Packing for our last PCS move was tough—we had to clean the house, map out the route to our next duty station and… buy a tent. Yes, we camped in a tent when we moved cross-country from Pennsylvania to California. It was a big tent because we are a family of six. When we moved, our children were ages 7, 5, 3, and 1.

It may sound like a recipe for disaster, but it ended up being one of our most interesting and memorable family vacations. Best of all, the government paid us to take the trip! Because we applied for a partial DitY move, the cost of the campsites, our camping gear, and our meals were covered by our PCS travel expenses and per diem reimbursement.

Camping during a PCS move

I should clarify that this was not a full DitY move, now called a PPM (Personally Procured Move). A PPM is when you personally pack up and drive all your belongings to your next duty station, without using a moving company. During our camping trip, we were not driving a moving truck because we did a partial DitY move. In a partial move, the government movers come to your house, pack most of your furniture and belongings, and take them to the next duty station. However, you agree to move some of your belongings yourself. The government reimburses a portion of your moving expenses based on the weight of what you choose to move and the mileage to the next duty station.

In our case, we were returning from overseas, so the government moved all our belongings from Spain to California. We could have flown across the country on government-funded airplane tickets. Instead, we chose to drive. My husband insisted that we had to. Before moving to Europe, we had stored many things at our parents’ houses—including all our wedding china. Since it wasn’t in a government storage facility, the only way to get it safely to our new home so it could be included in future moves was to pack it into our car and drive it across the country. Our partial DitY included camping gear, wedding china, and a large cartop carrier. We weighed our minivan empty, then weighed it again after it was loaded to calculate the total weight the military would reimburse. In a partial DitY move, the combined weight of your HHG and what you move with your own vehicle cannot exceed the service member’s weight allowance. 

Where to sleep during a PCS move

When we first started planning our cross-country trip, I assumed we would stay in hotels. After all, during PCS moves, the government reimburses a per diem cost. This is calculated to cover moderate quality hotels during the number of days it takes to drive from one duty station to the other. When moving cross country, you can claim five days of per diem. If you choose to draw the trip out longer and make a vacation out of it, you can do that. However, the government will only pay for the first five days of travel.

During a PCS move, there’s no rule that you must stay in hotels. If you spend a night visiting family or sleeping on a friend’s couch, then you can pocket the cash you save. Similarly, if you reserve a camping site for $15 instead of paying over $100 for a hotel room, then you get to save the difference. When my husband and I crunched the numbers, the amount we would save covered the cost of the camping supplies and more.

So we turned our PCS move into a camping trip!

After numerous trips to Bass Pro Shop (which has a military discount), we had a tent, sleeping bags, camp stove, and lots of camping accessories. Then we planned out our route. We knew that military get free admission to National Parks and many historic sites, so we made reservations at Zion National Park in Utah for a few days, to break up the long drive. We also decided to camp next to Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania. My husband is a Civil War buff, and he wanted to share that history with the kids. In between, we found KoA campgrounds to reserve. These are affordable sites with amenities like hot showers, swimming pools, and camp convenience stores. They are conveniently located near highways for travelers who want to quick place to stop for the night.

Great for the kids

I was concerned about camping with four small children, but now I am a big fan! Camping gave them a chance to run around and explore after being stuck in car seats most of the day. It was much easier to get them to settle down to sleep in a tent than it ever was in a hotel room. They made such vivid memories of hiking, card games, campfires, stars, and s’mores. It’s exciting to hear them still speak fondly of that trip.

The hardest part was finding grocery stores and planning meals. We needed to get groceries and fill the cooler with ice before we got to each camp site, since there are limited food options once you arrive at a campground. Luckily, we stayed with friends one night in the middle of the trip. This was a welcome opportunity to get hot showers, a good meal, and to refill the cooler. My friend gave us the energy to finish the journey strong and refreshed.

If you want to try camping during your next PCS, don’t be afraid. Sign up for a partial DitY move to make the most of your reimbursement funds. Then get your camping supplies, choose your destinations, and get ready for the trip of a lifetime!

Lizann Lightfoot, the “Seasoned Spouse” is a professional writer and speaker for the military community. After two decades with her service member, she has completed 7 deployments, 6 PCS moves, raised 5 children, and published several books for military families. Her most recent book is “Open When: Letters of Encouragement for Military Spouses” published Sept 2021 by Elva Resa. You can find Lizann’s articles and resources at SeasonedSpouse.com