“You live in a van… with a cat?!?! How does it not run away?”
That’s one of the typical reactions we get from anyone who sees us on the road. And I answer, “Yes. Actually, I have two cats. And this is their home, where they are loved and fed and safe, why would they run away?”
Today I’m going to share our experience of living on the road in our camper with cats since 2008. I don’t have secret hacks to get a house cat comfortable with being a road cat. The key is consistency and being persistent, putting in the time and effort, and knowing your cat.
A quick backstory
We traveled with an older cat that preferred the indoors for 10 years. She didn’t want to explore the world outside of our campers and was the total opposite of the two wild kittens we now live with. So how did we end up with these two kittens in our lives? During the initial COVID lockdown in the spring of 2022, we found ourselves in a small village in Croatia where my dad grew up and one day five little kittens showed up on our doorstep. Our plan was to befriend them all to make capture and sterilization an easier task when they were old enough to do so. But one by one, they all got sick from a common viral infection on the island that infects many feral cats. After three heartbreaking losses, Twin decided to stop being feral. She literally walked herself into our home, sat on our laps, and asked us for help. Within days, we caught Toby in order to medicate him as well but he took longer to warm up to us. After a week of looking for a secret portal back outside, he accepted our help and started climbing into my sweatshirt for snuggles.
We thought they would be with us for two weeks, three tops, enough time to get them healthy and sterilized. Between a prolonged medication treatment, winter weather, and the pain of losing the other three kittens, we decided that we couldn’t just let them back into the wild again. After a test trip around Croatia and a long family meeting, we decided to officially introduce them to full-time travel. So here they are now, with 20 countries under their belts and plenty more on the horizon.
Preparing cats for the road
Before taking the cats with us on the road, we did some prep work that I think really helped. First, we made sure that they associated our van as their home. They ate all their meals in the van. They had a litter box area in there as well. We hung out near the van during the day so they can come and go as they wish. And at night, we all slept inside.
Before becoming full-time traveling cats, I would take little walks with the cats in the afternoons. It’s not something I was conscious about for training purposes (because the plan was never to keep them) but it came in really handy when we decided to adopt them. They started following me down little walkways and we eventually worked up to walking small loops together. When we decided to take a little family walk at one of our boondocking spots, they didn’t hang out around the van as we thought they would but ended up following us on our hike. Our hike was 1/3 of a mile. They took some liberty to duck into bushes and see where other paths would lead but for the most part, they followed us the whole way without the need for rest time. And at that moment, we felt like life on the road with Twin and Toby was a real possibility.
I wasn’t the best with leash training in the beginning mostly because they were fine being free and truthfully, it was a pain to do. But it needed to be done because we needed to be prepared for different situations. Being consistent and persistent was the only way I got them trained. They were both pancakes at first with the harness. I made it as positive an experience as possible with lots of pets and treats and having them wear it at dinner time. In the beginning, having them sprint on the leash was also a problem. Things are way better now. Toby sees the harness now and immediately starts purring because he knows it’s time to adventure. Twin isn’t as excited about it but tolerates it.
At the start, I had them on a short leash but now that they are trained, I really like to use the retractable leash for them. I also used different types of harnesses but in the end the PetSafe Come With Me kitty harness was the best fit for our lifestyle and cats.
Both cats have collapsible backpacks for travel. They are some cheap ones I picked up from Croatia that aren’t the best but we use them so rarely that I can’t justify buying better ones. They are stored in our roof rack since we don’t use them daily. They come in handy for air travel, vet visits, and walks in public places like parks because they give the cats a safe place to hide. The cats don’t choose to get in the backpacks themselves. They actually try to scratch their out sometimes but when they are scared and need to hide, you better believe they run in there real fast.
I spent the early months doing some clicker training. Every time I gave the cats a treat, I would click while giving it to them. And then eventually they would come to me when I clicked. It worked pretty well with Toby who is food-motivated but Twin isn’t so it was always hit or miss with her. I use it when I need to call them in the van because it carries further than my voice.
