10 reasons camping is better than a hotel

Now, I'm not saying we never stay in hotels on our trips.  There are obvious benefits to sleeping in an air conditioned room with a sink and outlets and an ice machine down the hall.  Also, if you just need a place to crash for one night when driving across the country and you don't want to unload all your gear, or if it's raining cats and dogs, or if you are spending most of your vacation in a city, a hotel is obviously enticing.  But if you are visiting a national or state park for at least a few days, go ahead and pitch that tent.  It will make for a more fun, efficient, and all around better trip.  Here are some reasons why:

1.  It's cheaper  

Even the rattiest motel is going to be more expensive than booking a campsite.  And if you are staying multiple nights, we're talking a difference of hundreds of dollars.  $25 a night is the most I've ever paid for a campsite, and usually it's $15 or less.  

2.  More room to spread out

You have all been smushed in the car together for hours and hours.  You need some space.  At camp, people can spread out.  The kids have room to run and play and explore.  The adults can actually have conversations without shouting.  In a hotel, you're always within arms reach of each other.  There's no privacy.  The kids bounce off the walls.   It's just a little bit more difficult to relax.  And by a little bit, I mean a whole lot.


3. You get an earlier start

No sleeping half of the day away in a tent.  The great outdoors wakes up with the sun, so you usually will too.  Getting started earlier has so many benefits.  Wildlife is more active in the mornings.  By visiting popular hikes or must-sees early, you avoid the heat and the crowds that come with midday.  Plus, you are closer to everything because you woke up in the park instead of a hotel 20 miles away.





4.  Evenings = Quality time

After a day full of amazing adventure, don't head back to your room and watch tv until you fall asleep.  You can do that at home.  When the sun goes down, that is the time to sit around the fire with friends and family and just enjoy each other without distractions.  Share stories and relive the day as the frogs and crickets provide background music.  Let your days end slowly and richly.

5.  Truly experience the park

Am I saying that unless you camp, you're not really visiting the park?  Of course not.  But there are some experiences that only campers can have.  Like watching a bison wander by as you eat breakfast.  Or falling asleep to the sound of the nearby creek and the smell of spruce trees filling your tent.  When you camp, the park stops being a destination, and becomes your home.



6.  Food tastes better when you're camping

This may not be scientifically proven...but it's true.  Ask anyone who has ever camped.  I don't care if it's hot dogs over the fire, or a cold pop tart out of the box, it's just tastes better.  I don't know why.  Maybe it has something to do with how hungry you get when you're out hiking and exploring.  Maybe it's something about eating out in the open air.  Maybe it's something more primal. Who knows





7.  Kids love it

After so many travels, we have learned that some of our children's favorite times are running around and exploring and playing at camp.  They collect rocks and pinecones and frogs.  They divide the area up into different imaginary lands with names like "The Forest of Yecch" or "Mossia."  The freedom and newness of a campsite feeds their imaginations and lets them truly play.  So now, we no longer zip around the parks with barely a 15 minute break between hikes or sight-seeing. We make time to hang out at our campsite, to let the kiddos create their own memories. After all, it's their trip too.

8.  It's an escape that you didn't even know you needed

No assault of advertising billboards and commercials.  No temptation of fast food or gas station junk.  No florescent lights.  No constant checking of social media.  No binge-watching Netflix.  No constant reminders of the latest social outcry, celebrity scandal, or political anything.  If you find that you have a phone signal at your campsite.  I highly recommend turning it off until you need to intentionally use it.  

9.  Camping builds character

Sorry to steal from Calvin's dad, but the man had it right.  Camping is a challenge.  Setting your tent up correctly on the first attempt is a victory.  Sleeping, eating, and functioning out in the wilderness is enjoyable, but that doesn't mean it isn't tough.  Giving up amenities of your daily life teaches you to find comfort in being uncomfortable.  Experiencing these things and coming out on the other side builds confidence and strength and if I'm not laying it on too thick... it just helps shape you into a better person.

10.  It instills a love of the outdoors in our kids

My girls will play on iPad just as much as the next child.  But if you offer a hike or night in the woods, they will drop just about anything and jump at the chance.  They like swimming in lakes, rivers, and the ocean way more than a swimming pool.  They've been to Disney World, and they loved it.  If you ask them about their favorites trips though, Lily will say Acadia and Sophie will say the Dakotas.  We started camping with them while they were babies, and now they love it just as much as we do.  Even at their young ages, they instinctively know that the outdoors has so much to offer.  They respect wildlife, but they don't fear it.  They snooze in a tent just as soundly as they do in their beds at home.  They don't whine and quit at the first bump in the road (too hot, bug bites, skinned knees, rain, etc.)  They want to explore every cave and hike every mountain and climb every tree.  And one of the best things is, this attitude spills over into their every day life.  They crave new experiences.  They rise to challenges.  They set goals for themselves.  It may seem hokey, but I truly believe if more parents took their kids camping, this upcoming generation would have a lot more to offer the world.



5 great day trips in the southeast

Panthertown Valley, North Carolina

Located a few miles from the town of Cashiers, Panthertown Valley takes up over 6,500 acres of the Nantahala National Forest.  This place is pretty rugged and wild.  No bathrooms.  No visitor centers.  No trash cans.  Just 30 miles of maintained trails that wind through hodgepodge forests, over streams, past multiple waterfalls, and up along the tops of granite domes that overlook the valley below.  There are even a few clean, white sandbars in places where the streams widen out to form deep pools.  Relax on the beach in the middle of the woods!  Be sure to bring a map as there are loads of unmarked trails that spiderweb throughout the area, criss-crossing over the official trails.  Panthertown Valley is the perfect place to just wander.  While there are a few “musts” like hiking to the top of Big Green Mountain or visiting Schoolhouse Falls, it really is a place where you don’t have to have an agenda.  So many of the trails loop and reconnect, you can spend the day following whichever path looks the most interesting.  If you want even more adventure, there are plenty of awesome backcountry campsites scattered throughout the valley.  If you camp, be sure to store your food properly as there are black bears in the area.  There are no roads through the valley.  To visit, you have to leave your vehicle at one of the entrances and then hike or mountain bike your way in.  Panthertown Valley is designated as a Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and is completely maintained by volunteers.  Check out their site below for more information.



