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Family Camping (aka Car Camping)

Family Camping

Family camping which is also known as Car Camping is a wonderful outdoor activity that any family can enjoy. Family camping usually involves staying in a tent or camper for a few days in the great outdoors. The camping can occur at a commercial campground or in a more wilderness-like setting. This article will describe in detail how to plan, prepare and enjoy a family camping experience using a tent. Camping using an RV such as camper trailer is also an option. If you are planning a trip using an RV instead of a tent, just be sure to have RV and motorhome insurance before embarking on your families camping trip. There are also some great tools to help you in this process.

Often our fondest memories as children are of camping with the family. Remember roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over the campfire. Maybe just mentioning that makes your mouth water for s'mores.

Planning

Planning a family camping trip can be tons of fun. It also builds up anticipation if done right. To start out you should bring the entire family together and begin with the areas listed below.

Selecting Dates

National parks, state forests and commercial campgrounds typically are only open for family camping from April to October … not that the average family would necessarily want to be in a tent during the other months of winter. Peak season for all campgrounds in the USA is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The weekends around the major holidays are the peak dates. If you want to go camping on these dates, it is best to reserve a campsite many months in advance. Personally my family prefers a less crowded quiet campground so we avoid these dates.

For wilderness camping, the colder months are much better as you will avoid bugs, bears and snakes. Cold weather camping can be tricky when camping as a family but it is possible. If you are a first time camper, you may want to stick to regular campgrounds.

Selecting Campground or Park Location

Family Camping

You could be adventurous and choose a location from a friend's recommendation or one that you have read about somewhere. Another possibility is to select a place that you have previously scouted out its location and know what is going on. When selecting a campground, consider the following questions:

  • How far away is it? The more time driving is less time spent in camp. If it is a long drive, check out the Prepare for Drive section below.
  • What types of people does the campground or park cater to? If it is the younger party crowd, you may want to look elsewhere for your family. Typically, campgrounds that are family friendly state that very clearly in their brochures and websites.
  • If it is a campground and not wilderness camping, what facilities does the campground provide? Showers? Laundry machines? Camp store? Ice? Firewood?
  • What recreation does the campground provide? Playground? Park or a field? Arcade or playroom?
  • Is there a pool or other place to swim?
  • Is there someplace in which to fish?
  • What do other campers think about the place? Check the various websites that rate campgrounds.

Now all of these factors should be considered for an ideal camp out, but in my experience there is no such thing as a perfect campground or trip. So don’t expect it to be perfect. However, with a good amount of planning and a good attitude, any camping trip can be a lot of fun.

Selecting a Campsite in the Campground

The campsite is where your tent will be placed within the park or campground. Most campgrounds will let you select your campsite location when making a reservation except when they are already full. A campsite needs to be chosen very carefully for the best camping experience. A campsite needs to have certain qualities in order to guarantee that your family will enjoy this outdoor caper. If you are taking along any girls, you might want to check that the site is clean and restrooms are close by with showers. This will definitely please most mothers and teenage girls.

Vacation Drive

Prepare Gear

See Gear Planning section below.

Prepare Food

See Food Planning section below.

Prepare for the Drive

If you have younger kids coming or you just want to have some memories on the road, you should plan some car games. The main thing to remember is to have fun. The ride can be one of the best parts of this outdoor caper. We enjoy playing games like Mad Libs™ and license plate bingo. We also bring a container with paper, pencils and small handheld games in it. Another thing we like to do is my Dad will mix up a CD of some fun tunes and we'll have a sitting dance party in the car.

Rain or Bad Weather

We should always keep in mind that the meteorologists can't predict the weather 100%. Even if there is only a slight chance of rain, you should be well prepared. We personally always plan for rain and bring either our light rain coats or some ponchos on every camping trip. Rain can be a real damper on a camping trip and being ill-prepared for it can ruin the whole experience.

