I like camping with my kids, but I don’t like working hard at it. I try to keep the whole trip easy, from the planning, to the packing, to the sitting around the campfire. Of course, there are always trade-offs; you can spend more time preparing at home and put in less effort while on the trip, or vice versa. I like to find that sweet spot where work is minimized at every stage. Most of that has to do with relaxing some of the standards I adhere to back in civilization. Here’s how I make family camping a cinch, and how you can, too!
1. Camp locally
When I was a kid, some of my happiest camping memories were made at a place in central Texas called Jellystone Park, less than an hour’s drive from my house. In the mornings, my dad would drive to work, while my mom, brother, and I made jars of colored sand and took turns going down the waterslide at the pool.
An eight-hour drive to a national park might be what you dream of when planning summer camping, but if your family is new at it, start with a state park or a private campground within an hour or two of home. This way, you’ll be able to make a quick getaway if there’s a storm or someone gets sick. You can even run home if you forget something. And if one parent can’t take the whole time off work, you can do like my dad did and head to the office from the campground. (See also: Camping for a Week Is Only $160 at These National Parks)
2. Camp near a town
Some families strap on backpacks and hike miles into the woods before setting up camp. That’s admirable, but that ain’t my family, at least at this point in our lives. Some of our most enjoyable camping trips have been on the outskirts of small towns, where we could walk or take a short drive to the store to stock up on necessities. This way, you won’t have to plan all your meals in advance, and you don’t have to bring as many coolers or as much ice, because you can buy a day’s worth of groceries at a time.
3. Choose an easy campground and campsite
National forest campgrounds are cheap and often easy to book. It’s even possible to camp in the wilderness, find your own water source, and just dig a hole for your bathroom needs. But if you have young children and little appetite for roughing it, look for a campground with an on-site store, showers, laundry, and even a pool or an indoor activity room. Kampgrounds of America (KOA) offers hundreds of private campground options that often provide these types of amenities. They cost a little more than public campgrounds, but KOAs delight my kids with their pancake breakfasts and mini-golf courses.
Another thing to keep an eye out for is whether you get to park right by your campsite or you have to carry your belongings from a parking lot to your site. If you have big kids this may not be a problem, but with toddlers or babies, it can be tough to ferry gear back and forth while keeping track of the little ones.
Once the campground is chosen, you’re not done. Study the campground map. (ReserveAmerica has maps for state parks and some other camping areas.) I like to pick sites near enough to the bathrooms that my kids can visit them alone. If water spigots or electric outlets are only available at some sites, I get one of those.
On the flip side, if there is a lazy river or pond in the campground, you want to be far away from that because that’s where the mosquitoes will be. (See also: 10 Simple All Natural Bug and Mosquito Repellents)
4. Lower your beauty standards
We don’t pack that much in the way of beauty and hygiene products. A hairbrush and toothbrush for each kid, some toothpaste and hand towels to share, a beach/shower towel for each person, some soap and deodorant, and we’re good to go. The most important personal care products you will bring are your sunscreen and bug spray.
I don’t bring stuff like shampoo, conditioner, makeup, or razors because I greatly lower my beauty standards in the woods. Showering or bathing every other day might be a firm rule at home, but while camping, I’m fine with my kids going the whole week without a shower if they want. I do, however, try to keep them brushing their teeth twice a day while camping. That has to do with health, not necessarily beauty.
5. Load up on baby wipes
Even if you no longer have babies, these things are clutch for camping. If you don’t have access to a shower, baby wipes will be your hygiene go-to. Even at campgrounds with showers, wipes can come in handy for cleaning kids’ grubby hands before a snack without hiking to the bathrooms. And if anyone gets car sick on the way there, you’re ready for cleanup.
6. Bring all kinds of lighting
It’s important to have a light source that doesn’t need to be handheld. We have some tabletop lanterns with handles that can be hung inside the tent or from a clothesline as needed. Other handy lights are headlights and small LED flashlights that can be slipped into pockets. These tend to disappear as a trip goes on, so buy lots of inexpensive lights and scatter them everywhere. Glow stick bracelets or necklaces are also an affordable way to keep track of your kids in the dark.
7. Don’t skimp on sleeping arrangements
After trying a number of camping products, I have become resigned to the fact that I was not built to rough it when it comes to sleeping. I can easily go a week without makeup, but I’m not happy if I try to sleep on a foam pad on the ground.
Last summer, my family bought a big Aerobed, and we used the electrical outlet in our car to blow it up. I slept like a baby, and will bring it on every camping trip from now on. The only other thing that has given me serious comfort during camping is a hammock — which is a lot cheaper and easier to pack, if you don’t get too cold at night. (See also: The 5 Best Air Mattresses)
8. Bring easy activities
My kids spend a lot of time playing in the woods and making up games involving their favorite trees, but everyone should have a book with them for quiet times, and bringing a board game is always a good idea.
You can certainly implement a no-gadget rule, but if one of your kids is driving you crazy, you could always give them some tablet time alone in the tent or car.
9. Pack firemaking tools
I am a Girl Scout leader and I know how to construct a killer fire with a single match, but I’m also not above starting with a Duraflame log if I don’t feel like working at it. A box of long stick matches is also helpful.
10. Bring all the baby gear you need
If you’re camping with a baby, you already get a medal. You don’t need to rough it by going without the things you rely on at home to keep baby safe and happy. I’m not saying you have to bring all 1,000 pieces of baby equipment in your house, but if you think you might need something and you have room in the car, don’t deny yourself.
