Thursday, December 3, 2015

Planning for a Road Trip

Reading about the logistics for Charity and Ian's 'round-the-world adventure got me thinking about how our family prepares for a 2-week road trip. It isn't quite the same, but it does feel like we spend just as much time getting ready as we do on the road. Having five children complicates things a bit, but we've got a lot of practice by this point. Here's a brief rundown of what goes on behind-the-scenes when the Wright Family goes on the road, with last summer's trip to Maine as an example.

Step 1 - Decide where we are going

There are so many awesome places to visit, and we've got a road trip bucket list at least a page long. We usually have a broad idea of where we are going on our summer road trip at least two or three years in advance, given the constraints of family reunions, solar eclipses, and other events. With a broad idea about which part of the country we want to be in, and when, we can start doing location-specific research about who to visit and what do to and see. The dates, activities and specific locations don't get resolved at this point, but it goes us a starting point for doing research.

We decided to go to Maine since shortly after moving to Pittsburgh in 2012, but the substance of the trip has changed substantially in the subsequent three years.

Step 2 - Location-specific planning

Several months before the trip date (usually a month or two after the end of the previous one), we start looking at specific locations. We talk to friends, search the internet and get a few guidebooks for the area we are visiting. Sometimes we just open the road atlas and start looking for interesting stuff. Over the course of several months, we can make a pretty large list of "must-see" locations, as well as "targets of opportunity" that we can see if we get the time or the inclination.  The second category usually becomes our fallback plans in case of weather or other changes.

A sampling of books used for our Maine trip

Making location-specific plans several months out gives us enough time for cases where advance reservations are required.  We decided to go to Baxter State Park and Acadia National Park as part of our visit to Maine, and both require advance reservations for camping spaces.  Given the size of our family, it's also important to make any hotel reservations in advance, so we can get adjoining rooms or a suite.  Making advance reservations can eliminate some of the flexibility on a trip, but with our rolling Adventuremobile packed full of camping gear, we find we can still spontaneously show up at the vast majority of campgrounds in the country.  (It also helps that the Forest Service maintains a comprehensive list of their campgrounds, including amenities.)

We also spend these months researching activities and sights in our area.  We won't get to see them all, but by having several months to collect our thoughts, we have a pretty good list to work from as we start planning our day-to-day activities.

Step 3 - Day-to-Day Activities

By a couple of months before a trip, we've got a basic idea of where we'll be, as well as some suggestions for things to do while we are there.

An important part of this entire process is recognizing our limitations.  Three years ago, while moving from Austin to Pittsburgh, we decided to ditch the traditional habit of camping each night in favor or motels, since we had a 2-month-old baby with us.  We've also had experience where we have completely skipped parts of a trip, knowing that we wouldn't be able to do them justice at our current pace.

Our current family situation with lots of young children, means we can do roughly two 2- or 3-hour activities per day, plus a couple hours of travel if we're moving between locations.  Anything more than that, and we feel a bit rushed, and if one of the activities is underwhelming or doesn't last as long as we thought, we can always find a city park somewhere and let the kids run around for a bit.

Step 4 - Food

Heather handles the food preparation for our long family trips, and honestly, I've no idea how she does it. I'm going to defer a complete explanation on this topic for a subsequent post by her.  Suffice it to say that we come loaded for bear, but we also know we can restock along the way. (Grocery shopping in another place is sometimes part of the adventure!)

The pre-trip food staging area.
Since we tend to camp and cook our own food, we want to do as much preparation before we go as possible, since this reduces the amount of time and effort we need to spend cooking and cleaning on the road. Heather isn't afraid to experiment, and for our Maine trip, we spent weeks dehydrating all kinds of different foods and organizing them into individual meals. Tasty!

Step 5 - Gear

We use the front room in our house as a staging area for the durable gear for our trip: clothes, camping supplies, diapers and other items.  As we collect them in the days preceding our trip, we put them in a staging area, usually the front room of our house.  To make things easier, we try to pack away and replace any consumables right after the previous trip, so that we know they will be ready for the next time we go.

As children have gotten older, we've given them increased responsibility for their own belongings.  We still need to do a pre-trip shakedown to avoid somebody taking 10 pairs of socks and no underwear, but we generally like to let them do whatever they can in getting ready.  We plan for an entire week of laundry, knowing that our only chance might be at our weekly motel stop or a laundromat somewhere on our off day.  As with most trips, the key to minimizing clothes is a willingness to be flexible.

At times, it feels like the collection won't fit in our car.

Step 6 - Packing

We usually wait until the day or two before the trip to start loading the car, since we need it for running errands and other tasks before the trip.  When we're camping, we put "the bubble" on top of the van and load gear into it.  I usually put the camping gear in the bubble, since it means we can just leave the bubble closed during periods of the trip where we are not camping by staying with friends or in a motel.

On our trip to Maine, it felt like the car was packed to the gills with gear, food and people, and we sometimes got creative to make sure everything fit.  For example, propane cylinders went under the back seat, or we put a cooler behind Benjamin, since he didn't need the leg space.  The car tends to open up a little as we eat our way through our food stores and other consumables over the course of the trip, but smart packing is certainly worth the effort that goes into it.  By the time we're ready to go, the Adventuremobile is ready to be our home on wheels.

On the Road

Even though we put a lot of effort into planning ahead, we try really hard to be flexible as the trip progresses. Weather, illness, car malfunction, road closures, and just general trip fatigue all contribute to changes to our plan while en route. Being prepared for these circumstances helps, but having flexibility and fallback plans makes it easier to change direction when needed. I try to keep in mind two axioms:
  1. As soon as we leave the house, it's all adventure.
  2. There will be another time: we can always come back again.
In spite of all our planning, we may not get to see what we planned, we may discover something more interesting while on the road, or things just won't go our way. That's part of the adventure! If we miss something we want to see, there will always be another opportunity.

So that's a rough idea of how we plan a family road trip. It isn't the easiest thing in the world, but we've found it worth it. From getting rained out in the Guadalupe Mountains, to driving the Beartooth Highway out of Yellowstone, to spending a couple of days on the north shore of Lake Superior, we've had great experiences together that will last a lifetime. Much of that is due to thorough preparation.

(Coming soon: a post about how to prepare children for two weeks in the car.)

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