Planning a summer vacation is never an easy task. Before we had kids the only thing holding us back was bad management of our finances and salaries that took many years to catch up to our expertise. Once we had kids, we had to plan vacations that were affordable and appropriate for our kids at each stage. We didn’t do much during the first four years of parenthood. When our daughter was a baby we took her the Smoky Mountains for a couple of days and then returned to the Smokies three years later when a family reunion dragged us back. We also took one very scaled down spring break trip down to Orlando, driving our Outlander the whole way there from Indiana and spending most of the time with Jeff’s parents at the resort where they had accommodations for the whole family, limiting ourselves to two park days. But otherwise, we usually stayed home.

But then we bought our camper, dragging us out of town and straight into nature.

From the moment our kids fell in love with the activity that defined our early marriage, camping became the driving factor for vacation planning. We may have ditched the tent for the luxury of walls and AC, but we were determined to make the camper our home base for vacationing. Forget the time shares; we weren’t going to be tied down to a single location. We were going to see the country and we were going to pull our hotel room behind us.

For Summer 2019, I knew that I had a two week window and there were places that I wanted to explore out west. Yes, there was a NPS passport book influencing my decisions, but I had places that had been on my “wish list” for years and the only parameters Jeff gave me were the time frame and reasonable travel distances each day.

With that, I planned a trip to Arches National Park and back. So what has the last six months of planning looked like?

Step 1: Map out the route. This was tough because I initially dreamed big. I was going to direct the family all the way up to Dinosaur National Monument and Rocky Mountain National Park so that we could visit Jeff’s sister in Denver. Then reality set it. We couldn’t go that far and actually spend reasonable time in each location in two weeks. We would spend our entire vacation on the road. So those were the first two places that got knocked off the list. Then I tried to work in White Sands National Monument and Capulin Volcano National Monument. Once again, I realized that we needed at least two, if not three, more days to hit those as well and I just couldn’t responsibly work those into our schedule. I narrowed it down to five national parks (to be discussed in the coming days in the blog) and attempted to plan for reasonable travel days and plenty of time to exploring and relax together as a family.

Step 2: Make LOTS of reservations. Once I had our route planned I had to plan the stops along the way, trying to keep each day of travel down to a maximum of 300 miles (I was mostly successful). I did my best to find state parks along the way, but in the end only five of our nine stops are actual state parks (four in Texas and one in New Mexico). For two of our three longer stays near national parks I had to book with KOA, getting a year membership to cut down a little on the cost of each stay. I’m hoping that the availability of a pool and laundry at two of the four KOAs makes it worth the extra money and close proximity to neighbors. I’ve had most of these reservations taken care of since January, finishing the last one-night stay just this past week. If you are planning a national parks trip, it is best to make those plans at least six months in advance. Camping spots fill up quickly during the summer months.

Step 3: Plan the menu. Much of my planning after the route and reservations are complete hinges on the menu. I am not a meal planner. I know that people extol the virtues of meal planning if you are trying to live on a budget, but I just can’t do it. However, when we are going on a long camping trip and we don’t know what kind of shopping is going to be available, meal planning (or at least a rough outline) is a must. We try to freeze as many of the items as possible to help keep the freezer and fridge cool once we hit the road. For this trip, we have the following

  1. Enchiladas – a great first day meal that I make up the night before. This time the task was made a little more difficult thanks to being out of frozen pulled pork (which rarely happens in our house) and the need to add one more meal prep to our day-before-leaving to-do list.
  2. Hamburgers
  3. Brats
  4. Fajitas
  5. Brisket sandwiches – again, we are all stocked up on smoked meat because we make a lot at one time and then freeze meal sized portions.
  6. French dip – putting the ingredients in the crock pot and just letting them simmer is the best way to have dinner ready after a day out exploring.
  7. Teriyaki chicken – homemade sauce completed a couple days ago and frozen with the chicken.
  8. Spaghetti
  9. Hot Dogs
  10. Steak – pre-cooked in our sous vide cooker, frozen, and ready to be grilled on the right night.
  11. Tacos
  12. Country style ribs – homemade BBQ sauce ready to go
  13. Pulled pork sandwiches

Step 4: Load up the audiobooks. We firmly believe in audiobooks for travel and we have a combination of library books downloaded to my phone and physical CDs when the books we wanted weren’t available for download. Someday we’ll be able to listen to more grown-up stuff with our kids, but for now it’s a lot of elementary and early middle grade listening. Finally getting to listen to all of The Stand on a vacation will have to wait about five or six years.

Step 5: Make the shopping/packing list. I have to make these lists at the same time, referring back in the notebook to previous trips so that I can figure out what we may be missing. Ever since coming up with the notebook system we miss fewer items, but it’s not perfect. I’m sure we will discover down the road that we forgot something.

Step 6: Print out all reservations and maps. It’s better safe than sorry and I put everything into a notebook with clasps.

Step 7: Get the supplies. This is a little easier said than done, but after several trips, we got everything on the list.

Step 8: Give the kids their packing list. A couple years ago we made our kids completely responsible for packing their own stuff for camping vacations. It was a little easier in our last camper because they could access their bunkhouse and put all of their stuff away, but now we have them pack all of their stuff into collapsible laundry baskets, put the baskets into our bedroom, and they unpack everything and put it all away when we get to our first stop. If our eight and ten-year-old forget something (and they do forget things) then it’s their responsibility to come up with a clothing solution. We’ve had to make exceptions and rescue them on occasion, but it usually works out pretty well.

Step 9: Pack the camper. For every camper we’ve looked at, one of our biggest requirements has been access to our bedroom and the kitchen when the camper is parked. We need to be able to put all of our clothes and toiletries away and we need to be able to put away all of our food and access it when we make stops on the road. If we can’t do those two things with a camper, we just aren’t interested. Thankfully, we’ve always had access and so much of the night before is spent doing just that: packing up everything we can in the dark.

So the laundry is done, the dishwasher needs to be loaded, and there are a couple more things to do before I shower up so we can get on the road ASAP tomorrow.

If you’re following the blog you should be able to get updates on our travels as I have time and available internet. And if you don’t follow but you want updates, follow! Enjoy!

Thoughtful and nuanced responses welcome!