How living in a camper with my family prepared us for lockdown

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Before the world literally ground to a halt – something I don’t think any of us ever thought would or could happen – I wanted to write about the simple life. Specifically, how taking a step back from the everyday routine of existence can significantly boost our mental health.

When I was six months pregnant, and with an energetic two-year-old in tow, we decided to take a four-week road trip around the U.S. states of Oregon and California in a campervan. People seemed surprised we’d decided on such a adventurous trip. I got asked a lot of questions: ‘How did all of you cope in such a small space for so long?’, ‘Did Finn not get bored?’ ‘Where did you put all your stuff?’, ‘What did you do all day?’, ‘Didn’t you and Simon want to kill each other by the end…?’. Little did I know that the answers to these questions and our experience of living in an RV for a month would help me adapt to our sudden new reality – staying indoors and social distancing!

Cruise America RV rental Portland San Francisco west coast road trip
Happy campers on the road (Photo: Helen Wright)

How to survive in a small space

The subject of mental health has been raised a lot during the Coronavirus shutdown. Naturally, people began to panic that without the endorphins of exercise, socialising and fresh air – coupled with the boredom of not working and being imprisoned within four walls – they would go, well, frankly, mad. To be honest, I felt the same. Now with an even more energetic three-year-old and a seven-month-old baby, we were already feeling claustrophobic in our London two-bed. Suddenly, as we were attempting to move out to get more space, we discovered that not only were we now staying put, we were also staying in. Nursery was closed. Simon began working from home. Our house became a school, a playground, a workplace and nursery overnight. I had to explain to Finn (who loves being outside so much he is practically solar powered), that the playground was closed and he couldn’t play football with his friends. He spoke for us all when he asked why someone couldn’t just ‘clean up the germs and open the park again?’. Replace ‘parks’ with ‘pubs’ and I think we’re all on the same page.

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Embracing the world from the inside (Image: Helen Wright)

Hesitant to say it, but I am actually enjoying self isolating for now. I like having my chicks with me in the nest. Our world inside and the big, mean, world outside. We fell quite easily into a Flintstonian existence, with Simon (the caveman) heading out to hunt for food and supplies (baked beans and loo roll), while we stayed safe from the predators (people with unwashed hands). Yes, we were stuck at home, but I knew we’d probably never again have such enforced time to spend as a family. Despite the pandemic, we had been gifted a guilt-free moment in time to enjoy our children without distractions. We had so far remained healthy and we should embrace it. Simon agreed, swinging his club in solidarity.

Then, Whatsapp became lit and the phone started ringing. It was our friends and family wondering ‘how we were going to cope indoors with the kids?’. Online, tensions were high as everyone waited to see if the self-employed (like us) would get help from the government. Yet at home, life didn’t feel that different. Finn was happy. Isobel oblivious. Even Simon was getting into the WFH life; laptop perched on his knee, Alexa playing Oasis albums. Were we underreacting? Why didn’t I feel more stressed? Should I be stockpiling art supplies and buying Disney+ in preparation? Or could we cope with what we had?

A CHANGE OF PERSPECTIVE

There’s no question that travel is my passion (as well as my job). Traversing the earth with our kids and showing them its beauty first-hand is my top priority, after their health, of course. I fully supported social distancing as a method to control Covid-19 from the start. I’ve always very much considered our freedom and ability to travel a privilege, not a right. With the world at a standstill, we needed to get imaginative, and fast. Of course, I didn’t want to be stuck indoors. None of us did. Whether it’s a trip to the playground, a bike ride, an afternoon at the swimming pool or playing tourist in our own city, as a family we spend the majority of time outdoors. Without our social circle or relying on our usual routine to keep everyone entertained, we knew we’d have to adjust how we do things. It won’t be forever…hopefully.

staying in family tips
We take full advantage of our freedom (image: Helen Wright)

