A first-timer’s guide to camping with the whole family

A loud thwap! echoes among towering hardwoods. Helen Olsson stands with her husband, Jeff, at a sizzling cook stove, on which dinner is only a few minutes from being ready. At the sound of another thwap!, the duo decides to investigate.

The couple’s three kids, ages 11 to 16, were charged with pre-dinner entertainment — an activity that, when at home, involves screens, headphones and (mostly) silence.

Except here, at the Buffalo Creek campground — about an hour southwest of Denver, Colo. — the Olssons discover the elder brother pitching pinecones to his younger brother while little sister plays outfielder. It’s the siblings’ own game of pinecone baseball, and the thwaps! were the sounds of several home runs.

The scene remains priceless to the Olssons.

As busy parents, the mere thought of packing your family’s necessities — from booster seats to Goldfish crackers, pillows to PJs and so much more — for a few days spent camping in the outdoors is enough to keep your feet planted firmly on the sticky floor at home.

Olsson admits that camping with kids can feel like a lot of work — it is a lot of work — but “it’s so awesome to get out there in the woods with our kids. Camping trips leave us all feeling more connected to nature and to one another. It’s worth the effort.”

So worth it, in fact, that Olsson penned the book, The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping With Kids: How to Plan Memorable Family Adventures & Connect Kids to Nature (2012; Roost Books). She shares her tried-and-true tips with Scouting to inspire and empower other parents with tools to get the whole family outside for a night or two beneath the stars.

Plan Your Trip

For first-timers, Olsson suggests camping close to home.

“You might be surprised to find out that you don’t have to drive hours to find a place,” Olsson says.

Opt for car camping, which means selecting a park with a campsite where you can drive your car into the site or, at the very least, reach the site by a brief hike.

Some parks offer full amenities like bathrooms, showers and water spigots, while others are more primitive with pit toilets and hand-pump spigots. Do your research and don’t stretch your kids’ comfort zones too far.

Once you choose the place, make a reservation by phone or by using the park’s website. “Plan to go for at least two nights for a better effort-reward balance,” Olsson says.

Equally important to making reservations is checking the weather before you load the kids into the car. Reschedule if rain is in the forecast — particularly if it is your kids’ first time camping.

Other things you might want to consider: Holiday weekends bring crowds to campsites, and crowds can mean increased after-bedtime noise; camping during a full moon offers extra nighttime illumination; and you’ll want to avoid pitching a tent in the dark.

Gearing Up

The sheer amount of stuff needed for camping is one of the biggest barriers to families. If you don’t have a garage filled with gear, it could set you back hundreds of dollars to purchase equipment for a weekend away. But that doesn’t have to be the case, Olsson says.

Families can borrow equipment, rent gear or even find gently used items at yard sales. “Some of the best kids’ hiking boots I’ve purchased have been secondhand at a garage sale,” she says.

Start by making a master list of equipment needed, including hardware (such as a tent and sleeping bags), cookware, software (like clothing) and footwear. Olsson has done the list-making for you; check out scoutingmagazine.org/familycamp for a sample.

Olsson recommends keeping “ultralight ethics in mind” when packing. “Even if you pack light, you will pack a lot with a family.” And it might take a few campouts to really “separate the ‘wants’ from ‘needs,’ ” she says. Revisit your list after each campout, making notes on what items proved to be excess.

If you’re looking to rent equipment, ask around at your local outdoor gear store, like REI Co-op. Some websites, such as lowergear.com, geartogooutfitters.com and mountainsidegearrental.com, offer online rentals for things like large basecamp-style tents, cook kits and more.

Also, see if local or state parks offer gear rentals on site. Oregon’s parks and recreation department now offers a “Let’s Go Camping” program, where families pay $30 for two nights of camping with all gear included — plus instructions on how to set up that pesky tent. Awesome, right?

Besides the camp equipment, you’ll want to be prepared for scrapes and bumps with a well-stocked first-aid kit. Don’t forget any of your kids’ medication, and it never hurts to pack their favorite character Band-Aids in the event of a meltdown.

Check out some of our favorite family-camping gear and sample packing list.

Campground Fare

You’ll need to provide shelter for your family and be prepared to answer the inquiry, “What’s for dinner?”

“The kind of meals you plan — and sometimes the amount of snacks you pack — can define your camping experience,” Olsson says, describing how she once forgot to pack enough grub for a weekend at a remote campsite in Maine. Her kids still refer to this trip as the time they almost starved to death.

If age-appropriate, involve your kids as you plan meals — from breakfasts to lunches to dinners and all of the snacks in between.

