12 Stress-Free Tips for Camping with Kids

Summer is nearly here, so break out the tents, marshmallows and lanterns. It's time to take the kids camping, and we've got the scoop on how to make a weekend family camp-out easy and fun.

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Make a Reservation

You can pull up to many campgrounds and get a spot for your tent, but it’s risky, particularly during the busy summer season. Your best bet is to make a reservation ahead of time on a booking site like Recreation.gov, which lets you book campsites in many national parks, forests and wilderness areas. For state and regional parks, as well as family campgrounds, bookmark ReserveAmerica.com. With tired and hungry kids in the car, you don't want to be turned away at the gate.

Plan Meals Ahead of Time

Take one less decision out of family camping by creating a meal plan ahead of time and bringing along everything you need for those meals to come to life at your campsite. Blogger Kimberly Tate of Stuffed Suitcase created a printable camping menu and shopping list to fill in for each day of camping. Be mindful of meal-related items too, like condiments, hand wipes, cooking supplies, trash bags and plastic cutlery.

Start Close to Home

You may be eager to pitch a tent at the Grand Canyon, but for those first few camping trips with kids, stick close to home. Start with a local park with tent sites and fire rings or even set up in your own backyard. You don’t want to get hundreds of miles from home and realize you forgot the sleeping bags, the first aid kit and a supply of water. The first camping experiences should be low-stress and carefree for everyone to help ensure future camp-out fun.

Bring Insect Repellant

Nothing can ruin a family camping trip just like that than a swarm of gnats or a handful of itchy mosquito bites. With that, one of the most important items you can bring on a camp-out is a can of bug spray to ward off those pesky insects. A spray bottle of homemade herbal bug repellant works just as well. Bring along citronella candles, too, for after dark. Calamine lotion will help with post-bite relief if one of the pests makes it through your repellant barriers.

Try Camper-Ready Camping

For those who want to try out camping but aren’t quite ready to shell out for the gear, including tents, lanterns and camp chairs, look to camper-ready camping. Georgia State Parks, for example, offers a First-Time Camper Program that provides families with all the camping essentials, even roasting forks for toasting marshmallows. Park rangers are on hand to help with tent setup and offer tips and advice to encourage a love of camping and the outdoors.

Get Comfy

Once the sun goes down, it can be a long night in a sleeping bag, especially for a first-time camper not used to sleeping on the ground. Create a comfy space inside your tent to help ensure a night filled with zzz’s. Bring an air mattress, or at the very least a yoga mat, to go under sleeping bags, creating a softer barrier between you and the ground. Another option to consider is padded camping cots.

Bring a Camping Box (or Two)

Many campers have a moment when they realize (once it’s too late, of course) that they’ve forgotten something essential, like ketchup, forks, a can opener or maybe a spatula. This can result in a less-than-optimal camping experience. Pack one or two camping boxes to help ensure nothing gets left behind at home, like a dishpan and cleaning supplies. Clear plastic boxes are best so you can see at a glance what’s inside.

Try a Retrofitted Campervan

Rent a colorful JUCY mini RV and you won’t need to worry about setting up a tent or lighting a campfire. These purple and green retrofitted minivans transform from a passenger vehicle into a kitchen and a bedroom with a “penthouse” pod-tent. Everything you need is inside the minivan. You can rent the extras you need, like camping chairs and coolers. U.S. pick-up locations include Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Another colorful alternative is the Escape Campervan, which is available in three different sizes and can be picked up at 10 different U.S. locations.

Be Among Friends

Plan a camp-out with another family with kiddos close in age to your kids. It’s a great way to spread around the cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping. The kids will also love having friends there for camping and hiking adventures. If you can’t team up with another family for a camp-out, never fear, you’re likely to find loads of other kids and families at your campground. Many camping areas have playgrounds and family-oriented activities, like fishing and disc golf.

Pack Entertainment

It can be hard to get bored at a camp-out, but if boredom does strike, be sure you’ve brought along non-electronic fun, like bubbles, kites, balls and scooters, according to Karilyn Owen, a mom of one and family travel blogger at No Back Home. She also likes to pack art supplies for nature-related art activities, like making wind chimes and colorful maps. Nature bingo and scavenger hunts are two more fun ways to pass the time in the great outdoors.

Be Safe at Night

Nighttime safety is key at a camp-out. Hard-to-see tree roots and tent stakes in the dark can lead to trips, falls, cuts and tears. Bring hands-free headlamps and reliable lanterns to keep the area inside and outside your tent well-lit at night. For added lighting, place a headlamp over a gallon of water to DIY your own camping lantern. Kids will also love glow sticks that they can wear as necklaces or bracelets.

Start Slow

Your first family camping experience doesn’t need to be in a tent. In fact, you can achieve much of the same camp-out feel sleeping in a cozy cabin, like those you’ll find at many KOA and Jellystone Park campgrounds. Talk about stress-free camping with kids! Many cabins have the comforts of home, like full kitchens and private bathrooms, but one step outside and you can toast marshmallows around your cabin’s fire ring.

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