Travel outside the common narrative requires energy. As a family, we love camping, road trips and adventures outside of our comfort zone. Our RV holiday last year was challenging and rewarding in equal measures. We lived and ate simply, cooking basic and budget one-pot meals on a stove. Our living space was also our kitchen and Finn’s bedroom. Remote internet meant less social media and news. Gratefully, this also meant less negativity, pressure, comparisons and constant stimulation. With no TV, we spent the evenings chatting, reading, writing, playing games, napping and listening to music (all with wine, of course). We packed very few toys for Finn but watching him discover fun in pretty much anything was a joy. No real place to be, fewer rules and limited expectations, meant less stress. And less stress meant more happiness – something we pledged to practice back at home. We learned that not only could we live in each other’s company 24-7, we thrived under the circumstances. It reinforced what we already believed, that imagination is more valuable than entertainment. That anything, from a stick to a saucepan, can become a toy and that time with our loved ones is precious and transitory. Our big adventure helped me celebrate the small things and that’s exactly what we are doing now.

The six things I learned from living in a camper van with my family

Cruise America RV rental Portland San Francisco west coast road trip parking walmart
We loved #vanlife (Photo: Simon Henry)

The simple life

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You won’t find me lamenting about ‘the old days’ on here. I love modern life. I love my phone and my camera, social media, streaming TV, cheap flights and one-click food deliveries to my door. I am a full on Millennial cliché and proud. I don’t want to go back to a time where we wore flares and used payphones just because it was ‘simpler’, (although, I could get on board with disco culture and receiving handwritten letters). Something I do advocate is embracing a bit of the simple life, needing little more than eating, drinking, laughing, surviving for a while.

With limited supplies at the supermarket during the coronavirus lockdown, we’ve all had to adjust what we are eating and using at home. In our RV, we lived easily with a two-hob stove and a microwave. We had a decent sized fridge, but couldn’t store that much stuff. Often we’d be camping remotely and so our trip to the supermarket would have to last a week or more. Instead of sticking to boring camping basics, Simon (the family chef) got imaginative with chilli, curries and pasta packed with flavour. One meal would often feed all three of us for dinner and lunch the next day. Not wanting to let our fresh veg go bad, we would bulk up meals with lots of vegetables.

We found we were using far less meat than we would have back at home where we had the luxury of a shop at the end of the road to stock up as frequently as we liked. Obviously, we often had simple lunches like a cheese sandwich or beans on toast too. A cheap feed every other day was a great way to keep our weekly spending budget down. Planning was the key thing. At home if we need a quick feed, we could throw a frozen pizza in the oven. With that convenience not available, we were forced to be more creative, organised and mindful about what we were eating and we ended up being far healthier too. We haven’t been able to pick up any frozen pizza yet during the pandemic, as everywhere is sold out. It’s forced us back into being more resourceful, which is great.

Cruise America RV rental Portland San Francisco west coast road trip
staying in family tips
Eating together is such an easy family tradition to hang on to (Images: Helen Wright)

The other thing we did every evening in the RV, (which I don’t think we’d have thought about during the lockdown otherwise), is to make an occasion out of dinner. Our normal day-to-day life at home can be manic, and often dinner is a necessity rather than an event. In Oregon, there wasn’t much to do at the campsites after the sun went down, so preparing and then sitting down to dinner together was a nightly routine. Obviously having a campfire helped create the atmosphere but even when the weather was a bit cold, we ate inside the van at the table. It was something we always did as a family and I loved it. The lost art of family dining is something I want to enforce for us and this has given us just the kickstart we needed.

Watch our RV life video on passportstamps’ YouTube channel here or scroll down to continue reading this post.

