Getting Out There – A Primer on Camping and Road-Tripping with kids

“I have never been lost, but I will admit to being bewildered for several weeks.” – Daniel Boone

Rainy days in San Diego are my trigger to start planning what we are going to do during the summer. Many of the most popular places from Glacier National Park (MT) to Doheny State Beach (San Clemente) require advance reservation, typically 6 months in advance. Different rules apply to different places, but now is the time to start pulling it all together.

The great outdoors can be a great time. I stress CAN because it also has the potential to go sideways and turn into something you never want to do again. We started camping with our children when the oldest of our 4 children was 4, and our 3rd child was 8 months old. There are stories I can tell in polite company regarding our camping experiences with small children, and then there are those I will tell at their future weddings. Nonetheless, the journey from our first car camping trip to Illinois to last summer’s multi-day backpacking trip has been memorable. Our family has bonded in ways I never thought possible, and created an ocean of memories we will be able to float on for the rest of our lives.

Highline Trail, Glacier National Park

In the beginning, trying to figure out where to start was dizzying. What you don’t know scares you, and knowing if you are starting in the right spot is hard to figure out. Finding the right gear is confusing. Not knowing where to stay is anxiety inducing. “Will we all survive?!?”, is a thought that comes into your head on an occasion or two. For our first camping road trip we settled on something that we thought would be easy: drive to Chicago to visit family, camping there and back.

We agonized over a tent, finally settling on an REI 4-person tent which ended up being more than enough with tiny children. Where to stop and pitch camp for the night was a little more challenging. I settled on stopping at KOA Kampgrounds. They have a store if you run into issues with food and supplies. They have showers if you need to shower, and with the security around the facility you are not worried about anything creeping in and dragging a kid out of the tent. Plus, they are usually located near major thoroughfares and signage is easy to spot. After spending a couple of hours at AAA putting together a Triptik we felt ready to go. I am pretty sure most people who grew up with smart phones have no idea what a Triptik is.

Very Important First Step – Decide Where to Go.

The main destination matters, as it dictates the timeline required for planning. If you want to camp in Joshua Tree National Park, and have a good site, you need a 6-month lead time to reserve a campsite. For example, if I want to camp in Joshua Tree on December 1, 2024 I need to be on  June 1st trying to reserve a site. The importance of the destination and timing are intrinsically linked. Either of them could be the driving factor. Many of the beautiful/popular locations in the United States are instituting quotas on visitation to preserve the experience for tourists, do not underestimate this if you are planning a trip. You could end up at Glacier National Park and be turned away at the gate if you don’t have a reservation.

Diana’s Baths, North Conway, NH

Where to camp matters, because it turns out it is hot as Hades in the middle of the summer in the Midwest. My wife and I both lived in the Midwest, but apparently forgot this fact. We camped one night in a red rock canyon in Oklahoma. It was 94 degrees at 1am. No one was sleeping, and there was a great deal of crying until about 2:30 am when everyone was finally so exhausted the heat didn’t matter, and we all passed out. I have since learned that for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain the temperature drops about 5 degrees. Our long camping trips in the summer are now built around bouncing from mountain range to mountain range. Makes sleeping much more comfortable.

Create Peak Moments

My second item of business, after figuring out where and when, is to build the itinerary. Primary locations and secondary destinations are important to the experience. To keep the trip from being a slog we always plan fun side journeys. I look at maps constantly. In the old days it was a big Rand McNally, and I would look for the following:

  1. National Parks
  2. National Monuments
  3. National Recreation Areas
  4. Rivers/Lakes/Reservoirs
  5. State Parks
  6. Campgrounds/KOA’s
  7. Waterfalls (who doesn’t love a good waterfall)
  8. Caves/Lava Tubes (a little spelunking is good for the soul)

My goal is to camp somewhere within 15 to 30 minutes of what we want to do the next day(s). As a pro-tip, once you get comfortable with dry camping on public land, you can usually camp for free on National Forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property very close to the entry points of most National Parks. KOA’s were the primary camping location that first go around, so it was a lot of time cross-referencing KOA locations to the circuitous route we wanted to take to Illinois and back.