Little River Canyon National Preserve, Alabama

Little River Canyon is one of the only national park units found in Alabama.  The limestone/sandstone canyon is carved by the Little River, which is one of the only rivers in the nation that flows for nearly it’s entire length on top of a mountain.  The preserve is in the northwestern corner of Alabama, just outside the town of Fort Payne.  Swing by the visitor center first to grab a map and get your passport book stamped.  Like most National Park units, they also offer the opportunity to be part of the Junior Ranger program.  Kids can get a free booklet to take with them as they explore the park.  Once they’ve completed all the activities (scavenger hunts, drawings, trivia, etc.) they can turn it in at the visitor center and be sworn in as a junior ranger and receive their badge.  Close by the visitor center is Little River Falls.  Check out the overlook and then follow the short, easy trail that follows the river and eventually leads down to the water’s edge and Martha’s Falls.  Take the time to wander back upriver along the rocky shoreline.  You’ll find gigantic boulders in and around the water and several great spots to swim if the water isn’t flowing too swiftly.  After you hike back up to your car, head out onto the scenic Canyon Rim Drive which winds the full length of the preserve.  Stop at one (or all) of the several overlooks for great views of the canyon and river, and if you’re feeling adventurous, take one of the very short but very steep trails to the bottom of the canyon.  At the southern end of the preserve, visit Canyon Mouth Picnic Area for both the easiest access to the river and the calmest water.  If you come for more than a day, be sure to check out DeSoto State Park, which is practically next door.  It has great hiking and biking trails, several waterfalls, a nature center, a playground, and plenty of campsites, cabins, and mountain chalets.

One last tip: be sure to use the address of the visitor center (4322 Little River Canyon Pkwy, Fort Payne, AL 35967) when getting directions.  I always forget to do this and I just type “Little River Canyon” into Google maps and it takes me to some dirt road in the middle of the preserve.  D’oh.

One more last tip:  As summer brings Alabama heat, the Little River drops drastically.  Waterfalls become trickles and swimming holes become shallow mud puddles.  Visit in the spring or early summer if you want to play in the water.  See below for the official nps site.



The Virginia Creeper Trail, Virginia

The Virginia Creeper Trail is what is known as a rail trail.  A rail trail is result of an abandoned or unused railroad being transformed into an active path for hiking, biking, and/or horseback riding.     Biking the Creeper Trail is a fun and beautiful experience that can be enjoyed by every member of the family.  The trail runs 35 miles through southeastern Virginia, from Abingdon to Whitetop.  The midway point is the town of Damascus which is also a major trail town for the Appalachian Trail.  (Try not to visit the weekend after Mother’s Day or you will be in the middle of the Trail Days festival and the crowds will be insane.)  You can ride the trail in any direction you choose, but most people ride the 17-mile stretch from Whitetop to Damascus.  Why?  Because it is almost completely downhill with a very gentle, gradual descent.  You rarely have to pedal and you don’t really have to ride your brakes, either.  The surface of the path is crushed limestone and provides a very smooth ride.  It is a pleasant, leisurely coast through lush Appalachian forests and beautiful Virginia countryside.  The trail passes through gorgeous farmlands, alongside several creeks and rivers, and over massive, breathtaking trestle bridges that reminds riders of the trains that used to run along the route.  Riding the trail is definitely not a race.  As it winds between civilization and wilderness, take your time and enjoy the experience.  One of the first stops is old train depot that now sells snacks and drinks with a playground outside.  There are several great swimming holes along the route.  If you get hungry, a few different cafes with sandwiches, burgers, and ice cream have set up shop right next to the trail.  The ride from Whitetop to Damascus can take all day, if you allow it.  If you zip through (please don’t) or if you decide to make a weekend of it, the route from Abingdon to Damascus is not as quite as easy, but still not too challenging.  I’ve never done that route, but according to everything I’ve read, it’s mostly flat with a very slight downhill grade and then a gentle ascent as you come into Damasucs.  Like I said, this ride is for everyone.  There are outfitters in Damascus where you can rent any kind of bike setup you need, including pull-behind trailers for little ones.  Some of these businesses will also shuttle you to the beginning of the trail if you only have one vehicle with you.  There are half a dozen sites about the Creeper Trail, so I’ll just link the one I found most helpful.



Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Florida

Do you love the beach?  Do you not love the massive crowds that cover every inch of sand during the warmer months?  Consider Topsail Hill Preserve State Park for your next beach trip.  Located in Santa Rosa Beach, the park is only ten miles from Destin.  Even in the middle of summer, when all of the park’s bungalows and campsites are full, there is still plenty of room to spread out on the three miles of completely undeveloped shoreline.  There is no direct access to the beach by car.  Visitors can walk, ride their bikes (available for rent in the park) or catch the free tram down the half-mile paved road to the boardwalk which leads to the white sands and emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Instead of high-rise condos, your backdrop will be huge, rolling dunes and long-leaf pine trees.  All the usual beach activities are available here.  Swimming, gathering shells, sunbathing, etc.  The beach is amazing, but if you are one of the rare breed like me that gets antsy after a few hours, Topsail has plenty more to offer.  Several trails, paved and unpaved, travel through the park, winding past 25 foot dunes and through beautiful, maritime forest.  My suggestion is to bike and explore as far as you can towards the western end of the park, and when the trail gets too sandy, lock your bike to a tree and continue to explore on foot.  There are few freshwater dune lakes in the park that are great places to fish.  Kayaks and canoes are available for rent, just keep an eye out for gators.  You may also see deer, dolphins, sea turtles, numerous species of birds, and even the occasional black bear.  That’s right.  You don’t have to drive all the way to the mountains.  There are bears in Florida.  Just don’t feed them.  Official website is below.



