Hello Great Outdoors! Now What?
I remember coming home from school and my mother was in an absolute frenzy. It was May, and the weather was warming and the school days were quickly waning. I may only have been 12, but I could feel the excitement in the air, as well as my Mother’s panic. But why? This was something good. She was rapidly throwing things in totes and told my brother and myself to pack bags of clothes for the weekend.
My brother and I must have looked entirely puzzled because she told me “Your Dad just called and he’s bringing home a “Pop-Top” (Pop-top? What was that??) We are going CAMPING! Her proclamation was met with shrieks of delight. My brother and I could not have imagined a better adventure. We kicked it into high gear as we scrambled to pack clothes for the weekend, and helped Mom gather the needed supplies.
We had never been camping before. It was our first camping trip. I had no idea what to expect. That first rented Pop-Top (which is a small type of camper) led to many years of camping memories that my brother and I still cherish to this day. It was always exciting to us. Camping = vacation.
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Reasons to Camp
The best reasons to camp that come to my mind are:
- Good Family Time – when you are camping you and your family are together in a small space. It may be a tent, or it may be a camper, but time together as a family is always a part of it. When a family is camping, there is always a sense of “We’re all in this together!”
- Affordable Vacation – What I didn’t realize in the intro story was that money was a bit tight that year and my parents didn’t have the money to take us on our usual family vacation. However, Dad still had his vacation days. We went to a lake about 45 minutes away, but to me and my brother, it was as good as any of our other vacations where we traveled further distances. Camping is one of the most affordable ways to vacation. Campsites usually range in price from $17/night to $30/night. At the cheaper ones, you can stay a week for what one night in a hotel or vacation rental would run.
- Unplugged; physical activity – To quote a friend of mine “There is no tired like camping tired.” Camping gets the kids outside. It encourages them to move, ride their bikes, walk, swim, and exercise in general. All that exercise makes them sleep really well at night. J
- Good Food – When you are camping, for the most part, you cook your own food. One of the things I LOVE about camping is that my husband grills. That means that it tastes extra good AND I don’t have to do all the work. 😛
- Makes for good stories and memories – My brother and I viewed camping as an adventure, and while I don’t remember anything particularly exciting happening on that first trip other than discovering some shells on the lake shore, there have been plenty of good stories that we have gotten from camping, both from when I was a kid and with my own family. Things don’t always go according to plan. That’s ok!
- Relaxing, slow pace, good unwind time – My Dad is not a huge outdoor person. However, he LOVES camping and loved it, even more, when he was younger and worked a high-stress office job. My husband is more of an outdoor person than Dad, but he also works a high-stress office job and loves camping. The reason is simple: when you are camping, it is a chance to be outside, enjoy nature, unwind and spend time with your family. Sometimes in this high-stress world, it’s nice to slow down for a little while and live with no set schedule.
- Kid and Pet-friendly – Most campgrounds welcome pets and are very kid friendly. Most even have some sort of playground equipment set up.
Types of Campgrounds
Not all camping is the same. There are several different types of campgrounds. I will describe them in order of expense.
If you have visions of acting out the children’s novel, “Hatchet” this option might be for you. There are free places to camp! The bad news is that they are usually farther from town and most do not have electricity or even restroom facilities. This is wilderness camping! I know that some people may do this and enjoy it, but I usually do not have that much adventure in my bones for this type. Some campers have generators, and if that is the case and you are looking for a free place to stay, this might not be a bad option.
- Usually no hookups/electricity
- No restroom or shower facilities
- Usually farther from town
I love camping at regular campgrounds. This is the option that we have always gone for. They have paved sites and the ones that we usually stay at run between $17-$25/night. You can get them cheaper if you do not require and electricity hook-up. For me, this was a no-go because even when we were tent camping, I still wanted to run a fan at night, as well as I had an electric skillet that I cooked with. We also had lights strung up so that we had a bit of light after the kids went to bed, as well as I, brought my little mini-fridge from home to store food in.
All those things required electricity! The hookups found at these vary by campground. The more hook-ups you have, generally the more expensive the site. By “hook-ups” what I mean is if the campsite has water, electricity, and/or a place for a camper’s sewer connection.
Many campgrounds in my home state are around a lake. In some cases, you can get sites that have water access where you can just walk straight down to the lake from the campsite. These are my favorite! They all have restroom and shower facilities, and often they are not too far from a town or a store. Most of the campgrounds that I have been to have been very relaxed, such as even if it says you can only have 1 vehicle per site on the registration page, they have no problem if we have 2. Always ask at the registration booth, though!
