The plan was simple. Ten days, nine nights. Drive from Raleigh to Asheville and back. Don’t drive further than 100 miles a day. Don’t leave North Carolina. Don’t drive on the highway. Camp every night. Dirt every day.
As Jeep and trailer projects came together outside, I pored over maps and magazine articles, loosely outlining where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see. We had big ideas to search out the ‘largest ball of twine’ and other ‘weird’ adventures. I pieced together nightly stops at North Carolina State Parks, and National Forest and National Park campgrounds, within our ~100 miles per day range. I read about hikes we could take at each stop, sights to see, trails to drive, back roads with great views, hole-in-the-wall barbecue joints, doughnut shops, and craft breweries.
When we started talking about the Grand Tour, we wanted to introduce our children to the fun and adventure of road tripping. We also wanted to get back to the simplicity of hiking and tent camping.
As anyone who has ever spent significant time outdoors - much less four-wheeling - can attest, that last paragraph was written in a haze of years-old memories. Everything is idyllic and sweet in hindsight but "adventure" and "simplicity" are code for 'stressful' and 'dirty.' Life's tough, to be sure, but four-wheeling and camping pretty much ensure challenges both physical and psychological: bad weather, breakage, injuries, wild animal encounters, or all of the above.
I'm not sure we've been camping (or backpacking, or wheeling) without something crazy happening. Sometimes the sky opens and a rock-hopping creek becomes a rushing river. Sometimes people drive off in the dark on the first night of a week-long Rubicon trip, only to flip a borrowed rig into a hole 100 yards up the road (you know who you are). Some would call it kismet and stay the hell home, but bulletproof tigers are not cast in the fires of Netflix marathons.
Getting back to our roots meant planning the best trip we could imagine but also preparing for any number of potential inconveniences and disasters.
Did I mention we were going camping with children?
As a framework for the trip emerged, I developed my war game. We would be traveling pretty light, even with the trailer to haul our junk, and we weren't planning on the Jeeps holding much more than people and snacks. Our action-packed itinerary included summer rainstorms, drastic temperature changes, hiking, swimming, car sickness, and diaper blowouts. Figuring out how to pack food and clothes for small people who eat every two hours - and wear everything they eat - was mission-critical.
We ate like kings the first few days: hot dogs, mac & cheese, and s'mores for dinner, and egg & cheese burritos for breakfast. We quickly switched over to the simplicity of canned chicken, ramen, and oatmeal. When I came down with a mild case of (probably) food poisoning after a dinner out, Shawn was able to manage everything pretty handily while I went to bed early. We fit in a couple of good meals out, although we never found any donuts. NASCAR-themed barbecue, craft brews, and hippie pizza joints along the AT hit the spot, although I’d recommend sticking with fries instead of salad.
We moved camp every day (except for a second night at Cataloochee), so one of the adults needed to easily prepare meals while the other set up (or broke down) the tent, unpacked (or repacked) bedding, gear, and clothes, and herded our three favorite cats.
Folding up daily clothes and stacking them in duffels meant grabbing everything in one bleary-eyed swipe and moving on to the next task without having to dig around. Layers (and PJs) were separate to make weather changes and bedtime as painless as possible. We bagged and labeled all the dry and packaged snack foods for each day so we could grab and go.
We packed two coolers - one for food and one for beverages - along with a 5-gallon insulated water jug we could easily refill at each campground. A truck toolbox mounted in the trailer had to contain everything that we wanted to remain dry (and not grow legs). Three 8-gallon Rubbermaid ActionPackers held dry food, camp set-up gear, and cooking gear. Our ancient Coleman camp stove and our well-neglected Weber Q took care of meal prep. A car battery mounted in the trailer gave us a place to charge cameras and phones in the evenings and powered two 12v oscillating fans in the tent at night.
Everyone will say that the key to hiking with kids is, well, taking them hiking. The key to successful hiking with kids is planning successful excursions. The kids need to be able to make the trip and enjoy it enough to be willing to go again. The adults, however, need to be prepared to hike while carrying children. It’s also critical to take into account mom and dad’s risk tolerance/aversion because lots of scenic views come with rock outcroppings hanging out into space, with no guard rail. The Grand Tour included at least five miles of foot trails, some with serious elevation changes, but we had to cancel one hike when we realized we’d misread the round-trip distance.
The key, grasshopper, is flexibility. As one might expect, there’s more to see than there are hours in the day. Kids fall asleep, or become car sick, or the fog rolls in. The Grand Tour really was about the journey, as opposed to the destination(s). Sometimes (especially when someone’s been carsick) visiting a waterfall and peeling oranges on a rock is a better memory than powering through a longer-than-anticipated hike to a killer view.