Ah, school has been out for what feels like centuries and the day you’ve been planning for has finally arrived. Time to hit the road for some family time!
Let’s continue to be honest with each other. This is no time for sugar coating the truth. With expectations sky high, there are bound to be a few hiccups along the way. And that’s OK. Because you covered the basics we’ve discussed here before, right? Let me recap in case you were distracted by your Instagram feed:
1. You chose something that might push a few boundaries, but that everyone can handle. So it’s not an expedition to Mt. Everest, but a weekend of car camping at the nearby state park that happens to have a sandy beach and great wifi. That’s a good start.
2. You’re ready for the worst, but hoping for the best. Plan B, AKA the Holiday Inn down the road, is booked with a refundable reservation in case another “storm of the century” rolls in. Just don’t forget to cancel it, ’cause paying for a comfy hotel room while you fitfully toss and turn on the hard ground might take some of the fun out of the experience.
3 & 4. Your gear is prepped and packed to travel. This is not the time to figure out that you’re missing the tent stakes because whoever put it away last time didn’t stuff them in the bag. True story. Amazon Prime next day shipping is great, but check your stuff at least a week before go time.
The journey can be part of the fun, depending on how far you need to travel. If it was a lengthy car ride of more than, say, 5 minutes, we figured out pretty quickly to align drive times with nap schedules. Or better yet, pile the sleeping beauties into the minivan at 0-dark-30. By the time they wake up and start squirming in their car seats, you’ve stealthily put a couple hours under your wheels. And bonus, while the precious prince/princess slumbers, you & your spouse actually have windshield time to talk without hearing “Are we there yet?” for the 100th time. Assuming you remembered the coffee.
As you near your destination, don’t forget to share the plans for the day. Nobody likes surprises, well, maybe a birthday present or a bonus at work are nice. But depending on the age of your kids, get them pumped up with some maturity-appropriate details. Are they going to help unload the stuff and setup the room/cabin/yurt/tent? If so, play Huck Finn on them so they feel a sense of pride in being able to say they did it. You’ll still need to do the heavy lifting, but more hands make lighter work, as Grandpa used to say. Less effective on teenagers who are wise to the manipulative ways of parents. Thanks a lot, Internet.
The hardest part of the trip may actually be figuring out what to do, but fortunately humans need to eat. Meals are always a great time-consumer, whether it’s buying ingredients in a confusing grocery store, making something palatable over the most primitive equipment since the stone age, actually eating whatever you’ve managed to concoct, and then cleaning up in the pitch blackness at some nasty camp restroom sink with a drain clogged from several days’ worth of spaghetti-o’s. Trust me, put some thought into your food and make it part of the outdoor experience. On a recent trip to the Pacific NW coast, we ended up buying a just-landed salmon directly off the fisherman’s boat. The kids will never forget Dad showing off his not-quite Bear Grillis skills in turning that beautiful fish into a couple of ragged filets to cook over the coals.
It’s also a great American tradition to outsource things we’d rather not do ourselves. No, I’m not talking about handing your family off to the nanny for the week. This is a family vacation, remember? I’m referring to ranger-led tours. Yes, your tax dollars provide many benefits, one of which is supporting the folks, sometimes clad in khaki hats or period garb, who take the effort out of parental story telling. So what if you forget most of what you were taught in 10th grade history? Dedicated individuals, unabashed specialists in their field, will regale you with colorful stories of human struggles, insights into the natural world, or the technical details of water turbines and fish ladders. OK, so maybe not everyone’s interested hydroelectric power.
Lastly, most families will experience moments which they won’t put on their sanitized “everything is perfect” social media. It’s true, spontaneous outbursts are normal. And I’m not just talking about the kids… You’re probably in unfamiliar surroundings, without the usual distraction of high speed internet, and perhaps pinned down in your tent by pouring rain. In that instant, you think this is the stuff you’ll want to forget. But the passage of time has a kind way of turning those misfortunes into adventures. The Boyles still smile about going out for a short walk on a steamy afternoon, suspecting it might thunder any moment. Well, it did, and we got soaked. And that particular event became the signature memory of the trip.
In closing, planning is important, but so is going with the flow. The time you spend together as a family in the outdoors may not always be picture perfect, but it’s togetherness that you’ll treasure as the years pass and the laughs outweigh the tears. And speaking of pictures, how about saving those memories in an actual printed album?
About the author
Jeff has been wandering around the woods since his loving parents first told him kindly to “Go outside and play!” at the tender age of 4. About the same time, he climbed his first mountain in New Hampshire without being carried the entire way. A few years later, he married Amy, a wonderful and adventurous professional photographer, and the two of them raised four boys together. He soon understood why his folks had encouraged him to spend so much time outdoors as an energetic youngster…
In Amy & Jeff’s two decades of togetherness, they’ve gone from camping mainly ’cause he’s frugal, to realizing they actually enjoy spending time in the “five billion star” resort called the great outdoors. Both have been active in Scouting, and their own boys have mostly had no choice but to come along. From lugging the heaviest car-camping gear ever made several miles into the woods of northern Wisconsin, to flying their latest slimmed down but still comfy adventure kit to the west coast, they’ve gotten better at getting around.
Just about the world’s worst storyteller, Jeff has decided it’s more effective to write and share photos about what he’s learned through many years of family outdoor travel. Like Mark Twain supposedly said, “Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.” Hopefully his sarcastic New England style doesn’t put everyone off, especially all the nice folks he’s met in the Midwest that he’s been so lucky to have called home for what feels like forever.