Go Ahead, Take the Long Way: Takeaways From an Epic Family Road Trip

Go Ahead, Take the Long Way: Takeaways From an Epic Family Road Trip

Emma Fiala
Jul 27, 2016
(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

Every year, around this time, my family and I take a trip from Minneapolis to Seattle. My husband and I first went when I was pregnant with our daughter. For our next two trips it was just the three of us. The following year the three of us were jointed by her little brother, in my belly. And now the four of us have been together twice. The reoccurring theme? Rushing! Despite our young company, we would, year after year, make the drive in two days, bypassing many of the most amazing things that the US has to offer. But this year? This year we took it slow. As a freelance photographer, I simply blacked out the dates we needed months in advance. My husband, on the other hand, saved up his time off specifically for our annual adventure.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

We acquired my childhood pop-up camper (A 1975 Apache Mesa) and a car to tow it (thanks dad!) about a month before embarking on our trip. In the midst of our regular busy lives, we loosely planned our route and prepared our new tiny temporary home on wheels. A few atlases, Google Maps plans, new curtains, and a solar panel later... and we were ready. Maybe. Like any trip with kids in tow, we had major highs and major lows. In the end we found ourselves with some takeaways and an appetite for more of this super special travel lifestyle.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

In just over two weeks, we traveled almost 5,000 miles, hitting as many amazing sights as possible. With Seattle as our destination, we hit up memorable spots along the way such as Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore National Monument and Black Hills National Park, the Bonneville Salt Flats, Plumas National Forest, California's Agate Beach State Park, and Redwoods State and National Parks.

We drove up and camped along 101 from northern California into Oregon before heading east to Portland to grab doughnuts at Voodoo Doughnut on National Doughnut Day. We went west out of Tacoma to catch a ferry into Seattle and watch the sunset over Olympic National Park. After a few days in Seattle we were on our way east again, spending time at Bighorn National Forest, Devil's Tower, and Yellowstone National Park on our way through.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

Yep, you can totally camp for free

One of the most useful things that we learned was that you can camp for free in an RV in most Cabela's and Walmart parking lots. Not glamorous, I know, but convenient and affordable. Their goal is that you might run inside in the morning before getting back on the road...for that forgotten toothbrush or because you need more camp stove fuel. But whether or not you go inside, you're welcome to spend the night outside. We noticed that most Cabela's also had RV dump stations available for $5. Keep in mind, though, that not all cities allow overnight camping in parking lots, so not all stores are available for overnight camping. It doesn't hurt to give them a quick ring when you're on your way. We also spent a night at a gas station outside of the Black Hills National Park. If it's late and you're too tired to drive on, don't hesitate to ask for a place to stay.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

You can't see it all

Something I learned (and accepted) early on is that, despite your best effort, some things will be missed. I immediately began keeping a detailed list. I highlighted what we missed that I wanted to come back to or where I wanted to someday spend more time. Honestly, this list encompassed almost everything we visited and every sign or historic marker I saw, but you might be able to come up with a more realistic and manageable list. ;)

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

Wi-Fi could be scarce (so plan accordingly)

We learned an important lesson about planning. Our mobile service is less than useful when it comes to traveling. We knew this going into our trip but didn't expect it to be quite as bad as it was. We did our best to hunt for Wi-Fi and grabbed screen shots of needed info as quickly as our fingers would allow. We discovered that there is a bit of free Wi-Fi in a very distant corner of the cafeteria at Wall Drug, if you find yourself stranded in an internet desert in South Dakota—look there. I embraced the romance of the unknown and we survived.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

Get your arrival timing right

We intended to do a great deal of dispersed camping (camping for free on national land, with no amenities, and typically not at organized campsites) but we often found ourselves pulling into our destinations at night. If dispersed camping is your goal (which I highly recommend if you're able), make sure you have the maps provided by the land area that you're in and that you arrive in daylight to select a campsite and set up. This is especially important in areas with bears and other potentially dangerous wildlife - it is a matter of safely to set up (and stay) wisely.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

The things we used the most

For the most part we packed what we needed (if not more) and didn't find a need to stop for extra supplies. Some of our most used items were our personal backpacking burner, water containers, coffee drip, portable toilet, headlamps, our national parks pass, and bear spray.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

The burner fits one pot at a time, uses a small container of fuel, and takes up little space. With the intention to camp without amenities it was important to have our own water; it was also useful while driving to refill our drinking bottles easily without stopping. A single serve coffee drip that uses a filter is an upgrade from our travel french press—tossing the filter and grounds is significantly easier than cleaning out a french press on the road. The portable toilet also comes into play when camping without amenities and proved useful with young kids and when in areas with bear activity. I highly suggest having one headlamp per person—this makes food prep, clean up, and reading bedtime stories much easier in the dark. Our bear spray was a purchase made on the road—the only time we went into a Cabela's after camping in their parking lot. While we didn't use the bear spray, we kept it close at a couple of camping locations; it is much better to be safe than sorry when dealing with bears. We also learned that freeze dried food packages aren't actually that bad.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

Professional parent takeaways

With small kids in tow, we had to modify a few normal packing and traveling practices. Easy access to snacks is a must. A small children's potty easily accessible is also helpful. We would often travel with pajamas in the car in case of late night arrival—having the kids fall asleep in their pajamas in their car seats and then transferring them to bed is far more successful than waking them to change into pajamas. For nighttime driving entertaining I had a large supply of glow sticks and each kid had a small reading light clipped near their seats for any desired nighttime activities. We also brought an iPod full of favorite music and new audio books to help pass the time. And, most importantly, we stopped a lot—stretch, play, explore, and immerse your family in your surroundings—you won't regret it!

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

A.B.S. (Always Be Snapping)

Do you have a camera? Good! One of my personal tips is to absolutely always have the camera ready. When you see something cool...stop and look! Over the course of two weeks, our trip took us through the plains, so many mountains, salt flats, volcanoes, majestic forests, the ocean, cities, and more. It was a joy to capture it all.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

Go!

Now, what are you waiting for? Block off some time, pick a direction, grab a map, and go! There are amazing things waiting across the world and so many of them are so close to home. Share your adventurous summer road trip hopes and dreams with me in the comments!

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