Planning your first family camping trip this summer? Avoid the horrific experiences depicted in the movies. Instead, be prepared! We picked the brains of outdoor experts and camping enthusiasts to gather the best beginner tips for family camping first-timers. Take these suggestions to heart, and you’re guaranteed your first outing will be a smashing success!
1. Choose a campground appropriate for your family.
National park campgrounds range from ultra-sparse spots with just a picnic table and a fire pit to campsites next to bathrooms with running water and hot showers. If some family members aren’t thrilled about “roughing it,” look for a campground with full amenities like showers, electricity, and a pavilion to eat under in case it’s raining.
2. Do a dry-run in your backyard.
Taking a camp-out test drive in the back yard his will allow kids to get used to what it’s like sleeping in a tent. It will also help you determine what you really need to pack for your big trip, says Cynthia J. Drake, author of Budget Travel for the Genius.
Practice setting up your tent or driving your tent trailer BEFORE you hit the road so you don’t spend half the time trying to set-up and tear-down.
“In the unlikely event that camping turns out to be a disaster, you can easily pack it in and be glad you didn’t invest in a longer trip,” says Drake.
3. Prepare for the worst.
Don’t skimp on gear! Spend the extra money on quality tents, sleeping bags and other gear. Regardless of the weather or conditions, you can have a wonderful time camping as long as you can stay warm and dry. Check the forecast and prepare for the worst. “Our first family campout was marked by a severe thunderstorm that blew most of the tents in the campground down overnight,” says Jerry Rackley, a seasoned family camper who’s camped in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky and Colorado. “Our tent stayed up, and we stayed dry, and we were so glad we spent the money on a quality tent.”
And in the event of bad weather, plan some games or activities to do in the tent when it rains.
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4. Know the seasonal temperatures and weather conditions.
It’s common to think of summer when you think of camping. But temperatures and weather conditions vary significantly by season and elevation. If you don’t have the proper equipment (warm clothes and sleeping bags when it’s cold, raingear when it’s rainy), everyone will be miserable.
5. Pack lots of layers.
Temperatures can fluctuate pretty drastically from warm during the day to especially cool in the evenings. Packing layers can assure comfort through all temperature changes.
6. Don’t rough it for the sake or roughing it.
Just because you’re camping out doesn’t mean you have to sleep on the ground. Bring cots, air mattresses, real pillows or whatever you need to sleep comfortably.
If a car camper, trailer or cabin will keep your family drier and more well-rested, they will be happier and more likely to join you on that long hike you have planned for the next day.
7. Critter-proof your trip.
Rackley’s number one rule is absolutely no food or other items with a smell inside the tent. “Even toothpaste can entice a raccoon to invade,” he says. Keeping food in your tent is an invitation to an unhappy ending to your campout.
8. Choose your campsite wisely.
Successful camping comes down to location, location, location, says Brian Presley, director of marketing for What To Do With The Kids. “If you’re not in a cabin or RV, pick a camp site near the bathrooms or bring a portable toilet.” You’ll appreciate the location at 2 a.m. when your little one has to go.
9. Be realistic.
You’re not going on a solo hike, so scale back and think about lowest common denominator activities to keep everyone interested, says Presley. Fishing, catching butterflies, playing cards or doing puzzles are wonderful activities that will also allow some down time to recharge tired bodies and muscles.
10. Keep things simple.
Plan as many meals as possible before you leave to ensure you have a spatula when you’re cooking pancakes over an open flame or have sticks to cook hot dogs. And consider anything you can prep ahead or buy prepared, like shelf-stable milk, ready-to-pour pancake mix, fast-cooking rice, meat you marinated at home, etc. This will increase the likelihood of successful meals.
In case of chilly mornings, instant oatmeal is a hot and easy breakfast alternative to bacon and eggs.
11. Remember Rover.
Last summer, more than half of all U.S. pet owners took their dogs and cats on vacation with them, according to AAA and Best Western International.
Make sure the camp site allows pets. Then pack your dog’s bag and include a carrier or seat belt harness, plenty of food, treats and clean drinking water, bowls to eat and drink, vaccination records (some campgrounds and dog parks require proof a dog is current with shots), ID tags on the leash and collar, all medications, vitamins, supplements, etc. A pet first aid kit is also important. That should contain the number to the National Animal Poison Control Center (888-426-4435), photos of your pet in case you are separated and pet insect repellent and sunscreen.
12. Respect your neighbors.
Sound carries a long way outdoors. If you’re at a campsite or area where others are camping, respect quiet hours (usually between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.). Don’t bring your kid’s trombone on this trip to keep up with his practice schedule.
13. Bet on bugs.
Rackley suggests packing plenty of bug spray, sun block and more bug spray. “Mosquitos are sure to be camping with you.”
You should also inspect the camp site for fire ants before setting up your tent or kids digging in the dirt. And bring along topical skin treatments in case anyone is stung by a bee or is bitten by multiple mosquitos.