Full time van life with a dog: tips for traveling with a dog

Aug 1, 2020

Want to travel or do van life with a dog? Traveling with a dog can be tricky and we’re sharing all of our tips to keep our dog Kona safe and happy while living life on the road.

On December 21, 2013, we adopted a feisty little 6 week old pup (that we named Kona) from Austin Pets Alive and our lives have never been the same. The night before we brought her home, we had seen an Instagram photo and learned about a litter of puppies up for adoption and I instantly started begging Adam to let us adopt her.

At first, Adam said no. We had planned to get a puppy at some point, but I was still in college and also working (this is less than a year before we got married) and he was working full time as a teacher, so we were pretty busy during the week. I used the fact that my last semester of college was going to be super light and my job was right by our apartment to convince him that I could handle potty training and taking care of a pup.

After a few more glances at the photo, he finally caved. How could you not with that sweet little face?! We had already picked out the name Kona months before when discussing our future fur child and after a call to the shelter to get more details, we headed to Austin Pets Alive the next morning to adopt her before anyone else could.

Fast forward 6.5 years and Kona has now been to 19 states (and counting!), Canada, and had many epic adventures. Although our life with Kona is far from easy (more on that in a bit), we love our little adventure pup and couldn’t imagine life without her.

When we decided we wanted to travel full time, we would’ve loved to have gone abroad for an indefinite amount of time, but we didn’t want to leave Kona behind. So we settled on van life, which allowed us to bring Kona wherever we go and have a place for her to hang back if she cannot go on a specific adventure.

But even before van life, we would take Kona on many hikes, road trips, and fun adventures, so we have learned a lot over the years how to successfully and safely navigate traveling with a dog. And recently we have been getting lots of questions about how we do van life with a dog, from where she is when she is not with us, to how we keep her cool enough in the van, and more. 

In this blog we’re sharing everything we do to keep our pup safe while on the road, which we hope can help both those who travel or live in a van like us, or those who just want to take more road trips with their best friend.

Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

A big disclaimer before we jump in:

van life with a dog, travel with your dog

Kona’s safety is our #1 priority. We would never put her in a situation that could harm her and we would change all plans and routes to ensure she is safe.

We want to stress that leaving Kona in our insulated van is much different than leaving her in a car and when we do leave her, she is in her crate (which she loves!) similar to how she was when we left her in our Seattle apartment when we went to work.

The only differences are that we never leave her as long as we did when we worked in Seattle, the surrounding space is smaller, and our home moves.

Meet our pup Kona

Likes: ball, watermelon, squirrels and other small creatures, hiking, cuddling, giving tons of kisses, watching tv (space related movies, seriously), carrots, barking

Dislikes: most dogs, sometimes strangers (although she does love people! It’s confusing), skateboards and rollerblades, the sound of gunshots in movies, getting her nails trimmed

Kona is such a freaking sweet, loving, and cuddly pup most of the time and we love her more than anything. She does great in the van, but take her out of the van and she can be a bit unpredictable and a huge handful.

We got Kona when she was 6 weeks old, which in our opinion is too young to rescue a pup. For some reason the shelter let us take her and through a combination of probably getting her too young and a crazy mix of genetics (we think she is Pit, Jack Russell, Dachshund), Kona is a very difficult dog.

She is a dog that needs someone’s full attention 100% of the time, and has behavioral issues that limit when we bring her, such as dog reactivity, sometimes a fear of strangers, and lunging towards bikes, skateboards or rollerblades. She went to an extensive board and train program for 7 weeks at Flash Dog Training and we have seen huge improvements and were given tools to help us manage her better.

But on occasion she does react and someone needs to pay attention to make sure nothing bad happens. Sometimes kids want to pet her, or if people come up and speak to us she can sometimes bark a lot, so we have to advocate for her and keep our attention on her. Basically, on our walks or hikes, our heads are on a swivel looking for bikes, other dogs, kids running around, squirrels, etc.

 

When we are adventuring and documenting our adventures through vlogs and blogs, it is challenging to bring Kona along. It’s not a complaint, we love having her with us, it’s just the reality.

For example, if we are vlogging a hike, one of us is filming and the other is taking photos. Both of those are demanding and require focus, but then throw in Kona and one of those two jobs will slip. We are getting better at balancing it and have been trying to include Kona as much as we can, but sometimes we do need a break.

We say all of this because having a reactive dog is stressful and heartbreaking at times. You get judgmental looks and have anxiety going into public with your pup. It always makes us feel better to know we aren’t the only one who struggles with these issues, so we hope our honesty can help someone else feel less alone.