Grundy Forest State Natural Area, Tennessee  

Your average day hike is going to have one to a handful of “oh wow” moments.  A beautiful overlook.  An interesting rock formation.  A plunging waterfall.  The Grundy Forest Day Loop is a 2-3 mile trail that is one big “oh wow” moment from start to nearly finish.  Grundy Forest is part of South Cumberland State Park which is comprised of several different areas spread over four counties in middle Tennessee.  All the areas are a blast to hike and explore, but if you only have a day, definitely spend it at Grundy Forest.  This trail is the northernmost section of the 12.5 mile Fiery Gizzard Trail, which has been named by Backpacker Magazine as one of the top 25 hiking trails in the U.S.  The parking lot for the day loop is located a few miles from South Cumberland’s visitor center and has restrooms and picnic tables.  There are two trailheads on opposite sides of the parking lot.  I highly recommend starting your hike on the trail nearest the sign-in station.  It takes you directly down to the creek which follows the trail for nearly the entire hike.  One of the first things you will see is a gigantic stone bluff with an overhang so large it almost forms a cave.  Just past that is a colossal 500 year old hemlock.  And so on and so forth.  Waterfalls and cascades abound on this hike.  If it is warm, definitely bring your swimsuit as there are tons of deep turquoise pools in the creek as well as several sliding rocks.  Though somewhat rocky and scattered with tree roots, the trail stays fairly level throughout and is doable by most ages and skill sets.  When you get to the intersection, head across the bridge and a little ways down the Fiery Gizzard itself to Sycamore Falls, perhaps the best place on the hike to stop for a swim.  When you get back to the intersection, head left past the junction where Big and Little Fiery Gizzard Creeks meet and then eventually up into a tamer, sunny section where the trees are a little more spread out.  Follow this along the tops of the bluffs and past a CCC-built backcountry campground and eventually to the parking lot.  This is not a trail to rush through.  Take your time and soak in the ancient trees, massive rock walls, and constantly changing creek.  The thick forest canopy gives this hike a secret, magical vibe.  I know I am laying it on pretty thick, but I am telling you, this hike is one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever done.   We couldn’t shut up about what we were seeing the whole time we were hiking.  I hope to go back some day soon with an overnight pack and do the entire Fiery Gizzard.

One note:  We did this trail in April on a Tuesday and didn’t see many other hikers.  It probably gets a little more crowded on the weekends and the creek levels most likely drop some in the late summer.  That said, I can’t imagine this hike being anything but a great experience.  See South Cumberland's site for more info.


Choosing A Campsite

Okay, lets go ahead and get the bad news out of the way first.  You don’t always get to choose your campsite.  Some campgrounds operate on a first come, first served basis and if you show up late on a weekend, the best spots (or all the spots) can be taken.  Other campgrounds will let you reserve a site in advance, but not a specific site.  Again, unless you get there early, you might be stuck with a cruddy site.  Lastly, there are loads of campgrounds, especially in the national parks, that let you reserve specific sites.  However, unless you reserve far enough ahead of time, all the good ones can be taken.  See the pattern here?  Plan ahead.  Book in advance if you can.  Especially the more popular places like Yellowstone and The Smokies and such.  A lot of those parks start taking reservations up to six months in advance.  For campgrounds that don’t let you pick a site until you get there, try to plan your trip so your arrive there on a weekday.  The weekends are always more popular for camping, but if that’s your only option, try to get there as early as you can on Friday.

So.  Let’s say the stars align and you get to pick whatever site your lil’ camping heart desires.  How do you choose?  Well, first you have to pick a campground.

A lot of the national parks (especially the big ones) have multiple campgrounds to choose from.  Do some research on their official nps.gov sites to see what each one has to offer.  One may have better mountain views while another may have more active wildlife in the area.  Some may be busier (nosier/more crowded) than others.  Different campgrounds may have different amenities.  Study the maps of the parks to see where each campground is located in relation to where you’ll be spending most of your time.  If all of the campgrounds in a national park are full, there are often privately owned campgrounds near the entrance to the park.

For state parks, you might have to do a little more digging to get good information.  Most state parks are smaller and have just one campground.  For those that do accept reservations, they may require a two-night minimum on weekends.  Some state parks aren’t the best at keeping their websites up to date, so it’s always a good idea to call and ask about their current procedures for securing a site.

You can always check google or tripadvisor.com for reviews of any campground.  Just remember to take them with a grain of salt, especially the negative ones.

Once you’ve chosen a campground, it’s time to decide where you’re going to pitch your tent.  

Most national parks use recreation.gov and reserveamerica.com for booking campsites.  Both of them provide detailed information about each individual campsite.  How many tents can fit and what size.  If there are picnic tables, water pumps, fire rings, grills, shade, etc.  Another great resource is campsitephotos.com.  When choosing a site be sure to look at a map of the campground.  How close do you want to be to the bathrooms?  Do you prefer a site that has more privacy and is set a bit apart from the rest?  Don’t choose a site too close the main entrance of the campground because there will be a constant flow of traffic.  Be careful of choosing a site that can be used by tents and RV’s because you may end up surrounded by generators and big screen tvs.  Look for the “tent only” campsites.  They are usually grouped together away from the shared sites.  Sometimes there are even “tent only” campgrounds.  My personal favorite are walk-to sites.  These are usually several hundred yards away from whereyou park your vehicle and offer a little more solitude.  You have to lug all of your gear a little farther, but it’s definitely worth it in my opinion.

One important thing to remember:  If you don’t get the “perfect” campsite, your trip is not ruined.  Just make the best of it and enjoy your time in the outdoors with your family.

Some Tips:

If there are no showers in your campground, there may be some pay showers nearby outside the park.  Google can help you find them.

Many parks that don’t accept reservations for individual campsites will accept reservations for their group campsites.  Find some friends to travel with.

 Don’t be scared to ask if you can change your site if you’re not in love with it.

Follow all the campground rules.  Especially regarding food storage and wildlife.  The only thing that sucks worse than raccoons eating all of your food because you didn’t store it properly is getting a $75 ticket to go with your growling stomach.

Even if you want to be close to the bathrooms in case you need to make a mad dash in the middle of the night, don’t get a site right beside it.  The constant noise of chatter and doors opening and closing.  People walking right through your site.  Bright lights shining through your tent windows all night.  It will get old very fast.

I cannot say this enough.  If you want to camp at one of the popular national parks, you need to book as early as you can.  Parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite will have their campgrounds almost completely booked up within the first few days of sites becoming available. 

