I'll confess - I'm a huge Tolkien fan. In 'The Hobbit', Gandalf tries to persuade Bilbo to join an adventure. What's Bilbo's response? Rather similar to my initial thoughts about camping - "We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”
Two people by the evening campfire at Carolina Beach State Park, North Carolina

I never considered doing a long road trip, much less a 7,600 mile car camping trip from our comfy home in North Carolina to the big sky country of Montana and back again. But there you have it. In the summer of 2018 I packed my four daughters and me up in our 2008 Chrysler Town & Country, said goodbye to my husband and sons, and went off on an adventure that would change our lives forever.

There are so many reasons not to camp - it can be rather overwhelming to start. I'd like to help dispel the fear and show you how I overcame each of my concerns. Because if I can camp, anyone can camp!

1. I don't camp.  

The rest of the family would go camping and I would (sensibly) stay home with my familiar creature comforts - good for them and good for me. Then a business trip to Asheville came up, and somehow they talked me into camping at the Mount Mitchell State Park campground for single night.

"Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick."
              ~Bilbo, The Hobbit, J.R.R Tolkien

What I learned.  

  • Just because I came to our marriage with a Coleman 2-burner stove  does not mean that I have ever camped.
  • Remember that the past does not define the future. Watching everyone at ease setting up the campsite equipment, I felt completely clueless. But I could learn. I just needed to practice.
  • Look at the forecast. It’s cold at the top of a 6600 ft mountain at the end of May – the temperature in Asheville at an elevation of 2100 ft does not in any way reflect the temperature on top of a mountain 4500 ft higher.
  • Recognize the budget value of camping. For $13/night, we spent one day in Asheville and the next day hiking the Mount Mitchell trails before heading home. Suddenly, faraway places were opened up to us.
Wooden fence, gravel road, and green meadows at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

2. I  don’t like to drive.

My family and friends know all too well that I prefer to drive no more than a few miles from home - and if I can walk, even better. Driving to a nearby town less than 15 miles away - surely I need a passport!  So it was a genuine concern trying to figure out how I would handle driving long distances as a solo driver for the majority of the roadtrip.

"The world is not in your books and maps, it’s out there."
            ~ Gandalf to Bilbo, The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

What I learned.

  • Find the root cause. For me, it wasn't the driving, but the monotony. Does anyone enjoy driving round and round on the same beltway? It turns out that I loved the drive - the changing landscapes and new vistas- even Kansas!
  • Use audiobooks and music playlists. They help prevent boredom and build shared memories. The girls and I camped for the week along the Blue Ridge Parkway. When we went 30 minutes in the wrong direction, it just meant another fun chapter in the audiobook Cheaper by the Dozen instead of fretting over a missed turn.  
  • Take shakedown trips. For example, we wanted to replicate a driving day with hiking so the girls and I drove a couple hours to Hanging Rock State Park, hiked the trails, and returned the same day. We had such great fun preparing for our long trip - the mini-trips were like delicious appetizers!
  • Consider a relaxed schedule. As a mostly solo driver, I scheduled no more than 5-6 hour drive times between destinations and usually reserved two night stays at campgrounds – time for recovery and for exploration. However, I broke that rule a few times - sometimes we just needed to move on. 
  • Remember google map estimates are strictly drive times only - it does not account for lunch breaks, bathroom breaks, traffic accidents, getting lost, or weather. Add extra time.
Four girls at pinnacle in Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina

3. I was afraid of the van breaking down.

I mapped out the trip - it was a lot of mileage (7,600 miles total). The question "what if the van broke down" haunted me. Would I be stranded in the middle of a deserted road with four young daughters?

In the end it wasn’t what if but rather when the van broke down.

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
         ~Thorin II Oakenshield to Bilbo, The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

What I learned.

  • Tune up the car beforehand (we had).
  • Buy a AAA membership. The nicest guy from AAA helped us in DeSmet, South Dakota, when we left the  interior lights on and drained the battery. He even waited to make sure that we were on our way before heading out himself.
  • Remind yourself that people are kind; pay it forward. An Idaho couple on a Harley whipped out what I called a “miracle in a pocketbook” to jumpstart our van at Old Faithful.  We now own a jumper battery.
  • Schedule buffer days. We used one to fix a tire and another to buy a new battery.
  • Stuff happens - be prepared. Have plenty of food and water and take less remote roads as a precaution.
Bison on the side of the road in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

4. Wildlife Dangers

When I would tell people we were preparing for an extended road trip out West, bears and snakes came up a lot in conversations. It wasn’t high on my worry list, but I suspect that knowledge reduces fear.

"It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him." 
                  ~The Hobbit,  J.R.R. Tolkien

What I learned.

