I hated everything about the outdoors as a kid. Bugs. Dirt. Poison Ivy. No showers. No Wi-Fi. Did I already mention the bugs? When I was young, family camping was at the very bottom of my family vacation ideas list.
But the first time I camped out with my Girl Scout troop, I forgot about all of that in the glow of sing-a-longs and friendship bracelets—at least until I innocently asked my troop leader, “Um, where are the bathrooms?” Our troop of 10-year-olds nearly led a revolt when we learned there weren’t any.
Of course, once I got over the initial shock, I realized that roughing it is all part of the fun. I quickly forgot about the inconveniences of camping once we started exploring nearby trails and watched the sunrise kiss the ocean for the first time. We told scary stories and bad jokes, roasted marshmallows, learned how to navigate with compasses, and made cinnamon rolls in a solar oven.
I fell in love with camping right then and there, and now I spend summers hiking across Maine, taking spring breaks at Utah’s national parks, and saving up for trekking adventures in Patagonia and Iceland.
If you’re thinking of taking your kids on their first family camping adventure—or just want to get away yourself—here’s what you should know.
Family Camping Basics
First thing’s first: If you plan on taking your family out into the wilderness (even relative wilderness), make sure you know basic camping skills like first aid, fire and outdoors safety, wildlife awareness, how to filter water, and Leave No Trace etiquette. Not only will those skills come in handy, you’ll show your kids how to be stewards of our environment and public lands.
To get up to speed on these basic camping skills, look for courses from your local parks and recreation department, connect with organizations like the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) or Outward Bound, or sign up for classes and workshops at outdoor outfitters like L.L. Bean or REI.
You’ll also want to make sure to stay up-to-date on COVID-19 regulations and guidelines as you plan your trip. Some states still require quarantine or negative tests for non-vaccinated travelers crossing state lines, and since it’s likely children under 12 won’t be eligible for vaccinations until 2022, make sure you’re also practicing social distancing and carrying a stash of masks, wipes, and hand sanitizer.
All that said, your first family camping trip should be something you’re completely confident about doing. You don’t have to—and probably shouldn’t—venture into the deep wilderness to have a great first family camping trip. As a beginner, it’s better to aim for the relative wilderness of a family campground or other controlled area.
Frontcountry vs. Backcountry Camping
Campsites and camping setups vary wildly across the country, but typically camping is divided into two types: frontcountry and backcountry.
Frontcountry camping means you’re never too far from civilization. This often means you have access to your parked car, van, or RV while you’re camping, and can stay inside your vehicle or in a tent or cabin at a designated site. You may have access to running water, toilets, electricity, or even Wi-Fi at more modern sites.
Backcountry camping takes more work and may be more challenging for beginners. This means you’ve hiked or walked into a campsite carrying all of your belongings with you. Some backcountry sites have outhouses or portable toilets, but often it’s just you, your tent or a lean-to, and nature. This is more common when thru-hiking, or traveling point-to-point on a trail like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail. If you plan on backcountry camping, never camp anywhere but at a designated campsite.
If you’ve never slept outside before, family glamping (“glamorous camping”) may be the way to go. Luxury glamping resorts can ease you into what it’s like to camp, albeit with a steeper price tag than barebones campgrounds. When glamping, you’ll stay in a tent, tiny house, or treehouse, but have access to the kind of amenities you’d expect to find at a hotel or resort, like real beds with linens, Wi-Fi, spas, restaurants, and a pool, depending on the site.
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Whatever family camping approach you decide, you won’t be able to just pitch your tent wherever the wind takes you. Depending on where you’re going, both frontcountry and backcountry campsites require permits or booking well in advance—sometimes up to six months or a year in more popular areas. There are plenty of parks that are first-come, first-serve, but be sure to do your research ahead of time.
Essential Gear for Family Camping
Where I often camp in New England, the saying goes: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes.” That also means no matter what time of year I’m camping, I always have certain gear with me. Of course, when I’m backcountry camping and hauling all my own gear, I pare things down. But with frontcountry camping or traveling in an RV or van, you can easily bring enough creature comforts to get a good night’s sleep.
Here’s a helpful list of camping essentials:
Tent, tarp, and waterproof cover or mesh netting. If you’re not sure how to set up your tent, head to an outdoor outfitter or YouTube for some demos.
Warm sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and inflatable mattress. Sleeping bags have different grades based on temperature. I tend to purchase 30 degrees or below since I’m a cold sleeper, but if it’s a hot summer night, you can get away with a lighter bag or even a blanket. Bring towels and extra blankets for cooler nights, too.