We also share this because our experience traveling with a dog may very likely be a lot different than yours. If your dog is super calm, well behaved, can be off leash, loves dogs, etc, you may not have to deal with some of the factors we have to deal with. But we think you’ll still find this insight about traveling and/or van life with a dog helpful!

Questions to ask before traveling with a dog

While having your dog travel with you is super fun, it can also limit your ability to be spontaneous and you have to consider your dog when making every decision during your travels. Below are four questions we ask ourselves before any adventure, both pre-van life and now that we are in the van full time.

What will the weather be like?
This is probably the top question we ask ourselves. We plan our entire route and adventures based on the weather. We try to stick to moderate climates regardless of the time of year, like the Pacific Northwest in the summer and warmer destinations in the winter, so that whether Kona is exploring with us or napping in the van, she will be comfortable.

This is especially important if you’re traveling in an RV or van, but even matters if you’re traveling by car. If you have to run into a store real fast, will it be cool enough to leave your dog in the car?

Can your dog join you for all activities?
Even if you do mostly dog friendly activities on your trip, there may be a time that you want to eat indoors or do some sort of activity that does not allow dogs, like National Parks. We obviously do things without Kona pretty often, but if you’re planning a weekend trip and your pup can’t join you for most of it, it may make more sense to leave them behind.

How long do you plan to leave your dog?
If your dog cannot join you for an activity, how long will you have to leave them for? Everyone’s comfort level when leaving their dog is different and can vary depending on where you leave them, so it’s good to think about this in advance.

Do you need to book anything ahead of time?
If you do need to leave your dog somewhere, you may have to book things in advance, such as a sitter or Airbnb. These places can fill up, especially pet friendly Airbnbs, so your options may be more limited. We will discuss the options we use more below, but make sure to plan ahead so you don’t get into a pickle.

When we do not bring Kona on our adventures

While in a dream world Kona would be able to go everywhere with us and be super well behaved, that is unfortunately not our reality. And similar to when we lived in our apartment in Seattle, there are times she either cannot go with us, we need to do things without her, or simply need a break. Here are the main situations in which Kona stays behind.

National Parks

National Parks are a hard one. We so wish we could take Kona on these epic hikes, but as you probably already know, the majority of these parks are not pet friendly (there are some exceptions though!). Most National Parks only allow pets where cars can go, which means that Kona can romp around the parking lot to potty or see a quick overlook by the road, but that’s about it.

Our goal is to visit all of the US National Parks, so this is especially a bummer for us. But we still visit them, even with Kona. We just try to plan our National Park adventures a bit differently. We will try to visit early in the AM, go when the weather is cooler, and plan to do a few shorter activities so we can leave her in the van and check on her between them. But if we want to do a longer hike, we have to figure out other options.

Certain hikes

Sometimes non-National Park trails do not allow dogs for one reason or another and if it’s a really cool trail that we can do in a short enough amount of time, we will go anyways and leave Kona behind.

AllTrails will typically tell you if a hike is dog friendly or not and is also a good place to read reviews to see if dogs are mostly leashed or off leash dogs. For us, Kona does not do well with off leash dogs running at her, so if we see that a trail mostly has off leash dogs, we may leave her behind to limit our stress and embarrassment.

Going into restaurants or shops

As much as we wish she was, Kona isn’t the kind of dog that can chill on a patio. She is very excitable (both in good and bad ways) around people, other animals, and kids, so patios could be a bit disastrous for us. We can imagine her pulling to get to something and taking our table with her haha. But if your dog is great on patios, you may not have this issue and can seek out dog friendly patios everywhere you go!

When we are going into a restaurant, coffee shop, or want to walk around an area we typically leave her in the van. When we do this, we try to always park in the shade and in a spot where we can keep an eye on the van.

Doing chores or working out

While chores aren’t really an adventure, they can sometimes feel like it in the van! From laundry, to grocery shopping, to emptying our toilet, to filling up our water tanks, to finding dumpsters, we have a lot of less fun tasks to handle in the van. One of us typically stays in the van with Kona, while the other does the chores, but there are some occasions when we will both go and leave her.

Before COVID, we would try to go workout and/or shower at Planet Fitness at least 3-5 days a week. We would both go in together and leave Kona behind in the van.

When we need a break

We love Kona with all our hearts, but sometimes we just need a break and go on a little “date” without her.

