Lessons of the road


This year’s summer adventure was the third three-week road trip we have embarked on with our family in the last three years. Although a lot of things went exactly as expected, a few things surprised us this go around. We kind of went into the trip feeling like we were old pros who had mastered the art of longer road trips. That was probably our first mistake!

But what we are learning is that every camping adventure will have its surprises–both good and not so good. And that’s OK, because it’s all part of the bigger journey we are on as a family. All of those surprises will serve to help us plan an even better trip next time. So here are a dozen lessons learned on the road this summer while visiting Michigan and Wisconsin:

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1. Packing what you think you’ll need is not enough.

Since we have limited space in the camper, I try very hard not to overpack. Thus for this last trip I packed primarily shorts and short-sleeved shirts for the kids and me–seems pretty logical for a late June into July trip. To be on the safe side I packed us each four pants, three long-sleeved shirts, and fleecy jackets. You know, just in case it were to get a little chilly at night.

Turns out the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was experiencing a cold snap while we visited. All the locals were talking about in the grocery store lines: “I had to turn my heat on just to get the chill out.” And meanwhile we were camping. And it was cold. And we could see our frosty breath in the air … in July!

So yeah, those four pairs of pants started getting a lot of use, and after we had worn them more than once (with no laundry facilities available until the next campground) I decided the simplest thing to do was to go buy some more pants. But it’s not like there were any clothing stores nearby. Not even a Walmart. We eventually found a little thrift store and I walked out with another pair of pants for each of the kids and me–all for a whopping $1.50.

But the moral of the story is that when you pack for a trip, as long as you have room, take more than you think you will need. Especially those pants! 🙂

2. You will reveal your tourist status any time you try to pronounce local names.

Michigan is home to lots of hard-to-pronounce names. Just try saying Tahquamenon, Interlochen, Petoskey, or pasties. Mess up the pronunciation for Mackinac (it’s –naw on the end, not –nak), and you’ll really get it. But thankfully the state of Michigan has provided a pronunciation guide to help us visitors out.

3. You might have to take out a small loan to get clean clothes on the road.

On past trips, we have usually been able to do laundry at the campgrounds we have stayed at, and generally the cost per wash and dry was very affordable (around $2.50 or $3 a wash and $1.50 to $2 a dry). But on our latest adventure we were staying at primarily state parks, none of which had laundry facilities. This meant we stopped to do laundry twice at laundromats we found along the way. Feeding each washing machine 20 quarters for one wash (!) left us scrambling for every coin we could find and almost necessitated us taking out a “quarter” loan from our children–but thankfully there was a change machine on site.

4. Google doesn’t always provide the most current information.

Typically we don’t spend much cash on our trips since most campgrounds, shops, or restaurants we have visited take plastic. But this summer we found ourselves in small towns where credit was not always an option, and neither were checks since we were from out-of-town. Which meant the cash we did bring dwindled rather quickly as we sampled local fare, bought firewood at the campgrounds, and paid for small incidentals here and there. When we got down to our final $50 and we were only about halfway through our trip, we decided it was time to try to find one of our bank’s ATMs. No problem we thought: Just look up a location at the next big city we would be driving through. Bingo–sort of. Turns out Google searches aren’t always up to date. And the bank branch it led us to had closed about four years ago. Just perfect. 🙂

The story has a happy ending because we were able to get some cash at another ATM and just paid the extra fee. But we later had an “aha” moment when we realized we could also get “cash back” when making purchases at places like Walmart. Bottom line: Take more cash than you think you will need.

5. Who needs souvenirs when a rock will do.

On our travels we’ve come across so many different kinds of rocks that we try to pick up a special rock from each of our stops. If it’s large enough I try to write the place and date on it with a fine point Sharpie. Our family’s growing collection makes a neat conversation piece–and it doesn’t cost a penny.

Rock collectors, though need to be aware of local rules, as some places (including Pictured Rocks and Door County’s Pebble Beach pictured below) prohibit visitors from taking rocks. In which case you can apply the “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints” mantra.

And of course, you should try to avoid a Lucy situation as depicted in The Long, Long Trailer.

6. When the weather (or destination) disappoints, go looking for a silver lining.

Our time at Tahquamenon Falls State Park was not only buggy but really wet. Rather than sitting cooped up in the camper all day, though, we decided to go looking for the silver lining. One afternoon that meant going on a moose hunt (we unfortunately never spotted one, but we did see three red foxes!). Another day it meant exploring a nearby town where we discovered a cute historical society, a thrift store (where I found those pants for $1.50!), and a local library that offered free wi-fi and a book sale. We were able to catch up on our work emails and go back to the camper with some fun books for everyone to read. What started as a dud ended up being a really fun day.

7. Dollar stores don’t sell women’s belts and thrift stores are godsends. 

After we crossed over into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the temperatures took a dip, I realized I had neglected to pack a belt. With nary a Walmart to be found, I thought surely one of the two dollar stores in town would have belts. Turns out they stock men’s belts, but not women’s. So once again a thrift store came to my rescue.

8. Do count on spending more money for food than you may be used to at home.

I’m an Aldi shopper, so anytime we hit the road and I can’t find an Aldi, I’m always surprised by the higher prices at other stores. And of course prices are even higher when we are shopping in a touristy spot or in a small town that only has one grocery store.

