Planning A Big Trip

This trip planning guide is adaptable to your family. Take off on a cross-country trip or go on a regional adventure with ease.

By Michelle Van Deusen
Explore Ambassador

This overall trip-planning strategy can be adapted to whatever time frame you have. A year is only the ideal because of how reservation systems work. There are many ways to find last-minute campsites, so adapt this process to your camping style and however much time you have.

I limit extensive planning like this to cross-country trips. For monthly regional trips, I go without planning much at all because I think it’s good to have a mix of both. We take regional camping trips once a month and typically take two big trips a year. The important thing is to get outside with your family and travel in a way that you love, so use this as a starting point to design a planning strategy that helps you accomplish that goal.


Develop An Idea

Before you begin planning a big trip, it is wise to establish an overall travel vision for your family. Just like in life, it is easier to make decisions about what to do (and not do) based on an overarching vision. By thinking and talking together as a family, you may discover that you want to visit every national park, focus on historical sites or see specific scenery. You might discover your family wants to blindly pick a spot on a map and design a trip around it each year or take advantage of last-minute travel deals. There are as many approaches as there are families, and it’s worth the effort to form your own travel identity. This will help you select trips and then narrow down the options on a trip. Without an overarching vision, it’s hard to imagine a way to make those decisions well. In our family, we have the written goal of taking our children to each of the 63 national parks and all 50 states. To accomplish this goal, I initially grouped the parks in reasonable geographic clusters, and then we started working our way through those parks. I keep a spreadsheet “drawing board” with trip ideas whenever I have them, both big and small. I track everything we do and keep trip records in binders, which gives me a place to file paper copies of maps or other information. People often ask questions about places we have visited, and thanks to good record keeping, I am able to answer them. I learned this concept from my mom, who always did the same thing as she planned family travel.

Investing time and effort into planning trips takes you to places off the beaten path like the remote southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. (Michelle Van Deusen) 


Research And Map Out​ The Trip

About a year before a big trip, we select a loop from our drawing board and lay it out in a map program. I take a screenshot of it and then save it as the official beginning of the trip-planning process. It’s important to know how much time you can spend on the trip, so I also print a blank calendar template and lay that out as well. I fill in the beginning and the end of the calendar with travel time to the first destination and travel home from the last. By bookending the trip in this way, I am able to more accurately plan the middle, which is still blank at this stage. I also go ahead and make a trip budget so we can have a savings goal leading up to it. I devote a manila folder to the trip and simply label the tab on it and drop it in a filing cabinet drawer. I also create a digital folder for the trip on the computer. I label these folders by year and trip name so I can easily find them in the future. This is also the time frame in which I order reading materials and begin to learn about each place on the route. Learning about the places is how I determine how much time we need at each stop. I use both books and online resources as I study. Over time, we have found specific travel book series that work really well for us, so when those are available, I like to order them. One of our favorites is the Best Easy Day Hikes series. For the stage of life when you are hiking with children, this series does a fantastic job of narrowing down options that allow you to get the best bang for your buck — for instance, hikes with great scenery that are also child-friendly.

Trip research is something I enjoy. I genuinely like reading these books and playing with routes, budgets and calendars. Don’t be dismayed if you don’t enjoy it. I would suggest that you try it since anything new can seem hard at first, but if you find you never enjoy it, use the many resources online where trips are already laid out, or maybe your family is best suited for nomadic, wandering travel and surprises around every turn. There’s no one right method of planning family travel — just get out there!


Save Places And Activities

Over the next few months as you research each place, you will get a general sense of how much time your family needs at each one. There are parks where we could stop and spend a half-day and feel great about it and parks where a week wouldn’t be enough. Knowing how much time to spend in a place is a judgment skill that develops with experience. While you might be able to get an idea from someone else’s experience, ultimately, this is very family-specific. For instance, our half-day park could easily be someone else’s three-day park. You also need to check the area surrounding your focus destination and the route along the way for other spots to tour. Since you can’t possibly see everything, this is, again, where having a big vision helps you make choices. It’s also great to have some sort of filing system for things you discover that you might want to see on a later trip. I have an online document saved for every state where I drop links or ideas for future stops. The next time we head that way, it’s easy to just open that document and make those stops. We call this our “we’ll get it next time” approach to travel. It’s important to realize your travel vision may need to be updated as you take trips. Just because you started out with one goal does not mean it won’t evolve as you get more time out on the road. Evaluate it regularly, and get feedback from everyone.