Bringing a portable playpen could literally be a lifesaver, because an air mattress is not a safe surface for a baby to share. When we camped with our babies, I really appreciated having a safe place to stash the baby when I was cooking. Some portable playpens even have changing table attachments, which is great because no one really wants you to change the baby on the picnic table.
11. Bring a huge tent
You’ll already be dealing with more togetherness than anyone is used to while on a family trip. Don’t feel bad about getting a huge tent so that sleeping bags don’t have to be crowded up against each other. Or if the kids want their own tent, you can bring a small one just for them and let them set it up themselves.
Bonus: You won’t have to step over their mess in your own tent.
12. Pack with clear tubs
Clear plastic storage containers allow you to see everything you brought without having to unpack everything. They will keep everything dry and if the containers have a good latch, they’ll prevent animals from getting into anything. You can even stack them to make a temporary work surface at the campsite.
When you’re done with your trip, store your camping supplies in the same tubs, labeled, to make packing for the next trip a breeze. (See also: The 9 Best Storage Products as Recommended by Organization Pros)
13. Consider renting a specialty vehicle
The closest my family has gotten to renting an RV for camping is renting a Jucy — a minivan converted for camping use — and we loved it so much that the kids are begging to do it again this summer. The beauty of a converted van is that it drives like an ordinary passenger vehicle, but it has a little kitchen in the back with a mini-fridge, sink, drawers, and a stove. These things come with all your silverware and dishes. You also have a pop-up tent with a padded floor on the roof, allowing you to go camping with very little preparation.
The Jucy made days at the beach during our trip a breeze, since we had cold food waiting for us in our fridge in the parking lot. I also loved stopping at a grocery store and loading my purchases directly into the fridge in the back of the van. (See also: The Easiest Ways to Save on Your Next RV Camping Trip)
14. Arrive before dark
Last summer, my family went on a camping trip and it was lovely — except the first night, when we arrived after sundown and struggled to put up two large tents on an unfamiliar, irregularly-shaped site.
When you’re on a weekend trip, it can be tempting to leave after work on a Friday to get the most camping time in, but if there’s a chance that traffic or a delayed start might land you there after dark, think twice.
You should also stop for a meal on the way to the site, so you don’t have to worry about cooking while also setting up the tents the moment you arrive.
15. Make your kids help
After a long drive, your kids will want to run around and play. Let them do this, but only for five minutes. Then put them to work. Everyone above the age of infant should have a job when you pull into the campsite. Little kids can set up their own camp chairs and hold onto the bag of stakes while the tent is going up. At ages eight, 11, and 14, my kids can now set up the tent with little adult help.
16. Put up clothes lines
Having somewhere off the ground to hang everything, from damp towels to clothing to sleeping bags that need airing out, is really handy. It’s also a great place to clip a lantern after dark to add more lighting to your campsite.
17. Don’t try to be a fancy chef
I like to keep camping meals really simple. At home, we make pancakes from scratch, but at the campground, I’ve been known to bring the kind of pancakes you spray out of a can. I get precooked meats wherever possible because I’ve experienced the kind of mess you can make if a package of raw ground beef leaks in a cooler. And canned soup and boxed macaroni and cheese are lunchtime favorites.
Simple also means fewer dishes to wash. I confess that I resort to a lot of individual packaging when camping. I’ve purchased those individual boxes of cereal, which the kids love, and cases of granola bars and canned sparkling water are my best friends.
If you want to avoid waste, there are a lot of ways to prepackage things using upcycling. Don’t want to buy ready-made pancake batter? You can make it at home and package it in a ketchup bottle for the same ease with less waste. Instead of individually packaged granola bars, you can make granola at home and store it in an empty coffee creamer bottle for easy snacking.
Pre-measuring ingredients such as flour, spices, etc., allows you to both throw together meals more easily and pack less, since you only bring as much as you need of each ingredient.
Or you can go all out at home and cook the whole dish, then freeze it to reheat at the campground. My mom would often make a big pot of chili or spaghetti sauce before we went camping. If you have leftovers already stored in your fridge, you’re all set to grab and go. (See also: 10 Tips for Camping Cooking)
18. Bring your cooking gadgets — or not
If you like to pack less, try to get a campsite with a grill or a grate that goes down over the fire and bring a bag of charcoal. On one trip last summer when we forgot to pack our camp stove, we managed to cook all kinds of meals, including bratwurst, eggs, and grilled cheese, right over the fire with little hassle.
But if you have a campsite with electrical hookups — or even a converter to plug into your car for electricity — you can use all your gadgets to make cooking easier at the campground. Folks are bringing their Instant Pots camping, and I may just try it this summer. (See also: 12 Instant Pot Recipes That Will Save You Money)
19. Try to get everything dry before packing up
Sweep or use a portable vacuum cleaner on the inside of the tent and wipe any dew off the sides before packing it up. If you can’t get it clean and dry — like if it’s pouring out during your departure — you’ll have to set the tent up again in your yard when you get home in order to prevent mold from forming. To make your next trip easy, double check for moisture or any odors in the bins, your tent bag, and sleeping bags before storing them.
For me, the exception to this is dishes. Although I like to keep a dedicated bin of cooking utensils and dishes for camping, I do run them through the dishwasher when I get home before repacking them. I wash the dishes at camp before heading home, but I don’t pay too much attention to how they get thrown in the bin since I know I’ll be redoing it in the comfort of my kitchen.
20. Keep all your camping gear in the same place
Stack all those clear bins full of clean, dry, ready-to-go camping gear in the same area of your garage or crawl space, so that next time, you can throw them in the car and go. If you need to replace or repair something, do it now instead of putting it off until you’re getting ready for your next trip. If you make a habit of having everything ready before you store it, you won’t have to waste time going through everything before the next trip.