Trail Ride With Kids at Cades Cove Riding Stables

I hadn’t ridden a horse in fifteen years, but my daughter and I love them, so we wanted to try a family trail ride during our vacation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are many stables in the area, but the most convenient was only a two-minute bike ride from our campsite: Cades Cove Riding Stables.

We arrived around 10:00 a.m. to inquire about making a reservation. It turned out to be a first come, first served operation, and we were able to get on our horses in about fifteen minutes.

First, we went inside the office to fill out liability waivers, pay and select helmets that fit. Helmets are optional for those over age 16, but I feel strongly about safety, and we have a friend who got badly injured when her horse got spooked a few years ago, so we all wore them. I was hoping we could just wear our bike helmets, but they wouldn’t allow that.

This trail ride was a splurge for us at $30/person. The price seems to be in line with other stables in the area, but some of the other stables allow “doubling up” for young riders with an adult at an additional cost of only $10. My kids did great riding on their own, though. Plus, we wanted to stay in the “national park bubble” and avoid driving 25-45 minutes.

What we did not consider ahead of time is that tipping is expected, so we were glad we had some extra cash on hand for our amazing guide, Debbie. We were really unsure what an appropriate tip would be and would have loved to Google some advice, but there’s no cell service available in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have since learned from various online sources that 15% of the price of an excursion is considered appropriate for trip guides.

Our riding group consisted of the five of us and another family of four. Before the ride started, we lined up on a raised deck that made mounting the horses very easy. Debbie and several of her associates adjusted our stirrups and went over some basic instructions on how to ride Western.

I’ve been on trail rides that required no horse handling skills whatsoever. This one was a little more mentally stimulating! The horses knew the route, but knowing how to use the reins and being authoritative in setting the pace was important.

Debbie did a great job reiterating the instructions on using the reins and coaching us on how to handle our horses. Each horse had its own personality and bad habits, whether stopping to eat plants or going off-trail to avoid mud. Personally, I appreciated that we got some skill practice in, but I understand now why they have the age requirement of 6 years and older. They don’t check birth certificates or anything like that. Read “About Us” to see whether we followed the rules.

Unfortunately, our two sons’ horses did not get along. While stopped to arrange a group picture, Noah’s horse bit Joshua’s in the rear end, and Josh’s horse reared up on its hind legs and ran off the trail. One of the other family’s horses didn’t like keeping pace with the rest of us.

The entire ride was through the woods. We crossed a creek and the Loop Road twice, but otherwise, we were riding single-file on a path through the woods. While we enjoyed the shade and pleasant temperature, this ride would not be for someone seeking a variety of views.

The ride lasted at least an hour. We were glad we hit the bathroom beforehand! Backpacks are not allowed, so we were lucky that Andy wore pants with roomy zippered pockets for our wallets and cell phones. I did wear my camera around my neck, but I’m not sure whether I was supposed to. Also, I highly recommend using insect repellent. We used this one (affiliate link) and it worked great and felt nice on our skin, so I’m buying a half-gallon (affiliate link) refill of the lotion.

The trail ride at Cades Cove was a wonderful experience for us! If you have any questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you.

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Lessons Learned From Teaching My Kids to Ride a Bike

My kids learned to ride on two wheels at ages 6, 5 and 4, and I think it had everything to do with the experiences we created for them as parents.

If you’re short on time, here are five takeaways from this post:

  1. Use the lightest bike you can find for your child.
  2. Skip the training wheels.
  3. Remove the pedals, and reinstall them once your child can glide and balance.
  4. Support the child by holding their armpits or shoulders, rather than by holding any part of the bike.
  5. Bribery is totally acceptable!

I distinctly remember the feeling of learning to ride on two wheels, but only vaguely recall the process. I must have been six or seven years old, and had ridden with training wheels for a while. My dad raised them, then removed them and ran behind me, holding onto my banana seat. His back must have hurt, because he was over six feet tall and I was very small for my age.