Eating on the road

You've been on the road for a long while.  The kids were excited when you left, but that 5:00 AM departure time caught up with them pretty quickly and they went back to sleep.  You have less than a quarter tank of gas left and have needed to pee for about 20 minutes, so you decide to go ahead and make the first stop.  
"May as well get some caffeine in me," you say and your spouse asks for a soda too and maybe a candy bar.  The kids' eyes pop open at the word "candy" and they all start begging for treats too.  What was just going to be a quick stop for a fill up and restroom break has turned into a shopping spree that not only takes longer, but also depletes your trip fund.  What's worse, you were planning on stopping for lunch in just a bit, so this is a completely unnecessary expense.  Yellowstone is still a day and a half of driving away, and you just took a small chunk out of the money needed for food, gas, fees, souvenirs, tours, bike rentals, etc.  And in no time at all you take out a much bigger chunk when you hit up a drive-thru for burgers.  There will be at least four more meals and who knows how many pit stops before you get to your destination.  You did a good job figuring out how much you would spend on gas, but these food costs are starting to loom ominously.  Dinner was going to be a real restaurant, not fast food, so everyone could get out of the car for a bit.  But that will be even more expensive, plus the tip!  All of a sudden, you’re nervous that this trip will cost a lot more than was originally planned.  You start to think about which credit card you’ll have to use for gas on the way home and decide that next year you’ll all just go to Aunt Lucy’s condo again because it’s closer.

So what is the solution?  Your family has to eat.  And you have to get out and stretch your legs once in a while.  Even the most avid road tripper gets antsy after hours and hours of sitting behind the wheel.  Well, here are few tips to keep costs down and make sure everyone still gets fed.

Avoid gas station snack-fests - I get it.  The kids are bored.  You’ve been staring at the same countryside for hours.  A soda and a bag of chips or chocolate bar jazzes things up for a moment.  But it’s really not worth it.  Because then you feel (and your kids expect) that every single time you stop to get gas or go to the bathroom, it’s time for a treat.  This is not only throwing money away, but it wastes time while everyone wanders around picking out snacks.

Stick a cooler in your trunk and bring your own drinks with you.  Keep a couple of bags of chips and some fruit and other goodies in the front seat and pass it around every once in a while.  Don’t let the kids just munch the entire drive because that defeats the purpose of it being a boredom-fighting novelty, (not to mention being pretty unhealthy.)  With gas station stops, you want to get in, fill up, hit the bathroom, grab a drink from the trunk, and jet.  Save the longer stops for actual meals.


Don’t eat drive thru for every meal - For one thing, your journey is going to be pretty miserable if you keep chowing down on greasy food and then sitting still in a car for hours.  And if you get those super-sized sodas every time, you will have a lot more bathroom breaks.  Also, it’s really expensive.  I don’t care what kind of combo meal deals they have, once you order for everyone in your car, it adds up.  Now multiply it times breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Now multiply that times how many days you’re on the road.  By the time you get to your destination where your vacation really begins, you’re already out a lot of money.  Plus, you’re going to feel gross and not too excited about a lot of outdoor activity.

I realize the temptation of eating in the car to make better time, believe me.  I sometimes focus too much on how many hours we will have at our destination and I catch myself rushing everyone to eat at warp speed so we can get going.  But if you don’t break up the drive with breaks, you’ll all be irritable and crazy by the time you finally get to where you’re going.

Bring your own food and stop at rest stops for meals.  Yes, it’s work.  Yes, it makes the car even more cramped.  Yes, it takes up time that you could be covering miles on the road.  However, you will save a ton of money, eat healthier, and give everyone a chance to get out and run around.  For my family of four, it’s right around thirty dollars when we hit a fast food burger joint.  With that money, we can get milk, cereal, protein bars, sandwich stuff, fruit, chips, and other food to last for several meals.  I know a rest stop along the interstate is not very ideal once the sun goes down, so either eat dinner early, or just go ahead get some fast food.  Besides, sometimes you really need something easy and different.  I’m not saying avoid restaurants the entire time you’re on the road.  Just be aware of your spending and try to do your own food as much as possible. 

Rest stops usually have picnic tables and bathrooms and plenty of room to spread out.  It gives your family a chance to get out of the car for about half an hour, and to be honest, it gives you all a chance to get out of each other’s personal space.  Let the kids run and play and burn some of that pent-up energy.  Like I said, don’t give yourself some kind of unrealistic deadline.  It won’t be that rewarding to get to your destination an hour or two early if everyone is too drained and unhappy with each other to enjoy it.
How to pack your food - First off, only buy food that you need for the drive itself.  Wait until you get to your destination or almost to your destination to stock up on all the things you’ll need for meals at your campsite.  Obviously, some things, like a bottle of ketchup or a box of plastic cutlery should last the entire vacation, but don’t leave your house with three loaves of bread stashed all over the car.  Figure out how many meals you’ll need on the road and buy accordingly.
We always take one decent-sized cooler and a small tote box with a lid for all our other food plus plates, napkins, etc.  Store them both in a place where they are easily accessible.  You don’t want to unpack your entire trunk every time you stop to eat.  Don’t forget to keep a few snacks up front.

tips and tricks
Freeze a gallon jug of water (or two) and put it in your cooler.  It makes the ice last a lot longer.

Put stuff like sandwich meat and fruit in ziplock bags so they don’t get waterlogged in the cooler.

Keep your bread in a tin with a lid.  Keeps it from getting stale and/or smushed. 

Consolidate to save space and time.  Mix your peanut butter and jelly and put it in one jar before you leave.  Don’t take the entire box of plastic cutlery, take a little more than enough for the meals that need it. 

Keep hand sanitizer and some wet wipes in your glove compartment.

Before your trip, research where to find good food at your destination.  Anyone who travels will tell you that one of the best parts of a trip is eating local food.  Lots of parks have lodges and restaurants.  Look for the best places to eat in nearby towns.  Go ahead and pick a meal or two that you are going to eat out and budget for it.  Set that money aside, specifically, for going out to eat.  Then, whenever you’re tempted by junk at a gas station, or you’re about to pull in for a quick meal at some chain you’ve been to a million times, compare it to the food that’s waiting for you if you can resist dipping into that fund. 

It might seem intimidating to do your own meals while you’re driving hundreds of miles.  It’s definitely more work and takes some extra planning, but it’s worth it.  It’s healthier for your body, your attitude, and your wallet.

If you have any other tips or advice, please feel free to comment or email me.

I’ll make a post about planning and cooking meals at your campsite soon.

Day Hiking 101

Anyone can go for a walk in the woods.  You don’t need $200 boots or expert survival skills.  Not every hike is a week long trek into the wilderness with 60 lbs of food and gear strapped to your back.  There are thousands upon thousands of trails all over the country that can be done in less than a day.  Some take no more than an hour.  Others can be an all-day event.  Whether you are visiting one of our national or state parks, or just looking for a way to enjoy a nice afternoon close to home, day hiking is always a great choice.  If you or your family are new to hiking, start with a few short hikes and then build up to trails that are longer and more strenuous.  Don't be intimidated by miles.  It's just like anything else, the more you do it the better you'll get at it.  Kids included.

