Family road trip.  

Those three words can mean so much to so many people. Maybe you have a smile-worthy memory of a weekend getaway to a warm, coastal beach for a reprieve from a harsh winter? Perhaps it was a weeklong escape to the mountains to get back to nature after months in a crowded city.  

Road trips can last a day, a weekend, a month or even a season – especially if mom and dad decide to take the kids overlanding on an extended family road trip during a summer vacation. But what would you think if mom decided to take the kids on a family overlanding trip for a few weeks so they could connect with dad during his extended work-related travels but, over the next seven years, that trip evolved into a full-time, overlanding, nomadic lifestyle?  

Meet Carol van Stralen who, with her husband and three children, sold the family home and has been overlanding for seven years. Here’s how it all began.   

Carol van Stralen and family in a tentCarol’s husband, Peter, needed to travel for his business – and the trip durations were getting longer as the business grew. “We got an RV to travel with the kids to meet up with Peter at business-related conferences all over the country so we could all be together more,” she said. But the business trips got longer and, after a family meeting, they unanimously decided to take the kids out of traditional school and put them in an online schooling system designed for traveling students.   

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In a recent interview with Global Rescue, Carol admitted it was nothing she had ever imagined. “If you had told me that one day I’d be living out of an RV for three-month-long road trips with the kids I would have laughed in disbelief. It wasn’t something on my radar at the time but it became something I fell in love with,” she said.   

The van Stralen family started with a 90-day trip plan to visit every state and national park they could get to. It all went well. So well in fact that after the trip Carol and Peter asked the kids if they wanted to keep going. “Honestly, Peter and I asked ourselves the same question.”   

Without exception, they decided to keep going for as long as possible. That was seven years and hundreds of thousands of miles ago.  

Keep in mind, Carol van Stralen did not have an outdoor adventure background like Mardy Murie or Isabella Bird who both knew what it was like to travel extensively in the wild frontier.  

Not only did she not grow up camping; she had never used a ground tent. But later in life, after getting married and raising three elementary school-aged kids, things changed. “My first time camping was in our backyard. That’s where it started,” she said.   

It didn’t work out so well. “The tent collapsed in a rain storm and we ended up back in the house,” she added. An unfortunate start but not a deal-breaker. “We all kept going on little hikes and short camping trips because we liked it and wanted more,” she said.  

Family camping in desert at dusk

The more they did, the more they wanted. Soon the RV became a barrier to the more remote regions the family wanted to explore. They had been towing their Jeep behind the RV for a while and they kept seeing people in their 4×4 vehicles who were able to get farther off the beaten path into more remote areas. “We wanted that for ourselves,” she said.   

They put the RV in storage and started driving the Jeep down dirt paths and trail-like roads to campsites and remote areas most people can’t access. “That’s when we solidified our passion for the outdoors and exploring beyond the pavement. I really got the bug for adventure,” she said.  

Are We There Yet?  

When a road trip turns into life on the road, what did the van Stralen kids think? Did they miss their neighborhood friends or school-based social lives? Did they get family fatigue? Carol said no, it was never a problem. Quite the opposite. “Their friend groups exploded. They went places, met people and built new relationships everywhere.”   

Carol found the experience for her children to be deeper and more meaningful than she expected. “It’s beautiful to know that friends can come from anywhere, and it broadens your horizons. You don’t always realize how expansive your perspective has grown until you come home and reconnect with your neighborhood friends,” she said.  

She shared a couple of examples from a trip to New Zealand where they shipped their four-wheeler for a three-month adventure. “Our kids learned how to surf from other kids at the beaches. If they were hiking, then they developed new friendships with other kids who were hiking with their families, too,” she said.   

And it wasn’t only friendships with their peers. “Our kids met many older people. For example, my son loves to fish wherever he goes and ends up learning so much from older anglers along the way. The kids continue to stay in touch with the friends they’ve made all over the world,” she said.   

[Related reading: Traveling With Kids]

There were occasional challenges for the children with the outdoor, overland lifestyle. When Carol’s youngest son was nine, he found some of the treks, hikes and trails troublesome or, perhaps, even a little boring. But Carol discovered a solution in the form of downloadable audiobooks for him to listen to while hiking. “If he needed a helpful distraction from the difficulty of the climb, he would start listening to the audiobook and get so into the story that he’d trek up that mountain like a goat,” she said.   

Carol admitted the additional benefit was that her son would walk by her side chatting away about the story when he was finished listening. “I loved it,” she said, adding that long walks after any long drive became a near-everyday activity. “I’d get hours and sometimes days of getting to talk with my kids without any unnatural distractions.”  

Epic Mom Tips  

Carol didn’t know that a disastrous, rainy backyard campout would be the first step to what is now a seven-year Epic Family Road Trip that’s taken the van Stralens all over the world. Her advice? Start small. “That’s how I got this far,” she said. She’s a firm believer in broadening your knowledge base by including your family, your partner or other like-minded people.   

“I wouldn’t have gone full-time for the outdoor overland lifestyle right off the bat,” she said. “But taking incrementally bigger steps over time, I grew to love all sorts of things that would have made me very uncomfortable before. Now I love being out of my comfort zone.”  

Carol admitted she needed to overcome her fear of the unknown. She sometimes would let her thoughts get out of control over what-ifs and what could happen. Like the time when there was a grizzly bear outside the camp. “I was initially worried whether I had cleaned up everything outside, like food scraps that attract bears, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it at that moment,” she said. That’s when she stopped herself and focused instead on what was happening rather than what could happen. “I calmed myself by thinking of the things I’m grateful for experiencing.”   

Mom woman filling off road vehicle tire with air

By de-escalating her anxiety, she was able to concentrate on useful, protective steps. Fortunately, the campsite was cleaned and the bear moved on without incident. The tip? “Slow down your thoughts and focus on what’s happening instead of what could happen,” she said. “Don’t let fear control you. It’s such a big world out there to experience. Once you get a taste of it, you get addicted.”   

Does Carol miss her former lifestyle? Not really, at least not anymore. In the beginning, she missed going to the gym. “I loved going to the gym but then I discovered during our travels that there were rocks everywhere that I could lift and trails I could run ahead and wait for my family to catch up.”   

She also misses the easy availability of fresh food. Remote locations for long durations don’t lend themselves to convenient access to fresh produce. “Sometimes I’m craving a salad, and I just can’t get it.”  

Carol van Stralen may go salad-less on occasion, but she’s certainly living her salad days on the road with her family.