One day, while my dad was at work, my neighborhood friends were riding around and I wanted to join them, as usual. Forgetting that my training wheels were off, I hopped on and pedaled, wobbling a few times before realizing what was happening. To my surprise, instead of falling, I was riding! This new skill gave me pride and independence.

Although I was never particularly good at it, I have always enjoyed riding a bike. Some of my favorite childhood vacation memories include riding on paths in Cape Cod (this probably had to do with the fact that my family had rented a cottage with my best friend’s family) and on the sand at low tide in North Myrtle Beach.

Whenever the weather cooperated, I rode to my college summer jobs to save money on gas and get some exercise.  I bought a vintage Bianchi road bike for triathlons (OK, one triathlon), swapping the toe clips for caged pedals after a lot of falls. Day-long bike tours are some of my favorite memories from studying and traveling abroad, where many friends had two bikes: a decent bike for everyday use, and a beater for festivals.

Riding with my first child… or not!

Naturally, when I became a mom, I wanted to enjoy biking with my son. When Noah was a toddler, I was too afraid to put him in a rear-mounted child seat – and probably rightly so, because Noah was off the charts for height and over a third my own weight at the time. I found a rigid, two-child bike trailer at a garage sale for $15. Unfortunately, I could not fit it in my car to take it anywhere, and it was so heavy I could not ride around my hilly neighborhood.

The next summer, I bought a cheap trail-a-bike, which was fairly hefty and, due to my short stature, could not be mounted high enough on my seatpost to avoid rubbing my back wheel. The grandparents and my husband were able to use it, but as for me, I was 0 for 2 so far. Meanwhile, my good friend really enjoyed using a high-quality trailer, and her kid ended up learning to ride at age 3!

When Noah turned five years old, I bought him the best brand new bike I could afford from Walmart. Hey, a cheap bike is better than no bike! I read that removing the pedals was a good technique for teaching kids to balance, but never actually tried that with him (all it requires is turning the pedal nuts toward the rear of the bike using a wrench). Noah was six and a half before he was able to ride it without training wheels. I was pregnant at the time, so my husband did the running-behind-the-bike drill, and we have an awesome video of my son riding on his own for the first time and crying.

Trying again

Along came our second son, Josh. He was a lightweight, and I wish I had gotten a chance to bike with him as a toddler, but I got pregnant again around the time I could have safely put him in an infant seat or trailer. So, I personally never even attempted riding with him.

Josh’s first bike experience was around age 2, on a rear Bell infant seat on my husband’s bike, and then at age 4, with training wheels. When Josh was five years old, we duct-taped wood blocks to the hefty old trail-a-bike so that his feet could reach the pedals and took him on the nine-mile ride to the Santanoni Great Camp in Newcomb, NY and on the carriage roads in Acadia National park.

Later that summer, Josh saw little boys riding on two wheels at the Rollins Pond campground and informed us that he was going to ride his bike without training wheels when we got home. Well, this is the kid that claimed he wanted us to be “a rock-climbing family,” and then cried on the first boulder we set him on at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. Just imagine the tears when we actually took the training wheels off. We bubble-wrapped him and told him to man up. Just kidding! But I’ll have to upload a picture of him in his protective gear… Bubble wrap would not have been much of an addition.

Over the next two weeks, five-year-old Joshua learned to ride on two wheels with much the same technique as Noah, except that he had a much smaller bike and we started a year earlier.

Third time’s the charm!

I was determined to get our daughter riding on two wheels sooner and have a more peaceful experience. My parents had traveled to Europe and sent me pictures of toddlers and preschoolers riding bikes on the streets. Their hosts explained that every young child learned to ride a “bike scooter” around the same time they learned to walk – we would call this a “balance bike.” Having mastered balance as a toddler, most three-year-olds rode a pedal bike, never having relied on training wheels.

If children in Europe could do this, surely my own three-year-old daughter Selah could, right? So I bought her a balance bike. It weighed very little, and while most kids her age might be too big for it, it was perfect for my petite girl.

