A few weeks ago my family and I were driving south to the Utah Arizona border to get some camping before winter hit. On the way down, I asked my girls, 9 and 11, what camping trip they remember as being their favorite. We’ve done some great trips together over the years, seen and done some amazing things and I was curious to see what trip stuck with them. My 9-year-old, not looking up from her show on her tablet, was the first to chime in:
“Remember that one place we went to and we forgot, like, everything? No tinfoil, no roasters and we had to borrow some from some people and we roasted marshmallows with sticks?”
Then my wife chimed in, “Also you sank daddies’ camera in the river, remember?”
“Wasn’t that the trip I threw up on the side of the road dad?” I hear from my 11-year-old, also through her headphones.
Yeah, I remember that trip. That was your favorite?!
Both girls – “Yeah.”
I remember that trip and I can tell you, it wasn’t my favorite, but it was memorable. And that’s my story in a nutshell. You want to know how to overland with kids?
Make it memorable.
I personally advise against killing your camera or pulling over for car sickness to do it, but the point stands – If you make your trips memorable, you create the experiences and memories any dad or mom wants with their kids and wants their kids to remember and look back on fondly. Not only that, but you will find the solutions for some of the challenges that bringing the family along can create, if you remember to reframe the trip through the lens of making it memorable.
I won’t pretend to suggest that I have the specific answer for you and your family, because my experience is limited to my small family, as well as trips with friends and their kids. I do however have a few general tips that I think apply to most people.
Make it memorable FOR THEM. Here’s the deal – Kids don’t appreciate the majesty of natural beauty or geography in the same way adults do. They don’t think old mining towns are that interesting. They aren’t really that interested in how challenging the trail is or care if you used your lockers or didn’t. They aren’t going to remember the trip the same way you will. You always must keep in mind that you need to come at this trip from a different angle than you would if you were by yourself, or with your overland crew. The rest of these tips are related to this one large one.
In the car
(A cheap camera can be a great way for kids to connect to the mission. My then 5 year old snapped this one)
Give them something to do in the car.
The truth in our family is that the more time we spend in the car, the more time the kids spend with electronics. Electronics are personal decision for each family and I don’t intend to impose that on anymore here: The point is to get away from those kinds of distractions after all. However, that they won’t be satisfied with just watching the world go by like you or I might. Other activities include road game books, crossword puzzles, books, coloring pads, etc. We’ve had good luck playing “would you rather” games or by making up quizzes like “what Hogwarts house are you.” If you are traveling with friends with kids their age, have them swap cars. Take all the kids for a few hours and then swap, or mix and match. I can tell you that it’s a lot of fun to hear kids play with friends and make up games as you cruise along…and it’s really nice to switch and let them bug your friend for a while too while you get a little time to yourself. At the end of the day though, they watch shows on their tablets and you will probably have to accept some level of that unless you are really committed.
Organization is going to be key here. You are going to be bringing a lot of stuff and it's going to get everywhere. Read here for more info on some great storage options to help you out with the big stuff. For the kids, make sure they have a bag for all their non-essential stuff they can easily access in the car. Encourage them to take charge of their own things. This whole hobby is about self-supported travel – help them understand their part and what that means for them. If your kids are too young for that to be practical, just remember to dedicate a little time each night to sorting and organizing; It will pile up on you so do regular sorting to keep it in check. Keep your organization for this kind of thing relatively loose and put more emphasis on ease over packing efficiency unless every inch counts.
Keep paper towels, napkins and or toilet paper handy. I recommend napkins within reach of the front passenger and paper towels and toilet paper accessible without having to dig through bins or bags when. Make sure garbage bags are easy to find and use. If they can’t find one, it's going on the ground, stuffed in a pocket or thrown in the car. On the topic of keeping clean, a good rinse kit isn't a bad addition if you can swing the space. Keeps the mud and crud from building up on carpets and seats.
Comfort is king.
Don’t expect the kids to absorb the harshness of the outdoors the same way you or I might, they are going to need a touch of home. An easy to use bathroom setup is a priority. Depending on how old your kids are, something that is more foolproof for avoiding messes is a must. We ended up taking a princess training potty with us during the early years and it helped them feel at ease. Make sure they will be comfortably warm around camp and in bed. A camp chair that fits them is highly recommended and kids camp chairs are relatively easy to find. Pack them enough clothes that they have reasonable spares. I know space will be tight, but don’t go out for 4 days with 2 outfits. It won’t go well. Extra basics will be critical - socks, underwear, etc.
Don’t overdo it.
