When we considered a family gap year we had many questions and fears. Our longest road trip had been 15 days. Throughout the last few years we experimented with different concepts to determine which elements of our fears are confirmed and which are unfounded. In Summer of 2022 we packed up all 3 kids and our 70 lb Weimaraner (dog who thinks she’s human) and embarked on a 30+ day road trip in an RV. We didn’t have a definitive return home date. We were using this trip as a location-independent lifestyle experiment. Could we be happy anywhere? How far could we go? How long was too long? Would the novelty of travel wear off? Would we get sick of eachother? The only way to address these questions was to take an extended family road trip.
The lessons from that 30+ day road trip were instrumental in defining our family gap year which started in January 2023. This article is less about the tactical planning portion of the road trip, and more about the overall strategy and mindset that made the experience meaningful for our family.
1. SImple adventures are foundational to meaningful experiences
We traveled in June-July 2022 when gas prices were at their peak. We couldn’t approach this style of travel from a vacation mindset, we needed to focus on this as testing our adventurous lifestyle. We made reservations for locations that tend to be busy, such as Banff and Jasper, and campgrounds on weekends or holidays. With years of practice in simple adventures, that I teach in the Everyday Adventure Challenge, we were able to find our own fun. Each day we would get outside and explore what made this location unique. Sometimes it was playing at a local playground. We’d look for free local attractions – things like the lift bridge and watching barges come in Duluth, MN or watch the surfers at Brenan’s wave in Missoula, MT. Some typical adventures were simple bike rides, or creating variations to a traditional hike such as a photography hike allowing the kids to take pictures with my DSLR or iPhone camera. Everyday we left the RV to experience something in our current location.
2. We can SLOW DOWN
One of the reasons why we took a road trip was to be in control of our schedule. The pace of life and travel was always focused on doing the next thing. Suddenly we were traveling fast again and it caught us off guard. We thought we were deliberate in spacing out our stays and giving ourselves ample drive time to explore. What we overlooked was giving ourselves ample time to connect once we were parked. It often felt like we would just make a connection with another traveling family and then it was time to leave. Initially we planned 3 nights in a location and later extended that to 5 nights. As we approach our gap year we are now looking at a minimum of 5-7 nights in a location. If our intention is connection, we have to create space for those relationships to develop.
We developed a routine to do something independent or intellectual in the morning. Often this was journaling or “school work” for the kids. My husband and I would read, or work on our businesses. I should mention my husband was a teacher and wasn’t working during this time. I took the first two-weeks as paid-time-off and then spread out my time off working remote 3-days a week while traveling the last two weeks. Even though we were intentional about slowing down in our planning phase of the trip, we still felt rushed.
We had also planned the first half of the trip as we were traveling to Banff and Jasper which would be much busier. We didn’t have our return planned in part because we didn’t know when we were going to come home. Not having reservations drive our arrival timeline was actually freeing. We previously tested boondocking, also known as dry camping, on a previous trip and we were pretty comfortable just parking somewhere for the night.
3. The highlights of the trip have little to do where with where we were, but rather the people we met
One of the reasons we travel is to experience new things and interact with people different from us. Having conversations with locals is still our favorite “thing to do.” The lifeguard at Radium Hot Springs initially began challenging my kids (in a good way) to do various swimming challenges. This led to adventure stories and local tips leading to a pretty intense mountain biking ride for my husband and son and a great ice cream stop for the family. We shared many laughs and listened to stories from the professional snowboarding young Brit turned Canadian.
Our Columbian whitewater rafting guide near Banff, that warrants a story right? How does a native Colombian White Water Rafting guide end up in the Banff area? Turns out his wife was from Calgary, she met him while teaching in Columbia a few years ago. He decided to make the return trip with her. He guides whitewater rafting trips in the summer and teaches at the Calgary Winter Olympic center in the Winter.
The Van Life couple we met from Michigan at the Idaho hot springs. While waiting to take our turn in the cauldron we shared stories of our journey thus far, both the highlights and rough spots. My kids made sure their dogs had all the snuggles and love they needed while the couple soaked in the springs. We took pictures for each other and gave recommendations of great boondocking sites or hidden gems. We gave each other a follow on social media to support and engage with their content. Content Creators know the power of a comment, a share or a save. I always try to be generous when we meet someone with a similar path by subscribing to their content if it’s relevant or sharing it with others in our network.