Less stuff is enough

Whenever we travel, we rarely pack a lot of toys for Finn. Having too much luggage makes travelling unnecessarily stressful, so we usually stick to a few of his favorite cars, books and Lego (Duplo). Part of the joy of travelling with kids is watching them adapt and take in their new environment and setting. If you bring everything they have from home on the road with you, it’s likely they’ll fixate on these and be less aware and interested in their surroundings. Finn adored life in the RV. Everything was exciting for him and he wanted to be involved in every aspect of it – from making up his ‘big’ bed at the end of the day, to helping Simon with the water and electricity hook ups, collecting sticks for the campfire and helping draw the blinds and curtains for nighttime. He also loved sitting in the driver seat and pretending to drive us to our next destination.

two-week US west coast road trip Oregon RV McKenzie river waterfall
Finn loves exploring (Photo: Helen Wright)

As far as our outdoor adventures went, Oregon had a wealth of open space at its disposal and wherever we stopped on our trip, there was no chance of Finn getting bored. From ‘investigating the case of a fallen tree’ to stepping stones across a stream, to hide and seek at the campsite, his ability to make a game out of anything is quite inspiring.

Staying in during the Covid-19 epidemic has followed a similar pattern. We took inspiration from family bloggers and experts to do a toy rotation, meaning we kept some of his toys back each day. It’s meant he has played with his other toys for longer, instead of discarding them after five minutes to do something different. Imaginative play has really come into its own during our time social distancing. It’s not quite the same as a hike past a waterfall, but Finn had no problem creating his own adventures. Inside the house he has been busy den building and initiating games of hide and seek in different rooms. Outside, he had fun collecting sticks in the garden ‘to build a tree house’. Each day, we’d take a family walk before dinner and I’d make him a treasure hunt of things he had to look out for. He loved it.

staying in family tips
staying in family tips
Combining curiosity and imagination outside and in (Images: Helen Wright)

Keep calm and camp

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, I wanted to write about the self-care benefits of camping. I’m not even sure where I wanted to go with it to be honest. I just feel like there’s no better holiday to make you go back to basics and appreciate the simple and most important things in life. We love camping (Simon and my first holiday together was camping in the Lake District) and we have been on lots of amazing camping and campervan trips, including our epic adventures in New Zealand and Italy.

I love fancy hotels, spas and swanky airport lounges as much as the next person, but I am often mistaken for someone who needs these things. In fact, I am quite the opposite – keeping things simple, washing sporadically and lazing about in my loungewear is my idea of a great weekend. Lockdown so far has played very much to my strengths, which is handy! Obviously there is no substitute for the thrill of setting up camp in a dream location with a perfect view from your window, but there are aspects of camping that have felt very familiar during our Covid-19 self-isolation.

staying in family tips
staying in family tips
Home or away, simple things can help you adapt to the simple life (images: Helen Wright)

Life is chaotic and ever moving, with constant background noise and interruptions. Even holidays to dream destinations like Florida, Australia and the Caribbean come with the potential for heightened stress and a variety of emotions. Camping lets you strip everything back. There is no urgency, no strict planning involved and no rules. When you’ve slept in a field, a forest or on a beach, you can wake up, wash your face and go. Makeup isn’t required, brushing your hair is optional and there is no dress code (other than some good waterproofs – because no one wants wet undercrackers). If you allow yourself to let go, there is nothing more relaxing. Plus, rather than a full itinerary of ‘stuff’ to do, the focus is mainly on quality time with your camping buddies. Once you’ve hooked up or pitched up, there is nowhere you need to be except there – and that is a luxury (much like a comfortable home during this pandemic, many would say).

Time to smell the roses

Taking Finn out and letting him run around to burn off some energy is something we do a lot. But probably, like most parents, we are often guilty of doing it to tire him out so he sleeps better, rather than out of an appreciation for our environment. With miles of fields for him to play in and keep him occupied, it can feel like a good chance to catch up on emails and check your social media, etc. Life can be so busy that minor things like a walk in the park can fall very low on the list of priorities. Suddenly, faced with the prospect of only one short walk a day during the lockdown, we quickly realised that we were guilty of taking the great outdoors for granted.

