Last weekend, we took our first family camping trip. Growing up in the wide open spaces of Utah, my husband and I both went camping every summer as kids. When we married, we assumed that we would go camping with our children. We bought a tent and acquired an air mattress and sleeping bags along the way and then never did anything with them.
We have attempted a couple of backyard campouts with our children. On the last one, over a year ago, my 7-year-old wound herself up with excitement and anxiety so much that she vomited. Thankfully, it was not in the tent. My 4-year-old then announced that he would be sleeping in his bed. I followed him. My husband and daughter stayed in the tent all night and it turned out to be a good experience for them.
This summer came and went without any thought of using the tent, until early September when our church group organized a campout. The event was held at a camp about an hour from home. It had flush toilets and lots of grassy space for tents. The fall weekend was forecasted to be unseasonably warm. Our kids would have friends. We decided that this was a good time to try our first real family campout.
We arrived in the afternoon and set up the tent. We ate a delicious campfire meal and s'mores. As darkness fell, we enjoyed the company of friends around the campfire and then turned in for the night. So far, so good.
Then we tried to sleep. The kids fell asleep quickly, but my husband and I were uncomfortable all night long, even on a king-size air mattress, and were lucky if we got three hours of sleep between us. In the middle of the night, my daughter was cold and climbed onto the mattress with us. I was sandwiched in, and the mattress had lost enough air that I was sinking toward the ground. I'd say it was miserable, but with my husband's arm around me on one side and my daughter sweetly snuggled on the other, I found something to appreciate in an otherwise long night.
Our bladders finally forced us into the chilly morning air, and before long, we were ready to face the day. After breakfast, we hiked through the colorful fall leaves to the top of the hill where we spotted two moose! That alone made the trip worthwhile.
From our successes and mistakes, here are our top tent camping tips for families:
1. Keep it simple
Your first family camping trip is not the time to strap on backpacks and head into the wilderness for a week. One or two nights in a campground near civilization is a good start. Your first campout might be more successful if your campground has flush toilets, showers, electrical outlets or some of the other comforts of home. Baby steps, folks.
2. Go with friends or family
Camping with a group is fun. If you have friends or family who are experienced campers, it wouldn't be a bad idea to tag along with them on your first campout. They will likely have know-how and equipment that will help make your trip a success. Furthermore, having other kids the same age as ours on the campout kept everyone happy. I didn't hear “I'm bored” a single time.
3. Pack good camping food
Again, keep it simple. We cooked our dinner on inexpensive campfire forks. I packed hot dogs and brats, pineapple chunks, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and bell pepper strips. We skewered it all and cooked it over the fire. It was delicious!
After dinner, clean the sticks in the fire and use them to toast marshmallows. Let the kids toast their own and bring plenty of marshmallows, because some of them will catch on fire. To make s'mores, pack graham crackers and chocolate bars too. Mmmmm.
Look at these recipes for Campfire Cooking that kids will love.
4. Plan ahead for a good night's sleep
When I compared notes with other adults at our campout, it turns out that most people do not sleep well in tents. That's discouraging. I don't know if I can solve that problem, but here is the advice I have collected that may help you sleep better than we did in the great outdoors.
- Stay warm – Bring extra blankets. It's better to not need them than to be cold all night. Long-lasting hand warmers – the kind skiers use – will keep your toes toasty in the bottom of a sleeping bag.
- Separate air mattresses or pads – get singles, not queens or kings so everyone keeps their tossings and turnings to themselves. Cots are another good option.
- Separate sleeping bags – My husband and I tried to sleep together under a pile of blankets. Individual bags would have kept us warmer.
- Insulate underneath – I didn't have any insulation between me and the air mattress and all night long, I was colder underneath than on top. A sleeping bag would have helped. If in doubt, lay down a blanket.
- Consider ear plugs – Nighttime noises are louder in a tent. A couple of dogs barking at each other in the distance helped keep us awake for hours.
- You get what you pay for – Cheap sleeping bags probably won't keep you as warm and cheap air mattresses will probably have you sleeping on the ground by morning. If you're not ready to buy quality equipment, consider borrowing or renting it.
- Consider a trial run – Try your sleeping arrangement in your living room at least a few days before you leave. If you're not comfortable there, you probably won't be comfortable in the tent.