Updated: Dec 7, 2022
Camping is a great way for families to spend time together and create memories that will last a lifetime. However, if you've never been camping before, it can be difficult to know where to start. This guide will provide you with all the information you need to plan a successful camping trip with your family! We'll cover everything from choosing the right campsite to packing the perfect bag. So, whether you're a seasoned camper or a complete beginner, this guide has something for you!
One of life’s guaranteed adventures, besides having kids, is a family camping trip. Because when we’re talking about that trusted recipe for fun—dirt, fire, stars, and wild places—it’s nearly impossible for kids not to have a good time. But if you're intimidated by the idea of planning your first family camping adventure, we have good news: there’s no one right way to do it.
“Don’t confine yourself to this picture of what you think camping is from what you've seen in films, TV, or magazines,” said Jahmicah Dawes, father of two young boys, and the owner of Slim Pickins Outfitters, the nation’s first Black-owned outdoor gear shop, in Stephenville, Texas. "We went about camping a different way, subscribing to more of the glamping side first. We would stay in cabins, go on group trips with other families. Our most successful "campout" with small kids was in our backyard. I'm thoroughly okay with that. I want to cultivate a love of the outdoors for our family first.”
Whichever approach suits your family camping style, here are the tips you need. From how to find the best places to camp (without the crowds) to tips for saving on outdoor gear, consider this a roadmap for planning your next family adventure.
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Establish your goals for the trip
Before you head out, make a game plan with your family to avoid any unpleasant surprises (and temper tantrums) when you arrive at the campsite. At home, put out a bowl of trail mix and start sharing ideas for what each member of the family hopes to do on the trip. Maybe one kid wants to fish and the other wants to summit a mountain. Do you prefer a secluded private campsite or feel more comfortable being close to other campers on public land? If you’re interested in a lakeside spot, you may want to plan accordingly for renting a canoe or getting a compact watercraft like Oru’s foldable kayak. Having at least one initial family conversation will not only help you hone in on the right destination, but getting everyone involved will keep the excitement high.
For your first family trip, consider skipping the big national parks and heading to a less-crowded state park. Getty
Think outside the national parks
With camping on the minds of more than 80 percent of Americans this season, according to a new Campspot poll, scoring a prime national park campsite will be tougher than usual. Take the pressure off that first family camping trip and check out some of the lesser known national parks—from California’s Sequoia & Kings Canyon to Isle Royale in Michigan. The country’s 6,600 state parks also hold their own otherworldly beauty and unique history. From Texas to New York, many state parks have even launched their own free apps chock full of insider info on nature centers, kid-friendly hiking trails, spectacular campgrounds, Black-history sites, and free bike rentals (just remember to pack your own helmets)
Glamping destinations outside the public park system are also popping up across the country, like Rustic Rook Resort near Great Dunes National Park in Colorado and Autocamp Cape Cod, which has an adventure-themed playground for kids. Popular outdoorsy booking sites like Hipcamp and Tentrr, and resources like Campendium and iOverlander, also make the process of finding a family-friendly campsite easier than ever, whether you want to pitch a tent or glamp—or have the option to do both.
Hack your packing list
By heading for the outdoors you get to leave everyday life behind, so resist the urge to fill up the trunk just because it’s there—rather, focus on being well-prepared (and organized) with the right essentials. Use a printable packing checklist, like this one from REI, and don’t wait until the last minute to run through it. And before you run out and buy all new gear, know that there are a handful of ways to save money and curb waste in getting what you need: pull out any old hiking apparel (from the kids closet, too) and see what should be repaired or traded in through companies like Patagonia and REI. You can also buy used clothes for kids and adults (half off and in like new condition) from Patagonia’s Worn Wear shop, Arc’teryx’s Used Gear, and The North Face’s Renewed programs. Purchase used high quality gear from reputable places like Gear Trade, REI, and Outdoors Geek—where you can also rent everything from tents to kids sleeping bags to a GPS rescue system, with the option to buy afterward.
When choosing a tent, look for something that's roomy, wind-and-rain-resistant, and easy to assemble. Getty
Get gear that’s built to last
If you don’t have much of a gear closet to vet, don’t sweat. Starting with the tent, you want something that’s roomy, wind- and rain-resistant, and easy to assemble. REI's Co-op Kingdom 6-person tent offers double doors, a vestibule, and a spacious layout with a divider that creates two separate living areas. MSR’s Zoic 4-person tent is a winner for backpackers and car-free campers with its six pound weight, generous interior, and full micro mesh canopy for constellation spotting. Make sure to grab a ground cloth, which protects the tent floor and keeps out moisture.