Due to shipping issues and shortages, we weren’t able to buy the pet tracker we wanted for the cats for a long time. While in Portugal, we bought a couple of AirTags to try out in the meantime. We couldn’t find a collar attachment for the tags so they were temporarily sewn on their collars until we could purchase a proper silicon holder for them.
So how did the AirTags do as cat trackers? Not well for our lifestyle. Because it uses Bluetooth to locate the tags, the tags are not ideal when camping in nature. If there aren’t other iPhones around, the tags will be out of range almost immediately and the cats’ whereabouts will be a mystery until the cats get close to us or another iPhone. This is what happened with Twin one night in Portugal. She usually pops back to say hello off and on all day but for some reason, she didn’t on this night. The last time she was at the van was 6:39 pm. After a couple of hours of no hellos, we thought it was strange and decided to walk around to look for her. She would surely respond to our voices or our phones would pick up her tag. Dan and I walked for hours in concentric circles with no success. Around 1 am, we reluctantly closed the van door and hoped for the best even though she’d never stayed out past midnight before. At 3:30 am, Dan had a dream about Twin being back. He immediately grabbed the phone and saw an alert that she was “home” 20 minutes ago. He cracked the door open and she immediately jumped in the van to drink water. So much water. She’s usually not the troublemaker of the two, but on this day she earned the title. The AirTags haven’t been as helpful in finding their whereabouts but they’re good at alerting us when the cats are near the van. This allows us to keep our sliding door closed until the cats need in. So it’s been helpful in that regard. Long story short, AirTags are not ideal for wild camping or cats that are scared of other humans (like ours) and thus will never be near another iPhone to take advantage of its technology. The tags are also good to double-check in the cats are in the van before we drive away. Having the ability to make their collars beep is a nice feature. So long story short, they are not ideal for vanlife.
The second tracker that I got for the cats is the Tractive GPS collar. I really hesitated to get a GPS tracker due to a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t think they would be ideal for wild camping since a lot of times we don’t have cell signal in those types of places and second, I didn’t want to pay a monthly fee. But I decided to give Tractive a try. And I’m so glad that I did. Having the ability to pinpoint their exact location is such a relief for me. I also love that I get to set boundaries for them and if they go beyond them, I get alerted. In addition to those features, I went with Tractive for the ability to use them internationally. No other company offered that option. The actual tracker itself is larger than the AirTag but the cats don’t mind it at all. Charging them up is something I have to do every other day, but it really depends on how much I use the “live” tracking feature and how strong the cell service is. There is a battery saver feature if you connect the tracker to your wifi which is nice. In regard to my initial concerns, I think they work better than expected. I can still use them in areas of weak GPS signal but just don’t get all the features in compared to full-strength GPS areas. They don’t wear these daily. At each new campsite, I decide if this tracker or another is the best choice for that day’s situation. So long story short, get a GPS tracker. They are awesome when you are in GPS territory (but when you are not, I also recommend getting a second tracker when out of service while wild camping).
The third tracker that I got for the cats is Tab Cat. It uses radio technology, doesn’t require monthly service and it’s about the same size as an AirTag. It uses a little remote control that beeps and displays different colors when you are going in the right direction and toward your cat and getting closer. Kind of like playing the game of “hot/cold” when you were a kid. There is a limit to the distance it can track and if they were in a concrete building, I don’t know if it would do too well but I haven’t been in those situations to find out. This is the original tracker that I wanted to buy for the cats because of wild camping and I’m glad they finally came back into stock. The Tab Cat is now on their daily collars, replacing the AirTag. I like the app for the AirTag better than using the little remote but it makes more sense to use the Tab Cat daily.
In conclusion, we need to have two different trackers for our cats. A Tractive for when we have GPS signal and a Tab Cat when don’t have GPS and for daily use as well.
