Planning Ahead for a Summer of Inexpensive Family Adventures

During this coming summer, Sarah and I are planning on having a handful of short “adventures” with our family. We are going on a summer vacation of sorts, but it’s a really laid back road trip and the rest of their summer break is a big open span of weeks, so to break that up a little, we’re spicing it up with some little “adventures.”

For many families, this idea works best if you plan these adventures around weekends. However, during the summer, our family’s schedule becomes incredibly flexible. Sarah usually has several weeks off during the summer and my own schedule as a writer can be pretty flexible, too, so we’ll probably do some of these “adventures” during the week.

So, what do I mean by “adventures”? I simply mean spending a day or two away from the house doing something outdoors in a new location, preferably in a low cost way. For example, a camping trip in and of itself can be an adventure, but you can do far more than that with the idea.

Here are six ideas for inexpensive weekend adventures that Sarah and I have come up with for our family. Most of them are really inexpensive, costing only the gas to get there and maybe the cost of renting a spot to camp for a day or two. For us, camping is really inexpensive because we already have all of the gear from many years of camping. It’s all conveniently packed up so we can basically decide to go camping almost on the spur of the moment, even with kids.

If you have a family, consider taking on one of these adventures.

A Weekend of Geocaching

One weekend, we’re going to simply camp in an area of the state that we haven’t been to before and find lots of geocaches. The goal of the weekend is to find as many geocaches as we possibly can, but do it at a relaxed pace.

For those unaware, geocaching is an activity where you take a GPS device (or your smartphone) and download sets of coordinates from sites like Those coordinates essentially function like the “X” on an old fashioned treasure map – and it’s up to you to go find the treasure with the aid of your GPS device. Usually, the treasure is very minor – usually just a log book to sign along with perhaps a trinket or two (with a “leave something if you take something” rule) – but the fun is in finding the treasure and keeping a log of all of the geocaches you’ve found.

I’ve been scoping out a weekend camping trip at Lake MacBride here in Iowa. This would enable us to find the dozen or so geocaches around Lake MacBride, the half dozen or so geocaches along the Iowa River nearby, and the dozen or so additional geocaches in City Park and Hickory Hill Park just a couple of miles south. There are a lot of other geocaches within the city of Coralville as well, so I envisioned getting to the camp site in the afternoon, finding the nearby caches that afternoon, camping that evening, then getting a bunch of caches the following day in the parks and in the city of Coralville, then camping again that night and heading home the next morning.

If this sounds like fun, check out and check out some state parks you’ve never been to that aren’t too far from where you live. Do any of them have a bevy of geocaches within the park or within a few miles of the park? If so, you probably have a great destination for your geocaching adventure.

A Day at an Arts Festival

Many major cities have an arts festival that’s usually free to the public. An arts festival can be a great way to expose everyone in the family to a wide variety of arts and experiences, all in one place.

For us, that means the Des Moines Arts Festival. It’s close enough that we can make a day trip (or two) out of it, which means we can take our time at the festival on Friday and come back on Saturday if we so choose. The only cost for us is the cost of parking (which is free provided you don’t mind being a little bit far away) and anything that you buy on site (we’re likely to bring our own food for every meal save one, where we’ll all try something new from the interesting food vendors on site).

A Weekend of Trails

This is a similar activity to our geocaching one and can even overlap with geocaching if you wish, but for us, the focus on these weekends is on trails with interesting landscapes and wildlife to appreciate.

We simply spend a weekend camping in or near a state park with a wide variety of trails available, which we find by looking at the state park service website and checking out what’s available at each state park. I have a list of about twenty state parks in Iowa with a wide variety of interesting trails and we’re slowly going through that list via weekend adventures.

We make these trips fun by taking tons and tons of pictures along the way and using them for collages and photo albums and other things. We’re also learning about identifying trees and birds when we go on these walks.

This really isn’t about high-intensity mountain climbing or anything like that. With a five year old in tow, we are pretty restricted to simpler trails and we don’t go through them at a breakneck pace. We go along slowly, stopping to look at anything that’s interesting, having lots of conversations, and just enjoying a day outdoors.

A Day at a Museum

Many, many museums around the country offer special discounted or even free days where people can go to the museum and view the wonderful exhibits. If you can keep tabs on the free or discounted days that are offered by local museums, you have a ready-made adventure for yourself and your family.

For example, near us we have the Des Moines Art Center which has free admission all the time (!), Living History Farms which has (very) occasional free admissions, Blank Park Zoo which has occasional free admissions, Science Center of Iowa which has occasional free admissions, and the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden which also has occasional free admissions, among many others.

All you have to do is search for museums, zoos, and/or gardens in your area via Google and see what you can find. Visit their websites and figure out if and when they offer discounted or even free admission and plan a day trip for those days.

A Day at a Community Festival

In many parts of the United States, communities will hold annual community festivals during the summer. As with the art festivals mentioned above, these are usually free. They usually are tied deeply to the ethnic and cultural history of the town. Near us, many towns celebrate a Scandinavian or Dutch heritage with such festivals as Pella’s Tulip Time festival which celebrates the town’s rich Dutch heritage or Decorah’s Nordic Fest, which is deeply in tune with the town’s Nordic roots.

We usually try to take in a community festival or two during the summer, ideally one that can be done via a day trip from our home if we wake up early, which gives us a two or three hour radius of options. We find these festivals by searching Google for “best Iowa community festivals” and looking at the results.

Such community festivals are virtually always free, though there may be side attractions that have a small cost. They usually feature interesting foods related to the ethnic heritage of the area, so when we go to these festivals, we’ll usually eat one meal on site and bring the other meals with us in a cooler, bringing the cost down to just the fuel for the trip.

A Day Building Something

This is more of a “stay-cation” idea, but it’s something that can easily consume an entire day.

If you look in our garage right now, what you’d find is a bunch of large cardboard boxes folded up in a giant pile that screams “TAKE ME TO RECYCLING!! PLEASE!!” There’s also a box with a bunch of jars of tempera paint in them.

I’m holding onto these for a nice summer day, when I’ll take all of those boxes and paints outside into the yard and my children are going to build a giant cardboard castle. It’s entirely up to them to design it – all I’m there for is guidance and suggestions and some engineering help.

When the structure is built, then they can design it and paint it however they’d like with the paints, then they can leave it up as a temporary playhouse for a day or two until the weather decides to no longer cooperate with them.

What does it cost us? Nothing except for the cost of the paint. All I’m doing is saving boxes that would otherwise go to recycling.

Final Thoughts

The adventures I’ve described above aren’t expensive ones. They aren’t really difficult ones, either, especially if you put in a little bit of advance work to plan things out.

The real advantage, however, is to have some of these ideas floating around before the summer even begins, with a few time-specific events (such as particular festivals or free days at museums) penciled in so that you know when the time is right to take advantage of them.

You can make an amazing, memorable summer for your family for very little money. It just takes a little bit of forethought – and now’s the time to put in some of that thought.

Good luck!

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