“Our family loves to camp,” says Sheila McNab Millar of Amherst. “You realize how little [stuff] you need to be happy, healthy, and purposeful.” You’re outside and unplugged, so you’re more aware of each other and your environment, she adds.
“You feel at peace, relaxed, and rejuvenated as a family.”
As authors of a campground guidebook, we’ve visited some 250 campgrounds, twice. During that time, our kids assumed they’d be sleeping in a tent whenever we piled them into the car. (Our friends would check the trunk for evidence of camping gear before consenting to go out to lunch.) Like McNab Millar, we love camping.
It’s a great way to introduce your kids to the great outdoors. And, it’s a bargain.
The average night at a campground costs about $25-$35, and state parks are even cheaper, a fraction of the typical hotel room rate.
But beyond memorizing the lyrics to “Kumbaya” and how to build a proper s’more, it takes a bit of strategy to stage a successful family campout. Otherwise, you’ll be awake at 3 a.m., madly Googling the nearest motel. Here’s how to plan a family camping trip with a minimum of hassle and maximum fun, with some of our hard-won advice and tips from the experts.
RENT OR BORROW BEFORE YOU BUY
Before you invest in camping equipment, see if you can borrow the basics, like a tent and stove, from friends or family. But make sure you’ve got all the parts. “One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen is people forgetting to bring the poles for the tent they borrowed,” says David Finch, superintendent of Dunes’ Edge Campground (www.thetrustees.org) in Provincetown. “That is a bad way to start a camping trip.”
You can also rent equipment from a local sporting goods shop, or check out online rentals at LowerGear (www.lowergear.com ). Whatever you do, don’t invest in a lot of fancy gear before you go for that first campout. “I’ve seen families spend quite a bit of money [on gear], only to find out that camping is just not for them — and it’s not for everyone,” Finch says. Maybe a simple cabin on a lake suits your family’s vacation style better.
DO A BACKYARD CAMPOUT FIRST
You’ll want to get comfortable with setting up the tent, and you’ll discover whether anyone is really, really unhappy sleeping outside in the dark. (Better to learn this at home than 200 miles away.) You’ll also discover what you need to sleep well — perhaps warmer clothes and an extra pillow.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT CAMPGROUND
Save that rustic wilderness spot for later, once your kids have their camping legs. For now, ease into the camping lifestyle: Pick a campground with amenities such as beach access, a swimming pool, and bike or boat rentals, and those all-important restrooms and showers. Reserve ahead, since some campgrounds sell out on summer weekends. Try Reserve America (www.reserveamerica.com), the central booking site for many campgrounds.
How to avoid camping next to an all-night keg party? (This actually happened to us.) Happily, most campgrounds have quiet hours, and state parks have no-alcohol policies, but still... to increase your odds of a good night’s sleep, select a spot with 24-hour security, so you can report anything sketchy. You can also request a site near the “campground host” or manager.
Want to make a camping trip appeal to older kids who might not be thrilled with the concept? Consider allowing them to bring along a friend, advises Finch. “While family bonding is great, having a friend along can help the family dynamic,” he adds.
Most campgrounds will allow a second tent on a site. (Our take: You might want to wait until you have one successful family-only trip under your belt first, so you can, say, put up the tent without losing your cool in front of Bella’s bestie.)
STAY IN THE COMFORT ZONE
You’ll never mistake it for a fluffy featherbed, but a self-inflating sleeping pad (made by companies like Therm-a-Rest, and available at several price points) will make sleeping on the ground tolerable, so it’s a good investment. They fill up with the twist of an air valve (no pump needed.) Steer clear of those swimming pool air mattresses — they’re noisy, slippery, and the air inside them gets cold at night. Bring everyone’s favorite pillows from home. Also pack a mat (for shoes, since shoes shouldn’t be allowed inside the tent) and a small hand broom to stash outside the door flap, to keep out debris and sand.
ARRIVE EARLY TO GET THE LAY OF THE LAND
Plan to arrive at the campground well before dark. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to set up the tent in daylight, and cook dinner on the campfire with a minimum of fuss. (Plan an easy meal for your first night.) Stroll around the campground with the kids, and visit the restrooms, so the surroundings will be familiar when darkness falls.
“It may sound counterintuitive on a camping trip, but mobile devices are a fact of life,” says Mike Gast of Kampgrounds of America (KOA). Most campgrounds, including all KOA locations, have Wi-Fi available, he adds. Plugged in or unplugged camping trip? That’s your call, but the option is there. “An e-reader loaded with summer reading can be very handy on a rainy day,” Gast says.
GET THE KIDS TO PITCH IN
Strange but true: The same kids who balk at setting the table at home often transform into cheery worker bees at the campsite. Perhaps it’s the novelty of the situation. Even small fry can gather kindling for the campfire or spread a tablecloth on a picnic table.
KEEP IT CLEAN
We once woke up to a tent full of squirrels because we left a small bag of trail mix in the vestibule. Don’t let this happen to you. Store food in airtight containers and dispose of all waste scraps properly, so you won’t attract wild animals to the campsite. (Camping in bear country has its own set of rules.) Camping is a great opportunity to introduce kids to the Leave No Trace principles (www.lnt.org ). For more ‘‘green’’ camping tips, plus camping recipes, check out the Greater Outdoors blog at blog.koa.com.
PLAY IT SAFE
When you arrive at the campsite, check for hazards like broken glass and poison ivy. Pack a first aid kit and keep it on hand at all times. Give kids whistles and headlamps (much easier to use and more fun than a flashlight) and practice fire safety, as in: Don’t leave a fire unattended, have water nearby, and be sure the fire is completely out before leaving the site or retiring to bed.
LET THE FUN JUST HAPPEN
In other words, resist the urge to schedule. “Don’t plan out your time in camp,” says Jeremy John of Jamaica Plain, a frequent camper with his family. “Just enjoy being in nature, being in the elements, and enjoy what comes to you,” John says. We like campgrounds with built-in fun, like lakes, swimming pools, and places to hike, bike, and kayak. Exhausted, happy, dirty — that’s our recipe for camping fun. Camping is also a good time to try things you might not do at home, like looking for constellations with an astronomy book, playing board games (you haven’t played Twister ’til you’ve played it in a tent!) and, of course, indulging in the time-honored joys of s’more-making and not-too-scary campfire stories.