The more time you spend messing around with making your campsite look the part, the less time you are spending outside with your kids. Same goes with meals; A hearty warm meal is good fun, but you aren’t running a restaurant out here, don’t get so fancy you are holding up dinner or giving yourself hours of dishes afterwards. My oldest just reminded me that kids have very little patience for insta worthy meals after a long day. Tasty, warm, simple meals hit the spot.
On this topic, the advise I would give to any overlander is to spend your money on equipment that helps simplify camp life. Better organization, fewer steps to camp setup, gear that packs up and cleans up easily and does more than one job. The goal isn’t MORE, the goal is more with less. The is especially true here. This is why Overlander.com carefully curates what we offer to make sure it’s not about the most stuff, but the best stuff that makes your life better.
NOTE: I want to clarify that you should never wait to enjoy the overland life with your family until you have all the “right” gear. Whether your tent is the excellent Eezi-Awn or if it came from the box store, so long as its suitable for conditions, it won’t make the smallest bit of difference to how much fun you can have with your family on the trail. When its time, buy the gear that makes your trips better and more memorable. We’re here when you are ready to upgrade with the best gear at the best price.
Your agenda shouldn’t be so packed that your whole day is on the road rushing to get to the next place, pulling in way after dark and so on. Personally, I love those days, but I know that my kids don’t. Find small points of interest, places to climb on rocks, interesting roadside attractions. Plan your agenda with lots of wiggle room for stops. When you stop for lunch, make an event out of it. Make a picnic, spend some time there, etc. Kids don't want to be in the car all day, even if you might.
Water and rocks.
This is something I’ve universally found to be true when it comes to trips with kids – They like water, and they like rocks. Young kids want to throw rocks in a lake, river, pond…whatever. Older kids can sit by the lake and read. Rocks that kids can safely [and legally] climb on is also a win. Make sure that your destinations have one or both of these and you are golden. Even in the desert, there is almost always one of these nearby. Wildlife is also a win. Give them something to be excited about in the destinations and don't be afraid to stay long enough for them to soak it all in.
Kid friendly preparedness.
Self-contained travel takes on a whole new meaning with kids. Make sure you have more food and water than you strictly need. Preferable at least 2 full day’s worth. You will want to make sure that you have plenty of "on hand" food that you can quickly give for snacks as well as easy access to water. Kids will have a hard time remembering to stay hydrated in the car. Be sure that your first aid kit contains suitable children's medicines including multiple families of age-appropriate anti-inflammatory medicines (Tylenol and NSAIDS like Ibuprofen), cough and cold meds, etc. Don't forget burn ointment, topical analgesics, antiseptic wipes and bacitracin. And lots of bandaids. 4 out of 5 times their injuries are more about comfort than care so lots of bandaids for those in camp boo boos are key.
Honestly the best thing you can do traveling with kids is to not go alone. Bring someone the kids can play with if you can. If not, it can still add a lot to have a friend there. My friends boys love bugging me for campfire stories even if my girls don’t come. Having more eyes to keep a lookout for kids around camp is also a plus.
Safe around camp.
I won’t tell you how to parent but you should at least be aware of dangers around camp. Check with the local field office for predatory animal sightings in the area. Be aware of any dangerous animals that are local to you like snakes and learn (and teach) how to avoid these animals. If an area is dangerous geographically (cliffs, fast moving water, etc), make sure you clearly explain the dangers at a minimum and set boundaries how you feel appropriate. Any fire should being attended to by an adult. Burns are very common. Losing your way back to camp while playing or wandering is also common and can be very frightening for kids. Of all the safety gear a kid can have, I think a real safety whistle and flashlight is best. These items can be very small and they can clip to pants or fit in pockets pretty easily. Teach kids to stay put and whistle loudly if they can’t find their way back to camp. Use the flashlight in the direction they hear someone coming. There are a lot of really crappy safety whistles in emergency kits, make sure you get good ones and have the kids test them.
NOTE: Make sure to also let them know that if they use their whistle in the car or in the tent that you will feed them to the bears as soon as your hearing returns.
Cheap two way radios are also a good addition. Radios are a win because they are a safety device that is also a toy. They will happily run all over talking on their radios and you can listen in on your radio back at camp to keep tabs on them.
Honestly, you know your kids, they are probably a lot like you were. Ask yourself “What kind of dumb thing would I do at their age?” and use that as a guide. Good luck.
MAKE IT MEMORABLE
I remind my family (and myself) that even if things aren't going well right now, it doesn't mean you can't make something of it. In fact it's probably going to end up being one of your families most cherished memories. Their experience will depend on how you shape it, through your attitude and how you experience setbacks and challenges. The truth is that we are better at remembering bad things than good, but that doesn't mean you have to accept that only the bad memories will abide - you can hijack that process and make bad times great memories and those are the seeds of adventure they will never forget.