  • Learn the rules of each campground and then follow them. Seriously. I was surprised at the number of people that disregarded the food rules at Yellowstone National Park – endangering themselves, fellow campers, and the bears (sad story).
  • Do not feed the bears! Read about camping and hiking in bear country. Never eat food in your tent and store food and scented items in a bear box or a fully locked vehicle. Fun fact: While camping along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the ranger warned us to lock our vehicles. The bears know how to open doors.
  • Snake safety– again – know before you go. Watch your step and look where you place your hands when climbing rocks or collecting firewood.
  • Generally speaking, animals are not interested in you. They just want you to leave them alone to do their animal business.

5. No Screen Time

We made a decision not to bring any DVD players or handheld games. With the kids old enough to read, we wanted to try an experiment. However, we did bring our loaded kindles, audiobook thumb drive, deck of cards, and Spotify playlist. When we had connection, I only used my phone to text to let family know our location and what we were doing.

"You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end."
           ~Dwalin to Bilbo, The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

What I learned.

  • Disconnect with technology. Initially, it felt odd but was quickly followed by relief. Stepping away from the news and connecting with those around us was refreshing. Bonus: our evening camp routine now involved reading. We often talked about our books and exchanged kindles. My 15 year old daughter even finished Les Miserables!
  • Connect with others. We have our favorite questions of fellow travelers: Where are you from? Where are you going? What is your favorite place visited?
  • Embrace silence. Often we would drive with no books, music, or talking. Sometimes we just need to be still and quiet. I came away from this road trip refreshed in mind, body, and soul.
Two ponies grazing in the mist at Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia

6. Physical Challenges

We wondered about weather – what if it was windy, cold, hot, rainy, or stormy? With only a thin sheet between us and inclement weather, it was a bit worrisome. Also, another challenge - we knew we’d have full traveling and hiking days, so would we have energy to set up a campsite at the end of the day? Would we be able to get comfortable and get to sleep at the end of the day?

This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.
          ~The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

What I learned.

  • Take mini-camping trips to try out weather challenges. Wind? Head to a windy beach like Outer Banks (the Wright Brothers knew that too). Rain? Camp during the spring on a mountain top, such as Grayson Highlands, VA. Good gear, good attitude, and practice makes for a good trip.
  • Buy appropriate gear and practice how to use it– tent setup, extra stakes and guy lines, raincoats, layers, hats, gloves, headlamps, quick dry clothing.
  • Invest in your sleep. Make sure you have a good sleeping bag, pad, and pillow.  Personally, I need two pillows to sleep well.
  • Read about what to do during a lightning storm or a tornado. We always located the storm shelter at the campgrounds.
  • Use a minimalist approach to packing. We each had same size but different color duffle bags. We constantly looked for ways to trim our packing on our shakedown mini-trips while making sure we had everything we needed (like the first aid kid).
  • Develop a team style approach for quick set ups, tear downs, cooking, and clean up. We  had a family motto that no one rests until everyone rests.
  • Know your limits.  New to camping, on long travel days, I totally cheated and stayed at a lodge or motel. I wanted success more than proving what tough campers we were. 

7. Mental Challenges

It was a 39-day camping trip so it was more of a marathon than a sprint. Our youngest is prone to homesickness. Would the long days make us tired and cranky? Although my husband and son would be with us for part of the trip, most of the trip I would be responsible as the sole driver and decision maker.

"Bilbo had many hardships and adventures before he got back. The wild was still the wild."
              ~The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

What I learned.

  • Allow room for a favorite stuffed animal.
  • Provide plenty of water and a variety of snacks. Also, dinners usually involved some kind of treat – s’mores, pudding cups, applesauce, and the like.
  • Mix it up and take into account individual passions.  Mostly a outdoor nature trip, I also included a variety of things to do such as speciality museums, zoos, farms, horseback riding, musicals, and historical monuments.
  • Don’t let the schedule rule you. Leave days for rest, church, and relaxation. On my itinerary, I knew the places/times where we could attend Mass and sometimes instead of a hike we’d play in the creekside campsite.
  • Avoid decision fatigue.
    o Make a list of easy camp meals with an occasional regional splurge. We just had to try barbecue in St Louis.
    o Make advance campsite reservations when possible. Early reservations often allowed for waterfront sites.
    o Make a list of choices on your itinerary - there isn't time to do everything.  Savor the moments. 
  • Apologize. Despite it all, mistakes happen; tempers will be lost. 
  • Cheerlead – one time I realized how far we had to carry our gear and I felt panicky. My daughters saw my stricken look and reassured me – it was not that far and we could do it. It turned out to be a favorite – a secluded campsite under a small cottonwood grove overlooking the Little Missouri River in the North Dakota Badlands (see the first picture in this post - it was stunning!).

I have an amazing family – my husband and kids never doubted for a minute and we continue to look back at this roadtrip and all our roadtrips. We haven’t stopped camping!

Which leads me to ask - how can we help you to start camping? We'd love to hear from you!

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