…Except that she hated it. Wouldn’t ride it at all. She knew a “real bike” had pedals, and she wanted some. In ten months of ownership, I think I got her to try it twice.

The balance bike went to some good friends when we moved, and I hope their girls have enjoyed it. The Huffy trail-a-bike got sold on Craigslist before our move, as well.

By this point, we had a tiny four-year-old and a really great summer of family cycling opportunities planned out. I didn’t want to buy another trail-a-bike, although I knew there were better, lighter options available. A Google search turned up a really helpful website, Two Wheeling Tots, where I learned that a bicycle’s weight relative to the child’s weight was a huge factor in being able to ride on two wheels. I was able to find a relatively lightweight bike for Selah, and within four ten-minute training sessions, she was off and riding on her own!

The teaching process that actually worked for us

For Session 1, we left the pedals off the bike and put the seat low enough that Selah could put both feet on the ground (we had to remove the reflector in order to get the seat low enough, but have since reinstalled it). Similar to her balance bike experience, she was not impressed. But she did humor us and try “scooting” along, and then liked lifting her feet off the ground as we pushed her by the shoulders/armpits, NEVER letting go. The goal of this session was to build trust.

Session 2 was not as successful as we had hoped. We put the pedals on at Selah’s request and again ran alongside her, pushing by the shoulders/armpits, intermittently letting go. When we let go, she cried. Every time. A parental powwow later that evening resulted in agreeing on a bribe: a square of chocolate for each commute to the neighbor’s house without tears.

Session 3 went much better, thanks to the chocolate. We ran from our house to our neighbors’ about 50 yards away, and back, twice. There was some whimpering, but (after reminders) no crying, so four squares of chocolate were paid out. I will upload a video from Session 3.

In Session 4 we kept the chocolate ready and extended our times “letting go.” Rather than the four required laps to our neighbors, she started pedaling in only two. That was it! She could ride on her own!

The following day, I ran miles beside and then behind Selah as she gathered speed, learned to brake and turn, and learned sidewalk etiquette. I am not a runner by any stretch of the imagination and was sore for days afterward, but it was totally worth it! Our whole family could ride on two wheels now!

We just returned from our first camping trip of the summer to Cades Cove, where we biked the 11-mile loop road.  It was a challenge!  You can read about how we fared here!

I would love to hear how YOU taught your kids to ride! If you have more tips, comments or questions, let me know in the comments!

Biking the Cades Cove Loop Road with Kids

We’ve come to enjoy cycling as a family, and one reason we chose to camp at Cades Cove was so that we could ride the eleven-mile paved Cades Cove Loop Road without traffic. The loop road is closed to motorists Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10:00 a.m. during the tourist season, May through September.  We were lucky: the weather allowed us to do the ride both car-free mornings!

We brought our own bikes, but the Cades Cove Trading Company runs a bike rental shop that opens early on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. The cost was $7.50/hour for adults and $4.50/hour for kids, and helmets are included. They have mostly cruiser-style bikes and some hybrids, and they were all brand new when we were there! You can read more about their bike selection here. Based on my own kids’ bike sizes, I’d say if your kid is 4 or older and can ride on their own, you could rent a bike here that fits them.

Although we didn’t rent from them, I can tell you the employees were very nice. They allowed us to use their good tire pump to top off our tires after I had broken my own.

Since Wednesday was our first morning at the campground, it took us longer than expected to get on the road – we had to make sure our helmets were properly adjusted, fill everyone’s water bottles, pack our saddlebags with a pump, CO2 inflator, tools, snacks, etc. It was well after 9:00 a.m. when we started, but we got almost all the way around the loop without being passed by cars because the speed limit is 20 mph and rangers drive through first, at or under the speed limit.

Signs direct cyclists and pedestrians to a shortcut to enter the loop road, and it’s a rocky dirt path up a steep hill. On car-free mornings, it might be easier to ride on the road rather than take the shortcut.

Once you’re on the loop road, you’ll see horses grazing, beautiful views of fields and the surrounding mountains, and lots of churches and houses from the 1800s. You can tour the houses; some are right on the loop road, and others are a short hike. Make sure to park your bike by the road or in the parking lots; we were scolded for walking our bikes on the path to one house.

