinder engine thats been around forever, theyre indestructable. Actually the whole van is a Mercedes built in Germany, imported here then stamped with a Dodge hood emblem, Chrysler never touches them though.

    • Nick Z – I failed to mention these, good call! Our neighbor has one that I’m pretty sure has a lift on it, I drool over it every morning when I run past his house. Didn’t know it was a diesel, that just kicked it up a notch, and I’ll admit the ‘Dodge’ part has always had me a little concerned so thanks for the info. If I can’t have my Tacoma I could definitely go for one of these with a pop top, or perhaps I’d rather have one of these Thanks again!

    • Gary Hawkins

      EPA number for the Sprinter is 21 mpg. Still good for the size and weight. It has a 5 cylinder diesel engine.

  11. Becky

    Rally the minivans!! We have yet to take ours camping… but soon… soon.

  12. Lea Ann Braithwaite

    Loved this blog. I drove a VW van for 10 years in Utah County — VW vans have great traction, and I loved the sink and ice box AND my 2nd one was a pop-up, so what you’re camping, you can actually stand up. Sunni used to sleep in the hammock up front that hung from the drivers side to the passenger side. BUT (and there is always a but..) the heater was not great to say the least and NO airconditioning except what open windows can provide. Which wasn’t so bad up north, but when we moved to Vegas, it had to go. I bought a conversion van that we enjoyed a lot. I’m so glad that you are taking your kids outside!!

    • Lea Ann – Thanks for the comment. What you just described in your VW van sounds like my version of the American Dream…well, except for the air conditioning part…

  13. I’m so in denial about ever owning a minivan. It’s awesome to know I’m not the only one. Not sure I’ll take your path when the time comes, but it’s nice to know a fellow outdoor lover with kids has grown to love hers.

  14. [...] Minivans: The camping revolution [...]

  15. DemostiX

    Like your hammocking. Ouch to the metal on metal with carabiners. I suggest you use “soft shackles” instead, made of UHMWPE cord. Make them yourself, easily, at a cost of <$1 for 2000lb breaking strength (1/8" line) or go to whoopieslings.com, a good maker and vendor.

    • DemostiX – Thanks for the comment. Those are really cool, I had no idea! We’ll have to make some of those, because one day we MIGHT actually own a vehicle that we want to keep looking nice… Wherein your right, metal on metal is probably not the best idea.

      Thanks!

  16. [...] We made it. This blog has officially been alive for one year!  It all started with a post about minivans and a whole slew of people willing to share the site with their [...]

  17. I love my van but hate getting passed all the time. I thought I imagined that happening…guess not!

  18. Lauren

    I just came across your blog, and in particular your comments on camping/traveling in your van…we do the same :-) We love our van, even tho when we bought it, it seemd like an odd choice for a 3-person (now 4) family. But we do a lot of outdoor stuff – hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, climbing…) and it’s a great gear hauler! We have a ’99 Honda Odyssey – our rear seat folds into the floor (station wagon version for us) and the middle seats remove completely, leaving a huge space for sleeping/traveling. Now that our daughter is in college, it’s just us and our 8-yr-old traveling these days, so we haven’t needed the hammock idea, but our son would LOVE it, so we may try that out! We have “creatively” all nooks and crannies – even the extra space in the spare tire cavity) to store our stuff including ‘custom’ shaped containers to fill odd spaces, and pod/rack on top. You might be interested to know that they make tents that allow you to leave the rear hatch open for ventilation…they have a screen door entry into the back…check amazon.com for “DAC Explorer 2 SUV tent” We haven’t tried one yet, but the screen netting solves the lack of circulation/ventilation problem we have here in the northeast where virtually all fair weather camping is accompanied by insanely annoying human-munching bugs, flies and mosquitos…camping without screens is at best, often unpleasant! Unless of course you are snow camping :-) Last place we camped in the van was Grand Lake CO where the temps dropped into the 20′s in early fall, which we weren’t quite prepared for, so the van was our tent of choice that night :-) Happy trails!

  19. Deneen

    Does anyone know how to buy or make screens for minivan windows and wings?

    • Deneen – I don’t know, but that is a REALLY good idea. If you come up with anything let me know!

  20. willo

    I drove a compact hatchback until forced (by my desire to carpool) to buy a minivan. I didn’t want a big, gas-guzzling vehicle… But, it is the perfect vehicle for a mom, and now I love it!

    As soon as I got my Odyssey, I started planning a cross-country camping trip with my two boys. (We live in New England, but always go back to my “home” in the Pacific NW each summer to see my family.) With so much space to work with, I know we can devise a quick set-up/tear-down camp so we could keep very flexible about where we stop, etc. I am leaning toward a roof-top tent, but I think I will try your hammock idea before I spend the four-digit sum it takes to sleep on the roof of the car.

    I have found window screens for vehicles at: http://theskeeterbeater.com/
    I haven’t purchased them yet, but I plan to get at least a sunroof and front row window set. EEE is still a problem in the town where my kids go to school, and there are a lot of mosquitos on their wooded campus.

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    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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