Gear Planning

When obtaining gear for family camping, you don’t want to skimp on anything that could improve the experience. Car camping is a relaxed form of camping. It is a great time to get closer to your family and make memories. So if you think an item will add to the experience, don’t hesitate to get it. Some of the items listed here can also be rented from a local gear store if you need to save money. See the backpacking articles on Places to Get Gear and Gear Planning for more information.

Tent

This is your home away from home so you want to make sure you get one that has plenty of room for the entire family. We recently purchased one from Sam's Club that has 3 rooms for up to 12 people. It was less than $150 and it has lasted us many camping trips. The main thing with a tent is to look it up before buying and make sure that it is worth your hard earned money.

Dining Fly or Rain Tarp

This is very important. With a rain tarp you don’t have to worry about weekends with a chance of rain. Rain tarps provide shelter from the elements including the sun on a hot day. There are many commercial rain tarps but we use a regular tarp with some grommets in it and a few wooden poles.

Sleeping Equipment

You have many options for sleeping equipment while on a family camping trip. You could use a thick blanket or a real nice mummy sack. It doesn't matter as long as you know you're not going to be too hot or too cold. A few of the basic items are listed below.

Sleeping Pad or Air Mattress

One thing you should always have is some sort of sleeping pad. This is essential as it will not only pad your back, but it will also keep your heat from escaping underneath you. There are many types of pads. You could go to Wal-Mart and get a $5 dollar closed cell pad that will work very well and last. For moms and dads, what my parents use is a queen sized blow up mattress. Now I believe that this is CHEATING but again whatever makes your trips better. My dad would say that there is a difference between car camping and backpacking but I do not buy that.

Sleeping Bag

Like I said you could use a nice mummy sack or a thick blanket just remember to consider the weather. Our family uses a variety of sleeping bags from cheap summer bags to really nice mummy sacks. I use a mummy sack and if it’s too warm I unzip it halfway. A no frills summer weight sleeping bag can be bought for around $20.

Camp Kitchen Equipment

Cooler

If your menu has any perishables, you will need a decent cooler. When choosing one, you need to consider your family's needs: Do you need one that is durable and lasts a long time? How large do you need it to be? How long does it need to keep your items cold?

Camp kitchen

Camp Stove

If you plan on doing any cooking during your trip, you will need some kind of stove unless you are adept at campfire cooking. A stove for car camping is a lot different than backpacking. For car camping you need at least a two-burner stove. These can be obtained at your local sporting goods store or Wal-Mart for under or around $50 dollars. You don't need to go extravagant and get a six burner stove if you don’t really need it.

Pots, Pans, Etc.

You can simply use your regular pots and pans from home. While this is fine, be warned, they could get wrecked. My Dad went out and got some cheaper pots and pans for camping and left my Mom's good pots and pans alone (much to her relief).

Dutch Oven

This is one the greatest tools you can have at your disposal for camp cooking. A dutch oven is usually a larger cast iron pot that is used for cooking. The method for cooking with it is to place it directly in the campfire pit amongst the hot coals then to place hot coals on top of the oven. A dutch oven can cook almost anything and does a great job of it, granted it takes time. A dutch oven can be purchased for around $50 and is well worth it if you plan on going camping often.

Food Planning

Everyone loves food and we, as humans, need to have nourishment. When car camping it is easy to pick the menu ... you can basically bring anything you can fit in the car and prepare with a camp stove or fire. One of our regulars is burgers, baked beans and apple dumplings. This meal takes a little planning but is worth it. Some meals require space while others require special gear but if you put planning into any meal it will be well worth it. We have developed a Camp Menu Planner that is invaluable when planning your food for a family camping trip. Also, see the Meals and Snacks section below for more information.

As stated, there is not much difference between cooking at a campsite and cooking at home. Here are some considerations when planning the food for your trip.

  • Storage Space - Do you have enough room in your cooler or car for the ingredients?
  • Cooking area - Do you have enough room to cook or prepare your meals?
  • Complexity of ingredients - Is it too complex to do outside of your kitchen?
  • Multiple steps in preparation - Can you make the meal with the equipment that you have?