We have break-away collars, tags, and Tab Cats on them full-time. If they ever get lost, I really doubt anyone could catch them to return them back to us because, with their feral upbringing, these two like to keep their distance from other humans. So why have a collar at all? It’s important to me that others know that they are pets and that they are loved. I feel like if we encounter an unexpected off-leash dog, the owner will hopefully be more likely to call their dog back. Also, Toby’s coloring makes him super camouflage so having him wear a bright collar helps me keep a better eye on him.
The first time the cats went on a drive in the van, they were scared of the windows, people walking by, cars, everything. They were unable to relax completely. They climbed on me, then the kids, then the counter, then onto the window over and over again. I needed to make sure they stayed away from Dan, not rip all of the seats apart, and were safe. Being on “cat watch” was not relaxing for me. When they acted out of control, I placed them in their cat backpacks and when they settled down, I released them back into the van.
As the days went on, they got less and less scared. They eventually got comfortable enough to sit on our laps or relax under the kids’ bench seat or on our beds. And now that they are seasoned travelers, they both have their favorite spots on driving days, and driving anxiety is no longer a problem. As soon as we start the engine, Twin sits in her cat bed on the center console and Toby likes to lay on my lap, both taking the opportunity to catch up on sleep. Twin took longer to acclimate to driving days than Toby. I don’t think there is a trick to get cats comfortable besides time and consistency.
And long driving days aren’t pleasant for anyone but it’s sometimes unavoidable. The cats don’t want to eat or drink while the engine is on so we don’t leave their bowls out. They rarely want to use the litter box while driving as well but they always have access to it, if they need it. When we make pit stops on long driving days, I will take out their bowls and give them a chance to drink and eat if they choose.
One of the upsides to having them comfortable in the van is that it also applies to other modes of transportation as well, like rental cars and airplanes. As soon as they hear the hum of the engine, they settled down and start to nap.
Choosing camp spots
One thing that had to change with the cats is where and how we camp. Every cat is different and this is where knowing your cat is important. Parking lot camping in the city or crowded campgrounds are doable for short amounts of time but are not great everyday options for them. We know our cats will be unhappy and destructive if we are parked around too many people. Toby will tolerate daytime walks if it’s pretty quiet outside but Twin will not walk unless it’s both dark and super quiet outside. With the amount of activity they need at this young age, the ideal camp spots for them are isolated boondocking locations. We introduced the cats to this lifestyle by choosing all of our camp spots with the cats in mind: which ended up being boondocking (wild camping) spots with little or no other people or traffic, and plenty of places for them to hide and escape predators (bushes, trees, etc).
While in Europe, we didn’t have to worry about predators, except for off-leash dogs. The cats were off-leash and free to roam most days and stayed inside the van during the evenings. Now that we are in North America, they haven’t been off-leash as much because I really worry about coyotes and how much territory they occupy now. I’m really hoping to find a place where I’ll feel okay with free roaming soon now that we are heading into Central and South America and out of coyote territory. We are ALL happier with some off-leash time.
Yes, we keep a litter box in our camper for the cats. We currently have one tucked away in a cabinet next to our portable cassette toilet. The cabinet has an opening that is covered with a small curtain, making the litter box always accessible to the cats day, night or while underway. While the cats are outside, every once in a while, they will hop back in the van to do their business and then go back outside to continue their adventures. It’s perplexing and funny, all at the same time.
Twin and Toby seem to make a larger mess than our old cat Yoda. Yoda had the typical two-piece litter box you find at pet stores but for some reason, these two find a way to pee between the seams of the typical litter box where the top connects to the bottom part. So to solve that issue, we bought a large plastic bin from IKEA and cut a notch in one corner for an entrance/exit. This hack has made the litter situation a lot more manageable.
