Photo: Justin Bailie/Tandemstock

How To Camp With Kids

Yes, camping with your kids is more trouble than bedding down in your own home, but it’s worth the extra effort.

Taking your children to the grocery store can seem like a daunting proposal most days, so dragging them into the woods to sleep in a tent for multiple nights might feel borderline crazy. Yes, camping with your kids is more trouble than bedding down in your own home, but it’s worth the extra effort. A family camping trip is the kind of venture that can create lasting memories for you and your offspring. Roasting s’mores over a fire, staring up at the starry night sky, finding salamanders under a rock: Not to overstate the importance of a weekend in the woods, but it can lay the foundation for a lifetime of appreciation for nature. No pressure, right? Relax, the great outdoors does the hard work, you mostly just have to show up. And with some solid advice, your first family camping trip will be an overwhelming success, whether your kids are 2 or 12. 

In this article, you’ll learn: 

  • How to plan a family camping trip 
  • What to do while your camping
  • Key gear you’ll need 
  • Food tips (Hint: snacks!) 

Camp Planning

Choose Your Destination Carefully

The destination is everything. It’s also not that important at all. Kids can have fun in a field with a couple of rocks. No kidding. Choose a location that’s close to home that has some amenities, like pit toilets or full bathrooms with showers, so that you don’t have to worry about pooping in the woods on your first camping weekend. Established sites with picnic tables and fire rings also makes things easier. Let your kids help choose the location. Give them a couple of options—maybe one with a lake and the other with a river—and let them decide where they want to go. Ownership of the trip will give you a head start toward success. 

Skip the Backyard Campout

Some parents advise doing a dry run by pitching your tent in your backyard, but here’s the deal about backyard camping: It’s too easy to call it quits when things get uncomfortable. Because the truth is, sleeping outside in a tent is not as comfortable as sleeping inside your house, and your kids will pick up on this right away. That’s why we built houses in the first place. Instead of the backyard campout, find a state park or national forest that’s close to your home and has some sort of attraction—a great hike or a lake or a river to tube. Just getting out of your immediate surroundings can give your weekend in the woods the exotic push your kids need to understand why you’re pitching a tent in the first place. 

There’s a Two-Night Minimum

It’s tempting to schedule a quick overnighter to “test the waters” of camping, but there is so much preparation and gear involved with taking a family camping that a single night in the woods isn’t worth it. OK, it’s worth it, but two nights is better and doesn’t require much more gear or preparation. Also, having that extra night allows your family to get into the slower rhythm of camping, which is a large part of the appeal. 

Get Organized

Sorting your camping kit into separate bins (cooking gear, food, sleeping gear, activities, etc.) will make the entire experience more hassle-free. Instead of piling everything in one large bin, divide the gear into separate, smaller bins so you know exactly where your matches/headlamps/bug juice are when you need them.

A Pack for Every Kid

Have your kid pack and be responsible for their own “go bag,” which has key gear like their headlamp, wool hat (if it’ll be cold), pocket knife (if they're old enough), favorite stuffed animal (if they’re young enough), binoculars, bug catching kit, the list goes on.

Plan Activities, but Don’t Over Plan

Research and plan a big family adventure, like hiking to an overlook or taking a guided rock climbing trip. Having a big activity will give the camping trip a larger sense of purpose. But make sure you pencil in plenty of “nothing time,” where your kids can explore the area around the campsite. Playing without purpose in the woods by building dams or hunting for bugs will go further toward making the weekend a success than a stacked series of planned activities. 

Photo: Stephen Matera /Tandemstock

At the Campsite

Give Your Kids a Job

It doesn’t matter how old they are. A 3-year-old can help gather sticks. Older kids can help set up the tent or even help build the fire. Just keep your expectations low. Kids are not overly helpful and you could absolutely make dinner/start the fire/pitch the tent without them, but that’s not the point. The key here is passing along a love for camping to your children, which has a better chance of happening if they feel like they’re a part of the team. 

Digital Detox 

This should be obvious, but it’s worth mentioning: Make sure everyone leaves their screens at home. That means you too. 

The Right Attitude 

Nature is awesome. It’s also inconvenient. And dirty. And sometimes smelly. And wet. If your kids see you rolling with the bad weather or a steep hike, they’ll be more likely to roll with it too. Set an example by having a good attitude. 

