Hiking and Dispersed Camping on Long Road Trips with Kids

Are you planning an interstate road trip, but worried about your kids getting restless and upset during the long drive? Many families choose to do as much driving as they can in as little time as possible. Get the entire 15-hour drive done in one long day of suffering. Placate the kids with unlimited movies and candy. Get up at 4 am, put the youngsters into their car seats, and hope they stay asleep as long as possible during the morning leg of the drive.

camping site
Setting up camp at sunset on public lands

We recently pursued the exact opposite strategy for our Reno, NV to Boulder, CO road trip with great success. We took our time and broke up the trip with at least one hike per driving day. Each morning, we ate a hot camp breakfast while watching the sun rise. Each afternoon, we hiked through the Great Basin in complete solitude and marveled at expansive desert views.

Below is our itinerary for the 2,000-mile trip.

Departure

Day 1:
Reno, NV to Winnemucca, NV, 2.5 hours driving
Hike and camp

Day 2:
Drive to Carlin, NV, 1.5 hours
Hike

Drive to Wendover, UT, 2 hours
Hike

Drive to Aragonite, UT, 1 hour
Camp

Day 3:
Drive to Salt Lake City, UT, 1 hour
Hike
Drive to Rifle, CO, 5 hours
Camp

elko wagon train
Covered Wagons outside the California Trail Interpretative Center outside Elko, NV

Day 4:
Drive to Boulder, CO, 3.5 hours

Return:

Day 1:

Boulder, CO to Dinosaur, CO, 5.5 hours driving
Hike and camp

Day 2:
Drive to Park City, UT, 3 hours
Hike
Drive to Aragonite, UT, 1.5 hours
Hike and camp

Day 3:
Drive to Winnemucca, NV, 4.5 hours
Hike
Drive to Reno, NV, 2.5 hours

Because of the segmented and relatively short driving periods, there was not much fussing from the little ones. At times, it did not even feel like we were on a road trip. Instead, some of the road trip days were more like a typical Saturday where we might drive two hours to get to a trailhead, hike all day, and then drive another two hours to get back home.

The real beauty of the trip though was how we planned for it. We selected about a dozen and a half hiking destinations we were interested in that were spaced at about 1-hour driving distance intervals. The result was that we had complete flexibility in where to hike. If the kids were starting to get antsy in the car, we were always close to a hiking destination and could pull over quickly. On the other hand, if the kids fell asleep while driving, we had the opportunity to tack on more miles and choose a hike that was farther along our route.

Selecting numerous equally-spaced hiking destinations across the West may sound challenging. Normal hiking guides and online hiking databases are typically not of much use for remote regions in the West. The joy we receive from orienteering, hiking off trail, and summiting regional high points certainly makes us well-suited to such an endeavor. This ethos is fostered in our book, Base Camp Reno, which supplements traditional trail hikes with a healthy dose of off-trail adventures.

Another part of what makes this “hike anywhere” road trip strategy possible is the vast amount of public land in the West combined with an eagerness for dispersed camping. Certainly, with no hotel stays and no campground fees, the trip was inexpensive. More importantly though, we had the flexibility to camp nearly anywhere we wanted throughout the trip.

Flexibility is the key to a successful road trip. An open schedule allows you to spend more time at places you enjoy and less time at those you do not. It is very difficult to predict where those spots will be beforehand. It also prevents you from getting stressed out when things do not go as planned. More than anything else, dispersed camping is the ultimate enabler of flexibility on roads trips. The combination of hiking and dispersed camping is the perfect formula for experiencing the landscapes of the West, especially if long driving days are something you and your family like to avoid.

Christopher and Elizabeth Barile

Christopher and Elizabeth Barile

Christopher and Elizabeth Barile have developed a passion for the natural world through hiking. They have hiked thousands of miles together while carrying their two young children on their backs. In addition to summiting over 150 peaks in the Greater Reno area, Christopher and Elizabeth have visited 40 U.S. national parks. Some of their other favorite outdoor activities include backpacking, camping, snowshoeing, and birding. Both Christopher and Elizabeth have advanced degrees in chemistry from Stanford University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Christopher is a chemistry professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Elizabeth is an artist and educator. "Base Camp Reno: 101 Hikes From Sage to Snow" will be in bookstores and everywhere online April 5, 2022.

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