As a longtime scouter and camping enthusiast, I have made sure our family has done lots of camping together. Now, I know for some dads that a “fun camping experience” might be an oxymoron. But over the years, I have learned, mostly by trial and error, what works and what doesn't in a camping environment with kids. So, if you want to have a good family camping trip, here are some tried and true methods to make camping fun and rewarding.
Select the Right Site. The single most important choice you will make, and that will have the greatest chance to make or break your family camping experience, is the site you select. You may really like the idea of backpacking several miles into a remote location and setting up camp, but your kids (or your partner) may not be quite as into that idea as you are. Campsite selection needs to be based on the abilities of your camping party and on their interests. If you have some novice campers, choosing a campsite in an established campground at a state or national park might be a good idea. If you are OK with spending all your time at or near the campsite, then more remote might be good. Many families like to camp at night, but spend their days exploring local towns or hiking several miles away—if that is the case with you, make sure your campground is closer to your activity destination.
And if your family doesn't care that much for roughing it, pick a campground with running water and flushing toilets.
Make a Reservation. If you are not camping alongside a trail somewhere, make sure you get a camping reservation early. In most state and national parks with campgrounds, reservations are taken up to a year in advance.
You can usually make an online reservation in established campgrounds. The national parks and now many state parks contract with ReserveAmerica to handle online or telephone reservations. Some do not make reservations and are only available on a first-come, first-served basis. If that is the case, plan to arrive at your destination early enough to find a good site.
Come Prepared. Besides your campsite, the best predictor of family camping success is the level of your preparation. The Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” really has a place in the camping world. Your basic camping equipment for any outdoor experience should include at least the following:
- First aid kit – well stocked and replenished
- Tent with rain fly and ground cloth
- Sleeping bags with appropriate rating for temperature
- Camping mattresses, cots or foam pads
- Rain Gear—especially light-weight ponchos for everyone
- Extra batteries
- Camping stove and fuel
- Camping lantern and fuel
- Camping cook set including can openers
- Water carriers
- Waterproof containers
- Insect repellent
- Camping cooler
Storing all your camping gear and making it available on your campout is made much easier by bringing it in storage bins. In our family, we have three pre-labeled bins—one for camping gear, one for cooking equipment and supplies and one for food. They store efficiently in the back of the car and stow nicely under a picnic table at the campsite. And they keep wildlife out of your stuff when you aren't around.
Stay Dry. Nothing ruins the fun of a family camping trip more than if you or your kids get wet. And rain just seems to be inevitable if you camp very much. In order to stay dry, you need to bring rain gear, have waterproof shoes, and keep your tent and sleeping bags dry.
- Always put a tarp under your tent—fold it so it matches the exact dimensions of the tent. If a big part of the tarp sticks out from the tent edge, it will collect rain water and funnel it right under the floor of the tent.
- Make sure your tent has been seam sealed in the last year or so. Seam sealer is available at most outdoor or sporting goods stores and will make a big difference in keeping water out.
- At night, keep all your sleeping bags in the middle of the tent, not touching the walls. Condensation on the walls of the tent at night can get sleeping bags wet, even without rain. Put your waterproof gear bags along the sides of the tent and the sleeping bags in the middle.
- If there is any hint of rain, get the rain fly up over the tent. And leave a couple of the windows zipped open just a little at the top to minimize in-tent condensation.
Plan to Eat Well. Hungry campers are unhappy campers. After many years of monthly overnight camps with Boy Scouts, it is clear to me that this is true. Plan food your children like and lots of it. Engage them in the cooking process, whether over a camp stove, over the fire, or in a dutch oven.
And bring lots of snacks like crackers, granola bars, gummy bears and carrot and celery sticks to keep them from getting too hungry. You will also want to make sure the family stays hydrated, so water bottles, canteens and water jugs are important.
Structure Responsibilities. The entire family will have a better time camping if everyone shares in the responsibilities involved.
At scout camps, we always prepare a “duty roster” that gives everyone something to do every day. Some cook, some clean up, some gather firewood, some haul water. Having family members divide and conquer the work of a campout will help everyone do their part, but not more than their part.
Don't Overplan. Sometimes dads have a tendency to want to plan every minute of a camping trip. Resist that urge if you want a positive experience. Allow time for the kids to have unstructured play. Give your kids the chance to have a little fun.
Ponder About Pets. We have had some campouts where we have brought the family pet. But be sure to check in advance whether they are welcome or allowed where you want to go. I remember one camping trip where we brought our golden retriever who was welcome at the campground but was not, we discovered too late, welcome at the lake where we went canoeing. So we missed the chance to have all the family together since one parent had to stay at the campground with the dog.
A little advance planning can make the difference between a positive camping experience with fun family memories and one that goes down in family annals as a “bad time was had by all” kind of weekend. Plan ahead, be prepared, and then have fun!