Happy Campers: How to Have a Successful Family Camping Trip

by | Jun. 20, 2013



It's a cool summer night. A dark expanse of lake laps quietly at the edge of your campsite. You huddle in a sweatshirt and stretch your dirt-smeared calves toward the campfire's warmth. Firelight flickers across your loved ones' faces. Suddenly your soft conversation bursts into laughter, like a shower of sparks that dissipates into the starry sky above.

Gradually your group stumbles off to their tents. You are the last to turn in. Before you bank the fire, you close your eyes, inhale the rich scent of trees and camp smoke, and wonder why you don't do this more often.

Camping Out Is In

If you've been camping recently, you may have noticed that you weren't the only one doing it. According to a recent Adventure Travel Report, camping is the number one outdoor vacation activity in the United States.

If you haven't camped lately--or ever--then consider making this the summer you return to the woods (or the shore, or the mountains). Camping is among the most flexible, economical, and rewarding summertime getaways. And thanks to a variety of camping options, gear, and amenities, just about anyone can have fun in the great outdoors. In fact, most campers these days aren't the solo twenty-something adventurers you see in outdoor guides - they're married people with kids. Whether you cook over an open fire and sleep on the ground or eat take-out in your cushy RV, you can experience the best camping has to offer: a natural setting and the companionship of loved ones.

Starting Simple

Michael Rutter is a Latter-day Saint English professor who wrote the book on camping--literally. The author of the award-winning Camping Made Easy: A Manual for Beginners with Tips for the Experienced, Rutter spent much of his childhood sleeping in a tent.
"As a child, we camped all the time," he recalls. "Weekends, family vacations, two or three weeks at a time. When I had my own children, we camped at least a couple of weeks each year, sometimes a month at a time."

Though his camping travels have taken him all over the world, Rutter suggests that new campers (young and old) start simple. "Borrow a tent and camp in your backyard. It's a good way to ease into it, and the kids have a blast. Or go with a family that's camped before, and they can show you what to do."

Easing into camping will increase the likelihood of a good experience you'll want to repeat. "The biggest mistake families make is to buy a tent and Coleman stove and sleeping bags and then drive all day," Rutter says. "They find a campground, but they've never set up the tent or cooked on a stove. It starts to rain or it gets dark and they don't know what to do."

Once you've practiced camping in your yard or with a friend, you'll be eager to plan a more extended getaway: a weekender at a state park or two weeks in the north of Scotland. How do you decide where to go, when to go, and what to do once you get there?

1. Determine a destination. Your timetable and budget will largely determine how far you venture. Consider your group's interests, too. Do you want to hike in the mountains or spend the day on the water? What climate or weather do you prefer?

2. Scout the area. Request visitors' and campground guides from state/provincial tourism bureaus (the Internet makes this easy to do). Check out travel books and camping directories from your local library.

3. Time your trip well. Sometimes that one weekend in August is the only time you can get away. But if you can, avoid trips during major holidays, regional busy seasons, and temperature extremes (try Arizona in April, not August). Call a park or tourism organization for a recommendation on good times to visit.

4. Settle on your camping style. Popular options include:
    •    Car camping: Throw gear into the back of your car and set up a tent next to your parking spot at a campground. This option is great for novice campers, those with physical limitations, groups with young children, and long-distance travelers who camp along their route.
    •    Backpacking: Carry all gear on daytime hikes, and then set up camp in primitive, remote sites. Similarly, canoe campers haul their gear and camp on distant shores. These options offer more adventure but require more gear, preparation, expertise and stamina. Able-bodied older children and adults do best with these activities.
    •    Outfitter camping: Join a group with a trained guide who provides specialized training, equipment, or entertainment along the trail. Those who want adventure but lack know-how will love this style. So will solo or small-group campers who enjoy the built-in camaraderie these outfits offer.
    •    RVing and cottage camping: Drive a recreational vehicle (RV) or rent a cottage at a campground. Go this route if you require a bed and sturdy walls. You can often rent an RV through RV dealers and cottages through parks and campgrounds. Plan ahead, as rentals are often reserved far in advance.

5. Choose a campground that fits your price range. The least expensive campgrounds (at $15 USD per night or less) offer the fewest amenities, but stunning scenery may be among them. Camping resorts (a.k.a. caravanning parks) can run in the $30 to $40 range for larger groups but may sport swimming pools, snack bars, and organized activities. Cottage rates may be comparable to lower-end hotel rooms. Where campgrounds allow reservations, book your stay early.

Gearing Up

When you start pricing camping gear, you may think your family can't afford to sleep on the ground! Sleeping bags for five. A family-sized tent (or two). Coolers, Dutch ovens, lanterns . . . the list can go on and on. But as with any new hobby or sport, you might buy a few basics, borrow or rent others, and improvise the rest.

"Most families camp just during the summer," says Rutter. "So all you need is a one-season tent with a rain fly. Look at places like Wal-Mart for when tents go on sale, which is all the time. You can even take the seats out of the back [of a van or SUV], throw in some pads and blankets, and sleep there. That's the ultimate in car camping."

"A yard sale is a great place to find used gear," he continues. "You can buy a one-burner stove and relatively inexpensive cartridges. You don't have to buy special pots and pans - bring your own. Just bring dish soap, too."

However, investing in camping equipment makes sense if you're going to enjoy the sport for more than a weekend or two in high summer. Gear has become high-tech in recent years. Lanterns and stoves are safer, more portable, and more rugged. Tents and sleeping bags have gotten lighter, warmer, and extremely comfortable.

