Two Kids and a Tent

I’ve been asked more than once what would inspire me as a mother to travel more than 4000 miles across seven states and spend weeks sleeping in a tent with my two children as my only vacation companions. The answer can be summed up in one word: dreams.

As parents we all want our children to have big dreams, but sometimes, those dreams seem larger than we can facilitate. That’s where creativity comes in. When my 12-year-old daughter confided her dream of seeing all 50 U.S. states before she turned 18, her enthusiasm was contagious. We began to plot, plan and dream together daily. Her 9-year-old brother joined right in on the fun.

Like many families, we enjoy traveling whenever possible, but it turned out that a cross-country road trip didn’t interest my husband. Knowing it was important to us, and that we were competent, he was happy to enjoy some peaceful time at home while we went exploring.

Rearranging the family schedule for an extended absence wasn’t easy, but I knew that someday soon my kids would  be too busy to travel with me. Since two of the things I love most are time with my family, and exploring new places, I decided to take them traveling now, before they’re grown.

If your family has visions of the open road, there are a few things you can do to smooth the path from fantasy to reality:

1) Start Wherever You’re At

It’s easy to write off dreams as impractical and overwhelming, because often they start out that way. Nevertheless, if you’re willing to scale back your expectations and start with what you have, you’ll likely get further than you thought. Take inventory of the assets you have on hand. They don’t have to be ideal to get you moving in the right direction.

While our family budget wouldn’t allow for the large RV or six months of free time I initially envisioned, we owned a fairly reliable car and a good-sized tent. We would be able to get away for about a month, and I knew how to camp and pack snacks. So, that was where we started.

Since we wanted to actually experience all 50 states, and not just drive through them, we chose to tackle the country one region at a time, focusing our upcoming trip on the Southwest.

When I shared my plan with friends, a fire was ignited and our dream became a goal. Every time someone asked about it, I found myself taking more actions toward making our trip happen. While you can’t always predict ahead of time, I tried to share with people who are supportive rather than discouraging. We received everything from encouraging advice to loans of camping gear.

By breaking our big dream into smaller chunks, and forging ahead with what we had on hand, we were on our way.

2) Plan For Fun

Henry, age 12, and Lily, age 14 are very helpful when planning family road trips.

Understandably, many parents shiver at the thought of extended road trips with children on board, but with a little planning and flexibility, exploring with kids can be fun for the whole family. Admittedly, it gets easier when everyone is potty trained and past the need for naps.

Getting kids involved in the planning stage helps build excitement before the trip, and to maintain interest during it. It also goes a long ways toward saving both time and money on the road. In the process of planning, my kids learned map-reading, budgeting and strategy skills that helped them become competent co-pilots, making our trip both easier and more fun.

Starting with maps spread across the living room floor and a notepad, my daughter jotted down cities, parks and landmarks of interest, and we came up with a loose route. With some supervision, the kids were able to use the Internet to find directions, prices and features for places they really wanted to visit most. We also borrowed travel guides from the library and began asking around for “must see” stops.

The hardest part was narrowing it down. We knew we couldn’t do everything with the time and money available, so we focused on what was most important to us.

As a family of nature lovers, exploring National Parks was high on our list. Purchasing an America the Beautiful pass entitled us to free entrance to all of the National Parks and Monuments along the way, and was well worth the $85 price tag.

3) Look To Learn

A visit to Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico.

Fun educational opportunities can be found just about everywhere if you keep your eyes open. Look for family-friendly stops that offer entertainment and enrichment geared toward your family’s interests. Whether it’s a candy factory or a video game museum, taking time out to learn something new keeps boredom at bay and enhances the journey.

Our family’s membership to a local science and art museum offers reciprocal privileges and free admission to a number of museums worldwide, many with hands-on and multimedia exhibits. With a list of all of the museums that were on our route, the kids were able to go online to see which ones looked the most interesting. This helped us avoid seeing the same things over and over, or worse, accidentally dragging my tweens into a museum geared toward toddlers.

4) Stay Safe

My children and I never doubted our capability, but the thought of a woman traveling alone with children tends to cause some concern and apprehension. Really, it isn’t as scary as people make it out to be.

Common sense is one thing you’ll definitely want to pack. Stick to well-populated areas, and look for other families. Kids should know not to wander off alone, even to go to the bathroom, and what to do if they become separated in a crowd. Membership in a roadside assistance club gives peace of mind as well. The same simple strategies that keep you safe at home will help keep you safe in your travels.

The Trip Of A Lifetime

Traveling with kids isn’t always perfect, but neither is life at home. In my five weeks on the road with my two kids and a tent, we took a few wrong turns, and experienced more snow, wind and lightning than we bargained for. But, we also had hours of long talks, laughed until we cried, were wowed with amazing new sights every day, and fell in love with our beautiful country. It was a bonding and learning experience like no other. I can’t wait for the next trip.

Pamela Llano
About Pamela Llano

Pamela Jorrick is a northern California writer and homeschooling parent.


  1. Yvonne Fickbohm says:

    Some of my fondest childhood memories are of family road trips. Camping, visiting distant relatives and stopping along the way to take in the sights. America is an amazing place to roam and we are very fortunate to have a country as beautiful as this one to explore. National parks are my personal favorite especially in the late fall when classes resume and there are less crowds. I’ll never forget the time I colected a cupful of tiny frogs and snuck them in the car at the end of a picnic by a stream, not more than ten yards down the road and my hand slipped off the cup and they escaped. Luckily my parents thought is was a hoot and helped to return the critters back to nature. I have etched in my 42 year old brain the exact burgandy color of the car upholstery as the gray green critters hopped about and the way sun shined through the trees, the shadows of the trees fell against the car window . . . Priceless memory!

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