I’ll be honest: the Wednesday ride was difficult for us. There were some steep climbs that left our hearts pounding and legs screaming, and we were really hot and drank every ounce of the water we brought. We didn’t check our tire pressure before setting off, and found out later that almost all of them were under their minimum recommended pressure. Oops! Saturday’s ride was much better.

There are a couple of shortcuts across the loop on dirt roads if 11 miles is too far. The loop is one-way only, and it is strictly enforced, so there’s no turning back.

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The hills seemed particularly difficult because I was towing Selah on her own bike using our FollowMe Tandem connector. She can ride on her own, but climbing hills is tough for her and she doesn’t like going downhill fast.  I love that I can hook up her bike when she needs help and release her when she doesn’t.

Andy gave Josh a boost up the large hills using the BikeToad bungee connector. This kind of ride was perfect for that; we would not use it in traffic.

We ran into many other like-minded families biking the loop road – it was a gearhead’s paradise! We exchanged mini-reviews of our bike gear after catching our breath atop the hills, and many of us took notes. Some of the “biking with kids” gear we saw making it all the way around the loop were the Weehoo single AND double, the WeeRide Kangaroo seat (which we loved when Selah was a toddler), the iBert, and a few trailers. RESPECT! What a workout!

The Abrams Falls trailhead and Cades Cove Visitor Center are about halfway around the loop. Both are worth a stop at some point – our family definitely did not have the stamina for both the bike ride and the hike on the same day!

At the Visitor Center there are bathrooms, a souvenir shop, a working grist mill (you can buy bags of flour!), a couple barns, a wild boar trap, and some houses.

As you make your way around the loop, you are sure to see some wildlife! We saw a total of six bears, a coyote and too many deer to count during our rides. It is absolutely imperative that you keep your children close to you and teach them how to behave around wildlife! A huge, beautiful bear emerged from the forest and walked very close to us when we were exploring a barn.


My hands were shaking and I couldn’t figure out my camera quickly enough, but that dark spot in the photo here is a mama bear and two cubs!

When we finally finished the loop road ride, we were drenched in sweat and famished – but very proud of ourselves! We ate ice cream cones at the Cades Cove Trading Company, and began our quest to find a shower.

I would love to answer any questions you have, or hear about your own adventures on the Cades Cove Loop Road!

Check out some of the other things we did on this trip – our horseback ride, hikes and swimming, camping, and excursions into Townsend, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge!

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Complete DIY Camping Bathroom Setup

Alternative Title: Smells Like Family Spirit.

When we camped at Cades Cove in the Smokies last month, there were no showers. We knew this, and had budgeted $10/night for pay showers that were supposed to be available nearby, but the list that the rangers gave us of these alleged locations was completely outdated. It’s not their fault that businesses have changed their policy, but the fact remained that we couldn’t find a single place that actually offered showers!

This could have been a big problem.

We hiked, biked, and rode horses. We were staying for five nights. It was 80-some degrees and humid. All five of us slept in one tent one rainy night.

We have a teenage boy.

I’m not a hardcore type of camper; I like to wash the dirt, sweat, bugspray and sunscreen off before bed. We had sixteen nights booked at national park campgrounds coming up this summer, and I wasn’t taking any chances with basic hygiene!  I designed my own complete camp shower setup using components that fold flat when not in use!

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The components are a pop up privacy tent, a Nemo Helio Pressure Shower*, a silicone funnel, a pop-up gardening bin, and a bucket.

Here’s how the shower looks when set up:

The blue thing is just a nylon tarp we had that we stand on afterward.

When you pack up camp, everything except the Nemo Helio Pressure Shower fits into the bag that the privacy tent came in, making a disc two-feet in diameter and four inches thick.

