Summer’s coming, and you haven’t had a family vacation in… well, since when? Traveling is expensive, especially with kids. Are you itching to spend some time outdoors? Maybe it’s time to rough it, even if it’s on your terms. You can easily break into family camping and put together basic gear for about the same cost as a long weekend stay at a good motel.
Family Camping lets us experience new things together in a new environment, often on a level playing field. Each family member has the opportunity to discover—and then share—a particular skill. Everyone can explore independently, or enjoy activities as a group. Create new family traditions around the campfire with roasted marshmallows and a few rounds of “Pass the Story“.
The benefits of family camping go beyond budgets: Spending time in nature is proven to be physically and mentally therapeutic, even if your kids still sneak a little screen time here and there. Here are some tips to get you started!
Your best first camping spot
You’ve heard of backcountry camping. Frontcountry camping ( “car camping”) is the easiest way to introduce yourself to roughing it short of setting up a tent in your own backyard. If you’ve ever been to a state or national park, you’ve likely seen these campground “subdivisions” organized along paved loops. Each campsite usually has a fire ring, faucet, barbecue, and picnic table, and campers have access to vault toilets or, at posh campgrounds, flush toilets and showers. Some have direct access to rivers, lakes, and trailheads, and others have very basic bunk cabins or yurts for rent, though you still need to bring your own camp kitchen and bedding.
The best part of frontcountry camping? You just back your car in and unload your gear. This way you can bring along luxuries you wouldn’t want to carry more than fifty feet up a trail, such as air mattresses, cots, reclining camp chairs, your favorite pillow, heavy coolers, and outdoor equipment. Frontcountry camping is the perfect option for families with small kids, since you can set up travel cribs and playpens, and bring oversized tents.
It’s best to make reservations in advance if you’ve planned your itinerary. Reserve America is the best place to book your spot at public and private campsites.
Entry-level family camping essentials
Quality gear can last for decades, and doesn’t have to cost you the equivalent of a trip to New Zealand. Read online reviews before you dive in, or take camping components out for a test drive. If you can’t borrow gear from a friend, some outdoor sports stores rent tents and other camping equipment. They may have great deals on purchase returns or demo items. Secondhand sporting goods stores are another good source for bargains. Some insist on setting up any used tents to check for damage and make sure all the parts are included, which can be time-consuming.
Here are the “must-have” items in your car camping kit, in no particular order:
Basic Camping Gear
Propane camping stove: Tabletop two-burner stoves are easy to use and ideal for family camping. Those forest-green one-pound Coleman propane canisters are safe to pack and easy to find anywhere, and you can’t go wrong with their classic camp stoves.
Lightweight camp cooking set: You can always pick up some old cookware at a garage sale, but camp stoves are a bit smaller than ranges. Here’s a great review of camp kitchenware from a camping mom who will help you save a few dollars… which you should absolutely spend on a stove top coffee percolator.
Tent: Large family tents provide headroom, and some models have room dividers. Look for a tent that has a good rain fly that keeps the structure and entire footprint dry. Floor seams should be off the ground at least four inches, and preferably sealed with silicone tape. Bonus points for tents with a covered or screened-in area in front! You might consider picking up a couple dome tents so older kids and parents can have their own space. Choose carefully, as a leaky, flooded tent will ruin your whole trip.
Sleeping bags: The most important factor is the bag’s temperature rating. Here’s an excellent guide to selecting sleeping bags and understanding how they trap body warmth. If tents make you feel claustrophobic and sleeping bags make it worse, look into backpacking quilts.
Sleeping pads: Sleeping pads don’t just protect you from hard, bumpy ground. They also prevent conduction—heat loss through contact with cold surfaces. Learn about different sleeping bag types and features here. As a bonus, you’ll get great tips for sleeping comfortably at camp.
Other Camping Necessities
Travel pillows: Trust me, you always want to bring the best pillow you’re willing to pack. Your muscles are going to be sore from all that outdoor play. A good, hypoallergenic and anti-microbial pillow will help you breathe easier if you have allergies, and pillows with good cervical support compensate for less-than-comfortable ground sleeping. Pack a few extra clean pillowcases, too.
Tarps: Don’t let the edges extend beyond the floor, or it will trap rainwater. A second tarp can cover your firewood or picnic table if it rains.
Paracord with a reflective weave: Ideal for hanging stuff up to dry, fixing tent guy lines, or suspending an improvised tarp “hangout” shelter.
Lighting: Bring one or two bright LED table-top lanterns for your tents and table, and equip everyone with their own bright headlamp or flashlight (300 lumens is perfect).
Mosquito repellent with DEET. Don’t settle for anything less, and don’t worry about its health risks. I also love Thermacell’s “force-field” gadgets which use heat-activated repellent pads to deter skeeters. Mosquitoes are attracted to dirty, sweaty clothes and skin.
Flip flops and “camp shoes” Always protect your feet from fungal infections in public showers, and from sharp rocks while walking to and from the beach or bathroom. Kick off your hiking boots and break the laws of fashion with cheap Croc-style shoes. They are easy to kick off when you duck into the tent, and let your feet breathe even if you’re wearing thick socks.
First aid kit: You’re doing it wrong if you don’t get a few cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Bring along a commercially-produced bug bite and sting relief pen and a few antihistamines.
Charcoal and firewood. Firewood is always spendy at campgrounds, and everyone forgets to bring their barbecue supplies.
Baby wipes and washcloths: Wet wipes are worth their weight in gold if you do not have access to a shower. Portable “solar bag” camp showers tend to be more trouble than they’re worth, but that’s a personal preference. Please respect campsite rules for proper disposal of all personal sanitary products—anything but T.P. seriously damages pit, chemical, composting, and septic-system bathrooms.
Laminated nature guides: Waterford Press offers geographically-specific fold-out guides for flora, fauna, and even wildlife tracks. Interacting with and learning about nature while exploring outdoors is proven to improve engagement with indoor studies.