That time when I went camping across the country, with all my wedding china
Some moves are longer and harder than others. Last summer, we moved from Spain to California. That’s 10 different time zones. We had 4 children, ages 1-7. THAT was a hard move. The military flew us from Spain to the East Coast, where we visited our families. Then we chose to drive across America. A normal family might choose to sleep in hotels. After all, the military reimburses the service member for 5 nights of hotel stays when moving cross country. But my husband decided the best things for us was to go cross country camping during PCS.
In a tent.
Our family of 6 made a coast-to-coast PCS move with camping gear
Camping during PCS was not my first choice. I will admit, I was scared. This was way outside my comfort zone. Growing up, my family only went camping with an RV. I was already stressed from an international PCS move, so trying to coordinate camping supplies and meals was completely beyond my experience as a mom so far.
When you are doing something new and intimidating, it is fun to read stories of big families who have successfully done that thing already. Everyone wants encouragement and tips from someone who has been there before, right? I tried to research tips for camping with children, but all I could find was stories of people who took their one child camping overnight, or maybe for a weekend. We had a baby, 2 preschoolers, and a 7 year old. It looks like I have to be the example of what happens when you take a big family camping across the country. So here is our crazy story! If you have a big PCS move coming up, or if you are considering camping with children, then you will enjoy this.
The logistics of the trip were mind-boggling. When we moved from Spain, the military sent all our belongings directly to California. We flew to the East Coast with just a baby carseat and a few suitcases packed with carefully-chosen outfits that we would wear for six weeks while visiting family and driving across the country. To further complicate things, we had left some important valuables at my parents’ house before we moved overseas. We had to bring them with us now, if we ever wanted to use them in our next three houses. And by valuables, I mean my entire eight-person china setting from our wedding.
Since our trip was one-way, we had to purchase the tent, sleeping bags, and other supplies. We also had to purchase a minivan on the East Coast, since our other car was shipped directly from Spain to California (and we sold a vehicle just before leaving Spain). Obviously, we planned and saved for this a long time in advance. The cost of the camping gear would be covered by the military moving reimbursement fund, since we were saving money on hotel rooms each night.
Camping during PCS: the good, the bad, and the ugly
The stresses of planning took their toll. As soon as we started buying supplies, my husband and I began to argue. I was feeling overwhelmed and useless, so I fell back on my strengths: taking care of children. I wanted the children to be safe, comfortable, and entertained. I focused on gear and gadgets that would keep them happy and make my mom life easier.
My husband, the career Marine, kept taking all my selected items out of the cart. “No,” he said shaking his head, “these aren’t essential. We don’t have space or money for this.” Then he would take an expensive fancy item I had never seen before, and place it in the cart instead. He wanted a collapsible 5-gallon bucket, a hatchet, a propane camp stove. “What do you need these for?” I asked, annoyed. “We aren’t allowed to cut down trees, and this ‘bucket’ is $30!” He shook his head, too busy and frustrated to explain everything to me.
I was trying to move a family of children across the country and make fun vacation memories. He was trying to move a fireteam of Marines. It created a lot of stress and tension. I should have realized that he knew what he was doing. He had spent the last 15 years moving people, camping in harsh environments, and selecting the best gear to get the job done. In the end I realized: he was right. I let him choose the gear. And you know what? We used all of it.
Our itinerary took a lot of tense discussion, too. We wanted to enjoy the trip and treat it as vacation. At the same time, we were only paid for so many days of travel, and couldn’t afford to take a leisurely road trip to see all the sights in America. So we agreed to a six day trip, with one big stop, and two smaller interesting stops. The big stop was Zion National Park in Utah. It is a gorgeous canyon between high mountains with amazing colors and great hiking trails. We spent two nights in Zion to enjoy a full day of hiking and relaxing. National Park passes are free to active duty military, so any park makes a wonderful stopping point! The smaller stops were to a dinosaur museum, since we were traveling on our son’s 4th birthday, and to a friend’s house in Kansas City. No, we didn’t stop to see the world’s largest ball of twine, and we just took photos of the St. Louis arch and Las Vegas from the car windows… but with our crew we really didn’t want to exhaust ourselves with unnecessary hours of side trips.
My biggest worry was: how would we get any sleep? Six people in one tent? We were planning to spend eight hours driving, for five days in a row. If we spent the night tossing and turning, or rolling children off of us, the trip did not sound fun to me. My husband had two awesome solutions: 1) We would camp every other night of the week-long trip, breaking it up with stops at hotels and a friend’s house so that we could get showers and do laundry. 2) He bought a large tent that connected to our van! When the van back gate was open, we could attach the tent. Then, we folded down the van’s back seats to create a flat space. This was big enough for the one year old’s pack and play. She slept comfortably there without toddling around the tent, and we could put her to bed before the other kids. He and I would wait for them to settle, then slip in quietly. It worked beautifully.
The final challenge was planning meals. Usually when you go camping, you can pack what you need from your house. But we weren’t camping until the 2nd night on the road, so there was no point in packing any refrigerated supplies into a cooler; they wouldn’t stay fresh long enough. We would just have to plan simple meals and find grocery stores along the way. This proved a little frustrating, but not impossible. We made sure we had plenty of snacks, drinks, sandwich supplies, water, and toiletries for the first few days.
Once we had our vehicle and gear, we had to load everything into the new van. This was a bit ridiculous. The back area was filled with our tent, sleeping bags, and clothes. We needed to pack and unpack that each night we stopped. The storage compartment under one seat held the camp cooking supplies and dishes. The compartment under another seat held all of my carefully wrapped wedding china. We borrowed my parents’ old car top carrier and used a thousand bungee cords to attach it to the van. It was filled with non-essential supplies: moving paperwork, extra clothes and shoes, items needed for the first week in our new house, souvenirs purchased while visiting our families, etc. Every nook and cranny of the van was carefully packed with games, food, baby equipment, and the good camera.
And you know what? We made it. In one piece. Every piece of china made it too! It wasn’t easy. It was a LOT of driving, and the baby cried for quite a bit of the journey. But everyone else actually had a good time. The kids amazed me with their good attitudes, behavior, and overall enthusiasm. In the car, they listened to audiobooks from Audible, ate snacks, played with Dollar Store toys, and watched DVD’s. My husband taught us lots of camping tricks, and related stories from his childhood. We sat at picnic tables and played cards together. We hiked in a National Park. The kids became Junior Rangers. It was a good trip.
What I learned from camping across the country with children:
- Marines know how to camp and move people. Trust them!
- A PCS move is not a vacation, but it can be a good memory. Don’t just drive–stop somewhere!
- Camping during a PCS can save you money.
- Audiobooks are amazing! So are Dollar Tree toys.
- Kansas is really, really flat. So flat and boring.
- Even in summer, the mountains of Colorado get cold. A 30 degree temperature change is a huge deal!
- But driving through Colorado is so beautiful.
- You can have a picnic in your car, in a parking lot, if you have the right supplies.
- Camping with kids can actually be fun.
- Eating Jiffy Pop popcorn out of tin foil, while searching for constellations, is a great experience.
- A baby backpack is way more useful than an umbrella stroller, when camping.
- If you don’t want to take your wedding china to an overseas duty station, put it in military storage. Then the military will move it for you so you don’t have to pack it in a van with camping supplies!
This story is Part 1 of my series on Camping Across the Country with Children. Part 2 has tips on long road trips with kids.