My family of 5 (hubby, me, 4.5 yo son, 2.5 yo son, and 11 mo old daughter) recently took a short RV trip to the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma from our home in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. The three-day trip was our first adventure in a motorhome, and we learned a lot. Mostly, our learnings were about family togetherness (hard to ignore that in 300 or so square feet for 3 days!). Here are the most important things to know (or so I think) about RV-tripping with your family.
#1 – Camping together brings a family together.
This lesson is so important, I had to put it at the top. The best part about this trip was how close we were as a family. There were no laptops, cell phone coverage (most of the time), or other distractions from each other. We literally were on top of each other all of the time. Our two boys played together even better than they do at home, and both of them had more interaction time with our baby. Within the RV’s 300 or so square feet, we all had to keep track of where our crawling baby was at all times, which made the boys a lot more careful of their sister. While I can’t say the fights over toys has diminished now that we’ve been back for a week, I do still see a gentleness and affection toward their baby sister that has lingered. And for Jim and I, this “project” brought us closer because we embarked on a new experience that had some challenges that together we overcame. The closeness of our family was a huge benefit I hadn’t expected from the trip and have been pleasantly surprised by. (I’m also now officially shopping for a bench seating solution for our kitchen…it was wonderful!)
#2 – Don’t underestimate the set up time to get on the road. The amount of set up time to check out / drive home / pack / unpack / drive back / check back in our rental motorhome was considerable. Granted, we have 3 kids all aged 4 or younger, and “winging it” with an infant and two pre-schoolers doesn’t fly very well (if you don’t believe me, YOU try telling a tired 2 year old that you left his Batman blanket at home). We had lots of gear including a double stroller, a pack and play, bed rails, assorted blankets/teddy bears, diapers/wipes, etc. Our pack time was 2.5 hours (and we had everything – or so we thought – “ready” before we pulled the RV up in front of the house!); unpacking was less at about 2 hours … but then we needed to tidy it up a bit, which took another 45 min or so. That’s in addition to the time spent retrieving and returning the motorhome (30 min drive each way to rental lot, 1 hour to check out – including a 15 minute instructional video, 30 min to check back in). In total, all of this set up/take down added almost 9 hours to our trip. Yikes!!
#3 – With enough novelty, scenery, and silly songs, pre-schoolers can survive a 5 hour car trip without a DVD player.
One of the surprising things about the motorhome was that the TV doesn’t work when the motorhome is running. This is a law that was put in place in recent years to ensure drivers of motorhomes wouldn’t cruise down the interstate watching a show and putting others at risk. When we realized this (when we picked up the RV), we immediately freaked out and figured out an alternative back up plan for how the kids would be entertained with their TV fix on the drive. After all, we can’t drive more than half an hour in my minivan without the kids begging for a video. Surprisingly, the boys were so excited about being in an RV and seeing the road from this new perspective that they didn’t want a video at all (I even asked!). When they seemed to get antsy from time to time, I made up some silly song that included their names in it (a sure-fire crowd pleaser) to distract them. By the end of the trip, they were making up songs about each other. And our less-than-stellar-Plan-B of me holding my laptop on my lap and playing a video for them never materialized.
#4 – Driving a motorhome is not easy, and limits your ability to “sightsee”. My husband is a good driver, and has had boats/jet skis that he’s pulled around on trailers for many years. But driving a motorhome was a new experience. We started the trip in rush hour traffic on I-35 – seeing eye to eye with the semi-truckers. We ended the first night trying to find our way in the dark through back country roads to our campground and then the place we eventually parked (see story below). Then, once at our destination, we had all sorts of crazy issues due to the difficulty of fitting this behemoth of a vehicle into places that were supposedly meant for motorhomes – from interstate gas stations (that had designated “truck” lanes) to highways with no shoulders and deep ditches beside them. And even more challenging was that our supposedly automatic entry/exit step malfunctioned half-way through the trip, adding 2 more feet of width to our motorhome and lowering our road clearance considerably. We didn’t even venture into the heart of the scenic town we stayed near (Medicine Park, OK), knowing that we’d get caught up in some narrower streets.
(The picture here is of one of the main streets in town I pulled from the website to try to illustrate how narrow the streets are.) Our lesson in this was, when you have a vehicle that can pull the weight, choose a trailer over a motorhome, so you can un-hitch it and drive around at your destination. Plus, we would have avoided buckling and unbuckling 3 car seats every time we switched from “drive” mode to “camp” mode!