And here’s the procedure for taking a hot shower:

1) Fill the Nemo Helio Pressure Shower tank two-thirds full with water from the spigot or dishwashing sink (not river water, unless you filter it, otherwise it may clog).  It’ll warm up to the ambient temperature if given time; if not, no problem, it’ll just require hotter water in the next step.

2) Next, heat a pot of water.  Our large cook pot has a 1 gallon capacity, and I don’t quite fill it. It doesn’t need to boil, but should be too hot to touch.

3) Carefully pour the hot water into the pressure shower using the silicone funnel. (We wear our BBQ gloves from our camp kitchen box to avoid splash burns!)

4) Pressurize the Nemo Helio Pressure Shower using the foot pump until you feel a firm resistance.

5) Make sure your privacy tent is staked down… you definitely don’t want it to blow away while you’re in there.  Ask me how I know!

Just kidding.

6) Pop open the gardening bin and put it in the privacy tent.  Stand in the gardening bin, hang on to the showerhead (which is like a kitchen sprayer) and wash away the camping grime!

Sounds like a lot of work, right? My husband thought so, too, but when we couldn’t find a place to take a regular shower, he was happy we had this setup.  I was pretty pleased with myself.

All five of us can take a military-style shower with one fill of the tank (not counting washing my long hair… I mostly skipped that).

Don’t forget to pack a towel – here’s how we label them.

Here’s an extra tip: if it’s dark out, don’t hang a light inside the privacy tent, because it will cast anatomically accurate shadows on the walls for your neighbors’ entertainment.  Instead, put two lights or citronella candles on the outside of the tent, on opposite sides, and enjoy the soft glow.

After each family member showers, we transfer the dirty water to the yellow bucket, and dump it according to the campground regulations (typically, there is a dishwashing sink or graywater pit) and Leave No Trace ethics.

Speaking of LNT…  Looking around the campground, I noticed that everyone had a good grasp on the basics.  Food was stored properly, sites were kept tidy.

The bathrooms, though?  (It’s not the campground managers’ fault; they clean them, but by the middle of the weekend, they’re usually a mess.) I’ll spare you the description and leave it at this: The idea of my kids dropping their pajama pants to the ground while using the bathroom and then sleeping in them gives me hives. I repeat, I’m not hardcore! I just wish campers would Leave No Trace in the bathrooms!

So, I made another purchase to add to our DIY Camp Bathroom: a potty.  I bought both the Turbo Toilet (the blue one in pictures below) and Reliance Hassock, compared the two, took a bunch of pictures, and returned one (unused!).

When not in use, the Turbo Toilet packs down very small, and the Reliance Hassock does not, but is sturdy enough be used as a seat.

When deployed, the Turbo Toilet is much shorter than the Reliance Hassock.  The Turbo Toilet is just under 10″ tall.

As you can see, the shape is a little different.

The Reliance Hassock has an insert that goes on over the seat and under the lid that stores a roll of toilet paper.  Also, see how the Reliance has a seat over the black plastic bag?  The Turbo Toilet does not.

Both potties are to be used with a Double Doodie Bag or equivalent, as shown in the two photos above.  These are double-layer bags with gel powder in them that solidifies up to two quarts of liquids and supposedly breaks down solid waste, with no smell or spillage.  You throw the bags into the trash. I’m not sure how environmentally friendly these bags are, but we will be using them only when the other options are unsanitary or nonexistent.

In terms of cost, at the time I purchased them, the Reliance Hassock was priced lower than the Turbo Toilet.  The actual cost of the potties alone is almost exactly equal, because the Turbo Toilet comes with 12 gel bags, which you would have to buy separately for the Reliance Hassock.

You just read over a thousand words on camping showers and toilets. High five! So, do you think you’ll give my shower setup a try, or do you have something better? Which camping potty do you think I chose? Which one would YOU choose?

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Camping at Cades Cove – Campground Review

Last month, we took a long overdue family vacation; it had been over a year since our last trip. All of last summer’s vacation time and funds were used for moving halfway across the country. It was totally worth the sacrifice, though, as we love our new home, and it made this trip seem extra sweet!