We’ve had multiple campers with our cats and the litter box situation varied depending on our layout. In our Airstream trailer, we hid the box in an open cabinet under our bed. In our Four Wheel truck camper, we had to leave it out because storage was a big issue for us. It sat under our dinette full-time. In the Casita trailer, we actually cut a cat door into one of the cabinets and hid the box.
As for litter brands, we liked to use World’s Best Litter while living in the US, with some extra baking soda sprinkled in. But once we switched to international travel, choices became really limited. None of our cats were/are picky about litter, so it’s not really an issue for us. Sometimes, a brand we buy is not ideal (too scented, too dusty, or not clumping enough) so we have to switch it up sooner than later to make living with it more tolerable.
Does it smell when the cats poop in the van? Yes and no. If we have the cats on a top-tier diet, their poop does not smell. But if they happen to eat a cheap brand of kibble or wet food, we can tell the difference immediately. And if it does smell, we immediately clean out the litter box. No big deal. And if it happens at 4 am, I do get out of bed to take care of it by placing it in a small doggie baggie, tying it off, and disposing of it outside in the morning.
Food and Water
While in the US, it’s pretty easy to get our favorite brands of cat food with some planning ahead, even with our old cat and her special prescription diet. Things get tricky once you start traveling internationally. We load up on high-quality food when we find it but there is only so much we can buy due to available van storage space. It’s a balance, like everything else in this lifestyle.
When we have to buy low-quality kibble, we balance it with a high-quality homemade raw food diet. We carry around raw food diet supplements, buy some raw poultry, beef or rabbit from a grocery store, and usually have to go to a butcher for organ meat. We have a freezer compartment in our Dometic fridge so we can keep larger quantities on hand and defrost as needed.
We don’t feed the cats raw food or refresh their dry kibble until dinner time. They know that when the sun sets, it’s time for something delicious. Being consistent with their feedings also helps get them back into the van every night when they are free-roaming. I use the clicker or scream “Who’s hungry?” while shaking the kibble bag and they usually come running back home.
When we are not in motion, we leave their kibble and water bowls out on the counter. I let them graze on the kibble all night because they cause fewer shenanigans when it’s available during the night. I also use a silicone non-slip feeding mat for their bowls to prevent spills. Twin likes to dip her paw in the water before drinking and Toby likes to scoop kibble out of the bowl before eating it. Both cause spills in the middle of the night so the silicone mat has been a life saver.
Our travel route is based on the weather. We like to follow mild weather in the 70s, but that is not always possible. So when it’s a little too warm in the van and we need to leave the cats alone for a bit, we do a few things to make it comfortable indoors for them.
One of the most important things is having good circulation. We have two Fantastic roof fans installed in our van. They are dual directional so one can blow in while the other sucks out, creating a breeze inside.
Most of the heat transfer that happens in a camper comes from windows. Covering them with some sort of sun shade, like Reflectix will do a lot to regulate the temperature inside.
What is best for the cats is not always best for solar consumption but parking in the shade is also a good option. Just pay attention to the angle of the sun to make sure you won’t be in full sun during your excursion.
We don’t have an AC in our current setup but have had one in our other trailers. We use to run them for our old cat but always worried about what would happen if the AC tripped. On those hot days, we would crack the windows and turn on our roof fans as a backup to the AC.
Cooling mats or cooling vests that you can pick up at pet stores are an option too. I ended up buying a couple of mats and the cats immediately started to nap on them. You can throw them in the fridge or freezer to make them extra cold as well. As an alternative, you can also freeze a water bottle and place it near the cats too.
When we are away from the van, we have an indoor temperature sensor set up that allows us to check it remotely via Wifi. Having a camera set up in there also helps us feel comfortable when we are away but not necessarily for temps.
And if some or all of the things don’t help enough with the inside temps, then we just don’t leave them in the van. Depending on our situation at that moment, some of our alternatives are: bringing them along in their cat backpacks, skipping the activity altogether, time-shifting it, getting a hotel or Airbnb, or using a day or overnight cat kennel.
