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Planning a Camping Road Trip

Planning a Camping Road Trip for Families

Since having kids, we have almost always lived 15+ hours away from both of our families, meaning that we have gone on many long road trips to visit grandparents. In the beginning, we started camping on road trips to save money.

Even though our income now allows for hotels on road trips, I actually prefer spending the night at a campground instead of at a roadside hotel (and also, I’m still a bit frugal!)

I find there are a lot of benefits to using a road trip to visit family as an opportunity to explore new campgrounds, trails, and simply get outside after being cooped up in a car for a long time.

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Benefits of Road Trip Camping

Outside Time

One of the main benefits for us in road trip camping is getting those few hours of outside time from when we pull into the campsite until bedtime and in the mornings before we drive away.

Being in the car for long periods of time (we typically drive around 8 hours but have done up to 12 in a day) means cranky emotions and sore bodies for us and our kids.

Getting out into fresh air, stretching our legs, running around, and setting up camp helps us reset after a long period of time sitting, whether it be driving or playing on the iPad.

When we do choose to stay at hotels for weather-related or logistical reasons, we typically just end up lying in bed and watching (even more) TV until bedtime. But with camping, we get fresh air and exercise, wearing out those little bodies to get a better night’s sleep.

Save money while camping on a road trip

As mentioned above, camping while on a road trip is always cheaper than a hotel room. Even a more expensive KOA experience will be cheaper and give you a bit more freedom than a small hotel room.

Cook your own food!

Instead of taking antsy kids into a restaurant, you can easily cook your own food while camping on a road trip. This helps cut down on stress as kids can run free while you prepare the food.

Tips for a Successful Road Trip Campout

Packing Tips for Camping on a Road Trip

We’ve experimented with different packing solutions over the past decade, from large plastic bins (which we usually prefer for car-camping trips) to packing cubes to duffel bags.

Recently, I picked up some inexpensive clothing storage bags from Ikea (similar to these, though the ones I bought at our local store last fall are slightly different). They are sturdy and easy to stack and stuff in the trunk. I have one for sleeping bags and pads, one for camping clothes, one for jackets and rain gear, and one for the clothes that we will wear at our destination.

Trunk of SUV packed with Ikea bags, tents, sleeping mats.
Inexpensive polypropylene Ikea bags in action. The handles and backpack straps especially came in handy when we unexpectedly ended up at a walk-in site at Oak Mountain State Park in Alabama.

We’ve also had friends and family members question how we manage to pack all of our camping gear plus all of the stuff we need when we get to our destination. We currently have a bigger SUV (Honda Pilot) which allows us to carry our three kids, camping gear, and the luggage we need when visiting family.

But before this year, we drove smaller cars (Prius V, Mazda 5, Subaru Forester). On our first camping road trip across the country (Utah to South Carolina), we tried to be frugal and simply bungee cord extra gear to the rooftop bars. I do NOT recommend this, as we discovered in dismay blankets and sleeping bags flying off in southern Utah (and had to pull over on a dangerous freeway to run back and retrieve them)—Yikes.  

A white family with two young kids stands in front of a Subaru Forester, with sleeping bags and a duffel strapped to the roof.
Younger, naïve me with our sleeping bags and duffel bungeed to our roof rack. Don’t be us!

We invested in a rooftop box after that near-disaster: it is a huge space-saver, it’s easy to install, and is (obviously) far more secure than bungee cords. We’ve owned both the Yakima SkyBox and the Thule Pulse – both are similarly great, but I do prefer the Thule’s attachment arms to Yakima’s. They are expensive but well worth the cost if you are going on multiple trips.

A grey Honda Prius packed full of stuff with a Yakima roof box with bumper stickers
When you have three kids and a Prius, a rooftop box for long road trips (or really, any adventure!) is a lifesaver.

Road Trip Food While Camping

When we do a long road trip, the first impulse is always to rely on fast food. And while sometimes that’s a necessity or a fun luxury, I also find that when we pull off and order food, we end up wasting a lot of time (and is it just my kids, or does it always create so much disgusting, half-eaten trash in the car?!)

When I plan for a road trip then, I like to choose easy, healthy meals and snacks we can eat in the car, at a local playground on our route, or at the campground. Trail mix, jerky, hard cheeses, crackers, carrot sticks and apples, fruit leather, olives, etc. all make perfect backpacking AND road-tripping food!