The right sleeping bag must deliver on breathability, wiggle room, insulation, and water repellency. Side sleepers will love Big Agnes' Sidewinder SL 20, which moves with your body better than your own bedding back home, though we also love Mountain Hardwear’s Lamina Eco un-dyed sleeping bag, made with recycled material. Dress kids in Chasing Windmills’ temperature-regulating merino wool pajamas and zip them into REI Co-op’s Down Time 25 (or you might opt to share a double sleeping pad with a cozy quilt). You won't have to think twice about bringing the baby with Morrison Outdoors’ Little Mo 20 sleep suit, which keeps six to 24-month-olds safe and toasty down to 20-degree weather. Test out the gear in the backyard or local park well before the big trip to be sure no items are defective. If you have even more time, visit an outdoor retailer and have a salesperson help you select the equipment best tailored to your trip, taking into account the destination’s weather, topography, and any activities you’d like to pursue.
Take the stress out of mealtime
Your first camping trip should be about easy, no-fuss meals. While food blog Fresh Off the Grid's recipes for campfire nachos and grilled Mexican street corn will score you major camp counselor points, you can still serve up a homey vibe and a few surprises with minimal effort. For instance, pre-bake a favorite comfort food like banana bread and serve it for breakfast, make grilled cheese over the fire with a beaver-stamped iron for lunch, and cook up a healthy packet of red bean chili from Patagonia Provisions for a dinner that’ll be ready in 10 minutes. Grill off the back of your car with the effortless Hitchfire Grill or use the Primus’ Tupike portable dual-burner stove with its non-stick griddle plate. GSI's Outdoors Glacier Base Camper Cookset is a durable stainless steel cookset that will resist grime. Snowpeak’s Renewed Single Action Table is a sleek workhorse of a table that opens in seconds, seats up to 6 people, and is sturdy enough to work on. For a lighter, more-compact option, the Stoic Dirtbag Dining Table can’t be beat. Grab an Eno Lounger for you and an LL Bean Kids’ Base Camp Chair or Snowpeak’s kids chair for them. Last, but certainly not least, you want a strong coffee game. Opt for premium instant coffee options like Overview Coffee’s new Ethiopia Steeped Bag or pre-grind beans from one of these mission-driven coffee brands, and go pour-over style with MiiR’s stainless steel Pourigami coffee dripper.
Pack fewer toys than usual, instead bringing along gear like compasses and binoculars. Thomas Barwick/Getty
Keep kids engaged
Nature knows how to wow kids of all ages, so you can keep the toys to a minimum. On the morning of the departure, surprise kids with a backpack—Fjallraven’s Kånken Art Mini for little tykes or Osprey’s Daylite for older kids—filled with a few inspiring goodies such as Brunton’s 8010 Eco Compass and How to Go Anywhere (and Not Get Lost): A Guide to Navigation for Young Adventurers to teach your budding camper about orienteering. The book includes exciting activities like mapping your campsite, using the sun to get your bearings, and creating your own star clock. Other items you might stash in the backpack are a headlamp, Educational Insights' Kidnoculars for toddlers and Nikon's Prostaff 3S 8x42 binoculars for bigger birders, a glow in the dark Nalgene, and favorite snacks (maybe a trail mix you made together). If it’s a long drive to the campsite, the new OtterBox Easy Grab Apple iPad Case hooks onto the back of car seats. Hiding a Geocache box in the woods, building forts, and learning how to build a fire are other classic camp crowd-pleasers.
Camping trips are also a great opportunity to educate kids about Leave No Trace principles while nurturing an underlying respect for the environment. Bring Kelty’s vehicle-mounted Trash Pak or Parks Project’s DIY Park Pick Up Kit on a trash hike and discover how cleaning up the trails can be fun for the whole family (even the baby up in a child carrier is watching and learning). When the fire is roaring, music is playing from the Sonos Roam smart speaker, and the stars have joined the party, get ready to tell some not-too-scary campfire stories or fond memories from your childhood camping trips.
Prepare for the best—and otherwise
As the old proverb goes, “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.” For starters, buy the Adventure Medical Kit's Explorer Kit, which is equipped with everything you need from treating blisters to caring for a major wound. After your family has picked a campsite, familiarize yourself with the surroundings. Where is the closest ranger station and fresh water source? Are there bears in the area? Even if you’ve got a seven gallon water container, it’s a good idea to bring a bottle with a purifying system like Grayl Geopress Purifier water bottle in case you run out or miss a trail marker. If you need to call for help (or just stay reachable for work), you’ll have peace of mind with a signal booster like SureCall. Power your family’s electronic devices with a portable power station such as Jackery or Goal Zero (Dawes’ favorite piece of camping gear). For other great tips, join a supportive community of outdoorsy parents, like Raising Wild Kids on Facebook, if for no other reason than to see that you share many valid questions and concerns with fellow family camping newcomers.