We used to feel pretty guilty about leaving her, but we try to think about it this way: we are with her 99% of the time during the work week, so leaving her a little bit on the weekends is still a better deal for her than when we both went into an office in Seattle 5 days a week (and sometimes left her on the weekends for a bit too). We definitely spend way more time overall with her now than when we lived in an apartment.

Where is Kona?

So when Kona is not with us, where is she? This is the question we get asked the most and there are typically three answers: in the van, in an Airbnb, or with a sitter.

There are many factors that decide what the answer will be including: weather, time apart, and the type of options we have where we are exploring. We’re explaining each scenario below!

In the van

van life with a dog, travel with your dog

90% of the time, Kona is in the van when we leave her. And we want to make it very clear that we will only leave Kona in the van if it is safe to do so. There are so many factors that go into this decision and methods we use to keep Kona safe in the van.

Our criteria to leave Kona in the van

  • It’s cool enough out
  • The area is safe
  • We will not be gone very long. We try to only leave her for a few hours max by herself in the van, but there are the occasional times we leave her a bit longer, but only if it’s cool enough out and it is safe.

How we keep the van cool and safe for Kona

One thing that is very important to know is that our van stays much cooler than a regular car does. And there are a handful of reasons for this, including the way we built the van and things we add-on whenever we leave Kona.

And after almost a year of living in the van we have a much better understanding of how the temperature inside the van responds to the temperature outside. We have a good gauge on how hot or cold it is inside based on the weather, but we absolutely don’t leave it to chance. If we don’t feel good about it then we either bring her or don’t leave her.

Below are our must-have items and steps to ensure the van is cool enough and safe for Kona, assuming it’s cool enough outside to leave her. When you combine all of these methods below, it makes a huge difference! (These also help us stay cool in the van when we are working all day!)

Havelock Wool Insulation
Our van is a big metal box and a big reason it is able to stay cooler than a car is because of our Havelock Wool insulation. You can see all of the reasons we chose this insulation here, but basically it’s non-toxic, does well with moisture, and is just a solid insulation, especially in the winter.

Reflectix Window Covers
These bad boys are key to a comfortable van! We have insulated or reflectix window coverings for every window on the van. The sliding door, back side windows, and back door window covers stay on almost all of the time (unless we have a nice view), but we also have ones for the cab area that we put up anytime we leave the van, whether Kona is in there or not.

These help a ton! They not only keep the van so much cooler by reflecting the sun and heat, but they also give us privacy.

Blackout Curtain
We have a blackout curtain that we put right behind the seats to both give us privacy, block out some light at night, and also help with heat. To be honest, we didn’t use it much at first, but we have been using it more, especially on warm days and it is a game changer. You can feel a huge difference from the back area of the van and the cab.

Fans
We installed a MaxxAir fan above the entryway of the back of the van which when combined with the t-vent window we have in our sliding door, it gives the van some air flow.

We also have a small fan we can plug into an outlet that produces a much stronger air flow than the MaxxAir fan. We will put this on Kona when we leave her or use it on ourselves if it’s a bit toasty at night.

Park in the shade
If we can, we try to always park in the shade if we are leaving Kona. This helps cool the van down even more than having the sun beat on it. The only exception is if we need to run the small fan for her, but our batteries are low and need solar, which we will then assess if parking in the sun will still be cool enough for her.

SimpliSafe
We have a SimpliSafe security system in our van which can monitor a few things to help keep Kona safe. We use the camera to keep an eye on her if we are farther away (and have service) and we also have a temperature sensor that can tell us what the temperature is inside the van.

We can monitor all of this on our phones to keep an eye on Kona and make sure she is safe.

Water Bowl
We always leave Kona with water in case she gets a bit thirsty. 🙂

Crate
Kona is crate trained and after her intense training at Flash Dog Training, they told us she needs to be crated when left alone to keep her safe and to give her some structure. We feel so much better knowing she isn’t roaming around the van and getting into anything weird when we are gone. She thankfully loves her crate (or as we call it “Kenny”) and does a great job in it!

Other things to consider when doing van life with a dog

The time of day you leave your dog
We try to do a lot of sunrise adventures and knock out most of our adventures in the first half of the day, partially due to beating the crowds, but also so if we do leave Kona, it’s the coolest part of the day.

People being concerned you have a dog in your van
We have thankfully never had this happen, but a common concern is that someone will think your dog is in danger in your car or van and break your windows. We personally are not that worried, as Kona tends to stay quiet in the van and since she is crated, no one can see that she is inside.

But if you are worried, one option we have heard about to prevent your window getting broken would be to leave a note on your window that explains there is a dog inside and the temperature is controlled more than a normal car.