Here are some basic pointers for day hiking:

how to find a hike - If you are in a park, there should be trail maps at the visitor centers.  Talk to a ranger about which would be best for your family's level of experience.  AllTrails.com is a great site for locating trails near you and it has an app as well.

stay on the trail - If you’ve never suffered from an encounter with poison ivy, it’s no treat.  This, plus thorns, aggravated snakes, ankle-twisting holes, spider webs in your face, and many other unpleasant surprises are much more likely to become a part of your day when you go off trail.  It’s also much easier than one would think to get turned around and not find your way back to the trail.

clothes - Whatever is comfortable.  If it’s cool outside, dress in layers.  Hiking can warm you up pretty fast.  Avoid jeans, cotton underwear, or anything else that will chafe.  Especially on longer hikes.

shoes - Sneakers with decent support are fine.  No flip flops or shoes that are too small.  Long socks if you’re worried about poison ivy or bug bites.

backpack - Don't overpack.  The number one thing is water.  Some snacks, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, bugspray and that's pretty much it.  Maybe a lightweight rain jacket.  You don't need three different outfits, 5 gallons of trail mix, toys and coloring books for the kids(they will be plenty entertained,) or a laptop.  Don't weigh yourself down with stuff you won't use.

water - Always bring more than you think you need, especially if you are doing a long hike in a high temperature area.  It's heavy, but you don't want to get dehydrated.  Make sure your kids are drinking as they hike.  One piece of gear to help with this is a Camelback.  One of the perks of this is not being asked to carry your kids' water bottles the entire hike.

bathroom - Pick a safe, clear spot a few yards off the side of the trail.  Boys, pick a tree.  Girls are a little trickier, but can still squat and use a nearby rock or log for balance.  For younger girls, hold them up with their legs straight out and feet braced against a tree.  For pooh, you don’t have to use leaves.  Pack a small ziplock with some TP.  Dig a small hole with a stick and cover it with leaves or pine straw when you’re done.

wildlife - Find out what kind of critters are in the area.  Don't feed them no matter how cute and cuddly they appear.  For the little guys that are safe to handle like frogs, lizards, turtles and such, be very gentle and always put them back where you found them (and then wash your hands).  Be aware and keep your distance from the ones that could ruin your day.  Don't step on or try to catch venomous snakes.  Steer clear of the bigger guys like bison, elk, moose, etc. especially if it's during the mating season.  In mountain lion country, never let your little ones run far head of you on the trail.  If you are in bear country, try to be a little noisy so you don't turn a corner and surprise one.  Now, all that sounds a little nerve-wracking, but it's just good advice.  Animal attacks are much more rare than people think, and when it does happen, it's usually due to human error.  
Wildlife encounters can be the best part of a hike, as long as you are respectful and safe.  Remember, you are taking a walk through their home.  Be a polite guest.

be safe - That daredevil selfie on the edge of a cliff just isn't worth it.  Use your head and set a good example for your kids.

remember to look up! - It's easy to get focused on your feet, especially on rougher terrain.  But don't be so worried about stubbing your toe or tripping over a root that you don't stop once in a while to take in your surroundings.

have fun - Don't overdo it.  It's not a race.  Take rests when you need to and enjoy the scenery.  Don't push your family too hard, especially if they are new hikers.  You don't want their first experiences to be exhausting and miserable or it could put them off the whole idea.  It's okay to turn back early if people are getting wiped out.  You can always come back and try again.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Black bears and pancake houses.  Those are two of the first things that come to my mind when I think of the Smokies.  We would go almost every other summer when I was growing up and we would split our time between exploring the park and enjoying the insane, yet fun tackiness of nearby Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.  And while I do remember the Ripley’s museum and The Dixie Stampede and Mysterious Mansion (best and cheesiest haunted house I’ve ever been too,) what I remember most is the park.  I think about huffing and puffing the whole way up the steep trail to Rainbow Falls, wondering if my parents were trying to kill me, only to forget all about my exhaustion when my cousin and I discovered that salamanders live under the falls and we were going to catch every single one of them.  We would drive along the park’s mountain roads, and I would look out my window down, down, down as the trees fell away forever until they began to climb back up in the distance to form giant, green mountains partially obscured with a bluish haze.  I remember my six-year-old sister in tears, furious with the rest of us for laughing at a black bear cub that climbed so high up a tree that he couldn’t seem to get down.  Every time we went, I remember thinking, “I love this place.  This is so great.”  I still think that today when I visit with my wife and our kids.

The state line between Tennessee and North Carolina runs roughly through the middle of the park from end to end.  Most of the Smoky Mountain range as well as part of the Blue Ridge range are within the park boundaries.  These iconic mountains are absolutely covered up with old growth forest.  Because of the huge diversity of deciduous trees, the park is almost as popular in the fall as it is in the summer, with loads of people visiting to see the beautiful autumn leaves.  The highest elevations of the park are home to spruce-fir trees and are shrouded in clouds most of the time, creating a sort of coniferous rainforest.  There are miles and miles of creeks and rivers flowing through the park.  Waterfalls and swimming holes are all over the place.  If you come to this park during warmer months, don’t forget your swimsuit.

I won’t lie to you.  Great Smoky Mountains National Park is busy.  As the most visited national park in the U.S., it gets ten million visitors a year.  Second place is The Grand Canyon, and it sees just under half that.  The close proximity to the surrounding tourist traps and the lack of an entrance fee leads to packed out summer weekends with sometimes bumper-to-bumper traffic.  However, a large portion of the people who come see the Smokies hardly leave their cars.  There are nearly 400 miles of scenic drives that wind through the park and plenty of folks just drive through, stopping only to snap pictures of mountain views or wildlife that has wandered close to the road.  The best way to avoid all the bustle is to visit the popular sites on a weekday or go early in the morning or a few hours before the sun goes down.  Or go hike a trail.  Even the most popular hikes can be a welcome escape from all the people clogging the visitor centers and roadways.