Camping hammock or camp chairs for hanging out. Whatever activities you’re planning for your family camping trip, consider heading back to camp while there’s plenty of light out. You can get the lay of the land, start a fire, set up the tent, and get everyone ready for bed without stumbling around in the dark. Camp chairs are especially important for sitting around the fire or if there are no picnic tables on site.
Flashlights, lanterns, and head lamps. There are obvious practical reasons for these, but you’ll also want them for staying up late telling spooky stories.
Extra toilet paper and paper towels. Bring a little more than you think you’ll need. You won’t regret it.
WAG bag, shovel, or portable toilet, depending on site amenities. One big transition for beginners is where to do your business. Read up on Leave No Trace and make sure to talk to your kids about what this will look like on your family camping trip—and if you’re not comfortable going in the woods or in an outhouse, choose a campsite with bathrooms or a glamping resort instead.
Extra trash bags. You’ll need these to carry everything out, and they also come in handy when you need to keep things separate and dry.
I also tend to go big on meals, since everything tastes better in front of a campfire. Many frontcountry sites have grills or fire pits, meaning you can cook right over an open flame. Note that some parks don’t allow fires, especially in the Southwest and California, so be sure to read the rules and regulations carefully before you choose your family camping spot.
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For meals and snacks, you don’t have to rely on dehydrated jerky or plain old cereal (unless that’s what you want). I bring my ingredients already prepped and measured in individual plastic bags so things are ready to go. As for meal ideas, I’m a big fan of pasta for dinner at the end of a long day outside and waking up to pancakes in the morning.
Here are the cooking essentials to bring when family camping:
Bear bag, cooler, or plastic bin to store any food items. Never, ever keep loose food inside your tent—I learned the hard way as a beginner when some mice chewed through the lining to get at some GORP I had left in my pack by accident. The best method is to keep everything in a closed plastic container or cooler in your car, or bring a bear bag for backcountry camping.
Water bottles, filtration or iodine tablets, and a larger water container. Some campsites have potable water; others don’t. Never drink out of a lake or stream without filtering the water first.
Propane stove, fuel, and a large pot, cast iron skillet, cooking utensils, or griddle. Decide what you want to cook ahead of time, and bring the right cooking utensils accordingly. Camping is not the time to try a new recipe: Go for simple, hearty meals and kid-friendly standbys like hot dogs and hamburgers.
Mess kits. Everyone in your family should have their own mess kit, including plates, utensils, and of course, roasting forks for s’mores
Biodegradable soap. Dr. Bronner’s is a good choice for a family camping trip.
Of course, the best part of family camping is the fun. You’ll probably spend the days hiking, climbing, fishing, or swimming, depending on where you’re going. But a few extra items can make the trip even more special—and help your kids unplug.
Here are some extras to consider bringing when camping with kids:
- Beach balls or frisbees
- Blankets or shade coverings
- Pails, shovels, and buckets for sand castles if you’re camping near a beach or lake
- Art supplies or journals to record what you find
- Playing cards or board games
- Portable speakers for dinnertime dance parties
- Child carrier and/or smaller kid’s packs, in addition to your backpack
- Comfortable, broken-in hiking shoes and sturdy sandals for around camp
And stock up your first aid kit before you go. Many ranger stations and campgrounds have basic first aid available, but the further you go into the wilderness, the more time it will take for someone to reach you should an emergency happen.
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It’s always best to have the basics on hand at all times, just in case. These include:
- Hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and gloves
- Bandages and gauze for scrapes and cuts
- Pain relievers for sore muscles
- Bug spray and cortisone cream
- Sunscreen and aloe
- Antihistamines and allergy medicine
- Prescription medications anyone is regularly taking or needs to have on hand, such as an EpiPen
How to Plan Your Family Camping Trip
When it comes to planning your trip, focus on finding a campground first. Most national park campsites can be found and booked on Recreation.gov, or check nearby sites at Kampgrounds of America (KOA) or Hipcamp, or by searching state government websites.
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Practice using your tent and stove, check your batteries and first aid kit, and get the hang of your tarp, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad—and have the kiddos practice too—before your camping trip. It’s much harder to set up a campsite when you’ve never done it before. When it comes to camping for beginners, practice makes perfect.
Start with a backyard campout. Set up a tent and a projector screen outside and get used to how things work while watching an outdoor movie under the stars. Plus, it can be a fun way to get your kids comfortable with the outdoors, especially if they were as skeptical of family camping as I was in my younger years.
Then, it’s time to have fun! Family camping trips build so many wonderful memories, even with all the bugs and dirt. Turns out, you don’t need waterslides, amusement parks, or all-inclusive resorts to be able to have fun and enjoy time together as a family.