Without a goal to visit every national park, we likely wouldn’t have ever found ourselves driving to Minnesota, taking a ferry across Lake Superior to Isle Royale National Park, and camping in a shelter there. (Michelle Van Deusen) 


Start Making Reservations

Six months before a national park trip, I need to be ready to make our campsite reservations. This is the point when the reservation window opens for most campgrounds. Many national park campgrounds fill up very quickly, so it is important to be familiar with them and ready to book at the first opportunity. Along the way, we like to stay in as many state parks as possible, as well as on public lands. We typically only use RV parks for resets of laundry and showers or as a stopover on a long haul. All of these other types of campgrounds vary in their reservation-window timeline, which is part of why I start the planning process about a year ahead of time. Depending on your camping style, the time frame for making reservations will vary. As I make reservations, I formalize the working calendar I started earlier by filling in the middle and adding the reservations to it. I move the trip information from a folder to a binder at this stage, with tabs for each major stop and printed copies of each reservation confirmation. There are many places we camp that do not have cell service, so having an accessible copy of that information can be vital. I leave the binders intact after the trip is complete and often pull them off the shelf to use as a resource for other families or even myself if we decide to return to an area. I really like the paper park maps available at national park entrance stations. I file those maps and other printed information we may receive in the binder divider pockets and use them regularly as resources. Trip planning works best with a way to file both paper and digital resources. My system works well for me, and I encourage you to develop one that works for you.

While planning trips, I check the states we will visit for scenic byways and include as many of those routes as possible. (Colorado highway, Michelle Van Deusen) 


Fine Tune The Details

About a month before the trip, I do all the detailed planning so the information will be fresh in my mind. I create a single-page overview of the trip for quick reference and also a multipage, detailed version. When it’s applicable, I include altitude, tide charts and logistical things like ferry schedules. For quick reference, I like having average temperatures, elevation, sunrise/sunset times and visitor center hours. I gather detailed information about restaurants, hikes, off-road trails and any other activity we might pursue and file them behind the appropriate tab of the binder. The most helpful resources to include in a trip binder are ones that help you make decisions quickly and easily when out on the road. Finding or making a chart that compares different hikes at a glance, for example, is the type of thing you will appreciate the most. I like to thoroughly understand the places we are going and what activities are available and the approximate time investments for those activities. This abundance of knowledge allows us to easily navigate each day based on the actual conditions. Since many of our national parks are in remote areas, it can be very important to document where to find gas and food and, if possible, the operating hours of those businesses. The National Park Service does a great job on its park websites, and some of this information can be found under the Plan Your Visit tab. I thoroughly explore the park website and pay particular attention to any alerts posted. Ultimately, my goal in creating the trip binder is to have a simple and concise resource that helps us make decisions in real time and then also serves as a permanent resource. Figuring out how much or how little information to include for your family is a personal determination, and you will fine-tune it over time. We like having the flexibility of choosing activities in real time along with the confidence that we have a thorough set of options at our fingertips.


Make Packing And Activity Lists

During the last month before a trip, I make packing lists and check our gear to be sure we have everything we need for the specific trip we are planning. Since we most often travel the American West in September, I also use this as an opportunity to check the kids’ fall clothes and be sure we have what we need, both for the trip and when we get home. Based on our planned activities and average weather conditions, I make clothing packing lists. We pack approximately a week of clothing for each person and plan to do laundry once a week. We each have a three-layer outerwear system that is extremely versatile. It consists of a base-layer fleece, a warm middle layer (often down) and a hooded raincoat as the top layer. I also gather or create any homeschool resources we need for the trip. I have folders for each of the 50 states, and the ones we plan to visit get pulled and packed. I use online information to create a binder for each child specific to the trip, with Junior Ranger program books already inserted. If possible, I like to have some children’s literature that is set in the places we plan to visit. We also make sure to have field guides for both animals and plants, as well as other hands-on items in an explorer pack: compass, magnet, temperature gun, magnifying glass, binoculars, notepad, pencil and a tape measure. You can see some of our packing systems here.

When we took canoes to an island campsite at Voyageurs National Park we needed to buy large dry bags and pack our backpacking tent and gear in them. (Michelle Van Deusen) 


Prep For The Trip

In the last two weeks before the trip, I shop for groceries, gather clothes, organize gear and then do the actual packing of the truck and pop-up camper. I keep a printed copy of my packing lists and check everything off as it is packed and loaded. I finalize the trip binder and verify everything I want printed is in there, along with packing any travel book resources to use along the way. We add house reminders to the packing list to do as we leave — things like adjusting the thermostat, turning off certain breakers and taking out the trash. We stock and pack a basket of car games and small toys, as well as writing and drawing materials to have within reach of our children as we drive long distances. They also listen to a lot of audiobooks, preferably related to the destinations of the trip. We play the license plate game as a family and have a U.S. map printed for tracking it. In addition to the other data I like to track, I also record our vehicle mileage right when we leave and when we return — a quick cellphone picture of the odometer is an easy way to save that information.

We enjoy having information ready to study the history of sites we visit. (Grand Teton National Park, historic district, Michelle Van Deusen)

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