LESSON 1: Rent the biggest RV that you can afford, not the smallest one that you can stand.
In an attempt to be fiscally responsible, we had reserved a 26-foot Class C with one slideout. But after taking one step inside, we realized that we had made a mistake. Twenty days is a long time for four people to be in a rig that size—especially when one of those people is a rambunctious 4-year-old boy! Fortunately, the rental company had a 31-foot Class C with two slideouts available, so we upgraded. It was worth every penny! And I can’t say enough about the value of slideouts!
LESSON 2: Unpack your luggage before the trip to Super Target.
We purposefully packed light. Each person was only allotted four changes of clothes. That meant we were doing laundry every few days, but it really wasn’t a problem. (Frankly, I volunteered to go to the Laundromat to get a little “me” time.) It was nice to have uncluttered closets and drawers. Since we flew into Salt Lake City, we did have to purchase supplies and food. Our mistake: we didn’t unpack our luggage before hitting the Super Target. No one could move in the RV with two giant duffle bags, four oversized backpacks and 20 bags of groceries!
LESSON 3: Forget about Martha Stewart.
As a working mother of two, I often don’t have a lot of time to cook. On this trip, I was looking forward to eating well. I even brought a cookbook, which seems ludicrous in retrospect! I know, plenty of full-time RVers have tricks to cooking in small spaces, but for the beginner, the outside grill is your best friend. Also, I like to think of myself as an environmentally conscious person, but paper plates and plastic silverware are a must when you are on vacation with no counter space for drying dishes. In our case, that meant another trip to Super Target.
LESSON 4: Kids—especially boys—like to do, not see.
We had researched each of the national parks thoroughly before we ever left, right down to the best trails for kids. The National Park Service Web site (www.nps.gov) is an excellent online resource. But we quickly learned that hiking—for our boys—was not necessarily about the destination but instead about the hike itself. One of their favorite hikes was to Sipapu Bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument, a little-known spot in southeastern Utah. The .6-mile trail had ladders, stairs, switchbacks and short steep sections of slick rock with an elevation change of 500 feet. At the end, we had snacks under Sipapu, one of the largest natural bridges in the country.
Another favorite hike was Cave Spring Trail in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. This trail wound past a historic cowboy camp and prehistoric pictographs and included two wooden climbing ladders. And I’ll never forget the look on my 4-year-old’s face when he reached the base of Bridalveil Fall at Yosemite, after traversing over giant boulders and leaving kids much older than him in his dust! All these trails offered more than beautiful scenery; they provided challenges that tested our boys.
LESSON 5: You’re never too old to learn.
Nearly all of the national parks sponsor a Junior Ranger program for kids. Here’s how it works: Upon arriving at the visitor center, the kids pick up a workbook with educational puzzles and activities specific to that park. They also attend a ranger-led talk or video presentation about the park, and when out on the trails, they pick up litter. By completing the program, we were all better able to understand and appreciate the natural wonders around us. At the end of the day, the boys were sworn in as Junior Rangers, complete with badges to take home.
LESSON 6: Video games are a motion-sick mother’s best friend.
At home, my boys’ screen time is very limited. I brought games, crafts and books to entertain them in the RV. But on roads that had one hairpin turn after another (the road to Sequoia National Park comes to mind), this mom had to sit up front. I eventually started taking ginger supplements about a half hour before leaving our campsites. It helped some. But I am guilty of saying, “Boys, play with your video games,” more than once. They’ve also seen every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie ever made! So much for limited screen time.
LESSON 7: Sleep is overrated.
We tried to limit the number of long driving days. My 4-year-old son could only tolerate about three hours at a time before he’d start climbing the walls (more accurately, the bunk bed above the driver’s seat). About halfway through the trip, my husband and I got smarter. We’d wake up at 4 a.m. My husband would detach the electric, water and sewage lines in the dark, while I’d slip behind the wheel. He’d then go back to sleep with the boys, and I would hit the road—me and a couple hundred truckers. It really was the best time to drive. I especially enjoyed watching the sun come up over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By the time the kids woke up, we would have three or four hours of driving time logged. Without a doubt, it was worth the loss of sleep.
All and all, this was our best family vacation ever. We saw some of the most breathtaking scenery this country has to offer. We can’t imagine having done it in a car, going from motel to motel or tent site to tent site. RVing allowed us time—time to explore, time to share and time to be a family.
Shellie Bailey-Shah is an award-winning reporter with television station KATU in Portland, Oregon