“How do you take your family camping?”
It’s a question that I’ve heard in my adult life far more than I ever thought I would. The second word gets out that we’re going camping, I am almost always asked this question. It usually comes from one of three types of people:
- Someone who’s never been camping before
- Someone who grew up camping, but doesn’t really know how to do it on their own as an adult
- Someone who used to enjoy camping, but doesn’t know how to go about it now that they have kids.
It’s shocking to me, because camping has always been a part of my life, and sharing it with my kids is a huge joy. Read on to find out how easy it is to take your family camping.
I grew up camping with my family, and I’ve always loved it. Setting up a tent and living in the dirt for a brief time is both incredibly relaxing and exciting. No hotel stay can possibly replicate the close-up experience with nature that camping provides, and the flexibility that camping offers opens up a wide variety of destinations and experiences that would otherwise be impossible to experience. Also, the intimate living quarters and hands on activities offer a wealth of opportunity to truly engage with your family, especially the kids.
For these, and many other reasons, it is crazy to me that so many people are missing out on the joys of camping. I want every family to be able to have amazing experiences and make lifelong memories while camping with their families. In this article, I have painstakingly provided practical pointers (conveniently squeezed into ten categories beginning with the letter “P”) to answer that question that keeps popping up over and over again:
“How do you take your family camping?”
- The fun of camping begins before you go anywhere. Deciding where to go on a trip is one of our favorite activities. We call it “playing fantasy vacation.” We click our computers together, and start Googling images of beautiful locations, reading reviews of destinations, and playing around with maps to begin planning our route. Here are a few tips for picking the right location for your family:
In order to bring the equipment you need, you’re going to need to be able to drive to wherever you plan to camp.
- Talk about what type of environment sounds fun to camp in. In California we’re spoiled, because we have mountains, beaches, deserts and forests to choose from, but no matter where you live there is some variety to choose from. Do you want to be near a lake or river? Close to a town, or as far away from civilization as possible? With flush toilets and showers, or pit toilets and no running water. (Quick MVP tip: If you want the family to enjoy themselves, always choose flush toilets. Wait until everyone is thoroughly in love with camping before you attempt pit toilets.)
- Check the weather! Make sure the time of year you will be visiting will be comfortable temperature-wise, because there’s not a lot you can do about it in a tent.
- Look at pictures of the campground, and read about available activities, amenities, trails, etc. Does it sound fun to stay there?
- How long do you want to stay? By the time you’ve set up a tent, camp chairs, and all of your cooking gear, you’re going to want to stay more than one night. I’d recommend a two night minimum so you can at least enjoy a full day.
- Look up specific sites before you go and reserve them ahead of time. There are a lot of websites, such as Tripadvisor.com or nextcampsite.com that contain specific tips on the best sites at each campground. A simple Google search with the campground’s name and “best site” will also do the job.
In this list, I will address tent camping primarily. RVs and cabins are great, but most people don’t need tips on how to sleep in a cabin, and I don’t know enough about RVs to specifically comment on them, but many of these tips apply across the board. Anyway, here’s some advice for the necessary preparations:
- Get your gear in order! A lot of preparing for camping is making sure you have the gear and necessities to make the trip fun for your family. There are many, many packing lists out there that are easily Google-able, so I won’t give a detailed one here, but I will mention a few things in the packing section that might not be on other lists. Once you’ve looked up a couple, start compiling your own list of the items you think you and your family will want/need to make it a fun, safe, and comfortable trip, and be sure to add your own.
- Make sure your gear is in working order. If you have things like flashlights or a camp stove that have been lying around the garage for a few years, make sure they still work, and have necessary components such as batteries or fuel. You can usually pick up replacement items at a camp store on the trip, but that will cost you a whole lot more money.
- Get a map of the area you’ll be visiting. Yes, a paper map. Believe it or not, there are places that still don’t get cell phone reception. Better safe than lost in the middle of nowhere.
Part of the fun and challenge of camping is packing all of your stuff into your car. Just make sure you leave enough room for people!
- Check and double check your packing list before you go. Don’t forget something!
- We like to go grocery shopping along the way to our destination. That way we minimize the amount of time we are relying on the ice chest to keep stuff cold. Make sure you leave the ice chest accessible, or you might be re-packing in the grocery store parking lot!
If you haven’t reserved your campsite ahead of time (which you absolutely should if you can) you’ll need to pick one out when you get there. Make sure the site you pick feels like a good fit for your family.
- We recommend spots that have shade. Being exposed might seem like a great way to keep warm in the morning and evening, but you’ll appreciate those trees during the middle of the day when the sun is beating down.
- Speaking of trees, we love a spot that is secluded, and often trees can form a great barrier between sites. It’s not that we’re anti-social, we just like a little bit of privacy.
- Sites with unique layouts can really add to the fun. Big rocks to climb on, weirdly shaped trees, a bridge to cross over to the site, or maybe a site that is hidden behind a hill or at the end of a twisty path. Some of our favorite camping memories come from the unique sites we’ve found.
- Finally, make sure whatever site you pick has enough room for you to pitch your tent, especially if you brought a larger one.
Pitching a tent is one of the most common reasons people give me for why they don’t go camping. If this part is holding you back, I would suggest that it is far easier than you are building it up to be. Modern tents are cheaper, lighter, and easier to set up than those of yesteryear.