Getting an AC unit
We have recently started looking into portable air conditioning options for Kona, just for extra peace of mind. When we were building the van we envisioned chasing the cooler weather, but occasionally the cooler places get heat waves. Like our last few days in Eastern Washington, where it has been 100+ degrees everyday. We have stayed with Kona 24/7 during this time and used all of the methods above to keep all of us safe, but it has still been brutal.

Since we didn’t plan our electrical system or layout to include an AC, we have been looking into some smaller portable AC options to keep the van cooler for both us and her. A lot of them have mixed reviews, so we haven’t pulled the trigger yet.

In an airbnb

For us, our second preferred place to leave Kona is an Airbnb because not only does she have a comfortable, air conditioned place to be, but we also get to reap the benefits and use their wifi and laundry, which helps us get our money’s worth.

We typically choose to leave Kona in an Airbnb in two situations:

  • It’s too hot to leave her in the van
  • We want to leave her for a longer period of time

A recent example of when an Airbnb was a lifesaver for us was our day at Disney World in January. We really wanted to spend a full day at Disney, but had no idea what to do with Kona. We could’ve gotten a sitter (we will touch on that in a minute), but we also personally had no where to stay either, so an Airbnb was our best bet.

We found an awesome Airbnb only 10-15 minutes from the parks, which allowed us to check in on Kona while we hopped between two different parks. We first went to Hollywood Studios very early to get our place in line for the new Star Wars Rise of the Resistance ride, then around 11 AM or noon we left the park and went to let Kona out and run around for a while. Then, we headed to Magic Kingdom for the rest of the day and got home around 8 or 9 PM.

We definitely lost a bit of park time doing this, but we were able to care for her and still enjoy the parks as much as we could, so it worked out great! And we got to do lots of laundry 🙂

While Airbnbs are great, finding ones that are pet friendly, are nice enough, and have all of the amenities we need, such as laundry, parking that will fit the van, and fast wifi (and bonus: a backyard!) can be a bit tricky sometimes, especially if we are visiting during peak season and the options are a bit more limited.

A couple things to keep in mind when booking an Airbnb with your dog

  • Book early! Pet friendly options are more limited sometimes, so try to plan in advance so you can get the best spot possible and not have to just grab whatever is left.
  • You may pay extra to bring your dog. Not every Airbnb host charges a pet fee, but a lot of them do, so make sure to read the fine print, as this will not be in the total cost online.
  • Check the rules and come prepared. Some things to take note of are: are pets allowed on the furniture? Can you leave your pet unattended? Do you need a crate?

This is definitely something we do not do often, as the costs add up and the perk of the van is that we sleep for free 98% of the time, but it is a nice treat every once in a while, especially if we are unsure what to do with Kona. But for those of you traveling in a car, you may already be booking an Airbnb for yourself, so it could make it easier to bring your pup with you!

PS: If it is your first time staying at an Airbnb, click this link to get $40 off your first stay!

With a sitter

While for most people this would probably be your first and cheapest option, for us, our last resort option is finding a dog boarding place or sitter to leave Kona with. The reason this is our last option is because of Kona’s behavior.

She has a lot of quirks and we do not always feel comfortable leaving her with random people who may not know how to handle her issues, both for their sake and Kona’s sake. So it’s best for her and us to either leave her with professionals or with someone that we have a relationship with and who knows her tendencies and what upsets her. This can be hard when we are constantly in places where we know no one.

But ultimately, we will get a sitter or board Kona if:

  • We are going to be gone for too many hours to leave her alone (like a 16 mile hike) or will have multiple days she cannot join us (like a big National Park adventure)
  • We may not be gone that long, but Airbnbs are too pricey to justify leaving her there
  • There are no Airbnb options and we cannot bring Kona with us somewhere

Our boarding + sitter options

When we lived in Seattle, we would board Kona at the PetSmart Pet Hotel if we needed to leave her overnight or when we went on a longer trip out of town. The pricing was pretty good and they have the option to pay for solo potty and play times, which is great for Kona, who doesn’t want to play with other dogs. It wasn’t our ideal situation, but it was the best we could find and she always seemed to do well there.

We also had an amazing Rover that we started using about a year into moving to Seattle and would use as our first choice if she was available. We are very picky about Rovers because of Kona’s issues, but we found one that was perfect for us. She didn’t have any dogs, watched only one dog at a time, had a backyard, was very nice and patient, and was totally understanding of Kona’s quirks and loved her to death anyways.