Living in a different part of the country means that many new places are accessible to us by car. We fly every once in awhile, but the cost of five plane tickets and a rental car reduces the amount of fun activities we can afford. When we realized that Great Smoky Mountains National Park was only a six-hour drive, it rose to the top of our list. Initially, we thought of combining this trip with a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park, but we decided to save that for a long weekend later this summer.

Whenever we visit a National Park, we like to camp inside its boundaries. This allows us to experience the beauty of the park in its quiet morning and evening hours, without outside tourists. These campgrounds tend to attract respectful campers, in our experience, and the restrooms are typically clean. One thing to note is that most National Park campgrounds lack shower facilities, but there are usually businesses just outside the parks that provide showers for a fee. The park ranger stations can usually provide a list. If not, there are ways to keep clean that I’ll discuss in another post.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has ten developed campgrounds (with running water and flush toilets), but we knew we wanted to be on the western side for this trip so we could do some “civilized” sightseeing in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Both Cades Cove and Elkmont campgrounds have excellent reviews on various online forums, both are near trailheads for hikes, and neither have showers. I’m sure Elkmont is a wonderful place, but we decided on Cades Cove based on its bike-friendliness, historic sites on the loop road, and the possibility of a trail ride at the Cades Cove Riding Stables.

We booked five nights, arriving Tuesday and departing Sunday, so as to take advantage of the car-free hours on the Cades Cove Loop Road on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. We reserved site C-44 after looking at the available sites on, and it turned out to be a great location. We were equidistant from the camp store and one of the restrooms, and had a large, wooded parcel of land on one side. Like most sites in Cades Cove, there was a gravel driveway and a sandy, level tent pad (some sites have a paved driveway, and designated trailer sites may not provide a tent pad).

All sites have a fire pit with a flip-down grill grate, as well as a picnic table. The picnic tables are bolted down to cement pads, so they can not be moved, but do provide a level eating area.

The only bothersome thing about our site was the noise on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Many vehicles parked in the camp store parking lot so that their passengers could take advantage of walking or biking the loop road without vehicle traffic. RVs idled in the lot starting around 6 a.m., and I think some of them may even have been running their generators. We wanted to wake up early to get out on our bikes, but would have preferred to do so in peace.

The wooded area next to us provided some interesting wildlife encounters. We saw two owls and one coyote from our campsite, and one night, around 1:00 a.m., there was a terrifying commotion in the woods. We heard snarling, whimpering, and thrashing in the brush. One animal clearly killed another, but we couldn’t determine what species were involved. Our fear that the animals would come crashing into our campsite made the struggle seem to last a long time, but in reality it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes long.

While we didn’t see any bears in the campground ourselves, we heard from other campers that some had sauntered right through their campsite while they were cooking dinner! These folks weren’t doing anything wrong, but it illustrates why there are strict rules regarding food in bear country. Campers are required to keep a clean campsite, with all food, cooking equipment and even scented candles stored inside a vehicle when not actively using them. I saw only one bear-proof locker, and it was between two hike-in sites.

A dishwashing sink is provided behind each restroom. I meant to take a picture, but forgot; they look like a laundry/utility sink. I often see people washing dishes in the restroom sinks or under the water spigots, and I suspect it’s because the campgrounds’ dishwashing sinks are not well-advertised. There was no hot water, so I opted to heat water on a camp stove and wash dishes at our campsite, but we carried all the graywater to the dishwashing sink afterward.

You don’t necessarily need to cook or eat at your campsite in Cades Cove, because the Cades Cove Trading Company provides prepared food, as well as groceries, camping supplies, souvenirs and bike rentals. If I had known how good the food would look, I would have packed a smaller cooler. The prices and selection were impressive.

Before we went, I knew there was a store but had no idea what the selection would be like, so I wanted to be sure to document it on my blog. I felt strange taking pictures in the store, though, so I snapped them very quickly, and not surprisingly, they aren’t very good! You can order food at the counter and serve yourself coffee or tea…

Or grab groceries from one of their refrigerated cases…

You can buy bundled firewood – $5 for logs, $6 for kindling – and bags of ice, which were around $3, if I remember correctly.