Windows and doors
Opening our van doors can be an issue with the cats. To prevent them from escaping, we make sure someone is holding them before we open doors. You will constantly see us knocking before entering our own van. It signals that the cats need to be grabbed and once they are being held, the person inside knocks to let the person outside know it’s ok to open. It’s become second nature to us now. The cats sorta kinda listen to the “stay” command. It’s not 100% but it is part of our daily training. And if they do jump out, they usually are right next to the van just standing. I usually just walked up to them, scoop them up, and put them back into the van with no issues.
Our windows either have screens or are not wide enough for the cats to jump out of. We also have a screen for our sliding door when it’s extra hot or buggy. We haven’t really used it with the cats yet so it’ll be interesting when we do.
We don’t have a lot of room for a fancy scratching pad, but we do keep one of those small cardboard ones on the floor. One cat loves to use it while the other prefers to use our headliner. It’s an annoying problem because she prefers to scratch vertically instead of horizontally. I just don’t have a surface in the van that can accommodate that preference. I’ve joked about bringing branches inside just for her.
Yes, our new cats like to destroy things. Hopefully, they will outgrow it when they are older like our other cat. So what do they like to destroy in the van? Well, I already mentioned our headliner, and to solve that problem we put fabric pockets all around and it’s helped a lot. Toby likes to ride our steering wheel at night like he’s riding a bucking bronco. He even destroyed the expensive settering wheel covers they sell from the auto part stores so we have to cover it with a fat rubber hose we bought from the hardware store. Sometimes they stretch against our seats and have their claws out by nature. For a bit, we covered our seats but they’ve gotten better about that.
The cats both have a cat bed but in reality, they just sleep anywhere. On the bath mats that sit on our dash, on the chairs, on our beds, on the Dometic fridge, or in their beds.
Emergencies happen for sure. Toby has been to the ER vet in Croatia, Switzerland, and France and Twin in Washington state. The vets out of the US are so much more affordable and the care I’ve received has been great. I do carry antibiotics, burn spray and extra parasite pills for the cats in the van with us in case we are not near a vet when we need it.
Like I mentioned earlier, I’m pretty fearful of letting the cats loose when in coyote territory. So in those situations, we leash them up and are extra attentive. In Europe, we didn’t have to worry about much, except for some jackal territory. Stray or off-leash dogs can be an issue for sure. I can’t count the number of times owners have told me that their dog is best friends with a cat and then have that same dog chase our cats. It’s a part of the adventure. If they do get chased, they can always climb into our engine. We can skid plates under the van that help the cats jump in the bay. And I also like to park near some type of thing they can climb, like trees or fences, if they can’t get to our van safely.
And last but not least is border crossing. The cats both have an EU Pet Passport from Croatia. All their vaccines, pet checks, and rabies titer test are recorded in one place. And do the border agents care about the cats? Most of the time no. When traveling to Ireland from France, we did get their passports checked and both cats had to have their microchips scanned. No one checked anything while flying back from overseas either. But it’s better to be prepared.
I hope you found my tips for traveling in a camper with cats helpful. Would love to hear what works for you and if you have any questions, drop them below.
Simone · December 23, 2022 at 10:48 pm
This is so interesting to read. Toby will always be known as the most traveled cat that got ever treated in our practice. And that he loves to eat baguette- even when he shouldn’t.
Mika · December 28, 2022 at 11:12 am
This was so helpful, thanks! We’ve been considering a cat in our van and there’s a lot I hadn’t thought about yet! Would love an update on borders once you’ve gone through Central America. I’ve heard they are really strict with the paperwork.
Mia · December 31, 2022 at 4:29 am
Lots of thanks for sharing your experiences! It’s a real big help for us to read all these detailed information. Thank you so much! 😌
Mali Mish Newsletter #9: Thoughts from the start of our journey south – Mali Mish · January 22, 2023 at 5:39 pm
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