- It’s not a bad idea to bring along a tarp (one of those blue ones) or even a plastic painter’s drop cloth to place under your tent. It adds a small amount of insulation/padding, but more importantly it will extend the life of your tent.
- After you choose the spot you’ll be setting up the tent, clear the area of rocks, twigs, pinecones, etc. It won’t be perfect, but you can make it a little smoother with just a small bit of work ahead of time.
- Most modern tents have very simple setup instructions, and many even have color coded poles. Start by laying the tent on the ground, on top of your tarp, and flatten it out so you can see where the footprint will be. Make sure the door is facing the way you want, so you’ll be able to get in and out easily.
- When staking it down, make sure you angle the stakes inward, with the bottom angled toward the tent. This will make it less likely to be ripped out by the wind.
- Most tents include a separate rain fly. These will often drastically increase the tent’s ability to retain heat, so it might be a good idea to put it on, even if it’s not supposed to rain.
- As we’ve gotten older, we’ve found that an air mattress has greatly increased the comfort of sleeping on the ground. Just make sure you have a battery operated pump.
- Our family rule is no shoes in the tent. It’s dirty enough while your camping, so there’s no need to track stuff in to the tent where you’ll be sleeping.
A big part of the fun of camping, especially for kids, is the work. It seems weird, but even the laziest kids love helping out with chores when they’re in the dirt. Give everyone a job and they’ll feel like they’re a part of the team.
- Setting up the tent is a great place to start. Let the kids help spread out the tarp. Assign them to pole assembly duty. Send them inside the tent when it’s partially set up and toss the sleeping bags, pads, etc. into them.
- Our kids love to get water. Send them with a tub over to the faucet to get water for dishes.
- Setting up the camp fire is another fun one. They can help get splinters of wood and arrange them in the fire pit so you can light it easily. Of course, always check with a ranger or camp host to make sure fires are allowed.
- Camp cooking can be a blast. If you are allowed to have a fire, plan at least one meal to cook over an open flame!
- Cleaning up can be fun too. Make it a contest to see who can find the most pieces of trash around the campsite.
Another concern I hear a lot about camping is the whole bathroom/bathing process. Yes, this part can be a little gross and unappealing, but it is worth it in the end. Here’s some tips to make it less gross.
- As I mentioned earlier, pick a campground with flush toilets, and showers make it even better. Yes, there are great places to visit that don’t have running water, but for a first timer, do yourself a favor and avoid those for now.
- Often, bathrooms at campgrounds do not provide soap, so make sure to bring some with you when you go.
- Showers at campgrounds usually require quarters. It’s worth a few bucks to not reek the whole time you’re camping. Make sure to bring quarters with you ahead of time, because there is often no option to get change at the campground itself.
- Bring flip flops or sandals to wear in the shower, because eww…
- Take a shower at night, before bed, so you can minimize the amount of dirt that will stick to you immediately after getting clean.
- We bring along a large pump bottle of hand sanitizer that we keep on the table in our campsite. You wouldn’t believe how often that comes in handy.
This might actually be the most important section. I mean, what’s the point of camping if you’re not having fun? As I mentioned before, kids love being included in the setup and chores, and even those can be fun, but there is a lot more playing to be done on a camping trip.
- Hiking can be a fun adventure. Most campgrounds have some sort of trail nearby, and setting out to find what’s down the path can be great fun. Just make sure to bring water and snacks with you, and keep the pace slow enough that it’s fun for the littles.
- Boulder scrambling and rock climbing is one of our favorite things to do in the great outdoors. If you find some good rocks in the campground, or along a trail, stop and climb around! Obviously, stay safe, and teach your kids about safety while climbing.
- Swimming is a great way to cool off when it’s hot, and a lot of places have lakes or rivers with swimming spots. Make sure swimming is allowed, and find out about safety concerns ahead of time.
- Board games and card games are a great way to spend time playing together, and a camping trip is the perfect chance to get everyone together to play. Without the distractions of electronics, you are much more likely to have willing participants.
Camping offers many great opportunities to learn as well. Nature provides some obvious ones, but there are educational conversations to be had in just about every aspect of camping.
- When making a camp fire, talk about fire and what happens when something burns. How does the chemical reaction create heat? What are the byproducts of the reaction?
- Lots of opportunities for learning about safety arise while camping. Knives, fire, getting lost, dealing with wildlife, etc.
- Camping is also a great time to learn about taking care of our environment. There are plenty of opportunities to see an up close view of our impact on nature.
All great trips must come to an end. Take care to clean up your campsite well so you (and other campers) are ready to enjoy the next trip.
- Make sure you let your tent air out, and then sweep it out before you fold it up. You’ll thank yourself later.
- Clean up all of your trash from the campsite, and maybe some that others left before you. Our general rule is to leave it looking better than when we got there. It’s good manners, and it teaches the kids some responsibility too.
- Make note of any gear that might need repair, replacing, or new batteries. It will make it much easier for you on the next trip.
Well, that’s about it! I hope this little guide had some helpful info for getting you started on a camping trip with your family. Start your kids now, and they’ll be taking their own kids on a camping trip someday. Please let us know if you think of any camping tips we may have overlooked, and please tell us about the camping trips you take!