Clingman’s Dome - The highest point in the park and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi River.  On a clear day, the observation tower at the top gives a 360 degree view of the Smokies.  On a foggy day, the world below disappears and it feels like you are floating in the clouds.  Here’s a tip:  Don’t take the half-mile paved trail from the parking lot.  It is a steep, boring, sidewalk full of crying kids being dragged uphill by their parents.  Instead, take the bypass route.  From the parking lot, get on the Forney's Ridge Trail and follow it towards the top. It’s a little longer, but has a gentler incline.  It takes you through the cool, wet spruce-fir forest until you hop onto the legendary Appalachian Trail for the final quarter mile to the top.  Just don’t turn left on the AT or you’ll walk to Georgia.

Cades Cove - A huge valley ringed with mountains, this is the most popular spot in the park.  A road loops 11 miles one-way through the area, passing many 18th and 19th century structures left over from the time before the park.  Lots of hiking trails begin in Cades Cove and it is also a great place to spot wildlife.  Traffic in the summer can be murder, so go on a weekday if you can.  If you are feeling extra adventurous, come early and bring a bike, the road is closed to vehicles on Wednesdays and Saturdays until 10 am.

Chimneys Picnic Area - Not to be confused with the Chimney Tops hiking trail, this is the perfect place to stop for lunch or dinner.  The West Prong Little Pigeon River runs right alongside the Chimneys.  It’s full of huge boulders and is the perfect place for rock-hopping and splashing in the shallow river.  It can get slippery so be careful.  This is also a good spot to see bears, just make sure your food is locked in your trunk before go play in the river.


Hiking - There are 800 miles of trails in the park.  Here are a few.

Grotto Falls - 2.5 miles round trip.  Moderate.  This hike through old growth forest leads to the only waterfall in the Smokies that you can walk behind.

Alum Cave - 4.5 miles round trip.  Moderate.  See several great views, a large natural arch carved into black slate by erosion, and finally Alum Cave, which is actually an 80 foot concave bluff.   

Andrew’s Bald - 3.5 miles.  Moderate.  This trail winds through the misty evergreen trees of Clingman’s Dome and ends on a high elevation grassy meadow with great views of the surrounding mountains.

Laurel Falls - 2.5 miles.  Easy/Moderate.  One of the most popular hikes in the park.  A short, mostly level path leads to an 80 foot multi-level waterfall.

Chimney Tops - 4 miles.  Moderate/Hard.  Short but steep hike that ends in one of the only bare rock summits in the Smokies.  The official trail ends just below the peak and you will have to scramble/climb up the rocks to reach the top.  No gear is necessary, just take your time and be careful.



Black Bears - These guys are what the Smokies are known for.  Sadly, their popularity has led to a lot of lame-brains feeding them over the years.  This has caused bears to become less afraid of people and it is not uncommon for them to roam through picnic areas, campgrounds, or pretty much anywhere in the park, looking for food.  They are not tame by any means and should not be approached and for Pete’s sake, don’t feed them or leave your trash out.  Enjoy them from a safe distance and use a zoom for your photos.  Be especially cautious around cubs.  Mama bears don’t mess around.  I am not trying to scare you off.  We see bears almost every time we go to the Smokies, even on hikes.  We’ve never felt threatened or in danger.  Black bear attacks are very very rare, but they have happened.  Just be smart and respectful.

Salamanders - The park is known as “The Salamander Capital of the World.”  Even on the busiest Saturday in July, there are more salamanders in the Smokies than people.  There are over 30 species in the park, from the two inch Pygmy Salamander to the Eastern Hellbender which can reach lengths of over two feet!  These little guys are hidden everywhere.  Under rocks or fallen logs.  Sometimes you can see them peeking out of muddy holes on the side of a trail.  But the place you will almost definitely find them is around and under waterfalls.  If, like my family, you love catching critters, be very gentle and always put them back where you found them.



Fireflies - An amazing thing happens for a period of a few weeks in early summer every year.  During the mating season of one particular species of firefly, the insects will actually sync up their flashing pattern.  This means that hundreds of fireflies will all flash at the exact same time.  The event doesn’t last very long, and some nights they don’t sync up perfectly, but if you’re able to catch it, it’s a pretty spectacular show.  Lots of tourists take a shuttle to the Elkmont area of the park, which is supposedly the best place to see the fireflies, but really they can be found all over the park. 

Other - White-tailed deer, raccoons, elusive bobcats, owls, turtles, wild turkeys, skunks, copperheads(be aware when swimming,)  and many others.  Elk were reintroduced to the park about 15 years ago and are thriving.  The best place to see them is Cataloochee Valley in the southeastern section of the park.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great park for families who are "beginners" when it comes to travel and outdoor adventure.  Especially for those that live in the Southeast.  The park is wild and beautiful, but not isolated from civilization.  Mid-summer can have some hot days, but mostly the weather is pleasant from early spring to late fall.  In winter, some areas of the park may close due to snow and ice, but the frozen wonderland and complete lack of people can make for a quiet, beautiful visit.  There are 10 developed campgrounds scattered around the park and plenty of hotels and mountain cabins in the nearby communities.  Many of the trails and activities in the park are kid-friendly, even for young children.  With the lush forests, beautiful views, abundant wildlife and tons of waterfalls and trails, this park has everything you need for the most important factor of a vacation:  fun.

Gathering Gear

Camping.  There are a lot of different ideas attributed to that word.  People hear it and grin, cringe, or look baffled.  For some, it means loading up their pack with all the gear and food they need to survive and then walking off into the mountains for a week.  For others, camping is sleeping a couple of nights in a permanent or semi-permanent structure(yurts, cabins, tipis, etc.) located in or near the wilderness.  What most folks picture when they think of camping is a developed, yet rustic, campground with lots of specific sites for either tents or some sort of RV(motorhome, pop-up camper, travel trailer, etc.) 

There is always plenty of debate about the best way to camp and what is considered “true” camping, but I’m not going to waste time talking about that.  All methods of camping have their pros and cons and ultimately, it’s ridiculous to tell someone that there is only one way to enjoy their time outdoors.  For a family trip, I find that using a tent in a designated campground with your car nearby is the most affordable and the most practical way to camp.  In the future, I’ll probably touch on the other “styles” of camping, especially backcountry, which I believe can be a great adventure once a family gets some experience with the tamer stuff, but good ole car camping is how my family does it most of the time, it’s what I know, so that’s what I’m going to write about.

