July 2004 -- Our children seem to be happy anywhere as long as they're healthy, rested, and fed, feel secure, and have challenges for their minds and bodies. As parents, we're responsible for providing those things. With practice, it's not hard, even on the road. Here are a few ideas that work for us.
Children feel secure when their parents are relaxed and they have a reliable place to retreat and find their favorite things. If you're camping or renting a cottage, it's easy to establish such a home base for children. We try to set up camp or get into rooms early in the day so that no one worries about where we're sleeping that night. If you're moving around a lot, your car becomes that reassuring home base. The problem with that is: Sometimes kids and adults don't want to get out of the car to see the places they are visiting. We avoid staying anywhere less than 2 nights; 3 or 4 is much better, a week best. Anything less, and you can get that uncomfortable, nomadic feeling of never really being anywhere, and the pictures passing by in the car's windows can become as hypnotic as a TV screen.
Food can be the toughest issue when traveling with children. Here are ways to make it easier.
Anyone who has traveled with children knows the value of regular mealtimes. I know of no more important rule for keeping a family on an even keel. Letting lunch slip just an hour gets everyone tense, leading to whining, snapping, and temper tantrums. As everyone's mood gets worse, stopping for lunch gets harder-you can't agree on a restaurant or picnic area, and the kids' behavior deteriorates to the point that you don't want to take them into a restaurant. After many hard lessons, we've made strict rules about stopping for meals at certain times, even if lunchtime comes at a bad time for whatever else we are doing. We also keep emergency provisions so that we can quickly slap together peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches or some other simple, nonsnack food at the appointed hour. Snacks and junk food don't cut it; they make you feel worse a little while later.
Restaurants & Kids
Many travelers, not just families, get tired of eating out for every meal on a trip. There's the stress of keeping your kids in line at the restaurant; the queasy feeling of never getting simple, low-fat foods; the expense; and the time wasted, which can amount to much of your day. If you're camping or have a cottage with cooking facilities, the problem is solved. Otherwise, keep a stocked cooler and picnic basket so that you can have breakfast in your room and frequent picnics for lunch or dinner.
We have to eat in a lot of restaurants to review them for the book, including long, expensive meals with white tablecloths. We've found that the children's behavior, even the babies', gets better through the course of a trip as they learn what's expected of them. The key is to set clear rules at the start and enforce them without exception. For example, our children never, ever get out of their chairs during a meal; otherwise, we've found, they're soon under the table or walking around the dining room. When bad behavior hits, we're always ready to haul a kid out to the parking lot; other times, a threat of that embarrassing march is enough. (This starts at home: If you have no discipline there, you can't expect to start when you go on vacation.) Positive conditioning is important, too: Always bring small toys and crayons to the table, and offer treats after a successful meal.
Of course, if you eat only at McDonald's and the like, you don't have to worry so much about behavior. But fast food is poor nutritionally and often makes us feel ill afterward. Children may think they want to eat at their favorite burger joint every day, but our family ends up happier after picnics and sit-down meals.
Exercise & Rest
A national park trip should be physically exhausting but mentally relaxing. This is a chance to find out how much you can do and to feel the satisfying weariness in your muscles afterward. Nothing makes sleep come faster. If you spend all your time in the car, on the other hand, the kids drive you crazy with pent-up energy, and bedtime becomes a struggle. Bedtime rituals can be difficult to maintain when you're traveling. When we're camping, darkness settles everything down (in Alaska, where the sun doesn't set in the summer, children stay up very late). If you're staying in hotels, it's more important to enforce a set bedtime, avoiding the seductions of the TV, which, for some reason, seem more attractive away from home.
Pacing & Flexibility
People who know how to slow down and enjoy themselves don't need to be told, and people who don't know aren't likely to learn by reading about it here. Still, we have made some practical discoveries that are worth sharing.
An obvious piece of advice that's often ignored is to spend adequate time in each place in a park rather than rushing around to see everything. The times we remember from our trips aren't the 20-minute sightseeing stops; they're the happy, daylong periods of relaxing when memorable things happen all by themselves. When planning your trip, be sure to set aside unstructured time when you can unwind and make your own discoveries -- time to play in a stream, check out a newly found trail, or look at shells on a beach. Instead of trying to "do" a park in a few days, try to really know one manageable part of it in the time you have.
Children need time to do nothing. A campsite or grassy lawn is all you really need for downtime. Adults need time to do nothing, too, although sometimes we read a magazine or putter around while doing it. On the other hand, there's no reason for the most active and ambitious member of your family to be limited by what the least able or energetic can do. Barbara and I split up -- I like to take long, fast hikes; she likes to explore little towns, shop, and go to museums. Sometimes we break into two groups, taking the kids to different activities that fit their ages. They are happy to have one parent at a time, just to play, go to a nature center, or romp down an easy nature trail, while the other parent is off doing something grown-up. As long as you're fair about who gets to go off alone and you still spend plenty of time together, the system works well.
Unless you stay only in commercial campgrounds, showering every day when you're camping at the national parks is a time-consuming and difficult proposition. But keeping clean is important to enjoying yourself. Usually, one spouse doesn't like camping as well as the other does, and being dirty is often a big part of the dislike; if the more enthusiastic member of the team wants to go camping again, it's wise to attend to this issue.
You can easily wash your hair and face every morning in camp with a pot of warm water poured over the head. Nothing does more to make you feel clean. A quick sponge bath and change of clothes in the tent also works wonders. Don't skip brushing your teeth just because you are camping. Keeping hands clean is important for your health, especially at campgrounds without running water in the bathroom. We always keep soap and water out and handy in camp. Diaper wipes work well for cleansing sticky little hands and faces when water isn't handy.
Health & Safety
I'm no expert on health care, but I've culled advice from various sources to repeat here and in the park chapters, on the theory that some information is better than none.
Preparing for Problems
On our trips I have the comfort of knowing that my wife, Barbara, an elementary school teacher, has first-aid and pediatric CPR training. If you're taking your kids into the wilderness, many hours from help, you need to know what to do in an emergency. Taking a course is best, and having a book on first aid is perhaps the least you should do. I always try to know in the back of my mind how I would get help from wherever we are.
You can avoid most emergencies by using your common sense. Many people who have bad things happen to them in the national parks are doing something stupid. That's why there are signs at the top of the huge waterfalls at Yosemite telling you not to swim there. Rangers call it "the Disneyland effect." Our society protects us so carefully from hazards that some people unconsciously believe that this is the normal state of nature. In fact, in the natural environment, survival of the fittest still prevails, even for our species, which is the only explanation for some national park accidents. For example, at the Grand Canyon, which the Wall Street Journal rated the third-most-dangerous park, a man posing for a picture in 1999 climbed over a guardrail and then walked backward over the rim, falling to his death.
We have split our medical kit into two parts, each in its own zippered pouch. The large kit is for overnight trips away from potential help, in the wilderness or on a boat, or for long vacations. From the larger kit, we fill the smaller kit with whatever emergency supplies we need for a particular day hike or short outing, and it goes with us everywhere.
You can buy first-aid kits that contain most or all of the items you need, but they tend to be very expensive compared to just going to the pharmacy and buying the items individually.
Add prescription medications to the kit, even those you don't use at the moment but might need on a long trip; filling out-of-state prescriptions can be difficult.
A snakebite kit may be a good idea if you will be in snake country, but you must follow the directions, because improper use can cause serious infections.
We bring a prescription epinephrine injector called EpiPen Jr. for allergic emergencies like the near-fatal bee-sting reaction I had as a child. We don't know if any of our kids are sensitive to stings, but it's best to be ready.