Beginner’s Guide to Family Camping

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What is your camping style? Simply put, the definition of camping is setting up a shelter for sleep and recreation away from urban areas. Options: cabins with or without all the trimmings, drive-to campsites in designated tent campgrounds, camper or RV camp areas, lean-to shelters and huts (such as the Appalachian Mountain Club system) or backcountry/wilderness camping where your amenities are the ground and sky and whatever gear you brought. Choose based on your comfort and ability level. Stretch, discover, explore.

How about logistics? After determining your camping style preference, it is time for specifics. Who is coming with you? Will you purchase gear or rent? How rustic is that rustic cabin? Will you use a screenhouse canopy over a picnic table if the area is buggy/rainy? What about tarps? Before you panic, take a deep breath and do not let the details bog you down. 

Instead, do a dry run in the backyard or a nearby state park if it is your first camping trip. Set everything up, perform quality control on gear to check for leaks, and determine what creature comforts you may require. If you are traveling by plane to a different part of the country, there are outfitter locations that rent out gear and supplies. If you are driving, make sure everything fits in your car and is accessible. 

Where is the campground? Where you are staying will impact your camping experience. Will you be staying in a primitive or remote campsite, or at one with many amenities (bathrooms, showers, laundry)? Is the campsite beside a stream where birds chirp or toads croak all night?  Do any members of your group have sensory sensitivities? How secluded and accessible are the sites? Are there miles of bumpy roads, a nearby town or ranger stations? Are you close to a path or trailhead? Can you have a campfire? Is the site wooded or small? Are you in a generator-free zone (RV parks)? It may take a few trips before your family finds its happy comfort zone. 

What do the kids do? No age is too young to get the children involved with anticipation, preparation and the implementation of camping. What can they help with? Planning meals, determining location, making the schedule and organizing games/activities…to name a few. Don’t forget to recruit them for packing…and unpacking. Set reasonable expectations for your family and know their limits. Let their excitement guide you.

Are there nearby activities? The national parks offer no shortage of activities, among them countless miles of trails of varying difficulty. Some campgrounds are off the beaten path and will require longer walks or drives to reach trails, viewpoints or recreational areas, whereas some trailheads start at campgrounds.

In larger parks, you may choose to spend your visit between different campgrounds. Most of the parks have the Junior Ranger programs for children, ranger-led hikes, and nighttime activities/stargazing, complete with notebooks, scavenger hunts and little prizes to earn at a visitor’s center. Always feel free to bring your own entertainment, too (e.g. crafts, notebooks, toys/building sets, camping Bingo and tools for exploring, etc.). 

What camping gear should you bring? When it comes to what to bring, there are lists aplenty! Download our free packing checklist. Start with essentials and a few extras for your first outing, then hone your list with each camping trip. Need a tent? Find tents under $100 or larger family tents. Check out this list with hacks and essentials. 

A suggested summary of what to bring:

  • Sleeping equipment and gear, chairs
  • Extra water for drinking, cleaning, washing 
  • Clear plastic tubs (to tote supplies and keep them dry), a tarp
  • Head lamps, flashlights, lanterns, matches, batteries, lighters, necessary fuels
  • Trash bags, towels, cleaning supplies
  • Repair kits and tools, knives, stove, meal equipment, food, serving ware
  • Games, comfort items, other kid items (bubbles, glow sticks, cards, magnifying glass, walkie-talkies, etc.)
  • Hiking gear, backpacks, items for daytime activities
  • First-aid kit, sun and insect protection, navigational tools (maps, compass—be advised that GPS will not work in all areas of all parks)

Who says you can’t bring the comfort of home? Do not forget to bring a favorite pillow, plush animal, nightlight or other home comfort. It can make all the difference especially with wary campers and young children. You do not have to sleep on the ground—air mattresses and foldable cots fit in most family tents. Bring a favorite snack or beverage, a book, guitar or even some tunes on a MP3 player.

How flexible should you be? No matter how prepared you are, sometimes you need to roll with it. Being flexible and having a Plan B (especially with children) is good to keep in mind when camping and traveling. Weather, construction, wildlife and unknown obstacles…all could cause a hiccup in your plans.

Some campgrounds are only first-come, first-served, without reservations. It is best to have a back-up campground (or two) in case the one you want to score is full. Create an itinerary but be open-minded. Let your family’s needs and the organic nature of camping be your compass. 

What about safety and rules? Situational awareness in the parks takes precedence. Be informed of any potential dangers near your campground and in the park such as other campers/people, wildlife or natural elements. How will a young family member navigate the site to use the bathroom at night? Do you need to store food away from wildlife (bears)?

Note any potential environmental elements that could be a hazard near the campground (streams, lakes, cliffs, wildlife). Create a set of rules for your family upon scoping out the site. The national parks are still natural habitats, so always respect park rules—for roads, trails and backwoods. The National Park Service website lists four key factors for safety

  1. Prepare before arrival: know your limits, plan your trip, understand park rules and regulations, and have an emergency contact.
  2. Upon arrival: re-assess everyone’s health and inquire with a park ranger about the most current updates on environmental hazards, weather or rules. 
  3. During your stay: set up a safe campsite and fire and be aware of yourself, your group and your surroundings.
  4. Departure: clean your area and leave no trace (make sure campfires are completely out).

Furthermore, be vigilant with your group’s health: heat stroke and exhaustion, hypothermia, altitude sickness and dehydration are a few things to look out for. Keep wildlife wild: know the precautions for safety in parks that are home to bears, mountain lions, snakes, alligators, wolves, coyotes and bison. Likewise, follow guidelines around natural hazards such as steep cliffs or sharp drop-offs, water, slippery trails and geothermal pools. Travel in pairs or groups and always leave your itinerary or information with a point of contact.

When should you arrive? Nobody wants to pitch a tent in the dark. Plan your drive or flight with that in mind. Look up park hours. Give yourself extra time. Some park gate entrances have specific hours, too. Visitor centers have daytime working hours, so be mindful of these if you plan to visit a center or museum in the park. Many first-come, first-served campgrounds fill by mid-morning.

What about nighttime? Depending on location and season, the sun may set earlier or later. What to do when it is still early and that sun is slipping below the horizon? How about stargazing, camp games, s’mores, singing and storytelling? Be sure to pack extra lanterns (and batteries/fuel), layers for warmth and mosquito deterrents. Bring a telescope or partake in a night tour offered by local outfitters. Does the campground have quiet hours?

What if a storm hits? Conditions can be unpredictable in any season, especially at higher altitudes or in mountainous regions, even in summer. Expect for the unexpected: road closures due to early season snow, late afternoon summer rain showers, desert windstorms, fog or dipping nighttime temperatures to name a few. This is where flexibility, precaution and packing come into play.  

How will you get around? Gas stations are limited or absent in many of the national parks; be sure to fuel up your vehicle before entering. Many parks have shuttles (free or fee-based) that run in peak seasons. 

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