Salem Sue, Somewhere in North Dakota

In North Dakota you can find a wonderful little side attraction called Salem Sue. It is the “world’s largest Holstein Cow”. Or the massive Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji, MN. Cadillac Ranch in TX is fun, plus you can get your inner graffiti artist out. In Custer City, South Dakota you will find beautifully painted buffalo statues on every street corner downtown. Or the fun is self-created, such as the time one of my kids rammed a bicycle into a parked car filled with people in Bemidji, MN. That was awesome.   

Fishing an un-named lake in Idaho

Time Well Spent

As our children have aged, the experience has become richer and more impactful. In 2021 we put together a camping trip through many of the historical locations mentioned in the book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The book details many of the historical interactions between the U.S. Government and various Native American tribes throughout the country. It is deeply impactful as a historical narrative, even more so when you can connect what you are reading to the location. Everyone was required to read the book in advance. Then we listened to it in the car while we went from location to location, playing the chapter corresponding to the location we were visiting next.

I also put together trivia games for the kids based on what they read and learned during the day. Every night we played trivia around the campfire with the winner receiving a cash prize. Money is a powerful motivator to pay attention and engage with what we did that day. Don’t judge me too harshly for some good old-fashioned bribery.

In 2022, I told them where we were going to be camping every night and I based questions off the history of the location. Then as we hiked around, I would drop a lot of facts/history pertaining to the area. If they paid attention, OR studied hard, they had a good chance at winning trivia. What I liked about this method is that after trivia we had a great time asking each kid what they studied in advance. We learned a lot, and they learned a lot. On a long drive from Capitol Reef National Park to Grand Teton National Park we opened a deck of cards. Every card had a word on it representing a value (faith, responsibility, honesty, etc.). The goal is to whittle the deck down to the top 5 values you feel define you. Each kid went through the deck, and it was a great time learning what each of them values above all else. As a side note, we usually have our 4 kids plus a few nieces and nephews with us. On this trip we had 6 kids going through a deck of cards describing the values they feel most define their life. Engaging with our kids in this way is a memory I will never forget.

A boy, his dog, and alpenglow on the Eastern Sierra’s outside Lone Pine, CA

Gearing It Up

There is a slippery slope you end up on when you decide to start camping. Like any hobby, you don’t realize how deep you can go until you are in it. At this point, everyone in our family is outfitted to where they could get up and go on a backpacking trip at any point in time. Our first trip was a little more haphazard. We probably looked a bit like the Clampett’s heading to Beverly Hills, but without grandma on the back.

I have learned that there are a couple of key ingredients. If you have a good sleeping pad and a good sleeping bag, you are going to be fine. On one of our early camping trips, we found ourselves in Stanley, ID on the banks of the Salmon River. What I did not appreciate about the weather in Stanley, ID is that it can experience some of the largest swings in temperature from daytime high to nighttime low in the contiguous United States. A nice 75-degree day turned into a cold 26-degree night. At some point my wife’s sleeping bag wasn’t cutting it for her so she took mine and I slept partially covered. My appreciation for a good sleeping system rose immensely after that night. One of the first things we did when we got home was upgrade her sleeping bag and sleeping pad.

The sleeping pad has an insulating value that should not be underestimated. Most heat is dissipated from contact with the ground. A sleeping pad with a high R-Value will minimize this heat dissipation and solve a lot of cold sleeping problems. Sleeping bag temperature ratings are not based on comfort. They are based on survivability. You should get a lower temperature rated bag than you expect or check to see if the bag has both a comfort rating and a survivability rating.

