Guide to organizing a camping trip with your entire brood that actually feels like a vacation.
Communing with flora and fauna, snuggling under the stars, unplugging from the digi-world, peeing in the woods… camping can be lovely. But it can also be awful if you don’t take certain steps before and during the trip, especially when you’re camping with your offspring.
After numerous epic-fail camping trips, we were forced to examine what was and wasn’t working in our relationship with camping. This reflection resulted in a solid system for crafting family camp trips that peels away much of the drudgery, revealing the simplicity, joy and family bonding at the heart of this classic form of intrepid vacation.
Even if you don’t think of yourself as a camper, these suggestions can help you push past your reservations and unveil your ability to get down with nature.
Consider what your family wants out of the trip.
Campouts come in many forms, offering everything from ultimate relaxation to epic adventure. So before you plan the trip, have a family pow wow to determine everyone’s motivations for camping (unless you have teens that are blah about it… you can just decide for them!)
This discussion may lead you to discover that most of your crew yearns for a chill trip where they can fill their days reading and napping. Or maybe, your people want to push their limits by going on a backpacking trip. This discussion will not only help inform where you go, but also what activities you prep for.
While you can usually rock up to a hotel the day you want to stay and snag a room, it’s not always like that with campsites. For example, if we want to car camp on the Southern California coast during the summer, we have to make a reservation about three months in advance, sometimes more. In the Big Sur area, you’re usually looking at booking at least nine months in advance. And Yosemite, don’t get us started…
Essentially, some campgrounds are highly coveted and require ample forethought. But not all spots are like that. If you’re not trying to camp in a national park, or near a beach, getting a site is often easier. And if you’re up for the challenge of backpacking to a site you’re almost guaranteed to find a spot.
Choose a campsite that offers the desired amenities.
Is your family jonesing for a camping trip that’s well off the beaten path? Or by a swimmable river? Are you all about the beach, or maybe lake-life? Do you want to make sure there are bathrooms and showers nearby? Consider the camp-criteria of your family, then begin your search for the ideal spot with those parameters in mind.
Research campground rules.
Come prepared by checking the website of the grounds where you’ll be camping to see if they have a burn ban (eliminating the need for firewood), precautions for wild animals like bears or raccoons, a curfew, or any other guidelines you should be aware of. In addition, if you’re planning to sleep in a RV or pop-up, confirm they’re allowed and that there are hookups at your site.
Stay for at least two nights.
We started to actually enjoy camping when we began living by this rule. When you only camp for one night, it feels like 75% of your experience is taken up by moving stuff around. However, when you go for two nights (at least) you have one golden day where all you have to do is engage in all the (mostly) fun activities we go camping for in the first place. Because let’s be real, no one camps because they get a kick out of wrestling with a tent and trying to shove 8’x7’ worth of gear into a 6’x5’ trunk.
Create a packing list.
To get you started on this task, we created a thorough camping packing list. However, before you throw all these items in the back of the car, think about what your family will actually use. If you haven’t camped before this can be tricky, but considering your family’s interests and food preferences (more on that below) can help you make an educated guess.
Now that you’ve done your pondering, cross off items from our list you don’t think you’ll use, add any new essentials you came up with, and commit to only packing items from the list that's left over. And be picky about what “essential” means to you, as one of the biggest headaches of camping is bringing too much stuff.
Note: We included earplugs on our downloadable list because certain campgrounds can be super noisy between 7am and 10pm. To ensure little ones can sleep without distraction, bring plugs for them as well.
Pack more bedding and warm clothes than you think you need.
We know... we just told you to only bring essentials and now we’re telling you to bring extras of something. We say this because it’s hard to know how cold you’ll get in the evening and it’s super uncomfortable and exhausting to be freezing all night. So if you’re staying in a location that gets chilly at night, even in the summer (like California), load up on warmth.
Bring more water than you think you need.
The one thing we almost always have to re-up on while camping is water. When we’re smart, we bring enough for each person to drink two to three liters each day, especially if we’ll be hiking, biking, and doing other campy things. For our family of three, this usually equates to one of those 2.5-gallon jugs with a spout for each day of the trip.
If you'll be backpacking, bring a portable water filter so you can refill your bottles each time you pass a body of water.
Create menus and snack plans.
One of our greatest camping woes is soggy cooler food. And because we used to be notorious for bringing a week’s worth of food on a two day campout, we woe-d a lot. Don’t be food wasters like us by planning what, and how much, your family will eat for each meal. In addition, plan out healthy snacks that won’t easily spoil. And part of health is balance... so load up those smores fixings friends.
An additional consideration is the extras you’ll need, like butter or cooking oil, and seasoning. Because we used to forget these items ALL THE TIME we now keep oil, salt and pepper in our camping box. And while we’ve included the cooking utensil essentials in our packing list mentioned above, it’s still wise to think through your meals and determine if there’s specialized utensils you need to add.
Tip: Do as much food prep at home to simplify your camp cooking. For example, pre-chop veggies, or throw meat in marinade.
Make a hygiene plan.
As camping often involves hiking, swimming, and even straight up dirt digging, you’ll want to have a way to hose off your family. If you’ll be car camping at a state or federal run facility, research what payment is needed for their coin operated showers. Some require quarters, while others have token machines that take cash. Calculate how many showers your family will likely need and how long each member typically needs in the shower. Most facilities charge $.25 for 4-5 minutes.
If you won’t be staying at a campsite with showers, we recommend bringing a solar shower, and shower tent. For big families, bring two showers, or an extra large one, so you have enough warm water to rinse everyone at the end of the day. Speaking of warm water, fill the bag first thing in the morning and set it in an area that should receive sunlight most of the day.
And finally, towels. Bring one shower towel for each family member and keep them in an area that won’t allow them to be grabbed when the kids are heading to the beach or creek. Have beach towels on hand for those activities.
When you arrive, nest ASAP.
While it can be tempting to start exploring the moment you reach your destination, it’s wise to set up camp first, ensuring you don’t have to do it in the dark when everyone is tired and hangry. Make sure you’re not nesting on your own by assigning each family member set tasks before you pull up. For example, two people can be in charge of tent and bed set-up, while the others create the eating area.
Prep your site before you go on outings.
Prevent animals from ransacking your outdoor home by putting away all food products, cleaning dishes and zipping up tents before leaving your site for an adventure. In addition, make sure your fire is 100% out.