Road Trip Camping With Toddler? Uhhh…

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Last night I felt like a terrible mom. At 10 p.m. Mason was still awake and he was crying. It’s not the awake and time that was a problem or the fact that he was crying because that happens every 30 minutes when you have a toddler. It was the words that were coming out of his mouth that were so troubling for me. “I want go home,” he was saying between gasps of breath and sobs.

You see, we have been on the road for the last week and are living in the camper on our 2003 Chevy Silverado. It’s just Mason and me, and we’re driving east with the end goal being to pick up Daddy in the Grand Canyon after his almost four-week rafting trip with friends. Somehow I got it in my head that it would be fun for Mason and me to visit branches of Hike it Baby, the nonprofit I launched to get more families outdoors, across the western United States along the way. So I started planning and the journey got bigger and bigger.

Here’s what I didn’t take into account: I am traveling alone with a toddler. And while a trip like this in my past kid-free life would have been a breeze, life now is different.

Photo by Tais Kulish
Photo by Tais Kulish

It’s funny that I would take on such a big undertaking when a large part of what Hike it Baby is all about is creating a safe, supported, easy way for people to get out together with their children that is stress-free. This trip is definitely not stress-free. As I lie here at 6 a.m. listening to cars pass by, Mason lying next to me with his cute baby boy snores coming out of his little mouth, I wonder if what I’m doing is fair to him. Would he rather be at home doing our normal thing? Is stability key to raising a happy child? Is he gaining benefit by seeing all of these place, hiking different trails, meeting new families?

There is no easy answer in this. All that is really clear in this moment is that this trip is for me and for Hike it Baby, not necessarily Mason. But then as I confess this to the whole world, I also realize that’s not entirely true. Not only is this trip teaching me about what I am capable of as a parent, but it is also teaching me what Mason is really like as a kid and who he is in the world. We have stripped away the ease of day to day routine and now we are creating a new routine that is testing our relationship and personalities.


Part of this new routine does mean Mason crying at night that he wants to go home. But I have to remind myself at home every night he cried when Daddy was away at work (my husband works three weeks away every three weeks). “I want Daddy” is common. So are the cries with of “I want to go camping, not sleep in bed, sleep in truck.” When we put him in his bed over the last few weeks and didn’t let him sleep in our bed he cried, “I want big bed.” Part of being a toddler is that there is struggle and angst because your little one can’t fully verbalize what things are troubling them and how you can fix it. In this case I could fix it by going home, but I have a feeling it will be something else that he is crying about when we are home. And once we are home he will probably revert back to, “Not sleep in bed, sleep in truck.” So just knowing I can’t win is important to recognize. We are just in toddlerdom and strong emotions are part of it.

Right now we are 600 miles from home. I can turn around and drive back to Portland and then we would sort out how to get Daddy home. Or we can push on and Mason and I will most likely have an amazing adventure.


I am leaning toward pushing on and here’s why: When I was six and my sister was three my newly divorced mother took us to a super remote little fishing village deep in the bottom of Mexico. It was a two-day journey by plane and taxi and then the final part we walked with our bags, shoeless on the sand to get to our new temporary home. The town was called Zipolite and we spent a few weeks there playing with the local kids and eating fresh tortillas and beans. My grandparents practically disowned my mom for “risking our lives” and taking us to this faraway place that was dangerous and fraught with unknowns.

Still to this day I think that is one of my strongest childhood memories. I can still taste the pineapple empanadas covered in sugar that were driven in by a bumpy backroad that was only passable part of the year. We ate fresh fish in Mexican families’ homes who had makeshift restaurants on the beach. We slept in shacks with no glass in the windows or locks on the doors. Our bathroom was an outhouse or just outside. My sister, even though she was only three, has this as one of her first memories as well.

Sure we got really sick for a few days with Mexi-belly and I remember having a high fever, puking, and diarrhea everywhere, which was all a bit scary for my mom I would imagine since we were so far from “civilization” and any kind of doctor. Now looking back on all of that I would imagine my sister and I did a lot of “I want to go home” when things weren’t fun. But there was a lot less of that and a lot more amazing moments playing on the golden, empty beach. Deep pink sunsets setting over the ocean and waking in the morning to wild Mexican dogs picking through our scraps of garbage outside.


This journey with Mason is far different from my mom’s adventures with us. We have phones, cameras, and an iPad. Yesterday I ran to Costco to get us all kinds of healthy snacks for the road. We are sleeping in the driveway of a great Hike it Baby family’s house in Sparks, Nevada (Mason has been insisting on sleeping in the truck over the house, so I didn’t want to fight that one).

Over the last three days we have done awesome “hikes” in Eugene, Ashland, and Reno. All of which involved touching some dirt, hugging trees, playing in huge muddy puddles. I have seen Mason laughing and having a blast. This has been the upside of our journey. The hikes feel like they neutralize the negative.

The hardest part of the journey is not Mason crying “I want to go home,” but the questioning of whether travel and different places every day or two is good for him. Then there is screen time. I feel bad that on our five-hour drive we had the iPad on for three of it. I’m trying to figure out what else I can do instead of screen time (he has books, crayons, a “desk” to draw on and every awesome kids-in-the-car thing you can think of to keep him busy). Screen time is one of the things that we all talk about a lot on our hikes. How to keep it minimal. If they are going to do screen-time, what should we let them watch?


Right now, though, I’m still not sure if I am going to be able to pull this trip off. I know people would understand if I didn’t make it to their town, but then it also feels like every day I drive further away from home, the easier it gets for Mason and I to be away from home. Two days ago, Mason kept asking to go home every few hours. Yesterday it was just last night as we struggled to get to bed. Eventually he fell asleep and now he’s deep in a slumber. Soon we will get up and point our truck toward Elko, Nevada, and get on the road.

Here’s what I do know about this trip: Mason and I are bonding more closely than ever before. We are meeting really wonderful families. We are having fun everyday. We’re seeing new trails, visiting new cities, driving our way toward Daddy. When we pick up Daddy at the end of the Grand Canyon and head as a family toward Zion, Mason will be a seasoned road warrior. With every mile we put between us and home, I feel more confident that we can do this. That the road can be as much our home as our home is our home.

There are some people who probably would frown upon or judge me for continuing this massive journey. But I have a feeling there are a lot more people who are cheering Mason and me on. I have to focus my energy there and remind myself that at any moment I can decide to turn around and point the car home. Or just stop, find a hotel or campground, and hang out for a week and play with Mason.

The journey for me is a lot like parenting. Well, it is parenting. There are no rules. There is no true destination other than happiness. We will accomplish what we can accomplish and do our best job. We will do this together. I feel like the love and support all around me will make it so Mason and I have an amazing month. I am excited about all of the trails we will explore and friends we will make. I am excited about the unknowns.

Photos courtesy Shanti Hodges, Rebecca Bertasso, Debbie Hess and Ashley Scheider



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