The first change to make is within yourself. You are no longer a husband, a father or a boyfriend. Instead you are a professional expedition guide with paying clients who want to experience backcountry travel. There is a pleasant lady and her kids and they may be experienced campers or complete greenhorns, it is up to you to find this out through your pre-trip interview. Just like a professional guide you want to make the route something they will enjoy, so ask about interest, desired trip duration, preferred time in vehicle vs. in camp, dietary desires and any other concerns. Then involve your family in meal and route planning. Make sure you research the history and culture of an area so you will have fun tidbits to toss out that can transform any old dirt road into the Emigrant Trail with it's tales of death, suffering and hardships. Your meals can tie into the route as well: bacon and beans match up to the Great Plains while Fajitas would be perfect in the desert Southwest.
Make sure to balance the time in a seat with the time out of the rig. The younger your kids or the newer to overlanding your family is, the more frequently you should stop. Activities like taking pictures, jumping on rocks, exploring old cabins, sitting in the shade, brewing a cup of tea in the Classic British Style are just some great times you can have out of the vehicle. But like any true professional you will be constantly on guard for changes in mood, hunger and comfort with the weather. Another professional level practice is to make sure all persons have plenty of window space for viewing and ventilation. Nothing is worse than everyone else seeing cool things while you are stuck in a middle with only your toes and the headliner to look at.
It is always a wise rule to setup camp plenty early to ensure enough daylight for vehicle check over, meal prep, hygiene and campfire time. Depending on your children's nature they might enjoy having titles and roles like Expedition Medical Officer, Supply Steward, Camp Chief or Expedition Combustible Fuel Officer, that can change the dull duty of gathering firewood into a sacred oath not to fail your Office.
Hygiene means more than just washing your hands before meal prep. For wives, girlfriends, teenagers and even some younger kids, a hot shower and change into camp clothes can be a miracle transformation. A stainless steel sprayer with a RV style spray handle set on a camp stove can provide a couple of gallons of hot water which is plenty for a quick soap and rinse.
Our family has switched over to a Fire Dancer portable propane fire pit to ensure that no one has to suffer the sting of smokey eyes. Not only are we no longer carrying firewood, we also have eliminated the chance of insect or snake bite that can come from scrounging in the desert. Also here in the desert southwest there are often "no fire" times that would rule out a regular campfire. For our family there is nothing better than that time after a meal when you are sitting around a fire talking about what life must have been like back in the day.
Now that I have planted picture perfect moments in your mind I am going to risk the wrath of children across our country by saying you should ban all electronics except navigation or communications. No music players, portable games, DVD players or other devices that allow your family to disengage from each other and the land. Of course there will be the horrible withdrawal of life without electrons but by making sure you are armed with some history, cultural information, stories of pioneer struggles, great adventures or other fun facts then you can maintain a steady conversation with a bit of peaceful quiet. My rig does have a near NASA level of electronic upgrades but they are all part of the adventure and open to use by my family. The ham radio makes for fun trail chatter with other rigs in our group or reaching out to distant repeaters if we are solo. The laptop navigation system is often run by my 11yr old, he still glows when I refer to him as the Official Navigator for our Continental Divide Expedition. And my wife likes to pick out classic books on CD from the library or to read short bits we can then discuss as a family.
Of course you have been itching to hear some talk about gear and I would never let you down in that regard. Beyond the already mentioned shower sprayer, think like a professional and make sure your travelers will be warm or cool at night as needed. One fun trick we do when the temps rise is to dampen bandannas and twirl them around to increase evaporation, this is an old pioneer trick along with hanging damp sheets to cool a sleeping area. Once again you have a way to look like a wise expedition leader and talk about the good ol' days. Quality chairs, a decent table, plates that won't dump your food in your lap, cups that don't spill your drink on the ground, all these things and more are the details that make a great overland trip possible. One bit of gear that always makes my wife happy is a hammock that I can quickly place in the sun or shade as needed. She enjoys camp time spent with a book and the sounds of nature and that can make a huge difference in the overall mood of a trip. Then there is the fridge which makes sure you aren't faced with soggy sandwiches or soaked greens. And our shade awning is a prized place to hide for a lunch stop when the desert sun is relentlessly beaming down.
Lastly it is often more important what happens on the way home and after the trip than everything that went before. Playing a game of "Roses & Thorns", what you liked and what you didn't like can make the next adventure a chart topper. Make note of the parts of an outing that your family refers to during the weeks after you are home. Was it the campfire stories, the old ruins, the hikes, the ham radio contacts or the cool animal life spotted? This information is part of your professional expedition leader database for future trip planning.
I will say that I do my fair share of solo overlanding, then there are some trips with only my younger son, both my sons and then those with the entire family. Each has its merits, but overall it is the sense that I am responsible for creating the same love and wonder of the backcountry in them that I have which keeps me focused during planning, on the trail and on the way home.
Lance Blair is an overlanding enthusiast, expedition leader, and Tread Lightly trainer. He’s also the founder of Disabled Explorers, a non-profit group dedicated to helping mobility impaired outdoor enthusiasts gain access to the backcountry. He’s a regular contributor to FJCruiserForums.com, the Expedition Portal, and of course FJC Magazine. Lance can be contacted through the Disabled Explorers website.