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To me, family camping always meant roughing it: tents, sleeping bags, and — because I was in charge — lousy food. My wife, Rachelle, never understood the thrill and stayed home. When my now 16-year-old son, Jordan, and I started going on multiday backpacking treks with no bathrooms, my 14-year-old daughter, Marissa, opted out too. In short, "family" camping was anything but. I needed to find a new way for us to spend time together outdoors.
"We should try an RV," Rachelle suggested several times. It seemed like heresy at first. But then I considered our family history of road trips: Rachelle's father was a Greyhound bus driver, and she spent summers as a kid "ridin' the dog" on trips across the West. Now we take our minivan from the Northeast to the Northern Plains every summer to visit family. What's a recreational vehicle but a minivan on steroids, or a Greyhound with a nicer bathroom? So we added a leg to our vacation that took us to Devils Tower, Wyoming, Mount Rushmore, and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Here's what we learned during a week indulging our wanderlust in a 31-foot RV — complete with beds, sinks, air-conditioning, a flushing toilet, shower, gas range, and even a flat-screen TV.
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Day 1: All Aboard
We pick up a Winnebago from a dealership near Rachelle's Iowa hometown, and owner Joe Hurley patiently explains the vehicle's many systems, especially the generator and sewage tanks. Minivans and Greyhounds now feel like the wrong points of reference: An RV is real estate — with all the infrastructure of a home. Behind the wheel the world shrinks: Driving lanes, traffic openings, and parking spaces become tighter. But shifting and braking work just like a car, large side mirrors help you navigate traffic and a dashboard video screen shows the area just behind the vehicle. Still, Rachelle insists, "You can drive."
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Day 2: On the Road
Stiff headwinds across South Dakota drop our gas mileage to half the 10 to 12 mpg we expected. Eventually, I realize the 55-gallon tank also empties fast because I wasn't filling it all the way to begin with. Some gas pumps turn off at $70, so fueling up completely takes two transactions. Another challenge: "Tail swing" when turning an RV can easily take out a pump, so I stick to outside spots for more maneuvering room.
After five hours we roll into a clean, quiet campground just across from Devils Tower National Monument, familiar from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which the camp screens nightly in a makeshift outdoor theater). I hook up a hose for water and a cable for power. At the push of a button, one wall slides sideways several feet, expanding the central cabin that serves as our living, dining, and bedroom. Another button sends metal supports whirring down from the RV's bottom, jacking up the slightly tilting side and leveling the floor. Finally situated, we sit at a picnic table admiring the magnificent view.
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Day 3: Making Friends
After a morning hike around the tower's base and a lunch of buffalo burgers, I enjoy a classic RV moment: While the kids and Rachelle visit a gift shop, I wait in the parking lot and catch a nap on the queen-size bed in back. Refreshed afterward, I drive winding mountain roads east to the Black Hills and our next campground. New neighbors Dave and Barbara Turnbull of Green River, Wyoming, help me back into our site and invite us to their family's evening campfire. RVers, we find, are friendly and polite but not intrusive. "There's a great community atmosphere at campgrounds," says Barbara. "You'll have construction workers next to doctors and lawyers, and everybody's just here to relax and have a good time."
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Day 4: Base Camp
We try to let the kids sleep in but find the cabin somewhat unlivable with the sofa and dinette converted to beds and adolescent debris strewn everywhere. So Rachelle and I loudly offer bright encouragements like "It's a beautiful day!" to prod them into action. There's plenty to do: Our Mount Rushmore/Hill City KOA — one of a new breed of "destination campgrounds" catering to families — offers a water park, horseback rides, live music, free nightly movies, WiFi Internet, sports fields, playgrounds, bike rentals, mini golf, a chuck wagon supper, and a small strip of faux-western storefronts with gift shops and an ice cream parlor. We'll use the campground as a base to explore the surrounding area. But since it's not practical to unhook and drive a motor home to every trailhead and tourist shop, I — wincing a little at the irony — rent a minivan at the front desk.