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Finn taught us not to take our enviroment for granted (Images: Helen Wright)

Throughout the pandemic, instead of wandering aimlessly and letting Finn entertain himself, we started making our family outings count. Phones off and a new appreciation for our freedom, we actually took time to absorb our surroundings and ‘smell the roses’, as the saying goes.  With Finn not currently in nursery, and the playgrounds closed, we encouraged him to use his brain a bit too. I created a simple treasure hunt for him to occupy himself as we got some fresh air and we all had fun helping him complete it.

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Finn’s treasure hunt was fun (Image: Helen Wright)

Social distance

With kids, you often find yourself in a routine and we try to stick to it even when we travel. A camping holiday makes it really easy to do that. With just your people and your surroundings for company and a loose concept of time, your daily schedule is the thing that gives you some structure. For us, our U.S. camping trip was roughly: Breakfast-play-lunch-nap-explore-play-dinner-stories-bed (for Finn). Followed by dinner, relax and bed for us. At home during the quarantine, it has been virtually the same. We have been saving our exercise time for later in the early evening and our outing to the local field has been the thing we look forward to the most in our day. Just a little walk around the streets near our home with a stop in the park for Finn to kick a ball around is lifting our spirits.

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A walk around our neighbourhood (Image: Helen Wright)

Our planned evening outings remind me of the Italian tradition, la passeggiata, where everyone in the village goes for an evening stroll. It’s a way to be distantly sociable (waving at your neighbours as you pass by their house) and to get out of the house without spending money socialising. Of course, since we live in central London, luckily everyone in our ‘village’ isn’t out at the same time, but it’s nice to pass other humans once in a while as a reminder we’re not really in a zombie apocalypse.

Teamwork makes the dream work

I think the most important lesson we learned from living in an RV is that of tolerance and compromise. There isn’t a lot of room, but respecting everyone’s personal space goes a long way to maintaining a happy home. Everyone needs a chance to suit themselves at some point every day, whether that is half hour to watch the news, do yoga, play, read a book or just sit and stare out of the window.

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There is room to work and play (Image: Helen Wright)

Lastly, if you have found yourself running out of things to do, or energy, don’t be ashamed to let your kid have a tablet – sometimes it’s the only thing that will keep them sitting still for half an hour. Don’t forget, your kids probably want a break from you too. Finn has the Amazon Fire which has live streaming, options to download programmes and movies, as well as a catalogue of puzzles, educational tools and games.

staying in family tips
staying in family tips
At home in London (above)and in the RV (below) Don’t be put off letting kids use a tablet (images: Helen Wright)

Working together to keep everything ticking over is the way to survive your stretch inside. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all going to be a social media friendly mirage of families staying together and playing together. There will be tempers, tantrums and frustrations, but, hopefully, we will never again be forced to stay inside our homes. Finding the positives is the only way to make it through (and planning your next holiday, of course!). While we patiently wait for the world to heal, hopefully you might find some inspiration in the posts below for your next adventure.

For more, follow my stories on Instagram @helenwrites

WHERE TO GO NEXT? SOME OF OUR FAVOURITE TRIPS

When it is safe to return to Italy, consider a road trip around Lake Garda

A five star resort in the Caribbean is just the tonic – Beaches Ocho Rios

Want to stay in the UK? Watergate Bay might the Cornwall’s best kept secret.

Hidden gems (and gin) in Scotland

Driving the desert – why Arizona is the place to roam and restore

History and adventure in Dubrovnik, Croatia

When Orlando is open again – what is the best hotel at Universal Studios, Florida?

A complete guide to Orlando, Florida

Los Angeles: A long weekend in LA

Indian Ocean: Kid-friendly paradise in Mauritius

American History – what the Capital Region has to offer.

Portland, Oregon – foodie charm and beautiful walks

Colourful Scottsdale Arizona

L.A’s beach town – Marina Del Ray

Washington DC– what to do in Capitol City.

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