- My favorite!
- Hook-ups vary
- May or may not be around a lake
- Bathroom and shower facilities
- Water and Electric
- Often close to town/store
- Very relaxed atmosphere
When I was a kid, Dad got REALLY into camping! One of the great things about having an actual camper is that you can pretty much bring your own hotel room with you when you go on vacation. It eats gas like crazy because it reduces your vehicle’s gas mileage, BUT you have your own bed, your own stuff, and your own kitchen with you. You know exactly how clean it is because you are the one that cleaned it!
RV Parks are usually closer to touristy locations and are more expensive than campgrounds like the ones mentioned above. The spots are usually much closer together, so you do not have as much room as you would in a campground. However, many of them have hotel-like amenities like Wi-fi, cable, swimming pools, laundry facilities, even miniature golf at some! These places are usually not quite as relaxed as a campground because most people will not be hanging out all day long at the RV Park, they will be exploring the nearby destination.
- Usually like bring your own hotel room
- Hotel Like Amenities
- Close Parking Spaces
- Usually close to tourist spot
In all honesty, I have not tried this option, though I have looked into it. If you have no equipment, but still want to give the camping life a try, this may be what you are looking for. There is usually no set-up since what you need is already on site. This is also the most expensive option. Expect to be paying hotel-like prices per night.
- Good option if you have no equipment or want to try camping life
- Easier set up or no setup
- More expensive
Let’s talk about your equipment next! What do you need? Camping equipment can range from very minimal to rolling in with pretty much your whole house behind you.
The first time I saw someone do this was last year on one of our camping trips. The guy beside us came in, set up a hammock with a tarp over it in case of rain, and that was his main equipment! As you can imagine, sleeping out under the stars does have its own charm, but usually not for very long. The people that I have seen hammock camping have been single people, and they usually do not stay for very many nights. This is a little too hardcore for my personal tastes, but it is the least expensive equipment.
- Usually single people
- Usually for one or 2 nights
- Least expensive equipment
This is how my husband and I started out camping by ourselves and with the boys. It’s not bad for young families, to be honest. There are a lot of things to consider since you have to pack everything. This way requires lots of preparation and lots of setup/take- down time. However, it’s still fun.
We made lots of good memories tent camping, and the cost of equipment is not too bad. Remember when you are picking out your tent that the number of people it says that it will accommodate is not the number of people that it will accommodate comfortably. That’s just how many people you can get laying down inside at a time. For our family of 4, we started with a 6 person tent, and it was cozy. Tip: if you use a tent, lay down tarps underneath and make sure your tent is on level ground.
- Usually, how people start out to try
- Least expensive family-friendly equipment
- Lots of prep
- Use tarps below tent and above the picnic table
- Lots of packing, set up, and take-down time
We later upgraded to this, which was a nice tent, it was large, roomy, and we had plenty of space, however we did have to choose our campsites very carefully to make sure that it had enough flat area to pitch our tent.
Last year my husband and I decided to make the leap and purchase a small camper. We discussed it for months, but finally, my Dad told me something that made me really think. He told me something to the effect of “Jennifer, it’s not a decision that will make financial sense. If you are thinking of it from that point of view it will never be something that you can make money off of. It is a for fun thing to make memories with your family.”
I thought back to all the fun childhood memories that I had and my husband and I decided that the boys were not getting any younger and they were the prime ages to really enjoy camping. So we went for it. It makes a huge difference in your comfort level! We have a real bed, air conditioning, and most of the stuff we need we keep stored in the camper so it is ready to go quickly. It also has a locking door, so I feel more comfortable leaving things in there. Most of the stress with a camper is pulling it to your destination and backing it in.
- Most expensive
- Most secure
- Real bed
- Air Conditioning!
- Most stuff can be stored in the camper and keep a “stock”
- Cuts down on prep and set-up and take down
- Most stressful part is pulling camper there and backing in
Choosing a Campground
When you are considering campgrounds for your first trip, I suggest one that is close to you. That way you can go and look around at camping spots. Most will let you in for free to look around, but they do have a day use fee if you want to swim, fish, or launch a boat. Look for a spot that is well shaded if you are going in the summertime, as well accommodates your equipment well. We had a large tent at one point and I always took a tape measure to make sure that we could fit our tent in the spot. Consider the water level if you are camping next to a lake as well as the weather. If it rains and your campsite floods it is not a lot of fun if you are in a tent. (personal experience – been there; made that mistake!)