Consider the heat source for cooking: Will you cook atop a stove? A fire? Charcoal? Olsson recommends keeping it simple and using a basic camping stove at first, and then graduating to cooking atop open flame later (except, perhaps, for s’mores).

Create a shopping list and, on this same list, make note of the cookware you will need to pack to prepare each dish, such as a spatula or strainer. Don’t forget to pack these essentials when you pack your food.

Olsson and her kids chop veggies at home, measure dry goods into storage bags and even store cracked eggs in a container to avoid having extra campsite waste like eggshells. “This also cuts down on the amount of space ingredients take up in your cooler,” she says.

Speaking of the cooler, “plan on first eating food that’s the most perishable, so you don’t have to worry if your cooler doesn’t keep things ice cold all weekend long,” Olsson says.

Despite all the prep work, the Olsson family often grabs sandwiches at a sub shop on the drive to their campsite. This way, their first camp meal is already prepped and ready to be consumed by kids whose stomachs can go from full to famished at a moment’s notice.

Get Out and Camp!

Once everything is packed and the car is loaded, let the fun begin!

When you arrive at your campsite, scope it out. “You’ll want to look for hazards like water, cliffs or overhanging limbs,” Olsson says.

Most campsites have a tent pad; be sure you orient your tent door to the best view. And leave ample space between your tent and where you plan to cook, eat and wash dishes.

When it’s time to break out the tent poles and sleeping bags, make sure you involve the kids. “The more invested they are in the setup process, the more they will get out of the camping experience,” Olsson says.

Setup time is a great opportunity to talk about campsite rules like no playing in the tent — while it might sound fun, this typically means kids tread dirt in your sleeping quarters. (When her kids were little, the family actually set up a separate “play tent” exclusively for this purpose.)

Other rules, Olsson shares, include a buddy system for bathroom visits, putting a lid on after-dark noise, and keeping trash and food contained to prevent animals from entering camp. The Olssons also ban screens from their campouts, with the exception of using the SkyView app to locate constellations in the night sky.

No matter what activities your family has planned for the weekend, you and your kids will get dirty. “Getting dirty and even a tad stinky is half the fun of being out in the wild,” Olssen says.

If your campsite is without shower access, heat a pot of water after dinner and dessert. Use biodegradable soap to wash off sticky hands, sunscreen and bug spray. (Packing baby wipes is never a bad call, even if your kids aren’t in diapers.)

It’s not acceptable, on the other hand, to leave a dirty campsite. When your family packs up for the weekend, have your kids scour the campground for trash and belongings. “We make this a game to see who can pick up the most,” Olsson says.

On the drive back home, chat with your kids about what they liked most and liked least during the outing. Ask them how they might improve the experience next time.

However, “I know we’ve had a successful weekend when the kids are conked out on the way home,” Olsson laughs. Enjoy the quiet if you can, she says, and start planning your family’s next venture into the woods.


Are They Ready?

Even if you have a baby or toddler in the mix, your family can be ready to camp. Olsson and her husband first started camping with their infant son when he was about 10 months old.

The expectations from a weekend away are much different with a little one along for the ride, she says, but “sometimes it’s nice for Mom and Dad to get away and get into nature.” (Just don’t forget the diapers.)

The Olsson family slept with a portable crib inside their “monster-sized” family tent, and the same portable playpen became a great spot to contain toddlers during busy moments, like campsite setup and cooking. Olsson also recommends other baby-friendly gear, like a baby backpack carrier and a portable snap-on seat [that will affix to picnic tables] to help keep your babe safe and content when in the outdoors.

Toddlers require a little more prep work before heading into the wild. In addition to keeping your child’s typical nap and bedtime routine, Olsson suggests turning to books for encouragement. Her kids loved reading Curious George Goes Camping by Margret Rey, S Is for S’mores by Helen Foster James, Duck Tents by Lynne Berry and other camping-themed children’s books.

Not sure how your kids will do? Try camping in the backyard before your official campout.

3 Comments

  1. Why is the BSA promoting family camping with 11 – 16 year olds? That is Boy Scout age youth, and should be promoting patrol camping.

    • I think this is a method of getting the whole family involved in camping, and families might camp at other times than just with their Boy Scout unit.

  2. My wife and I are expecting our fourth little one, and we want to take our kiddos camping. My biggest concern is that we just haven’t gathered the camping tools we need for the whole family. I really like your idea about making a master list of supplies or equipment needed and then buying a few items at a time. I can totally see us making it work to slowly purchase supplies. We’ll get there!

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