Keep in mind that when shopping for any equipment, you'll get what you pay for. Off-brands at discount stores may do the trick for your family, but try to find product reviews online before buying. Otherwise it makes sense to stick with trusted outfitter brands: Coleman, North Face, Sierra Designs, and L. L. Bean, for example.

Try equipment before making a major purchase, whenever possible. Some outfitters will rent out gear or let you try it at the store. Ask to assemble a tent so you can gauge its structure, size, and quality. Bring along the entire family and have them lie down in it. Zip yourself into a sleeping bag to see if it's warm enough, sized to your body, and not too claustrophobic.

One more tip: having some kind of gear for each child makes their experience more personal. For some it's their own sleeping bag, a backpack they've filled with treasures, or an LED mini-lantern. A hand-crank flashlight is especially practical for children who may wear out batteries quickly in a regular flashlight.

Camp Cooking

If you camped as a kid, you probably have fond (or not-so-fond) memories of foil dinners, Dutch ovens, and hot-dogs-on-a-stick. These old standbys still make great camping fare, but today you also have options that don't require a fire.

Dutch ovens are large cast-iron pots that can be placed in coals to bake, roast, or cook almost anything. These long-time camping staples are so versatile they've inspired several cookbooks. Among them is Dutch Oven Cooking by International Dutch Oven Society champion Terry Lewis.

Though Dutch oven cooking is a time-honored tradition, made-from-scratch meals are also entirely possible with a portable propane stove with one or two burners. Check out Hungry Campers by Zac Williams for plenty of easy meal ideas. For less fuss and mess, prepare your favorite stew, casserole, chili, or other one-pot meal and freeze it ahead of time in quart-size bags (which can double as ice in your cooler). When it's time to eat, a propane stove will heat your frozen dinner within minutes.

The easiest dinner option may be a freeze-dried dinner: boil water, reconstitute, and serve. Brands like Mountain House or Thrive offer a wide variety of options. If you want to taste-test freeze-dried entrees first, sample single-size serving pouches during a family home evening camp-planning session.

Even if you plan to eat out of a can or zipper bag, think about what utensils and dishes you'll need: a can opener, stirring and serving spoon, potholder, dishtowels and cloths, paper towels, dish soap, plates, mugs or bowls, teapot for heating water, etc. If you don't want to get your good kitchen gear grubby, pick up old pots and potholders at a thrift store.

Finally, consider how much time you're willing to spend over a stove or fire. For some folks, camping memories and traditions revolve around foil dinners and Dutch oven fruit cobblers. Others, including Rutter, would rather eat simply and spend more time exploring the wilderness. Plan your menu as a group - at the same time assigning meal preparation and cleanup duties, so one person doesn't end up making elaborate breakfasts while everyone else sleeps in.

What to Do Once the Tent is Pitched

After the flurry of preparation, packing, and travel is over, and camp is set up, what do people do when they're camping?

Your surroundings should offer plenty of daytime choices. Hiking, biking, boating, beach bumming, swimming, photography, fishing--even scenic drives and day trips to nearby attractions are great choices. Bring along the sporting equipment you'll need, as well as sunscreen, sunglasses, bug spray, and trail maps.

What about that downtime in the campsite? Turn quiet moments into quality time with lawn games, card or board games, and other traditional family activities.

When evening comes, glow-in-the-dark versions of bouncy balls and Frisbees can extend playtime by an hour or more. In many campgrounds, "quiet hours" will limit nighttime roaming, though. Once children are gathered around the firelight or tent, you'll have time for stories, songs, stargazing, and snuggling the younger ones before they drop off to sleep.
Camping manuals recommend - and experienced parents agree - that more unstructured time is better than less on a camping trip. In other words, don't pack so much travel and entertainment into a camping trip that you miss quiet moments to enjoy each other and your natural surroundings.

Picture-Perfect Camping Trips?

It's a camping truism that for every beautiful sunrise you enjoy, you may also endure a long night of pummeling rain. For every rare species you spot, you'll be invaded by an unwelcome critter in your campsite.

"To say there aren't going to be frustrating moments is wrong--there will be," agrees Rutter. For him, the element of unpredictability is part of the fun. This can be challenging for those who generally plan every vacation detail. Embracing the slower pace and come-what-may sensibility of camping can itself provide a vacation for busy parents and children, friends, and relatives.

Rutter believes that Latter-day Saints should have a special appreciation for the natural world. "Other than in temples, God has always appeared to men at the tops of mountains or in thick forests," he comments. "I think that there's probably a reason for that. There's a natural harmony there. We see everything untouched.

"For many families, [camping] is the only time they're not divided in ten different directions," Rutter continues. "When they are together without electronic and extracurricular activities, families come face-to-face, spirit-to-spirit, and build relationships in lasting ways."

Having a hard time deciding where to go? Here are five great outdoor destinations:

Acadia National Park, Maine, USA. The island and mainland park offers breathtaking ocean views and close encounters with rocky cliffs and shorelines. A popular destination; plan ahead!

Glacier National Park, Montana, USA. Soaring mountain peaks, glaciers, grizzly bears, and spectacular highland scenery greet visitors, who are welcomed in thirteen park campgrounds.

Lightning Lakes, British Columbia, Canada. Located in E.C. Manning Provincial State Park, these four lakes are linked together by a series of trails high in the Cascade Mountains. Fishing and scenery are unforgettable, but bring your cool-weather gear!

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, USA. Rugged mountains and calm, clear lakes attract campsite and backcountry campers alike.

Redwood National and State Parks Region, California, USA. Nearly half of the old-growth redwood forests in California are protected by three state parks and a National Park Service site in this northern California destination.

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com