So, if you are going to go camping, the first thing you are going to need is some gear.  Here is a list of the basics:

Tent - Your home.  It’s your bedroom, your dressing room, your storage closet.  When buying a tent for car camping, you really don’t have to get top of the line.  We have always bought generic brand tents from retails stores and they last for years and see plenty of use.  One thing I have found is that you can’t really trust what the manufacturers say regarding how many people can fit in their tents.  If you buy a “sleeps four” for your four-person family, after one night you will realize that it should have said “uncomfortably crams four.”  A good rule of thumb is to always pretend your family has 2-3 more bodies when choosing a tent.  Almost all tents come with a rainfly, which is basically an extra bit of protection that attaches to the outside of your tent.  This not only keeps out moisture (to a degree,) but it also helps keep in warmth if you are camping during colder weather.  If you are expecting heavy rain, don’t rely on just the rainfly.  I suggest bringing a large tarp that you can stretch over your tent using cord tied to nearby trees.  Even a really good tent is eventually going to get saturated and start leaking if it rains long enough.  You should always lay a tarp on the ground underneath your tent as well to prevent holes or tears due to sharp rocks or sticks.  It also helps keep your tent clean.  Finally, get some extra tent stakes and a mallet.

Sleeping Bags - Again, you don’t have to break the bank on these if you are typically going to be camping in pleasant weather.  If you camp a lot in late fall or early winter, it’s worth it to spend a little extra money on something that’s better at keeping you warm.  For your kids, get the cheap sleeping bags and just pile blankets on top of them if it’s cold.  It’s just not worth it for pricey bags when they outgrow them so fast.  Bring pillows.  You’re car camping.  Why wouldn't you?

Sleep Pads / Air Mattresses - For a long time, my wife and I considered ourselves “purists.”  We scoffed at people that brought big inflatable air mattresses on a camping trip.  We were completely content with our thin sleep pads.  We were tough.  We were real campers.  We didn't know what we were missing.  We decided to borrow a couple of twin air mattresses from my in-laws for a camping trip when my wife was 6 months pregnant with our second daughter.  She is in first grade now and we still haven’t given them back.  Sleep pads are great for backpacking, and they are fine if you are camping on soft, level ground without hidden lumps, rocks, or tree roots.  But when you compare a sleep pad to an air mattress, it’s the difference between sleeping on your bedroom floor or in your bed.  Even in perfect conditions, one is just WAY more comfortable than the other, plain and simple.  Especially if you deal with any kind of back or joint pain.  And get the self-inflating kind, it’s worth the extra $20-$40 to just plug it in and walk away instead of manually pumping it up with your arms or God forbid, your lungs.  Once again, the kids get the shaft.  They will be just fine on sleep pads.  They are lighter and the ground won’t beat them up as much as us old folks.  Get them a decent brand that won’t pop easily, though.

Camping Chairs - Get something cheap and simple.  Armrests and cupholders are nice.  If you want something fancy and really comfortable, you’re going to have to spend a little money.  Or just ask for it for your birthday like I did.

Camp Stove - The only things that are truly simple to cook over the campfire are marshmallows and hot dogs.  Anything more elaborate can be either really fun and delicious or frustrating and burnt.  Get a compact two-burner stove that runs on propane and you can cook most anything that you can cook in your own kitchen.  When cooking, make sure you keep the flame pretty low.  I’ve found that a lot of camp stoves cook a lot hotter than they appear and can burn your grub quickly.  Again, cheap works just fine as long as you take care of it.  If you want, you can purchase some camping cookware or just use stuff from your kitchen.  We do a combination of both.  Also, a cheap, portable table to cook on isn’t a bad idea in case your campsite doesn’t have a picnic table.

Cooler - Something to keep your perishables cool.  Find out if your campground sells ice.  Also, it’s a good idea for everyone to have their own water bottle that seals instead of dealing with a bunch of cups.

Headlamps / Lanterns - Battery-powered or gas, you definitely want some kind of central light source available, even if you don’t use it the entire time.  We use a big one if we are trying set things up or cook after dark, and then switch it off to enjoy the firelight, stars, etc.  Get a small battery powered lantern to leave in your tent.  Everyone should have their own headlamp.  Again, cheap works just fine.  Check all the batteries before your trip.

Miscellaneous Necessities - a trash bag or two, bug spray, paper towels, hand sanitizer, first aid kit, a box of wet wipes (camping is messy,) plates and cutlery (disposable or not, up to you,) a power inverter for your car's cigarette lighter if your car is old (like mine) and doesn't have a built in outlet, and this might seem more for backcountry camping, but bring tp and a spade.  You can’t always guarantee that your site is going to be close to the bathrooms.

Bells and Whistles - hammocks with straps, hot dog forks (laugh all you want, I’ll laugh even harder when your stick breaks and your perfect, golden marshmallow falls into the flames,) something to read, a separate canopy/shelter for cooking or hanging out under if it’s raining, playing cards.  Anything to make your camping experience more enjoyable and comfortable.

Obviously, you don't want to go buy all this stuff at once.  If you have absolutely nothing, start collecting items slowly over time.  Look at bargain stores and especially yard sales.  If you're really itching to get out there, but only have some of what you need, see if you can borrow some items.  Just take very good care of it and definitely clean it up before returning it promptly when your trip is over.  Unless its your in-laws air mattresses.  In that case, just hope that they never ask for it back.

So, this should be a good guide for what you need to get started.  If I’ve left out anything important or if you disagree with something or if you have any additional tips, please let me know (nicely) in the comments.  

I’ll talk a lot more about camping soon.  How to make your campsite “home” in a campground with lots of other campers.  Choosing the optimal campsite.  The role your site plays in a trip that is more than just camping.  What to do if camping just isn’t your thing.  Lots of stuff.  Please email me with any specific questions or topics you would like me to discuss.


You know what?  Forget everything I said.  This is all you really need.

Where to Begin

Where Do I Start?

It’s a big undertaking to plan a vacation.  It’s even bigger to go somewhere you’ve never been and do something you’ve never done.  There are so many factors that for some people it’s too intimidating to even make the attempt.  It’s a lot easier to just go to that tried and true beach condo or mountain cabin that your family has been going to since you were a kid.  And believe me, I am not knocking the comfort of familiar territory.  You know which restaurants you like; you know the quickest route to get places; and you can’t wait to sit in your favorite chair on the back porch and read a book.  It’s relaxing.  It’s safe.  And most of the time, it’s just what you need.