At The Campsite

 

Setting up Camp

Setting Up The Site

This is the most annoying part of the entire experience. It involves cleaning up the general area then setting up the tent, rain fly, and camp kitchen. It normally takes a good amount of time so plan accordingly. Do not show up at sunset and expect to enjoy doing this.

When setting up, it is important to incorporate the kids so they feel included. You will need some patience with this, especially if it is your first time camping. I remember my first time setting up the family tent with my dad; it took almost an hour of aggravation. When we first set up our newest 3-room tent, it took 45 minutes and we were all frustrated the whole time. I suggest that you do at least one practice run at home with new equipment before going on any trips.

Meals & Snacks

The picnic table under the dining fly becomes the center of camp life. Meals, snacks, games, and conversations all occur here. We always have our cooking area at one end of the table for safety as well as space reasons. We normally have one section constantly set up for games and snacks.

Meals should be scheduled so all concerned parties know when to return to the campsite. Save the complicated meals for dinner and breakfast. You can be adventurous and try to use the campfire for cooking one of the meals. Roasting hot dogs on skewers would be my recommendation for added fun for the kids. We like to do at least one meal where the kids get to cook hot dogs or hamburgers over an open fire.

We normally bring a canvas bag full of our favorite snacks. These need to be rationed because (speaking from a kids point of view) we will scarf down any food left out. Also, you need to remember that unattended snacks left out on the picnic table will be apprehended by the native wildlife.

Camp Etiquette

I have noticed in my young life that common courtesy may not be that common anymore. One of the more overlooked things on a trip like this is camp etiquette. It takes very little effort and in the long run really helps out. The most basic thing is the golden rule "do to others what you want done to yourself." When we are camping we try to use what we learned in Scouting: Leave No Trace. Leave No Trace uses simple and easy to remember rules to keep campsites and wilderness as pristine as possible. The purpose of this is to provide future generations the same enjoyment in the great outdoors. Other aspects of camp etiquette are simple ideas we already practice such as keeping the noise down and not running through your neighbor's campsite.

Campfire Marshmallow Roasting

Camp Activities

Fishing

This to me is the most fun activity that you can do on a camping trip. Kids love sitting on the edge of the lake waiting for a bite. Even if it never comes the kids still have a thrill waiting for the big catch. You get this adrenaline rush when you feel a nibble on the line as you wait for the big one. Fishing gear is easily purchased at Wal-Mart for around $15 or if you want to go extravagant you can go to your local sporting goods store. Be sure to check on the local laws regarding licenses and limits.

Table Games

Kids truly enjoy playing games with their parents. With a game you can turn a boring trip into a great deal of fun. I personally enjoy nothing more than sitting down with my family and playing a game. When camping this becomes a special treat and there are many good games to choose from. We usually bring simple card or dice games. You can bring any game you want as long as you don’t mind losing some of the pieces or wrecking the game a little. If you have enough people try the card games "spoons" or "nertz".

Swimming

It's a simple fact: kids love to play in water. I think that is why all those hotels advertise that they have pools along the interstates. It is my opinion that if it is at all possible to get a campground with a pool or lake for swimming. It makes the camping trip so much more enjoyable. I remember when we got a campground with a pool we spent 50% of our time there in the water. It definitely makes for some fun memories. At the very least it can provide a place to cool off on the hotter days in a tent.

Campfire Stories

One of the things everyone thinks of about camping is sitting around a campfire telling stories. There are many types of stories that can be told and there are many genres to choose from. I recommend saving the scary ones for older audiences unless you want the younger kids crawling into your sleeping bag that night. As a suggestion try to have a competition where everyone takes a turn telling a story and the person with the best story gets some sort of prize. Another idea would be to start a single story that everyone will add a sentence to as you go around the fire.

 

Camping Sunset

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Timeless Wisdom

Your success as a family ... our success as a society depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house.

 

- Barbara Bush (former U.S. First Lady)