After the sleep system is the ability to make food and coffee. For years we used a standard Coleman propane two-burner cook stove. Worked great and was easy to find fuel for. We could boil water and cook like we were at home. We have upgraded over time, but that is really all you need to start with. I pre-make lots of food when we are camping out of the car to minimize garbage and mess out in the backcountry.

The tent was the piece of equipment we toiled over the most at the beginning. I strongly recommend starting with a 4-person tent for a family. Most people do not appreciate the footprint necessary for the monstrous tents you can find in the marketplace. Finding a place to pitch an 8-to-12-person tent can be quite challenging. Get cozy and go smaller. If you spend the money ($300 to $400) on a decent 4-person tent you will find it can get into more places and is easier to set up. It will also last a long time.

Setting Expectations

Expectations can be either a silent-killer or a blessing. There is a parable about two people tasked with building the same widget day after day for a full year. They sat at the same table everyday building widgets. Person A was miserable and hated the job. Person B enjoyed the brainless task and daydreamed about the future when the contract was up. Turns out expectations played a role. Person A was getting paid $36,000 on their 1-year contract while Person B was getting paid $1,000,000 for the same task over the same time duration. The expectations Person B had when the contract was up were completely different from the expectations of Person A. The same is true of camping with kids. I had visions of hiking deep into the Eastern Sierra’s with my young children. Turns out they were good for about a half-mile of hiking in a decidedly non-linear fashion. The rest of the time they wanted to gather up pine-needles, make birds nest and pretend to be owls. Or roll around in the dust with the dog. Or run around in the bushes and try to roar like a bear.

Hiking the Narrows in Zion National Park on Thanksgiving.

Eventually, I got with the program, let go of my visions of grandeur and decided whatever they wanted to do was what I was going to do. We made smores around the campfire. I made up elaborate stories of whatever critters we saw that day, and the lives they must lead. Fred the Banana Slug had quite the epic battle against a group of marauding squirrels in one of my tall tales. I learned to appreciate the outdoors for what my kids saw in it, versus what I wanted to find in it. Now, nearly 15 years later, I can take them off-trail deep into the mountains, but that is only possible because I met them where they were back then.

Learn When to Call It Quits

Finally, I have learned when to call it quits. This is probably the most important lesson you can learn. A great experience can turn into a terrible experience if it is dragged out too long. I have learned that once my wife and daughters braid their hair, I have 2 to 3 days to get them somewhere to wash their hair or face an insurrection. In those circumstances we drive into town and get a hotel room so everyone can shower up and feel fresh again. Sometimes everyone is just so sick of camping food that you need to drive an hour to find a pizza parlor. C’est la vie.

Know when to call it quits. Know when to deviate from the plan. And know the limits of the weakest link in the group. Our youngest led the way on our 35-mile backpacking trip through the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho. The faster ones in the back got more time to dink around and then catch up to us. The youngest slowly gained the confidence that comes with leading and became a much stronger hiker for it. If we had stuck her in the middle, or the back, it would have been a soul-sucking hike where she either felt hurried or just couldn’t keep up. The responsibility and excitement of leading kept her engaged and motivated.

Sunset in the Seven Devils Mountains

We have learned a lot, and often get questions from other families wanting to start out. My advice to them in preparation goes something like this:

  1. Plan in advance. A deep knowledge of what you want to do will allow you to deviate when necessary.
  2. Make sure you have good sleeping gear. A bad night of sleep can ruin the experience.
  3. Keep your expectations low and go with the flow.
  4. Camp where your skill level allows. If you aren’t adept at the backcountry, camp closer to civilization where you can drive into Wal-Mart if you need a new spatula, or more eggs.
  5. Figure out when to call it quits.
  6. Take some pictures, print them, and put them up to remember the good times and get motivated to plan another outdoor adventure.
Somewhere on the Oregon Coast.

We have already started planning our Summer 2024 adventure. This will be our first trip without our oldest daughter who is now starting to plan her own adventures. It will be a new era for our family, but it is one I am looking forward to.

“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

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