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When our family is planning vacation getaways, tent camping always sounds like a good idea. Camping provides adventure in the great outdoors, a cheap way to see national parks, and a flexible way to travel. But if your family members are beginner campers like mine, you may be hesitant to leave behind creature comforts for outdoor adventure.
If you’re a little nervous about planning your first tent camping experience, know that a little preparation can help you have a successful camping trip. Here’s our ultimate guide for camping beginners, with some camping basics and essential items to help the whole family enjoy the best things about tent camping and have a great time.
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Do Your Research
Do some investigating before buying a new tent, camping stove, or mummy bag. And by “investigating,” I don’t mean Google. Talk to your friends who camp and ask them what they think might be the right gear for first-time campers. They’ll give you important tips on how to have a great experience, and they’ll become your cheering squad as you progress on your camping journey.
If you don’t have any friends who are tent camping experts, then visiting an outdoors store and testing out supplies in person is a great option. Watch for events at local state parks that feature park rangers giving camping tips (these can be fun campfire experiences in some places!).
Best Tent For Beginners
First things first: You’ll need a tent. The first time we tried to camp in our backyard, we were frustrated and miserable before the tent had been out of the bag for even five minutes. Our first tent required so much set-up time and instruction reading that we were ready to give up a few minutes into the process. When I related this story to a camping-savvy friend, she recommended an instant tent, sharing that it had made their outdoor activities much easier. We borrowed my friend’s tent, experienced the quick setup time, and decided that an instant tent was the best camping tent for us as well.
Other factors to consider with types of tents are the size and the durability for weather conditions. Now, the descriptions for tents always tell you the number of people who can fit in them. But here’s an important detail: those descriptions refer to people packed like sardines. (I am sure that’s the technical definition from the tent manufacturers: “Number of people who can be packed like sardines.”) We have a 6-person tent for 2 adults, a 12-year-old, and a 10-year-old, and I cannot imagine being comfortable in anything smaller. In fact, I wouldn’t mind a bit more interior space or even an extra living area. As for temperature and weather conditions, a three-season tent will be sufficient for most beginner campers – I’m guessing you’ll save camping in super cold weather for a future trip.
If you’re a little nervous about planning your family’s first tent camping experience, a little preparation can help you have a great time. Here’s our ultimate guide for camping beginners.
Prioritize a Good Night’s Sleep
Here’s a great way to make any camping trip better: make sure you sleep well. This has been a challenge for our family as we navigate the world of good sleeping bags, temperature rating, air mattresses, and sleeping pads. I’ll be honest – we’re still figuring this one out. I got a self-inflating mat, but I feel like I’m sleeping on hard ground. I’m still searching for the proper sleeping pad. My husband has decided that a cot works best for him, and after seeing how much luggage we can stash underneath it, I may spring for one for me as well.
Sleeping bags are a classic for family campouts, but don’t assume that it’s the right fit for you. One of my friends recommends a foam mattress pad topped with a sheet and down comforter as a great option for the ultimate night’s sleep. The important thing is to find what equals better sleep for you.
For our family, another essential item for sleeping well is a fan to provide good ventilation and fresh air, especially because our area of the country is humid most of the year. We actually found an amazing, battery-powered fan that doubles as a light and can hang from the center of our tent. (It saved our trip and our sanity when we had unseasonably warm weather in the middle of October.)
Practice at Home
We practiced camping in our backyard for years before we felt brave enough to try a real campsite. That is, we camped in our backyard about three times over a span of six or seven years. Our most recent practice run was a reasonable success and gave us the courage to try camping at a park in our local area.
Practicing at home was a great way to get our kids used to the idea of camping, and it helped us realize what gear we truly needed for a real camping trip. With every experience, we learned something helpful.
Pick a Campsite
I’d heard my camping friends talk about their favorite campsites, and I was mystified. Aren’t most campsites pretty much the same? It turns out that there are a variety of good options to choose from, and it’s good to gather as much information as you can.
Most tent sites will have a camping pad – a flat area to pitch your tent – and a fire ring, but they may not have many other amenities. In many campgrounds, tent camping families are also allowed to use RV sites, which gives you access to water and electrical hook-ups. (On a recent camping trip we saw that this was a popular choice for large extended families camping together. One group even rented a whole extra site just as a cooking area.)
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When you book a tent site, find out whether you can park your car nearby or if you will have to walk a long distance to unload. Some primitive campsites involve a long walk to get to parking areas or bathroom and shower facilities. Beware of sites marketed as “backcountry” – this means you’ll need to hike several miles to your campsite and pee in the woods. (Not for me. Give me hot showers and plenty of toilet paper, please.)
See if your campground offers photos of specific sites. You may discover that some camping sites have spacious, scenic views while others are crowded together, or that one may have a picnic table while another will make you balance your plates while sitting in camping chairs. The best way to find out about specific locations is to investigate in person, but finding photos online is another good option.
Simple Camping Food
Okay, are you ready for your camping meal plan? Here it is: Hot dogs. (Or turkey or tofu dogs, if you prefer.) Your first camping trip isn’t the time to become a gourmet campfire chef. Take food that is easy to prepare and have a backup plan in case heavy rain cancels your fire pit plans.
When I think of camping food, I have romantic notions about cooking pancakes in cast iron skillets and roasting potatoes among the coals. And maybe I’ll get there someday! But for our first trip, we stuck with the classics: hot dogs, chips, and s’mores. Breakfast was pre-made pastries from a grocery store. It wasn’t fancy, but we didn’t have to worry much about food, and that made our trip much easier.
I’m hoping to level up each time we go camping, and maybe even practice fire pit cooking at home. (Also, I’m currently searching for the perfect camping kettle because one must have hot chocolate while camping.)
When we went camping at a state park a few weeks ago, my husband insisted on bringing a few board games. Okay, I thought, but why? I expected that quality time with family would just magically happen once our tent was set up. I imagined the kids cavorting through the woods, enjoying nature. But once the sun went down and we finished our s’mores, we realized it was only 7:30pm. We needed something else to do! Thankfully, we had the games my husband had packed. I’ll admit, it was a great idea.
For our recent camping trip, we decided to make a day of the outdoor experience and take an hours-long hike to a local waterfall as well (trust me, this was a big deal for us city slickers). We had a great time as a family, and we even discovered that our oldest kiddo is a big fan of hiking. (Not a fan of camping, he likes to specify. Just hiking.) I’m so glad we took the time to plan an extra activity that made our camping trip even more special.
Camp Your Way
As you prepare for your trip, be sure to add the following items to your packing list: a water bottle for each family member, a first-aid kit, insect repellent, wet wipes, waterproof matches, duct tape, and a hammer (for tent pegs). Make a list of what you’ll need for meals and sleeping arrangements so you can plan ahead.
Now that you’re prepared, here’s the good news: you can enjoy camping in whatever is the best way for your family. Give tent camping a try, but if you prefer a camper van or an RV, that’s great too! Camping is a wonderful way to enjoy the sounds of nature, the beautiful outdoors, and quality time together as a family.
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