But sometimes you need a little more.  Sometimes you need some adventure to make the familiar that much sweeter.  If you don’t mix it up once in a while, tradition can become routine and boring.  So, it’s good to branch out and take some risks in unknown territory.  You never know, you may find a new place to be your favorite getaway. 

So, where to begin?  First, start slow.  If this is going to be your first big road trip, then I would suggest finding a destination kind of close to home, no more than a few states away.  You don’t want to jump from driving a few hours to the beach to being in the car for three days straight.   Also, if your family has never been that big on camping, get some practice in before you go.  Go to a nearby state park or pitch a tent in your back yard.  It may be better (though pricier) to rent a cabin or motel room near your destination.  That way you aren’t dealing with too many new experiences at once.  The main thing is to ease yourself and your family into this new adventure, so you can be sure there will be more. 

Once you’ve picked a place, decide on a when.  Do some research about how the weather and conditions change throughout the months.  When is the rainy season?  When is it too hot?  When are the bugs the worst?  When do the leaves change?  What’s the best time to avoid crowds?  When is the wildlife most active?  Focus on individual months, rather than seasons.  Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean there won’t be road closures due to snow.  In some places, winter is the busy season.  Decide what time of year sounds the most enjoyable for your family and plan accordingly.  

One of the most important tips I can give you is if there is anything you can make a reservation for, do it as soon as possible.  It’s a no-brainer.  The sooner you book a campsite, tour, rafting trip, etc. the better your chances of getting a spot.  If you wait a few weeks before your trip, you could be out of luck, especially with the more popular destinations.  Plus, in some cases, you have more choices if you book earlier.  Also, If you can pay in advance, that’s less money that you have to spend during the actual trip.  Spread the expenses out over time.  

Finally, make learning about this place your new hobby.  Instead of browsing social media during your breaks, read about your destination.  Most places have some sort of official website, and that is a good place to start.  It will give you a broad overview of a place.  It will point out popular hikes, list the different campgrounds, show you where the central hubs are, which are sometimes based around visitor centers or museums or lodges.  It will mention all the “must-see” places.  But dig deeper.  Look at TripAdvisor and other similar sites.  Ask specific questions in a search engine like “What are the kid friendly hikes in ________?” “Where is the best spot to see the sunset?”  “Which campground is the least crowded?”  The information is out there.  Get prepared.  Have a plan.  You don’t have to set up a strict itinerary or anything, but it is pretty foolish to drive all that way, use all those vacation days and then just hope you figure it out when you get there.  I am not saying you should never be impulsive.  Some of the best adventures are when you just take off into the unknown with no real plan, but you need to get your sea legs before you try that.  If you haven't done too much traveling or camping with your family, it's not the best idea to be flying blind.    

So, it can be done.  People look at photos of The Grand Canyon or hear stories about Alaska and say, “I wish I could do something like that.”  You can!  What’s stopping you?  Money?  Start saving.  Knowledge?  It’s right there at your fingertips.  Experience?  Start building it now.  Plan a small trip and then make the next one bigger, and so on.  I promise you, this is not that hard.  I’m not good at anything and I got really good at this in a fairly short amount of time.  And I’m still learning!  Fear?  “What if we have a terrible time?”  “What if it’s just a big waste of money?”  “What if I get eaten by a bear and wolf at the same time?”  I’ll be honest, sometimes things go wrong and sometimes trips are duds, but just try again later.  There is no law anywhere that says you only get one shot at having a great vacation. 

Well, except the bear/wolf eating you law.  That one is pretty final.

What's This All About?

Every time my family goes on a trip and I blow up social media with pictures and stories, I start getting messages.  “How do you get your kids to last that long in the car?” “How can you afford to drive across the country and see all those places?” “How do you fit so much stuff into one week?”  “What do you do about food?” “About the weather?” “About bears?”  

People want to know how we do it.  

“What kind of tent should we get?” “What time of year should we visit?” “What are the best hikes once we get there?” “What all should we pack?”  

People want to know how we do it because they want to do it too.

Well, I’m starting this blog to answer these questions as best I can.  In a nutshell, this will be a how-to guide for camping road trips with kids.  I will share my ideas about how to keep costs down, about sleeping/eating/functioning outdoors, how to get from A to B, and I might even get philosophical once in a while about necessity of traveling and exploring.  I’ll give in-depth(ish) reviews of national parks, state parks, specific hikes, and other destinations that we have visited.  I’ll talk about ways to salvage a trip when everything seems to go wrong.  Plus a whole lot of other stuff.

Please if you have any specific questions, suggestions, corrections, or advice, feel free to email me or leave a comment.  If there is a particular place I’ve visited that you want to know about, just ask.  And if it’s a place I haven’t visited, well golly gee shucks, I guess I’ll just have to go there and check it out.

I am not a professional or some kind of traveling guru.  I just love adventure.  So does my family.  It is our favorite thing.  I love talking about it and I want everyone to enjoy it as much as we do.

People want to know how we do it?  It’s just what we do.  You and your family can, too.

The Itch


Every once in a while, my wife and I load up our car with a bunch of junk, our girls go to the bathroom one more time, and then we all drive away.  

We forget about our book reports and our morning commutes and search for new stories to tell.  We find sea urchins under rocks and rub our hands along mossy tree trunks.  We have contests to see who can spot the most deer.  We watch the sun go down behind mountains that were our playground only a few hours before.  We swim in oceans, lakes, rivers, creeks, ponds, streams, bays, springs, and occasionally... swimming pools.  We cook our own food under the stars and agree that nothing has ever tasted better.  We tromp along trails in every setting imaginable.  We fall asleep with cicadas and wake up with songbirds.  We stub our toes and scratch our bug bites and cry when it rains and then laugh about it and keep on going.  We see brand new things.  We walk unknown paths.  

Eventually, we pack up and come home, a little sad, but more alive than we were before.  Our spirits are stronger.  The memories, new and exciting, burn in our brains and spill out of our mouths to anyone that will listen.  

Underneath it all...the itch.  

To go again.  To experience more.  To find something else we didn't know existed.  

Time passes.  Life happens, as it does.  We return to work, which has many definitions.  Home and family and community are sweet and familiar and comforting.

But the itch is still there.

And before too long...we scratch it.