Tips for Planning Family Adventures on a Budget
Bring the kids on your next trip! Read these practical suggestions for family-friendly outdoor activities for every age or ability level.
The day you have been preparing for is finally here – the start of a family adventure. If you have planned well, you are confident, excited, and maybe even a little nervous, but if you haven’t planned ahead, the results could be very rough. This guide provides basic tips and budget-friendly tricks for families of all ages and level of adventure to maximize fun and minimize tears regardless of whether your family takes to the water, land, or air.
The three key ideas below are applicable to every group, ability level, or adventure level. No matter what age group or size of adventure your family is planning for, refer back to these three ideas when preparing:
- When planning your next family adventure, use your own experiences to help set goals. If you are a hiker in good shape, hiking with a baby is probably quite reasonable (and free). If you have biked or rafted a section many times by yourself and want to add the family, adding kids might be the next step. But if you are planning a family adventure and you have never done anything similar, consider going on a test trip with just your partner or some friends.
- Consider every member of your family during planning and on the trip. You all are a team, so look out for each other by checking in frequently and asking questions during the trip. Is mom or dad’s pack too heavy? Has dad or mom carried the child for that long before? And up a mountain? What’s the plan when we get to the huge rapid or gigantic hill? This leads to the last, and perhaps most important suggestion…
- Have a backup plan for your backup plan. And look at the weather. Being held captive by weather in a tent for a day can be bad, but adding children with no rainy day activities can be detrimental to your mental health. Have a solid backup plan for weather, fatigue, or other situations.
I’ve organized this post based on the size of the adventure — day trips, weekend trips, and big trips — with sections for babies, toddlers, and older children in each section. Naturally, hiking with kids can be one of the easiest and cheapest family adventures, so be sure to check out Hiking with Kids: Tips for a Safe and Fun Adventure.
Day trips with babies and toddlers
Preparation is really the most important step here. Not enough water, food, or a forgotten hat or sunscreen can cut a day trip short. I like to get the gear together the night before, and this post has a great hiking gear list to get started. For hiking, your baby carrier is important, and you should be very familiar with it before heading out. If biking, know that your child should be able to hold up their own head with a bike helmet on in order to travel on a bike or in a bike trailer. Flatwater trips may be reasonable for babies and children too. Winter excursions require warm clothes for everyone.
Regardless of whether you are biking, hiking, or floating down a lazy river, the timing of feeding babies and toddlers is very important to trip success. If breastfeeding, think about nice locations to do so. We were lucky to find a grove of trees in Colorado near treeline, but less lucky in North Carolina when hiking over grassy balds. With smaller kids, we have found that it works very well to do the following:
- Gather your own gear the night before so you can focus on the necessary items for baby.
- Feed yourselves and baby in the AM and then drive to the destination.
- Feed the baby at the start again and begin your adventure.
Day trips with older children and young adults
Trip possibilities open up significantly for older children, ranging from simple hiking, biking, and floating trips with active paddling, to skiing, snowshoeing, kayaking or rafting, caving, climbing, and more. It’s still a good idea to follow the suggestions for smaller children (e.g., packing your gear the night before in order to focus on their gear), but also consider giving them some responsibilities so they are more invested in the trip. An example might be to have the kids gather group gear, fill water bottles, or navigate while out there.
Perhaps most importantly, involve children in decision making. If they feel invested in the family adventure, they will be more likely to participate next time and more likely to enjoy each trip. Let older kids pick the destination or activity or have them invite a friend. This is particularly important with hiking or snowshoeing, as some children may not enjoy it alone, but love it when they are with a friend.
Nathan Puffrage, father of two boys ages 7 and 5, has seen the results firsthand. “My boys don’t hike very far by themselves, but with friends along, they can go for miles.”
Weekend trips with babies and toddlers
Getting out overnight with this age group can be a challenge, but it’s totally doable. Reading this is a great step forward! Keep the following in mind:
- If you plan on camping, practice in the backyard first. This will help reduce fears and identify any obstacles that might come up.
- Car camping with day excursions is a great option with this age group. If you use a cabin or car camp as a base, you can travel during the day without needing to carry much. For winter trips, a cabin is a particularly attractive way to keep warm at night.
- Have a rain plan! This is simpler for babies, but something to think about for toddlers.
Weekend trips with older children and young adults
Consider camping in the backyard with this age group as well, particularly if heading to the outdoors is a relatively new activity for your family. Kids this age may benefit from bringing a friend along and appreciate some input for where to go and what to do. Teens may be able to prepare a meal or help in other ways, thereby bolstering the team feel.
Big trips with babies, toddlers, and smaller children
Proper planning is crucial for this type of trip. For consideration of a longer trip, you should have several successful day trips and weekend trips under your belt. Consider cashing in some frequent flyer miles to take advantage of baby flying for free as a lap child. If you do plan to fly, there are plenty of dedicated websites on this topic, so read up, and plan ahead.
“We started planning our trip to Europe about 8 months in advance,” according to Eleanor Macklin, mother of a 5-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl. “The earlier you can plan, the better,” she said.
My wife and I cashed in our frequent flyer miles from a credit card for a 2018 spring trip to Europe with our baby, who will be about one year old at the time of the trip. We’ve gone hiking with him several times on days trips, car camped, gone to the beach and spent many nights away from home, and feel we are ready for the next step. We are optimistic because he has done so well on all of our previous adventures and we feel ready. For you, consider what type of baby you’ve got and if this makes sense for your family. If you have had some successful day trips and a few longer trips, go for it!
Big trips with older children and young adults
The larger the adventure, the more older children and teens should be involved in the planning. This gives them a sense of ownership in the trip and will improve chances of success. Large summer adventures can be discussed at family meetings in the fall.
Teenager Tate says, “At first, I didn’t really care where we went, but when my aunt and uncle told me I could pick where we went, I got really excited about the trip.”
Lastly, to keep the budget down, plan these trips well in advance. Some popular destinations offer discounts on summer trips when you book by the end of the previous year. If flying, this unique search engine shows you a map with prices of destinations on it from your departure city.
No matter the age of your kids or size of your planned adventure, be sure to pack your positive mental attitude and a big bottle of flexibility. Have a few alternate activities up your sleeve on longer trips (such as geocaching), but plan ahead and your trip will likely bring a smile to the face of your children. See you outside!