Two years ago, we met up with friends at Natural Bridges National Monument, a lesser-known collection of wonders in southeastern Utah. To commemorate the trip we decked out our fleet of SUVs and minivans in vinyl stickers—something akin to the ubiquitous Ragnar decal, but in the shape of Owachomo Bridge. With fresh vinyl pegged to our rear glass, we traveled from points north and south for a weekend of camping, biking, and canyoneering…with 14 kids aged under one to 10 years.
Just imagine all of the crying and hassle, right? Not so much. Since becoming a dad, I’ve been surprised by how many families are fearful of taking adventurous trips with their kids. My wife and I are lucky to have good friends who’ve shown us how fun it is to continue outdoor pursuits with babies in tow. So maybe all people need to know is that such trips are possible. To that end, let me tell you that they are, and with maximum fun and minimal headache.
Using examples from our trip to Natural Bridges (NBNM), here are a few tricks we’ve learned to help turn what could have been stressful outdoor vacations into lasting memories for us and our children.
The ‘P’ Factor
As a teenager, I read a quote that still rings true for me: “Proper planning and preparation prevent piss-poor performance.” And the ‘P’ Factor certainly applies to adventure trips with children. The trip to NBNM involved meeting at the campsite on Thursday night, spending Friday touring the monument, and traveling home on Saturday. Each family had assignments to help the trip run smoothly. My family was in charge of choosing a campsite and making sure everyone would know how to find it (we placed directions under a rock at a predetermined turnoff). Others were in charge of coordinating meal assignments, managing the campsite, and even conducting a pre-biking yoga/stretch session for the kids.
Getting kids involved is easier than it sounds, and it includes not only planning activities around them, but also allowing them to contribute to the success of the trip. The biggest activity of our Friday in NBNM was riding bikes along the nine-mile loop that runs through the monument, stopping at each of the major parking areas to hike down and look at the natural bridges that provide its namesake. Most of the kids had an assignment for at least one of the three stops. The jobs ranged from planning roadside snacks to telling jokes or stories during the Kid Comedy Special we held beneath one of the natural bridges.
At the campsite, it was easy to find jobs the kids liked. Gathering firewood was a quick sell for all but the youngest, especially with older children assigned to supervise and keep everyone within sight of the camp. Older kids love camp jobs, and they can really do a lot, from setting up tents and unpacking vehicles to helping with meal prep. Younger children are a little more limited, but they can do simple tasks like rolling out sleeping bags and filling water bottles. Having responsibilities for planning and contributing helps kids feel involved and less apt to complain.
The Devil in the Details
With long car trips, details make a difference, and we’ve developed traditions over the years that help make them fun. The first is that every trip gets a playlist, or two, for the car ride. For NBNM, two families made trip soundtracks and shared them with the group ahead of time. We keep a collection of our trip mix CDs in the car for everyday listening, and our kids don’t seem to tire of them. Custom stickers for vehicles like those I created, and smaller versions for the kids to stick on stuff, are also a hit. The kids loved putting these stickers on their bikes or helmets.
We also try to plan stops along the journey to break up the drive and allow us to experience sites we otherwise might have missed. When returning from NBNM, we stopped with another family to explore the lower portions of Leprechaun Canyon and have a picnic lunch. This stop in particular showed us that our then 18-month-old has the soul of a canyoneer. A dad’s-only stop (20 minutes) at Frylette Canyon gave the driving dads an opportunity to do a couple of laps through the canyon before getting back on the road. And it gave the wives and kids a chance to puzzle over two half-dressed men repeatedly running across the highway and disappearing into the sandstone only to emerge a soaking, sandy mess.
Since our first-born could sit up, we’ve involved our kids in our outdoor passions, taking them camping, rock climbing, backpacking, hiking, and canyoneering. My feeling is that the earlier kids are exposed to the outdoors, the more likely they–and their parents–are to enjoy spending time outside as a family.
We live in an age of nature deficit disorder in which screen time has taken the place of outdoor play time and in which wilderness is again becoming a scary unknown. Families that spend time together in the outdoors will soon find that it’s not nearly as difficult as it seems. And the memories it creates are the kind that bond and last a lifetime.
Family Travel Must-haves
When traveling with kids, especially ones under the age of 10, organization is paramount. The following items just might help you forestall a meltdown.
Dakine Carry On Roller 36L
Consolidation, when possible, preserves sanity. That’s why I like this 36L Carry On Roller. It holds enough clothing, plus extras, for three kids–or two adults–on a weekend retreat or car camping trip. Roll-aboard features make it easy to transport, and external pockets keep important items handy. But my favorite thing about this bag is its minimal internal structure. This means it stores smaller than most carry-ons, but can also stretch to accommodate extra stuff if you need it. $125 dakine.com
Dakine Accessory Cases
Organize travel goodies with Dakine’s various accessory cases. The School Case is structured enough to protect school supplies or a handful of princesses or action figures. The Evelyn, which is actually two small pouches, is perfect for crayons, stickers, stamps, and other things that might end up all over the car on a road trip. But the most versatile is the aptly named Accessory Case, which holds just about anything smaller than a hoagie. $8–$14 dakine.com
Eco Vessel Scout Water Bottle
This 13-oz. stainless steel water bottle is available in enough cool graphic designs that you’ll be sure to find one that will make your kid happy. Oh yeah, it doesn’t leak, and drinks flow smoothly through the sippy top with an internal straw. $17 ecovessel.com
Eco Vessel Gobble-n-GoTM
Here’s a product that makes you say, “Now why didn’t I think of that?” This brilliant little stainless steel snack bowl with handles and an ingenious silicone top keeps snacks in their place during even the longest car ride. $15 ecovessel.com