And if you’ve just completed a hike, or biked the 11-mile loop road, are recovering after riding a horse or just realized that there are no showers, you deserve an ice cream cone! No pictures because there wasn’t time; it’s soft-serve.

Check out all the supplies they have. Fans were really popular! We got so sweaty in the Tennessee heat that we imagined ourselves acting in the movie A Time to Kill.

There were also tons of souvenirs.

If you arrive before or after store hours, there are vending machines under a shelter.

If you’re like me and love getting weather updates, try your luck at the camp store. Wifi is not available, but the employees at the cash register have a computer and some of them will let you know the detailed forecast for the hours ahead. Others are less helpful; one just shrugged and told me to expect a thunderstorm every afternoon that time of year. Actually, that might have been the most accurate forecast!

Other than showers, the only thing we missed was cell service. If you are staying in Cades Cove and want to use your phone, the nearest place to do so is the tiny town of Townsend, Tennessee, (say that five times!) twenty minutes from the campground.

Overall, Cades Cove was a great basecamp for us to explore the Smokies, and at only $20/night for the campsite, we were able to divert our funds to some great activities. Check back soon if you’re interested in reading about our trail ride, hiking to Abrams Falls and Clingmans Dome, swimming in a creek, biking the Cades Cove Loop Road, exploring Tuckaleechee Caverns, riding an Alpine Coaster, visiting Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and find out how we finally got a shower.

Do you have questions or stories about visiting Cades Cove? Let me know in the comment section!

Packing Strategies for a Family Vacation (Nerd Alert!)

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The other day, I received a text from a friend that made my heart beat a little faster.

“Are you familiar with packing cubes?  If my hunch is correct, you are.”

Girlfriend, come on over!  Let’s have a drink and chat for hours, I wanted to say.

But don’t worry, I played it cool.

“Very.  Why?” I replied.

“I’m liking this idea for our road trips.”

The conversation that ensued confirmed that this topic was worthy of a blog post.  In fact, packing for family trips has come up several times recently with friends.  I don’t need to look at a calendar to know it’s summer vacation time.

Remember when you could pack for a trip in one bag and less than fifteen minutes?  Me, neither!  I may have managed to do that once or twice, but that was in my life B.C.

Now, a whole process is required… It entails washing and folding loads of laundry before our departure, obsessively checking on the weather at our destination, thinking about the type of activities we have planned, selecting enough outfits, underwear, extra socks, pajamas, a pair of long pants, perhaps a “nice” outfit, a warm layer, rain jacket, swimsuit… Repeat four times… It can really add up, even for those of us who like to pack light!

And have you ever seen a kid dig through a packed bag for their favorite outfit?  It’s not pretty… so I stopped letting them do it.  But even when I’m the one digging through a bag, I make a mess.  I like being able to find everyone’s stuff at a glance, and keep our luggage to a minimum.  This is where packing cubes come in handy.  These soft-sided organizers are life-changing!

For most of our trips, each family member gets one “large” packing cube for their basic clothes.  For a trip of less than a week, everyone brings one outfit per day.  For longer trips, we bring five or six outfits and plan to do laundry along the way.  Everything fits in a large cube just fine, especially if we roll the clothes.  For the younger kids, a large cube is actually a little too big.


Everyone in our family has an assigned color.  This is especially important for the kids!  You’ll see tons of orange, red, and purple in our house.

I’ve been able to find packing cubes in everyone’s assigned color, so we can share one or two large duffel bags and easily find everyone’s clothes.

We also pack “communal” cubes for certain items, like pajamas, rain jackets, hoodies, swimwear, shower towels, and swim towels.  Chances are, we’ll all need those items at the same time, so why dig through five different bags for them?  Sometimes my minivan resembles a Minecraft world, since many of the communal cubes live in our vehicle.

I can ask my 13 year old son to grab the green cube (rain gear!) out of the back of the van, and there’s no possible way he can claim he can’t find it.  Amazing, right?