So if you can’t stomach paying higher prices, try to bring as much of the dry goods/shelf stable food that you can fit in your camper. If you are limited on space, then focus on taking the items that might be harder to find or a lot more expensive elsewhere. Gluten-free products are becoming more common at grocery stores, but I still brought a lot of the GF-food with me because I didn’t know what would be available and I didn’t want to risk not having what my son needed.

9. Double checking dates for special events or activities is always a good idea.

Jarrett was super pumped that our visit to Sault Saint Marie was set to coincide with the annual Engineers Day at the Soo Locks, where mighty ships traverse a 21-foot drop between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. During the special one day event, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers allows visitors to walk across the locks, explore the hydroelectric plant, and tour the Coast Guard station. To say Jarrett was excited to attend would be an understatement.

The night before our trip to Sault Saint Marie, though, Jarrett was reviewing the event times when he suddenly realized he had the wrong day: Engineers Day had been that day, not the next day as he thought.

Although he was crushed to have missed it, in the end we still found that silver lining: The locks were loaded with ships coming through when we visited whereas on Engineers Day there had only been one or two ships all day. We also learned a valuable lesson about double checking dates: It’s hard to keep track of little details in the midst of weeks-long travel, so setting calendar reminders in our phones would help us keep everything straight in the future.

10. A Thermacell should be considered necessary equipment for camping.

Before our Texas trip Jarrett had purchased a Thermacell for me, but we didn’t really have a lot of buggy places to try it out. And the few times I had used it hadn’t convinced me of its value; I have to admit I kind of thought it was an overpriced bug repellant. But that all changed after our Michigan trip: I don’t think we would have survived the black flies and mosquitoes if it hadn’t been for the Thermacell. It really did keep the pesky bugs at bay and allow us to sit comfortably outside around a campfire.

When we weren’t using the Thermacell (because we were out and about rather than hanging at the campsite) we were liberally applying various kinds of bug spray. I really am not exaggerating when I say we went through more bug spray in a week than we have used in the last three years combined. The bugs were that bad in the UP.

11. Your kids really can survive three weeks without all their toys.

Seriously. So much so you will wonder why you have so many toys at home. Your kids’ imaginations will soar as they find ways to make up all kinds of games out of the few things they do have with them. And as a parent you’ll be really proud of how they work together to entertain themselves.

And for an added bonus, when you do come home, the kids will be entertained for days reacquainting themselves with all the toys they “missed.” I can guarantee you won’t hear “I’m bored!” for at least a few days.

12. It may take a few days after the trip to get back into a groove at home.

There is a definite transition period that occurs at the beginning and end of a long road trip. At the beginning of our travels, we have to get into a routine as we reacquaint ourselves with drive days, touring days, and spending so much time in close quarters. By the end of the trip some of us are excited to be going home (where we can find our own quiet corner of the house and be alone) while others are in a bit of a slump and feeling a bit blue to be headed back to real life.

You have to sort of pace yourself as you get back into a groove at home: From the massive laundry mounds to the piles of waiting bills, just keep doing the next thing and before you know it you’ll be humming right along … plotting all the while your next big adventure.

What about you? What lessons have you learned on the road?


4 thoughts on “Lessons of the road

  1. Bonnie C. Chandler

    Dear Touring Camper, I found you on Pinterest !!! Your information and video on cleaning the outside of the RV is wonderful !!! I followed your advice, and ordered “Charlie’s Soap”, (indoor and outdoor cleaner) through their website. I researched, and found it was the best selection and price for what I wanted. We have a 40′ 5th wheel. Huge !! Our RV was very dirty from the NW winters. Last year we only cleaned the roof, as time was not available. Yesterday we tested your advice !!!! Thank you sooooo much !!!! Wonderful !!! Fantastic !!!! I will never clean the RV with any other product. We did not use a pressure washer, only the garden hose. I purchased a double pack of the spray bottles, and 2 gallon concentrated refills. We used the spray bottles on one long side, and today I will be refilling them to tackle the other long side. Thank you, thank you, thank you !!! It is everything you said and more !!! Love the shine too. Now I have to review your video on how to reseal the caulking on the exterior. Keep the great information coming. I need to sign up for your blog. You have a NW fan !!!!

    1. Kristin Post author

      Hi Bonnie–thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your kind words! We are so glad you are benefiting from the Charlie’s cleaner too! We use several of the other Charlie’s products in our home, and I can tell you that the laundry spot treatment is amazing as well! 🙂

      Thanks again for touching base! We so much appreciate our readers! Happy camping! 🙂

  2. Sara

    This is a great post. I knew right away where you took the rock picture-we were there 6 years ago and it was very memorable. I also read the comment above and have to agree. We bought Charlie’s soap with your recommendation and love it. Our camper looks beautiful after using it!

    1. Kristin Post author

      Hi Sara–thanks so much for stopping by and reading! And thank you for your kind words! It was so hard for the kids to leave all the rocks behind, but at least they have pictures of their “stacks” that they had fun building while we were there. 🙂

      So glad you are enjoying Charlie’s soap as well!

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