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Day 5: Wilderness
The bustling RV park sometimes makes me wonder whether we've really gotten away from it all, so I goad the family into spending most of the day on a backcountry hike up 7,000-foot Harney Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies. Note for future: Having an RV does not make Rachelle or Marissa any happier schlepping three miles uphill.
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Day 6: Tourists
Younger children gravitate to camp amenities like the water park, making these attractions less appealing to older kids like ours. In fact, most teens we spot in the mornings and evenings seem to disappear during the day. We follow suit, hitting tourist spots like Mount Rushmore and Deadwood (where we watch a reenactment of Wild Bill Hickock getting shot in the head — "great family fun," says one brochure). Back by dusk, we light a campfire for a dinner of weenies and s'mores.
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Day 7: Hanging Out
After a week on the go, we relax at camp, sitting under the RV's awning, admiring nearby hills of ponderosa pine while eating sandwiches prepared in the tiny kitchen. By now the cabin has a faint port-a-potty odor, so after a horseback outing, I turn to a final RV milestone: emptying the waste tanks. Gingerly loosening the cap covering the RV's drainage pipe, I'm horrified when liquid gushes over my hand — but it's only fresh-smelling disinfectant that somehow got trapped outside the release valve. Relieved, I connect a hose leading to a ground pipe and yank a handle, opening the valve with a whoosh.
The next morning we head home. "I love sitting on a couch while we're moving," says Marissa. This turns out to be a highlight of RV travel for the kids. They also loved getting to enjoy hikes and campfires while being able to charge iPods, watch movies, play an electric guitar (headphones only), and sleep on a bed at night. Their biggest complaint: You almost couldn't move in the cramped bathroom — a tiny gripe really. "I wish we were doing this longer," says Jordan. That's a measure of success for any family vacation.
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Are You Ready to RV?
To some, RVs are too much vehicle taking up too much road and burning too much gas. But RVing might be a good vacation choice if you fit some of these criteria:
* You're young and active. Half the RV market consists of boomers and Gen-Xers ages 35 to 54, and the fastest-growing segment is 18- to 34-year-olds, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. "RVers are family-oriented, energetic, and love the freedom of being on the road," says RVIA President Richard A. Coon.
* You've got extra cash. With average household income at an above-norm $68,000, RVers drove sales to record highs in 2006. Vehicle purchases dropped in 2007 and are projected to dip again this year (a recession bellwether, according to some financial reports). But despite high fuel costs, rentals soared and campground bookings were up 5 to 20 percent in 2007. "Paying another dollar per gallon might add $100 or $200 to the cost of a vacation," says Coon. "But that doesn't stop most RVers from traveling." Plus, by saving on food and hotels, families pay 26 to 74 percent less for an RV vacation than they do traveling other ways to the same destination — even when RVers eat out once a day and factor in ownership costs, says an industry study.
* You're self-reliant. You can't simply call the manager if something breaks, so you'll need basic tools like a screwdriver and wrench. Cooking and tidying up also mean certain daily responsibilities.
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Rolling Rooms for Rent
Motor homes cost on average $120,000, so cash- and time-strapped parents usually rent, says Bob Calderone, marketing director of Cruise America, the nation's largest RV rental company. To book and find pickup locations, type your destination on a Web site such as cruiseamerica.com, getrv.com, and usarvrentals.com. Summer rates start at around $125 a day plus gas. An extra $375 to $750 gets you a one-way rental that you can return at a different location. Inventory quickly cleans out near popular national parks and shorelines, so book early.
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Where to Set Up Camp
Check out gocampingamerica.com or rvparkreviews.com for details on the 8,500 private and 6,000 government campgrounds across the country. Also log on to koa.com to view hundreds of franchised camps that cater to families. Narrow your options based on amenities like water, electric, sewer, laundry, camp store, pool, and WiFi. When calling a campground, tell the clerk how long your RV is and whether it has any slide-outs, to make sure your site is big enough. Sites cost an average $27 per night, according to the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, but expect to pay upwards of $50 for full hookups at family campgrounds with lots of amenities.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the June 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.