We take a slightly different approach to packing if we are going to be making one-night stops.  In that case, I’d pack a cube of everyone’s pajamas and one cube per day with a complete outfit for everyone.

We own some other brands of packing cubes, and they are all comparable in size and quality.  We chose them based on the colors available, in sets of four different sizes. The largest size is for our clothes, and the smaller cubes get used for things like electronics chargers, pillowcases, spices, beverages (Emergen-C, Natural Calm, tea), dish towels, shower supplies, etc.

Of course, there are cheap and free ways to pack like this, using large Ziploc-type bags or even just different colors of grocery bags, but they might tear after just a few uses.

Our packing cubes have held up well over the past several years, so I consider them to be a good purchase.  If you are in the market for some packing cubes, this set comes in many colors and looks like a great deal!

For those who are skilled with a sewing machine, here’s a tutorial on making your own packing cubes!

No matter what method you use to pack, I recommend keeping a record of what is packed where.  Worse-case scenario, like if your luggage gets lost or your car gets stolen, you can file an accurate claim.  We don’t often fly and that’s never happened to us, but I can assure you that keeping records helps the planner of the family (that’s me!) enjoy the trip instead of being asked “Where’s the…?” every five minutes.

Being the nerd that I am, I make a color-coded grid listing the contents of each cube.  I print three copies, and two get laminated. Those stay in the back of our vehicle and in our tent/camper/hotel room for constant consultation.  The non-laminated one stays in the back of our plastic trip planning portfolio.

Another indispensable color-coding tool we use is… drumroll, please… the diaper pin!

I came up with this classy idea in an effort to keep everyone’s towels straight while traveling.  We have ten microfiber towels, using bright colors for swim towels and silver for showers, and they are each labeled with a pin in our assigned colors.

Swim towels for travel vs. what we use at home - wow!

These microfiber towels conserve space, which is always at a premium when traveling.  You do have to pat yourself dry, rather than rub like you would with a regular towel, but they work well.  

The pin method worked so well for our travels that we have been using them for the kids’ towels at home the past few years, too.  I don’t know about you, but it grosses me out to think of drying my face on a towel someone else has used to dry their feet (or… worse).  Some of my kids are old enough to feel the same way and would toss questionable towels in the laundry – or, let’s be honest, let them pile up in the bathroom.  I hate having to do extra laundry just because people can’t tell which towel is theirs!  The pins totally eliminate that.


I always hope the kids keep the same towel all week until wash day, but if something happens where they need a different towel, they just take their pin off, put the dirty towel in the laundry, and put their pin on their new towel.  This also makes it very easy to know exactly whom to yell at for leaving their wet towel on the floor (grrr).

But I digress.  Back to color-coding our travel gear:

This is the brand of backpack we gave our kids, in which they pack whatever they want for long car rides, and double as their daypacks when we arrive (we dump their entertainment stuff into a tote when the backpacks are needed).  The 20L size is perfect for our us, and the backpacks have held up very well – especially considering how inexpensive they were!

This is how we color-code toothbrushes and keep them clean.  Here’s a set in a different color.

The items I recommended don’t take up much space, and most of them have stuffed Christmas stockings and Easter baskets over the past few years.

So, tell me, what’s YOUR strategy for packing?  I’m always looking for more ideas!

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Welcome to our blog!

Hi, I’m Kristin.  I am a outdoor enthusiast and gear junkie, former French teacher and kettlebell coach.  My husband, Andy, and I love taking our three kids on trips and outdoor adventures, and we have become masters of our household and vacation budgets in order to prioritize this time together.

Here are the goals for Let’s Go Spireks:

We want to document our family adventures and share them with our family and friends, since we live far away from everyone at this point in time.  

We put a lot of time and research into our gear purchases and travel plans, so we want to share what we have learned.

Finally, we want to discuss ideas for teaching kids crucial skills and applying team-building principles to families.

We look forward to getting to know YOU!  Please follow along on social media and check in here again soon!