Remember: It’s Not About You

Waking everyone up at 5 a.m. to hike to the summit of the nearby peak just in time for sunrise would be amazing! But you shouldn’t do it. Your kids aren’t your expedition buddies, so don’t expect them to enjoy a suffer-fest like your expedition buddies. Keep your adventures realistic and enjoyable for the whole family, not just you. 

Practice Free Range Parenting (Within Limits) 

Let your kids wander. Give them parameters, but then let them explore within those boundaries. Kids will get poison ivy, scrapes and bruises, but that’s OK. Talk with them about what they should do if they get lost or hurt, and give them a whistle to blow if they feel they’ve ventured out of bounds. 

Join the Junior Rangers 

If you camp in a national park, check out the Junior Ranger Program, where kids can earn a ranger badge by completing a workbook of tasks like finding elk in Rocky Mountain National Park or identifying salamanders in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The workbook can give the entire weekend a renewed sense of purpose. They’ll even take a pledge led by a real park ranger. 

Practice Leave No Trace 

Bring extra trash bags and organize a “scavenger hunt” for picking up trash around the campground or along a trail. It’s never too early to pass along the concept of leaving a place better than you found it. 

Absolutely Bring Your Bikes

Especially if you’re camping in a state park with a campground that’s laid out in loops. These campground roads are low traffic and perfect places for kids to pedal laps on their own. 

Make the Most of the Dark Skies 

Staring up at the dark sky above your campsite, which is loaded with stars that you probably can’t see from your home, is a huge draw of sleeping in the woods. Bring a telescope if you really want to geek out. You can also download a dark sky app that will show you the constellations above your head. Yes, it breaks the no-screen rule, but this is a worthy exception. 

Gear Essentials

Start with the Tent 

As your family and kids grow, your tent needs to grow too. Time to put away that lightweight two-person tent that you and your partner have been squeezing into for years and upgrade to a palatial family estate. Think of it as an inexpensive summer home.  

Don’t Forget the Welcome Mat

Keeping a tent clean is a full-time job with kids. Lay out a beach towel or yoga mat in front of the door so kids have a place to take their shoes off when they enter the tent. 

Oh, and Bring an Extra Tent 

This smaller tent is strictly for kids, No Adults Allowed! This is where they can hang out and play cards with each other, have pillow fights…whatever. Eventually, when they’re old enough, they can spend the night in this tent on their own. 

Resist the Urge to Overpack 

Plan for bad/cold weather, but don’t bring too many extra clothes. The truth is, you’ll spend the entire weekend in the same pair of shorts/pants and might change your shirt once. Packing a pair of jammies can be a good way to go to bed “fresh” after a fun day playing outside, though. 

But Don’t Forget Extra Shoes

OK, it runs against packing light, but your kids are going to traipse through mud or a river, so make sure you have a dry pair of kicks to pull out when they realize hanging out in cold, wet shoes isn’t fun. 

...And the First Aid 

There are some great pre-made first aid kits out there with everything from bandages to extra batteries. Purchasing one of these kits is a great start, but don’t forget to augment it with sunscreen and bug spray. 

Chow Time

Keep Your First Dinner Simple 

You roll up to camp at 6 p.m. and have just enough time to set up the tent before it gets dark. Go easy on yourself and keep this first dinner simple. Lean into camp classics, like hot dogs that kids can roast on a stick. There’s also nothing wrong with showing up to camp with a takeout pizza. 

Snack Early, Snack Often 

Bring high-energy snacks like nuts, Clif bars, cheese sticks, squeezers and yogurt.

Cook One Meal Over an Open Fire

The two-burner car camping stove is your best friend for easy meals while you’re camping, but most state park and national park campgrounds have a fire ring with a built-in grill top. This is a great opportunity to try cooking over an open fire. You can keep it simple (burgers) or really get into it (lobster tails!). Loading foil packets with vegetables and cut potatoes and cooking them on the edge of the fire is a great way to complete a meal. Heating a can of baked beans directly on the grill has a certain charm to it. It really doesn’t matter what you cook, the important part is the experience of cooking over an open fire, just like the cowboys used to do it. 

S’mores are Mandatory

A ho-hum day can be saved by s’mores by the campfire. On Night One, stick with the classic recipe (especially if your kids have never had a s’more before), but get creative on the second night with recipes that use peanut butter cups or ice cream cones.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.