By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Content Agency
No matter how many hours on the road, there’s no whining or complaining from the two Dam kids — Astra, 10, and her younger brother Carl, 8.
“Sometimes the kids forget we are driving at all,” said their mom, Trine Dam, as Astra and Carl nod in agreement. And the two aren’t glued to devices the entire time, either.
The secret to this unusual road trip bliss: A 36-foot rented RV where the kids can be safely strapped in seatbelts but still able to play games at the table between them. And they can stop when they want to make lunch and don’t need to stop for a bathroom.
The Dams, who are from Denmark, have been tooling around Arizona and Utah visiting national parks.
We met up with them and other families at the popular Moab KOA campground, ideal for visiting nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as for biking, taking Jeep tours, rafting and swimming at the end of the day in the KOA pool. (KOA operates far more campgrounds than anyone else in the United States with more than 200 open all year, as are the campgrounds at Moab.)
Growing numbers of families are now camping — a million new campers in 20018, according to the 2019 North American Camping Report, sponsored by KOA, and more are seeking options beyond tents — like RVs. Some 40 million Americans RV camp regularly, according to industry research, with younger households with adults aged 35 to 54 the most likely to own and RV.
All of the families we met, some traveling like the Dams in rental RVs, some in their own, were equally enthusiastic about their mode of travel, with the option to stay in remote campsites or campgrounds with plenty of amenities — playgrounds, lawn games, obstacle courses, fire pits, kayaks, even a summer rodeo at the gargantuan Mt. Rushmore KOA.
RV camping encourages family time, suggests Zach Thornhill, traveling with his wife and daughters from Fruita, Colorado. “If we were home and the weather was bad, we would all be doing our own thing,” he explains. “Here we’re playing board games or watching movies.”
And Sophie Thornhill added that she and her younger sister always make friends in campgrounds, which is not usually the case at a hotel.
Another plus: no pet fees for those traveling with their pooches. Nor do the kids bicker like they do at home, added Marty Dubey, another Coloradan whose sons are 15 and 12. Dubey added that she doesn’t have the stress of worrying about what might be in restaurant food, as her younger son has food allergies.
“A hotel isn’t the same,” added Zach Dubey, 15. “We get to be outside more,” cooking together, riding their bikes, sitting around a fire. Here, we rent a fire pit for $20 for our stay, plus wood.”
But don’t think you will save a lot of money, except perhaps on food. “It’s not (a lot) cheaper than staying in hotels,” says Trine Dam. “It’s just a lot easier with the kids. And we are a lot closer to nature.”
(If this all sounds appealing, but beyond your budget, go to https://koa.com/koa-get-out-there-grants/ and click the “Share Your Dream” button. Leave your email to be notified when you can apply for a KOA Get-Out-There 2020 Grant.)
This isn’t for everyone, though. There’s the challenge of hooking and unhooking from electricity and water, figuring out the right hose to dump the grey water.
Shellie-Bailey-Shah, creator of KidTripster.com, an online family travel resource, has been RVing with family for more than a decade and offers advice to newbies like us. Certainly there is a learning curve — we learned that the hard way when we couldn’t figure out how to turn on the heat the first night and it was below freezing.
It’s important to ask a lot of questions if you are renting (good sites for rentals are www.outdoorsy.com and www.RVShare.com). Like any vacation rental, there doesn’t seem to be a standard. Are there enough sheets, blankets and towels? Pots, pans and cooking utensils? The right equipment for hooking up to water, electricity and dumping grey water? Do the sides of the RV pop out to add more living space?
I’m glad we brought our LL Bean base camp chairs and wish we’d brought our Keen closed-toe sandals for camp shoes. You’ll want reusable water bottles — put stickers on them where you go — and insulated mugs for coffee and tea. I wish I’d brought a soft-sided cooler as there was no room for the one we brought. Audio books are a great bet (you can download from your library or sites like www.audible.com), providing entertainment the entire family can share.
And the larger the vehicle, the more it will take practice to maneuver, particularly in crowded campgrounds and national parks.
The first few times, opt for a shorter trip, Bailey-Shah, suggests, “to make sure this is something your family will like.” She adds that RVing with young kids can be tough, as can any road trip. “I think 5 to 13 is the sweet spot,” she said, adding that families should take advantage of the national parks’ Junior Ranger programs aimed at those age groups. “That’s not to say you can’t RV with teens,” said Bailey-Shah, “but travel over all gets more challenging as they have other obligations.”
Another tip from Bailey-Shah: pre-prepare dishes like pasta sauce or chili, as space will be limited for ingredients and to cook. RV kitchens are very small — we only had a mini-fridge and no oven, though we did have a microwave — and you can’t count on every campground having grills.
Still, she believes, not only will you save a few bucks but “it’s the best way to see the country.”
“We only have a couple more years before they are gone to college,” added Paul Dubey, who recently upgraded to a larger vehicle. “We want to make the most of it.”
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