5 Ways to Survive Car Trouble on a Camping Trip

Day One of our epic out west camping trip was a doozy.

1. Try Not to Freak Out

heading off on our tripWho wants to drive 31 hours one way for THE MOST EPIC camping trip ever?

Maybe not these kids.

After a full year of planning and preparation, and a full week of packing, cooking and loading the camper, the day had come. We went to church, ate lunch, changed clothes and started off.

Well, we drove around the block after Justin realized he left his wallet, and then we started off.

Two hours into the trip, we made a rest stop in Georgia. When we got out, I noticed the car smelled like gas, but we were in a gas station, so we didn’t think too much about it. Then when I started it back up, the van started lurching when I pressed the gas.

Oh, no.

We kept going, but hit some stop-and-go traffic outside of Atlanta that really exacerbated the problem. There was no way to deny that something was big-time wrong with the car, and we needed to stop.

We made it to the Mall of Georgia exit and into a Toyota dealership, even though we knew that there would not be any mechanics on duty on a Sunday evening. What to do?? I posted our predicament to Facebook and started going through my mental list of “friends who live in or near Atlanta”.

And texted my family.

Of course they called, and of course I started crying as soon as I heard my sister’s voice.

Thankfully, my brother-in-law’s sister lived right down the road from our place of distress (AKA Mall of Georgia Toyota Dealership), and she and her husband graciously came out to help us.

The dads tried to fix the car themselves, but ended up inadvertently breaking a part while trying to work on it {insert all the sad faces here}. Clearly we had to stay the night and hopefully the service department at Mall of Georgia Toyota could fix it and send us on our way the next day. We unhooked the camper, hooked it to our friend’s truck, and left our poor woebegone van in the parking lot.5 Ways to Survive Car Trouble on Camping Trip

Reggie and Dawn and their boys were so gracious to us. They fed us, gave us a place to stay, and let us use their car while ours was getting fixed. Their kindness was beautiful to behold, and we were all so grateful! This predicament could have been so much worse!

Spoiler alert: it gets worse.

The next day, Justin and Reggie went bright and early to the Toyota dealership to talk to the service department. They were sympathetic and went to work, but we ended up needing about $1800 worth of repairs done. That was a shock to the system! But at least it was fixable.

Finally around 4:30 we got the van back from the mechanics, loaded, and hooked up to the camper (in a thunderstorm, no less). We decided to try to make it to Memphis (6 1/2 hours from our current location) and see how we felt.

5 Ways to Survive Car Trouble on Camping Trip

Once we cleared Atlanta traffic and got on I-20, the trip wasn’t too bad. We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Auburn was in the baseball super regional, so we listened to them play, which passed the time. We were going to try to spend the night in Memphis with our friends Steve and Ginger, but Ginger said her daughter was sick, and we didn’t want to risk catching anything, so we kept traveling.

Without really discussing it, we just kept going until at some point in the night, it didn’t make sense to stop at a hotel. All through Arkansas we drove, seeing dawn break somewhere in Oklahoma. We stopped for breakfast at Chick-fil-A in Shawnee, OK, and Mom texted and said, “Why are you already in Oklahoma?”


5 Ways to Survive Car Trouble on a Camping Trip

We knew that even with all that driving, we wouldn’t make it to our campground at the North Rim until late at night, so we decided to book a hotel in Page, AZ so we wouldn’t have far to travel the next day. One night at the North Rim would be better than nothing.

We made it through Texas and most of New Mexico. We stopped outside of Albuquerque for gas, and the van started acting up again. Super, super frustrating. We sat at a gas station across from a casino, made idle conversation with the locals, and Justin tried to find a mobile mechanic to come look at the car. The only guy he got only worked on big rigs, so we were back to square one. I kept texting my family:



We considered setting up at an RV park the casino ran, but decided to try our luck.

The van cranked, and we kept heading west.

Eventually we got to a place where we had to get off the interstate and start taking back roads. When we got to Gallup, the van started lurching as we climbed up the exit ramp. Justin got it into the gas station, the kids and I walked to McDonald’s, and Justin called a friend who was a mechanic. He suggested a possible fix and we were close to an auto supply store, so we went over there, Justin bought the recommended part and installed it.

Back in business.

5 Ways to Survive Car Trouble on a Camping Trip

As night fell, we were deep in the back country of east Arizona.

I was eagerly anticipating a restful night at the Sleep Inn & Suites in Page.