We’d leave Kona with our Rover if we were going on a long day trip somewhere, for overnight backpacking trips, and when we went to the UK for 10 days. The only drawback with that was she also loved to travel and sometimes wasn’t available, which is when we had to resort to PetSmart.

For our upcoming trip to Glacier, we are boarding Kona at Columbia Mountain Kennels, a boarding and daycare spot really close to the park. We didn’t want to have to worry about leaving Kona for too long (plus we can’t even drive our van in the park, but that’s another story), so having her stay somewhere for a few nights was our best option for us to fully enjoy the park and for Kona to be comfortable.

Look into daycare too!

Places like PetSmart and Columbia Mountain Kennels also offer daycare, so if you just need somewhere for your pup to go during the day while you hike or do an activity, this can be a great option and much cheaper than an Airbnb.

Products to have when traveling or doing van life with a dog

Dog toys

While Kona may be high maintenance in terms of her personality, she is pretty low maintenance in terms of material possessions, but there are a handful of items that help us keep her safe and happy on the road!

Collapsible water bowl: this bowl is perfect for travel! It collapses to a small little disc and can be attached to your backpack. While Kona sometimes just drinks from our Camelbak on hikes, this is great to have for hikes to give her water and for backpacking to feed her meals.

Kennel: Kona loves her kennel, aka “Kenny!” This one is perfect because it folds up and fits in the slot we built specifically for it in our closet.

Chuckit! Ball: Kona lives and breathes ball. She will fetch and chew on her ball all day if we let her. She likes to chew on it to relieve stress and has a history of destroying any toy in less than a minute, but this ball is really durable. It’s Kona tough!

Kong: We mostly stuff this with peanut butter then freeze it and that keeps her occupied for an hour or two. This is especially nice if you have a long drive and want your pup to have something to do.

Long leash: While Kona has much better recall than before, we don’t feel 100% confident letting her run around off leash. We bought this 30 foot long leash a few months ago so that we didn’t have to rely on finding empty dog parks for her to be able to play ball. Now we just find a big open field and let her play ball there, while holding onto the leash. She is able to run around a lot more freely, which helps make her happier (and more tired) while traveling.

Poop bags: These are a must have and something you can never have enough of! Especially if you plan to be in more remote areas and cannot quickly buy more.

Carabiner: A carabiner has so many helpful uses when traveling with a dog.  We use a carabiner to tie her to hooks we installed in the van so we can open the doors (and not worry about her running away). They are also great if you’re relaxing at the park so you can just tie her to a tree or your chair and be hands free!

Pet insurance: Traveling with a dog increases your chances of them eating something weird, getting stung by a bee, or maybe needing to see a vet. For 6.5 years we did not have pet insurance, but during quarantine we had a scary night when Kona was vomiting a weird color and acting extremely odd. We took her to get x rays and ultrasounds and ran up a $1,000 bill, all for them to say she was fine.

We asked people on Instagram what insurance they use and if they like it and after lots of research, we ended up going with Embrace Pet Insurance. We pay around $37 a month for pet insurance, but you can adjust your policy to lower (or raise) the monthly cost. We haven’t had to use this insurance yet (and hopefully won’t have to), so we can’t really recommend it from personal experience, but if we need it it’s there, and it’ll hopefully save us a lot of money in the future.

We hope that whether you’re just traveling or doing van life with a dog you found some of these tips helpful! We have learned a lot throughout the years and are continuing to learn so much about how to safely travel with Kona, while keeping her happy. Bringing a dog with you on your travels definitely makes things a bit more complex, but it’s so worth it to see the happiness in their face when they are getting to explore beautiful places. If you have any other questions for us about traveling with a dog, let us know!

Traveling or doing van life with a dog?

Pin this blog with our tips for a happy and safe pup!

about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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2 Comments

  1. Vivian

    Dear Adam and Kathryn (and Kona)
    Thank you for sharing your travel adventures. I’ve been following u for a year now and have enjoyed watching and reading about all your wonderful travels and your family life with Kona (she’s so cute when she’s was a puppy and is adorable now) . It has brought back many wonderful memories of places that my family have travelled to over the years.
    I hope you’ll visit Sydney and the rest of Australia one day.
    Wishing u all the best in your amazing travel journey and happiness in your family life

    Reply
    • Kathryn Frazer

      Thank you so much Vivian! We are so thankful to have you follow along and appreciate all of the kind words! We will definitely visit Australia! Adam loved it when he was there and I am dying to see the country. 🙂

      Reply

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