Monday, May 9, 2011

Planning my big adventures - Family Trips

Every year, I try and plan multiple trips. I generally shoot for a big, one- to two-week family trips, one backpacking trip with my Wife and/or my kids, and one guys backpacking trip. As Summer approaches, I'm excited with the anticipation of our big family trip. This year's trip, a 3,500 mile, 16-day route through Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. I'm going to cover some of my thoughts here on how I plan for my big family adventures and I'll post another entry on how I plan for my backpacking trips.

For those of you who have followed me for a while, I've posted trip reports on our past two Summer trips, including trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, Sequoia Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. There's a lot of planning that goes into pulling off a 4,000 mile, 16-day trip with 6 people. There's hotels to book, campsites to reserve, trails to scout and more. It takes me and my wife probably 2-3 weeks to get everything solidified and we have to start early to get the best deals and the best spots. Here are some of the steps we go through.
  • Where to go - My family is very fond of the mountains and lakes, so I try and find places that will satisfy our thirst for this type of outdoors experience. Our favorite places so far have been the Rockies and the Sierras. I recommend finding out what your family's favorite things to do are and look for destinations that will meet your expectations, such as fishing, beaches, meadows, wildlife, snow, rivers, canoeing, etc. We also like visiting the National Parks, but many State Parks are very nice as well.
  • How to get there - I look for driving routes that will allow us to cover a lot of sights in about two weeks. I generally look for leaving on a Friday or Saturday and returning two weeks later on a Saturday or Sunday. This gives us about 16 days to work with. Google Maps allows you to draw your route and look at driving distances and times. I try and drive no more than 8-9 hours per day. I don't do the overnight driving bit as it's a little too risky. We just plan on leaving early and arriving before dinner.
  • Where to stay - We plan for camping for around three consecutive nights, with at least one night in a hotel between. I identify the National Park Campgrounds in the area we want to be in and then start looking at the reservation policies. Here, you have to be a bit flexible. For instance, we were too late last year to book sites in Yosemite, but we could get a great site in Sequoia. We opted to stay three nights in Sequoia and do just a day in Yosemite Valley. Also, some campgrounds are available only on a first-come, first-serve basis, so I recommend arriving mid-week for these campgrounds and possibly booking a hotel nearby allowing you to get up early one morning to go grab your spot. I have also found resources such as TripAdvisor have ratings by members on certain campgrounds and sometimes even recommend the best sites.
  • What to do - For planning our activities such as hiking and fishing, I depend a lot on resources such as Trails.com, Backpacker Magazine and GORP.com. I look for appropriate trails for my family. I'm a bit ambitious sometimes, and think we can go farther and faster than we can, so I look for trails with options for bail outs and don't disregard opportunities to leverage bartering. For example, I may use a beautiful alpine lake as destination that may push the young ones, but promise to let them take a good long break and have a snack and maybe even get in the water if appropriate. In Rocky Mountain National Park, I even resorted to promising ice cream to everyone when we finished the hike. While in camp, the kids will usually keep themselves entertained digging in the dirt, finding bugs, playing tag, tying each other up with rope, and whatever else they can find to do. Even whittling a stick will keep them busy for a while. As they get older, they can even take on camp duties. My oldest son, now known as FireMan, is in charge of setting up and lighting the camp fire.
  • How far to go and where - A general rule of thumb I go by for my family is to average around 1 mile per hour and spend no more than 5-6 hours any given day on the trail. The kids enjoy hanging around camp, making camp fires, and finding bugs. We'll usually plan to be on the trail by 10am, have lunch on the trail and be back in camp by 3pm or so. Also, because my young ones will be 6 and 8 this year, I would stick with trails that gain no more than 300-500 feet of elevation over 5 miles. I've found that anything more than that gets a bit too steep and I end up carrying them most of the way. If you are sticking to National Parks and well known areas, I would invest in a good Trails Illustrated map of the area. They generally have the trails marked on the map and you can get a good sense of the terrain. Also, check out the National Park Service web site for trail descriptions. Finally, use Google Earth to do a 3-dimensional walk through of your trail. This is really cool.
  • What to eat - For food, we look to make food that is not to different than we make at home. Since we are car camping on these trips, food weight is not a big issue. Our menus for the trip usually consist of the following:
    • Breakfast: Pancakes, bacon, eggs, biscuits (in a dutch oven), sausage, cereal, oatmeal
    • Lunch: Ham sandwiches, summer sausage, leftover grilled chicken from dinner the night before, tortillas, crackers and cheese, apples, clementines
    • Dinner: Grilled chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, baked beans, Ranch Style beans, green beans, corn, macaroni-n-cheese