When we’re camping, we often cook campfire meals, or let the kids roast hot dogs and marshmallows over a fire. But when we pull over for camping during a road trip, we often do not build a fire, simply because it’s more things to pack (lighter, fire starters) and requires finding a local spot to buy wood to burn.

For dinners and breakfasts on our road trip camping trips, I keep it very easy with minimal to no dishes to wash, like ramen and oatmeal in their own containers. We have also found boxes of flavored couscous cook up great in a thermos (like this one from Stanley), and are fast and easy to make, even in the dark!

A hand holds a cup of miso ramen noodle soup, with hot chocolate mix and other ramen soups in a blue bucket in the background
Quick and easy food options for road trip camping

This also saves a lot of money for us on food, because a $1 ramen per kid is significantly cheaper than a kids’ meal at a hotel restaurant!

If you are going to be on the road for longer than a few days, bringing freeze-dried veggies or canned tuna/chicken to throw in the ramen or couscous adds a bit more nutritional value to the meal.

Two children eating at a picnic table in the woods. They are wearing jackets and it appears cold outside.
Instant oatmeal and grits packets are a quick and filling breakfast on the road.

Gear Setup for Camping Road Trips

Rather than bringing a bulky or complicated camp kitchen setup, we forgo the stove and just bring a JetBoil Flash for these easy meals. Bringing only the JetBoil allows us to save space in the car and time at camp, getting dinner made quick and making breakfasts seamless before hitting the road again.

While we love our larger Base Camp 6 tent for local or longer-term car camping, it is a bit more difficult to quickly setup and takedown. This is especially the case if I am road-tripping solo without my partner, which happens sometimes.

On those trips (which are sometimes easier for me, since my partner doesn’t like camping as much as I do and would prefer to stay in a hotel on the road!), I bring a smaller tent that’s easier to assemble, like our backpacking tent (Big Agnes Manzanares 4). If we are only sleeping somewhere one night, I prefer the easy setup of our smaller tent to the space offered by our bigger tent.

A green, mesh tent with two sleeping kids inside. There is green grass and trees in the background.
Summertime camping in our Big Agnes tent.

You won’t need quite as much gear than when you are on a “normal” car-camping trip, but checking out our definitive car-camping packing list can help to figure out the things you may want or need when on the road.

How to Find a Campground When on a Road Trip

One of the trickiest parts of road trip camping is finding campsites that are near major interstates or highways you are already traveling along, so that you do not have to drive a lot of extra miles getting to the campground. This is especially the case when you are on a tight schedule due to work or school vacation limits and can’t spend a lot of extra days traveling.

We have done both kinds of trips, meandering across the country camping along the way as well as trips with a tight timeline. But generally, we try to aim for no more than 20-30 minutes off of our main route unless there is a place we really would like to visit anyways.

A young kid wearing a purple shirt and striped shorts stands apprehensively next to an armadillo. They are in the woods.
A quick 10-minute detour from I-85 in Alabama lead us to Chewacla State Park and an armadillo family!

Depending on what part of the country (or world!) you are in, there are a variety of ways to find campsites. We often stay in state parks, because they are usually accessible, well-maintained, and have facilities that are helpful when on a road trip. But we’ve had success in federally-managed and even locally-owned public campgrounds as well.

There are a number of websites you can use to find campsites too. iOverlander is my favorite, and available worldwide (though options are more limited outside the U.S.) The website has a great mapping feature, where you can zoom in on certain areas to find available camping.

But I’ve also found an easy way to start looking for one is mapping out your trip on Google Maps, then simply zooming in along the way, close to where you think you want to take a break for the night, and looking for green space (state parks, national forests, etc.). These will usually be outside major cities.

When you have a question or want to read more about the campground itself, use a website like iOverlander or Campendium, which can tell you everything from cellular data coverage to reviews from individuals themselves who have stayed at that campground. I find this helpful to get a sense of where we will be going prior to the trip—Campendium especially is geared towards RVers, but I find most of the information applicable to tent camping as well.

Camping on a Road Trip is Economical and Fun

A quick few nights of car camping while on a road trip can both squeeze in some outdoor adventure time into your holiday trip and allow for an economical option when visiting family and friends who may live far away. Although camping can be a bit more complicated than staying in a hotel, planning ahead and practicing a lot by camping close to home can result in an enjoyable and easy mini-campout. Think simple: simple campsite close to the route, simple food to eat in the car and in camp, simple gear setup.

Related Articles:

Planning a Camping Road Trip with Kids

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