How to Pull Off a Last Minute (Under Budget) Family Vacation

If you are thinking about a family camping trip, you can pull it off, even at the last minute.

If you have been following my Facebook page, you knew this post was coming! We decided on July 4th to pack up the kids and throw everything in the car to take a long weekend trip together – the next day.  The problem( other than the crazy last minute rush)? We already have a large week-long trip planned at the end of the month – followed by 3 August birthdays, and several other trips on the calendar. The money wasn’t going to fall from the sky, that’s for sure! But, we still wanted to do something we’d remember forever. AND WE DID.

Everything was booked full. There wasn’t a hotel to be found throughout the midwest. Camping was the only option – with 5 young kids. 

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If you are thinking about a family camping trip, you can pull it off, even at the last minute.

Necessities:  We used REI’s camping list, but here are the most important items we used…

  • Reservation (Preferably in a spectacularly unknown location)
  • Tent (or camper)
  • Air Mattresses
  • Air Pump (battery operated)
  • Pillows
  • Sleeping Bags (or sheets)
  • Chairs
  • Water Jugs (and reusable cups)
  • Food (just empty out your pantry and prep cut the dinners you were planning to make that weekend)
  • Coolers (large and backpack style)
  • Cast Iron Skillet (and plates/utensils)
  • Towels
  • Toilet Paper
  • Lighter
  • Lanterns/Flashlights
  • Travel Potty (tiny toddlers or not)
  • Toilet Paper (and baby wipes)
  • Camping Stove (and propane)
  • Bug Spray and First Aid Kit
  • Tweezers and a Plastic Bag (just in case a tick shows itself – send that sucker in for Lyme testing – you’ll read more about that later.)
  • Clothes
  • Plenty of trash bags (for trash, wet/dirty clothes, anything)
  • Outdoor Toys/Games

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I hesitated when John suggested this trip. A 3 hour drive and two nights in a tent? Sounded less than fun, but I am so glad that I caved and agreed. 

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We had to call the morning of our trip to see if walk-up tenet camping reservations were available. So, the night of the Fourth, we started packing in hopes we’d be traveling. I literally emptied the pantry into baggies and packed it all in a huge tub. I prep’d the weekend dinner (potatoes, sausage, veggies) and had it ready to dump over the fire. One duffle bag held five kids’ worth of clothes. Each child grabbed a backpack full of ‘fun items’ they wanted to bring. 

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I reserved a house/pet sitter (our amazing babysitter) to come to the house while we were gone.

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John loaded the van up – and we started googling everything to do if we made it to our destination. Keeping our (small) budget in mind, we decided on ‘tanking’ down the river, spending a day at the ‘beach,’ and renting a boat.   

Calamus Reservoir had 10 walk-up spaces available. The trip was a GO. 

Our one major fail? We didn’t look closely at the weather. 

As we were driving, we realized there may be bad weather heading for us, but we ventured on. It was only a 40% chance, so we crossed our fingers. The skies were blue and the air became more breathable the farther from the farms that we made it. As we arrived, my heart sang out loud. The lake was beyond anything I had imagined. We scored a great camping spot and started setting up. 

A note: Make sure you give your kids jobs to do while setting up. This is to prevent the pestering and questioning that will cause frustration and anxiety. We handed kids hammers and stakes and taught them how to stake the tents. They set up the sleeping bags on the air mattresses and found twigs for the fire. 

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Don’t plan on cooking within a few hours of arriving. You will be done with ‘doing all the things’ and want to relax. Hop in and explore the closest tiny town. Eat somewhere local. Grab a beer and take the experience in. (Make sure you grab a few scratch off tickets while you are out. It seems that there are always winners sitting in these tiny towns.)

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Break out the glow sticks and flashlights. Play a few games and read some books together before calling it a night. Plan to be up with sun because kids will be out of their element sleeping in nature. Spend the next 24-36 hours soaking in everything beautiful around you. Unplug from the normalcy of life and just exist together.

If the weather turns (like it did for us in the middle of the night), make sure you have your rain tarp up. It was a windy and rainy few hours that made sleep a challenge, but having a great tent proved invaluable! 

You can do this. You can do this on a minimal budget. You can do this with young kids. You can do this as a couple. The key is to find someplace worth seeing and then just do it.

Where have you explored that you think others should know about? Let’s share our hidden vacation spots and start exploring more.

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