#5 – When the brochure says the campground gate closes at 10pm, it really means it. Our plans had not included so much “set up” time to get our road trip started, so we ended up starting out later than expected. There was a possibility we’d make it to the campground (Lake Elmer Thomas Recreation Area, or LETRA) by the time the gate was supposed to close, but it was not a certainty. We tried to call ahead to no avail (endless voice mail loops with full voice mail boxes), and we ended up missing it by 30 minutes. And it was locked. Locked. With no sign to say who to call or what to do. So, we spent another 45 minutes trying to find another campground in the area in the dark on the back roads of Oklahoma. Not fun. We eventually ended up parking that night in my brother’s driveway about 30 minutes from our destination – after waking up my sister-in-law, Sherri, at 11:15 pm to see if they were home. Lesson: plan your travel well and have a back up Plan B. And maybe even Plan C.
#6 – The big benefit of the RV is the mobility of sleeping quarters – not comfort of the drive. My husband and I debated this when we first talked about taking on this little adventure. He was gung-ho about the idea because he thought the journey itself would be more enjoyable. I thought it would give us appropriate sleeping quarters, because (unfortunately) the place we wanted to go was booked up already for any appropriate family cabins. Turns out I was right. He spent the entire time driving being stressed out, and while the kids enjoyed it, it wasn’t incrementally that much better than road trips we’ve had in the minivan. The biggest benefits of this mode of travel are having clean bathrooms on the interstate and only having to pack/unpack once — both of which matter a lot more when you are taking long road trips with multiple night stop overs. Or, of course, if there are no appropriate sleeping accomodations at all, which was our case when all the best cabins in the area were booked.
#7 – Save your RV trips for the summer. Any spring in Texas or Oklahoma is a roll of the dice on weather. The average nightly temperature on our trip was 35 degrees, and the daytime temps were in the 50’s. Plus, in Oklahoma, we had strong winds (also no surprise)….one night blowing our RV so hard that it made me lose my balance while I stood doing dishes. The worst part of the cold weather, though, was that it kept us from enjoying our campground and the outdoors as much as we would have liked. We ate our meals inside, played inside (mostly), and traveled inside (of course), which got to feel a little clausterphobic at times.
#8 – You (and your kids) can survive without a shower for 4 days. The motorhome we rented was very clean and well-kept, including the bathroom. However, the hot water heater was only 4 gallons large. I could barely get dishes washed without using it all up, so I knew it wouldn’t last through even one shower. Since it was cold outside, we elected to not go through the hassle of bathing our kids or ourselves beyond good wipe-downs with a washcloth. So while at the end of the trip, we were all feeling decidedly grimy, at least we were all grimy together. The surprising things was my hair (which was in a ponytail all the time, of course) was actually more manageable later in the trip than earlier. Guess there is something to be said for not washing your hair daily!
#9 –RV trips are not cheap. If you are thinking that method of travel is going to save you travel costs, think again. Sure, it’s more economical than flying a family of 5 and then getting nice hotel accomodations at a vacation destination, but it’s certainly not a bargain. We did rent a “nicer” motorhome (a Class A that sleeps 3 adults and 3 children), but our total cost for the trip was $1200+. I figure we came out spending a few hundred dollars more than if we’d driven our minivan and rented a cabin in the area.
#10 – Proven once again: the simplest parts of a trip will be the most fun for your kids. Luke’s favorite part of the trip was “Uncle” Sherri’s tractors, eating S’mores, and seeing the prairie dog village in the Wichita Mountains. For Jack, it was the buffalo, the prairie dogs, and seeing where Jesus lived. None of these things were big ticket items and some of them didn’t even go as planned (for instance, the “S’mores” were made in the microwave because it was too windy to cookout outside). But that didn’t matter to the kids. We were all together as a family, having fun, with no distractions from being together.
I hope our RV family vacation adventure lessons help some of you as you’re thinking about the possibility of renting a motorhome or camper with your family for a trip! Ultimately, I do recommend it….though I’m thinking we’ll wait a few years before taking this one on again. And probably with a camper, in the summer, to the Grand Canyon or somewhere that requires multiple nights on the road.