- For the first trip, choose a campground that is close to you
- Go ahead of time and pick out a spot
- Reserve early for best results
- Consider water level, weather
- Note where shower/restroom facilities are and plan accordingly
What to Bring
Prepare, prepare, prepare and make lists like crazy! I find it helpful to make my lists by category, such as “outdoor things” “water toys” “equipment” “food” “clothes” “toiletries” “miscellaneous” Think about everything that you will need and I recommend storing it in totes. Remember that you will need items for bathing, including towels, washcloths, soap, deodorant, etc. You will need food and equipment to prepare the food. (You can use the campfire if you wish, of course, as long as there is not a burn ban in effect.) Do NOT leave the food outside at night! Lock it in your car! Raccoons are very clever at getting into things.
You will also need string/twine. You will need a clothesline, as well as we like to hang a tarp over the picnic table if we can. It prevents a lot of dirt from getting on the table and gives you a dry place to sit and eat if it rains. Bring flip-flops for the shower. While it is not essential, I have found that we drink water much better if we bring a water cooler, as well as it can be used for washing hands. I have also found a broom to be quite handy as well as a rug in front of the entryway. Do not forget the sunblock! You will be outside most of the time. Make sure that you protect yourself.
Bring something to cook with as well as cooking utensils. I recommend paper plates, disposable silverware, paper towels, disposable cups. At home, we do not usually use all these paper products, but since I am on vacation when we are camping, the convenience is nice. Be sure to dispose of your trash before you go to bed. If you leave your trash bag hanging up, there is a very high likelihood of you having some un-invited midnight “visitors” that tear into it.
Some suggested things to bring:
Activities to do While Camping
What you do while you camp depends on where you are and what’s around as well as your personal preferences. Some of our favorites are:
- Paddle boat
- Area attractions
- See a movie
- Cook at camp and hang out
- Board Games/cards
Many Different Ways to Camp – See what suits you
I mentioned earlier that there are as many different ways to camp as families that camp. There is the full out “wilderness” experience, to campgrounds, to campers that are so nice it’s like having your house with you. There have been some vacations that we used the camper as a “hotel room” of sorts while we vacationed. You can go for whatever length of time you wish, whether it is one night, a weekend, a week, or some people even camp full time!
- Not so wild
- “Hotel Room”
- Week Vacation
- Full Time
Camping With Kids – What to know before you go!
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I tried to highlight some of the first things that came to mind. Make sure that you set clear camping rules as to proper behavior and what is off limits. For example, I make sure that my kids know where the boundaries of our campsite are and exactly how far they can ride their bikes before I want them to turn around and come back. Like “Do not go farther than campsite #45. When you reach campsite #45 turn your bike around and come back! If you go past campsite #45 and do not come back, you will not be allowed to ride your bike for the rest of the day.” Clear rules, and consequences. This helps keep them safe. The kids also know that if we are sleeping, do NOT leave the campsite.
- They will get dirty, that’s ok!
- Lots of activity through the day makes them tired and sleep well
- Shower survival: everything in a plastic bag, soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant in ziplock “shower kit” – try to go at a not peak time. Wear flip flops
- Bring (but hide) electronics – sometimes it is a nice convenience when you need something quick to entertain the kids
- Hammock – kids love these!
- Outdoor games/toys
- Swim stuff
- Clear rules and what is off limits
If you are looking for an affordable laid back and low-cost family vacation, camping might be a good choice for you. Camping is very kid and pet-friendly. There is a bit of investing in equipment, but if you want to try it out once before purchasing, there are options to do that as well. Camping is a great time to make memories with your kids. There are different types of camping equipment ranging from hammocks, tents, campers, to rented yurts, cabins, or other equipment. There are also different types of campgrounds and they range from the free camping that usually has no electricity or restroom facilities, to campgrounds with hook-ups and RV parks with hotel-like amenities.
For your first camping trip, take a drive through first and pick out your site, then reserve it online. Take the weather and water levels into consideration. Plan what you are going to bring with lists and put your things in totes for easiest storage. Plan your outdoor activities around what is in the area, or simply bring swim stuff and plan to bike, hike, fish, and swim. Camping is a great adventure, especially with kids. Time is a currency that we all must spend. Choose to spend some of it making memories with the people you love.