    • Snacks: GORP, trail bars, Clif Z-Bars for the kiddos, clementines, apples
    • Desserts - s'mores, popcorn, cobbler, cake
  • How to cook it - For cooking, I have the Coleman Dual-Fuel 2 Burner Stove. White gas is easy to find and relatively inexpensive. We cook most of the meat over the fire at night and peel the labels off the canned food and stick it in the fire to cook. I recommend carrying a pair of welding gloves for placing them in and out of the fire. Also, use the can opener to only open it about 3/4 of the way. Then, you can close the lid back when you put it in the fire and keep the ashes out. My recommendation is to practice cooking on it at home. Also, try any recipes out prior to getting to your destination. Make sure everyone will eat what you are making. Nothing worse than tired, hungry, cranky kids in camp.
  • For Java junkies - For boiling water fast for coffee and tea, I carry my Snow Peak Giga Power canister stove and my GSI Dualist kit. It lights in a jiffy and boils about 4 cups of water in a few minutes. That makes the first round of coffee for my wife and son and a cup of Chai for CanyonMan.
  • How to transport your kitchen - I have two hard plastic trunks that I carry all of the food and cooking gear in while we travel. I can store it on the top of the truck or on the back platform. They are buried under the stuff on top of the truck in the picture above. You can see the platform where the coolers are. The top rack is the Yakima Mega Warrior with the extension. This has been a life saver on these trips.
  • Tent arrangements - Regarding tents, I will usually pack two tents. One is my REI Base Camp 4 and the other is the REI Half Dome 2HC. Again, since this is car camping, I will go with the deluxe Coleman air mattresses. I use a double in my Half Dome and a Queen and a Twin in the Base Camp 4. We still use our sleeping bags to sleep in though. I will probably post an entry reviewing all of our sleeping bags sometime in the future. Just be aware of where you are going and plan for sleeping bags rated to 10 degrees below the anticipated low temperatures. I have found that it's almost always colder than you expect. Remember, you can also sleep in additional layers to boost the ratings as well. Last year, my wife slept in her down parka while camping at 10,000 feet in a 25 degree bag when overnight lows were in the low 40's/upper 30's in June. For the kids, don't forget their pillows from home and their "lovies". Sleeping outdoors is sometimes a bit of a challenge, especially for the little ones, when you're gone for two weeks. Sleeping on their favorite pillow with their favorite stuffed animal helps them sleep a little better. If they enjoy reading, be sure to pack a few of their favorite books. And, while we don't typically allow the kids to watch movies while camping, an iPod with some good music is not a bad thing to have either.
  • Hotel arrangements - For hotels, I travel quite a bit and accumulate hotel points with a variety of hoteliers. I use points for the one night here and there where we'll be staying. Last year, I think I had 3 free nights at Holiday Inn Express, One night at a Marriott and one at a Hilton Doubletree. This helps to keep the costs down. Considering the camping is generally $20/night or less, these vacations are a bargain, even if we have to pay for a night or two in a hotel. Don't discount the value of a hot shower and a bed after spending three nights in a tent with 4 kids. We look for hotels that will include breakfast. It gets expensive feeding 6 people when you are eating out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Finally, we will book two rooms on the final night before heading home to let the kids have their own room and let Mom and Dad have a bit of peace and quiet and down time. This is worth the extra expense.
Here are a few other things to think about.

Prior to leaving - Here's a recommendation from my wife. She has done a great job with this and my daughter even pitched in this year. Gather pictures, web sites, articles, books, maps, etc. on the areas you plan to visit and the route you intend to take. Compile them in a binder where everyone can see the plan and anticipate the sights they will see. It also keeps them interested along the way.

While on the trip - Collect memories such as photos, trinkets, etc. along the way. The $10 stuffed snake may seem a bit extravagant, but 2 years later, when your child remembers the time he was sticking it in your ear after visiting the desert, it seems worth it. Stopping to look at every rock and every bug on the trail slows things down, but when your daughter remembers the purple rock that looked like a heart that you found while walking the trails, it's special. These little things add up to big memories. I have pictures from trips taken 5-10 years ago and can quickly glance at them and remember the precise moment that they were taken and it takes me right back to that point in time. My kids are the same way.

Upon returning - Share your memories. This is one of the main reasons I started this blog. Additionally, I have been using services like those offered by Costco and My Publisher to create small photo albums of our trips as well. We keep them out around the house and our kids can share their trips with their friends and family when they come over. Google Picasa and Picasa Web Albums is another great service for sharing online photo albums.

These trips are a special time and I hope you can plan your own adventure and share your stories with me when you get back.

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