Our neighbors in Spearfish SD actually left us in tears. After spending 5 days with the playground as the only barrier between our campsites, the kids made a genuine connection. The small talk led to life stories. We played games with the kids and took each other’s kids for walks or bike rides around the campground. We even shared a campfire and discovered one of THE BEST camping snacks together. Their 4 YO son was our source of entertainment and a great referee between my boys. After spending three weeks together, having a new perspective and curious 4 YO questions were welcome.
4. We don’t need very much to enjoy life.
Life in the RV validated my toothpaste theory. When you have a plump tube of toothpaste, we use excess without much thought. When the tube is nearly out we pull out all kinds of maneuvers to get every last ounce out of the tube. We even felt a bit more creative with less. Having less space, less things, less power and internet encouraged us to get outside and make our own fun.
I track our hours outside using the 1000 Hours Outside trackers, and during our time in the RV we averaged 4-6 hours outside on non-travel days. Some days were closer to 10-12 hours outside. It was common to play during the day and after dinner go for a hike or check out a live music or a local outdoor attraction. Sure it was summer during our 30+ day experiment, but even as I write this in February 2023, 14 days into our family gap year and winter camping we just hit 60 hours outside the month of January 2023 compared to 27 hours outside in January 2022.
Less also meant less spending. I think this goes back to getting comfortable with everyday adventures. If we were going to take a gap year we couldn’t live like we were on vacation where we tend to spend more. We also wanted to make sure we didn’t feel deprived or that life on the road was a “less than” lifestyle. I think this became most apparent when we were in Jasper. The toilet on the RV needed to be fixed and my husband needed the car to drive over an hour to get the part needed to fix it. We were “stuck” at the campground for 3+ hours with just the things we had in the RV and the nature outside. My oldest son dove into his fly tying hobby and appreciated having time to himself. The younger two played in the wooded stream area behind our campsite. In fact all the kids said this was one of their favorite days of the trip. The day we were stuck and without any scheduled adventures.
It seems to me like all the “things” we have at home didn’t lead to more joy. When we finally got home there were precisely four things we missed: the piano, the recliner, the kids missed their big beds, and our water (we have really good artesian well water at home). I might add that they spent much more time on the trampoline when we got home but no one made any mention of missing the trampoline while we were in the RV. The joy came less from things and more from the time we spent creating our own fun, and meeting other people.
5. The kids didn’t need to be entertained.
When we were planning the trip I was nervous about the kids getting bored. I assumed too much time together would lead to arguments and being resentful of being pulled away from their life at home. In fact the opposite was true. The kids would play together for hours, something I saw less of at home. I don’t want to pretend that everything was perfect, but it was better than I anticipated. They took the initiative to pick up a book, write in their journal, or play a game. More often than not, they went outside. They began exploring what they were interested in. Some days they even took a nap. It was surprising to me that when the kids had space to be bored they were less bored than when we were home. Unscheduled time was a new found blessing. Being in new and different places I think kept their curiosity up, even when we slowed down and spent less time seeing and doing all.the.things.
I have read articles on how to plan for a road trip with kids and many focus on keeping kids entertained – from apps to road trip games. I am not against those things. I would encourage you to consider how might we add unscheduled time into our travels? Allowing kids to experience boredom helps support problem-solving and creativity development. This is something that can be practiced before the road trip.
6. No one wanted to come home.
We intentionally left without a definitive return home date because we were testing to see if there was a natural “ready to come home” point. The previous year we took a 21 day trip. The kids missed the dog and I was done living out of a suitcase. In the RV the dog came with us and we had a 2 week supply of clothes plus a few extras available in the closet. It didn’t feel like we were living out of a suitcase. Every night we slept in our own beds.
Eventually an external factor determined our home date. I needed to be at an in-person work event. We didn’t tell the kids until the day before we were headed home. Immediately I could feel a sense of resentment. Moods were a bit more prickly and patience was shorter. We squeaked out every last adventure even in the final hours of the trip. There wasn’t an underlying desire to get home. Which led us to believe that we could travel longer than 30 days.
We aren’t giving up our home life to do this full-time nomad family, but taking a long road trip confirmed that we could be happy anywhere. It wasn’t a vacation. It was an experiment in living differently and for this family of 5, it was nourishing. This was the final experiment that confirmed our family gap year.