Dome tent lit up at night

A Beginner’s Guide to Family Camping

Camping can be relaxing, restorative, fun, and budget-friendly. For first-timers, it can also be intimidating. Which tent should you buy? Where should you pitch it? What’s the deal with the bathroom? What if you forget the s’mores? 

We turned to two outdoors experts to help answer those questions and more. Shanti Hodges is the founder of Hike it Baby, an organization that helps families with young children get outdoors. Yvonne Leow is the founder of Bewilder, a camping trip–planning service that launched in February. She wants to help families experience nature in ways she didn’t as a child. 

“It’s important for us to try to spread the joy,” Yvonne says. 

This is probably a good time to point out that when we say “camping” we don’t mean backpacking, which involves hiking into the backcountry with all your gear strapped on. We’re talking about car camping—where you drive to your campsite, so it doesn’t matter if you bring extra pillows or a couple of cinderblocks. As long as it fits in the trunk, it’s fair game. 

Whether you plan to stay close to home or work your way up to epic adventures, here’s your cheat sheet to getting into nature, kids and all. 

1) Pick your destination

Start by shelving any bucket-list destinations—save Yosemite and Glacier National Park for when you have some experience under your belt. Then, think about what you’re looking for in that first trip, Yvonne says. Do you want to hike? Swim? Do a scenic drive?

Look for county and state parks that offer those activities. Focus on ones that you can drive to in less than an hour or two, and aren’t off the beaten path. “Make sure there’s access to a grocery store,” Yvonne advises. “So if something doesn’t work out on the grill, you can get a pizza.”

As soon as you find a good option, reserve it so you don’t miss out, Yvonne says. Camping is hot this year and campgrounds are pretty crowded.

2) Think beyond weekends (and campgrounds)

If you can’t get a reservation for your dates or are seeking more seclusion, there are plenty of other options. 

Going camping during the week instead of on a weekend will mean more choice of campsites. “Thursday to Sunday is really difficult,” Yvonne says. Weekday camping also means less stress and lower Covid risk, because you’ll be around fewer people.

You can also try dispersed camping—pitching your tent outside of a campground—which is allowed in National Forests and Bureau of Land Management property around the U.S. Dispersed camping give you more space, doesn’t require reservations and is free. But you have to be cool with roughing it a little, since there won’t be bathrooms, showers, or other facilities. 

There are also private camping spots, which you can book like vacation rentals through platforms such as Tentrr and Hipcamp. Pick a secluded spot to park your tent, or if you’re not ready to make the leap, opt for a yurt or tiny house.

3) Keep it brief—and watch the weather

“Don’t take your kids on an epic camping trip the first time,” Shanti says. Plan for one night, maybe two. Be prepared for babies and young kids to have a hard time sleeping at first, she warns. Try to roll with it—and don’t give up because the first night was horrible. 

Keep an eye on the weather, and cancel if it’s going to be freezing cold or pouring rain—even if you’re all packed and psyched. The misery isn’t worth it with kids, Shanti says. 

If it’s going to be warm or buggy, bring a tent fan. And if you’re worried about babies getting cold at night, put long underwear under a regular onesie, or get a fleece bunting, Shanti advises. 

4) B.Y.O. bathroom (yes, really…)

Campsite bathrooms are convenient, but also stressful in a pandemic—especially with small, touch-prone kids. If you do use the shared bathrooms, wear a mask, avoid entering a stall right after someone else, and wash or sanitize your hands carefully afterwards. 

You can also forego the facilities altogether. Start by setting up your own sink. “A lot of parents do that because kids get so dirty—and you don’t want a dirty kid in your sleeping bag,” Yvonne says. Simple collapsible basins cost under $20. Or you can spend up for a portable sink complete with water tank, foot pump, and faucet. 

For the, um, other stuff, Shanti is a fan of OXO’s travel potty. You can use it as a booster seat on a regular toilet, or put a plastic bag on it for stand-alone use. It costs just $20, and though it’s designed for smaller children, Shanti uses it for her 7-year-old son. “It’s really awesome for camping, for road trips, for just life in general,” she says. 

Finally, though campgrounds don’t encourage it, you can always relieve yourself au naturel. To properly poop and pee outside, Yvonne says, stay at least 100 feet away from any trail or water source (not to mention campsites). For poop, dig a 6-inch-deep hole, or bag and dispose of it the way you would with a dog. Either way, be sure to throw any TP in the trash. 

5) Get the right gear

You don’t need to run out and buy a bunch of camping equipment when you’re first starting out, Shanti says. Borrow from friends or post a request on NextDoor. 

One must-have is a good, wide camping mattress. Since you’re car camping, it doesn’t matter if it’s heavy or bulky—you just want it to be comfortable. 

Ditto with the tent. If you’re buying one, don’t go for the cheapest model, Shanti says. “The first thing that’s going to happen is a zipper breaks, and then you’ve got a dead piece of tent,” she says. “It’s super-annoying.” She especially likes the Big Agnes brand.

If you’ll be camping with a baby, consider bringing a collapsible playpen. “Little kids are going to gravitate toward the fire pit and get into the charcoal,” Shanti says.

Then there’s the fun stuff—shovels and rakes so kids can dig, bikes to ride around, frisbees and balls. “Bring board games,” Yvonne recommends. “You can play after dinner while it’s still light out.” 

6) Plan an easy arrival

If you’re an inexperienced camper, don’t plan to show up at the campsite after dark, Shanti warns. “Your pole will break. Something will be missing,” she says. Schedule your arrival so you have at least a couple of hours of daylight, so you don’t have to hustle to set up.

And pack a meal that’s ready to go as soon as you arrive—something simple that doesn’t depend on getting a fire or grill going. “I often buy a ready-made chicken and some tortillas or something,” Shanti says. “Even a can of beans— you just roll it all up and they’re all good.” 

7) Take Covid care

Experts say that outdoors trips are safer than hotel stays. But depending on where you’re camping, you may still need to take precautions. 

Besides being vigilant about cleaning your hands after using the restroom, be aware of trash cans, Yvonne says: “They tend not to be open—a lot of them are bear proof, so you have to grip them a little bit.”  You might want to just bring your own trash container.

Keep your distance from other campers and pay attention in parking lots, where people may be distracted and/or maskless. You may also want to scope out  hiking trails ahead of time to see how narrow and crowded they are. 

8) Don’t over-schedule

You needn’t worry about keeping kids occupied on a camping trip, our experts say. “Just let them be,” Shanti says. “They’ll be playing in the dirt, playing with sticks, learning how to build fire, scouting birds, collecting bugs.” 

Often, the best part of camping is being with parents who aren’t distracted by work or (hopefully) devices. “You’re really walking into a space that’s full of its own distractions,” Yvonne says. “But separate from all the distractions that we have in our typical day-to-day life.”