Justin stopped again to get gas, and when we tried to start it again, it wouldn’t even crank. The battery was dead. Was it the alternator or just the battery? Who knew?? All we really knew is that we had been driving for about 27 hours straight at this point (and awake for longer than that) and something had to give.

What we didn’t know is that we were just getting started.

There were a lot of people (and a pack of stray dogs) at this gas station. When Justin popped the hood to check the battery connections, a guy on either side of us volunteered their help. Both of them checked the voltage and while there was some polite dissent about what was actually the problem, both agreed that our best bet was to drive back up the hill we just came down and try to make it to a hospital. One guy also mentioned there was a Presbyterian church that might let us stay there for the night. He gave us a brief charge with his battery booster and then we followed the other guy (our new best friend Nathan pictured here in white, like the angel from heaven he was) with our headlights and a/c off to conserve battery life to the hospital.

Driving with the headlights off scared me a good bit.

5 Ways to Survive Car Trouble on a Camping Trip

At this point I think it was around midnight.

We get to the hospital complex; the security guard on duty tells us we can’t park in the hospital parking lot, but we can park right outside their security fence and they will patrol routinely so we should be safe. 

I’ll just go ahead and say this place looked super sketch, and Justin did not feel comfortable with the security guard’s plan. Our friend Nathan starts driving around looking for the church and we just sit, running out of options and battery life.

As we try to leave the hospital complex, the van dies again.

The timeline for me gets a little fuzzy at this point, but I remember another man stopping to help. He had been at the hospital with his wife who had been bitten by a dog (of course). His name was Jones and his wife’s name was Francina. Jones chats with Nathan while Justin calls AAA and USAA to see if anyone can come tow us.

Justin keeps forgetting where we are and Nathan keeps telling him the name of the town.

Jones re-opens the battery/alternator debate with Nathan and then a mentally unstable man in a tow truck comes and demands that we move the van (!!!!) because it is in a dangerous place. He offers to tow us but we are not entirely comfortable with this option. He tells Nathan to move his car (parked in front of the van with jumper cables) so he can tow us. We decline his offer to tow but use the small charge we got off Nathan’s car to move the van a little bit farther off the road. The last tiny bits of mental stability are crumbling away for sure now.

So there we are – no one can tow us (AAA is still trying to figure out exactly where we are, USAA isn’t even answering their phone), the van is dead, we’ve been awake 34 hours, we are in the middle of Nowhere, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation, and any chance at a vacation is dwindling before our weary eyes.

This is when the kids look at us and realize we can no longer make decisions.

We seriously do not know what to do anymore.

Jones leaves and Nathan and Justin go again to look for the church. The kids and I hang out in the van. While Nathan and Justin are gone, Jones returns and says his church has a mercy ministry home where we can stay. While we are talking to him, Nathan and Justin (and Nathan’s wife, who has been in the car all this time and I just now realize it) return and say that the security guard has said we can stay in the parking lot because Justin happened to tell him that he was a Presbyterian pastor and a lady named Linda? Louise? (whom Justin woke) gave permission.

Who knew these were the magic words?

At any rate, Justin swings the car around, we go back into the hospital grounds and park the camper and get to work cranking it up.

Funny note: Jones’ wife Francina had assumed that the camper was a trailer that we used to store all of our extra clothes and vacation belongings, so imagine her surprise when it transformed into a place to sleep!

Nathan (and his sweet, quiet wife who I finally get to meet) leave after staying with us for hours in the dead of night, Jones and Francisca leave with a promise to come back in the morning with a battery from one of his cars, and we head off to the hospital emergency room lobby to use the bathroom and brush our teeth before finally going. to. sleep.

I think I could have slept anywhere.

It hurt to think we had a clean, well-lit hotel room sitting empty in Page while we slept in a hospital parking lot, but there was no reason to dwell on it. We slept.

OH, that’s right, this was supposed to be five tips to survive car trouble on a camping trip. Sorry! Here’s #2 through #5:

  • Pray
  • Pray
  • Ask for help
  • Be grateful when kind people who either barely know you or don’t know you at all give that help. It makes for an amazing trip, even if the journey ends up a little different than what you had planned.



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  1. Susan, thanks for sharing this wonderful adventure yall are on. I know for certain that my patience is no where as good as yours. At one time in my life I would have been this adventurous but no longer. Prayers go up for a safe trip to your destination and back and good times in between.

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