Ever since we hit the road for one RV family vacation after the next, I’ve consistently heard, “That looks like so much fun, but where do you start?” There’s no right or wrong answer to this question. I’ve known some families start by buying an RV and hitting the road for weeks. Others take a more conservative approach. Regardless of where you start, I believe there are four questions to answer before kicking the metaphorical tires on this type of travel:
- How are you going to travel? Are you going to buy an RV? Rent? Test the camping waters in a cabin?
- Where will you go? Which campgrounds are you going to first?
- What do you need to bring?
- How will you keep the family engaged during the trip? Many gurus tell you to let kids explore, and there’s validity to that idea. There’s also relief in offering a little guidance and being prepared.
I can relate to the feelings of overwhelm that come into play when trying to answer those questions. I was there too just a few years ago when we bought our first RV. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about how to set our family of four up for success while on the road. While I could talk your ear off about it (and plan to for the foreseeable future), here are the answers I give to anyone who’s wanted to pick my brain about where to start when planning a camping trip.
Which RV Will You Take Your Family Vacation In?
When my husband kicked the tires on an RV family vacation the first time, dollar signs flashed in my eyes. The startup cost of getting on the road seemed high. If we bought the travel trailer we’d had our eye on (and spoiler alert: eventually we did), it’d cost a hefty amount of money. That upfront cost paired with the fact that these things deteriorate rapidly once you drive them off the lot, made me realize that by buying, we were also committed to multiple camping trips.
There were benefits to having our own travel trailer, which made it easier for me to want to buy. By not having to return the vehicle we’d basically have everything we needed on wheels.
Better yet, I knew I could keep essentials we’d want at the campground — pots, pans, headlamps, etc. — inside the trailer, so packing became easier and faster with each trip.
Looking a free checklist for packing the RV? There are tons out there but none ever hit the mark for me, so I created my own. Grab it here.
While ownership worked for us because we both knew RVing was something we wanted to do for at least a few summers, it might not be feasible or desirable for others. If that’s you, and you’re looking to dip a toe in the waters first, try renting instead. There are several ways to rent your RV, including:
- Cruise America: We see a lot of these rolling into the campgrounds when we travel
- RV Share: This is essentially an Airbnb for RVs
- Outdoorsy: This is another rent-from-owner type company, offering you a wide range of options from van camping to trailers and Class Cs
We’re not affiliated with any of these sites, nor have we tried any ourselves, so use them at your own discretion. But still, use them! I love how accessible these companies make it to hit the road.
If you’re buying your RV, there are a lot of things to consider. From the floorplan and size, to the type of RV (travel trailer, fifth wheel, RV, or others), you’re going to have to find the right fit for your family. Check out this Stack with links that point the way for how to find the best RV for your needs.
While these online sources are helpful, what proved to be the most valuable to me when we were just starting out was to go in-person to walk inside and get a feel for these vehicles. Once inside, I knew immediately what my non-negotiables were and what to look for as we searched online.
Where Will You Go on Your RV Family Vacation?
With the type of vehicle decided, your next challenge is to choose where to go camping. For our first trip, we reached out to a few seasoned camping friends to get ideas of where to go. While Google is helpful, we wanted more guidance from them than simply finding the most optimized campground websites.
I’m guessing that’s why you’re here too, so allow us to be that friend for you. The biggest question to ask yourself when narrowing your search is, which amenities do you want at the campsite itself?
Want more nature than nurturing at your campground? Campsites, like state parks, allow you to pull up next to hiking trails and natural creations. For our first trip, we went to Kartchner Caverns. When the weather got extra hot, we headed to Patagonia State Park to hang by the beach at the lake.
Want creature comforts or to keep the kids entertained? Check out places like KOA or Jellystone, which often have a playground and/or pool. Although this isn’t the true backcountry experience, I’ve loved these campgrounds because they make it easy to explore the area while also giving a summer camp vibe.
Ready to go totally off grid (you brave soul, you)? Try boondocking. Fill up on water on your way to your destination, and then set up on land. There’s no electricity (unless you bring a generator), no running water, and no dumpsters to throw your trash. It’s a true pack in, pack out experience on the land...just RV style.
We’ve done all three styles of camping with our kids. Although we started at state park campgrounds, I think I would’ve been equally excited about camping at places like KOAs — especially in the beginning.
The point is, there’s no right or wrong place to start. Pick the style of camping that’s most appealing to your personal tastes and your season of life and then book your stay.
What the Heck Do You Pack for a Family Vacation in an RV?
I can vividly remember the hours I spent on Pinterest looking at RV checklists ahead of our first trip. I knew not to overpack but I also knew the importance of being prepared. There was a lot we needed but the sheer size of that list left me in a state of analysis paralysis. I couldn’t think through it all and panicked at the idea of forgetting something essential.
Looking back, that panic was silly. With a few trips under our belt, I came up with a different system for how to make sure we bought everything we needed.
- Think through your list “room” by “room.” Only focus on one area of the RV at a time.
- Know your staples and, to the extent you can, leave them inside the RV.
- Have a few go-to outfits or staples that you know you’ll feel cozy in to throw and go.
I created an entire list of staples for the inside of the trailer. My husband created a list of staples for the outside of the trailer. These are the items we now jot down on a giant piece of paper that sits in our kitchen ahead of each trip, as well as our method for planning what meals to bring. I never found anything like this while browsing Pinterest, so I created it and invite you to use this same template. It’s been life-changing while packing, and now, loading up the trailer feels almost too easy.
What Will You Do Once You’re On the Road and At the Campsite?
This question is the catalyst for starting Cruisin’ and Campfires. It’s also a little controversial.
There are plenty of campers who believe that letting your kids loose to explore nature is good for their development. I couldn’t be more of an advocate for our youth (and even us as adults) for getting a little dirt under our nails.
However, I’m also a parent who embraces every moment to relax and have fun with my kids. A little foresight into bringing a few extra supplies for activities has gone a LONG way on the road and at the campground.
As you’re packing up your trailer, leave a small space for a few extra supplies to offer your bored kiddos (and at some point, they will get bored) something new to try. I’ll release several blog posts with more specific ideas, but for now, here are a few rules of thumb to get you started.
- I’m an advocate for allowing tablets in the car, but for long road trips, you’ll still benefit by preparing activities for the road that extend beyond screentime, such as sticker books or road trip bingo cards.
- Have a few scavenger hunt ideas ready to go. Bonus points for packing paper bags for your kids to start collecting items they find around camp.
- Encourage your kids to get crafty at the campsite using what they’ve found in nature, such as twigs and rocks. Bonus points for packing glue, paper, or paint to bring those finds to life.
- When all else fails, get ready to build a mini habitat for creatures in the area, like fairies or frogs, using nothing but rocks, leaves, sticks, or any other type of natural amenity around your campsite.
We’re working hard to start shipping a few boxes filled with tried-and-true activities for cruisin’ and around the campsite (hence our name).
It’s Time to Hit the Road for Your RV Family Vacation
There’s never been a better time to test the camping waters. If you’d like more information or have a specific question, we want to help you. Join the FREE Cruisin’ and Campfires Facebook group to get ideas from us and fellow campers, so you can hit the road feeling good about the memories you’re going to create.