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Car Camping for Beginners

Camping beginners guide

If you haven’t been camping since having kids, but are dying to sleep under the stars again, you’re not alone.

For the last several years teething, night terrors, growing pains, and other nighttime problems have kept our camping plans on the back burner. But this year, my kids were begging us to take them camping. My youngest turned three and was finally (mostly) sleeping through the night, so we decided to take our first family camping trip.

To be honest – I was pretty nervous.

I grew up camping, but taking my own kids and being the adult in charge was another story. What if they screamed all night? What if I forgot something important? And, worst of all, what if everyone was just plain miserable?

But with a little (okay lots) of preparation, and ended up having an absolute blast. If you’re thinking about taking a camping trip for the first time (or the first time in a long time), here are my best tips camping tips and tricks for beginners (from a newbie)!

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Day Camping: Go camping without spending the night

One of the most-repeated pieces of camping advice is before your first camping trip, do a trial run in your backyard. And that’s definitely great advice for ironing out sleeping problems pre-trip-to-the-woods. But I also think it’s worth while to do one (or a few) day camping trial runs.

What is day-camping? There’s no rules, and it can be anything you want it to be. But basically it’s spending a day in the outdoors, doing everything you would if you were camping, and then heading back home to your own bed.

Easy day camping with a Solo Stove

If your family hasn’t spent much time hanging out in the outdoors, day camping can help you get a sense of what you’ll need to pack, what your family enjoys doing, and your comfort level and preferences about locations. It will also help kids learn to entertain themselves without many toys or screens around.

If you’re going day camping, do not feel like you need to bring everything with you. You can skip camp chairs in favor of a blanket, and pack a cold picnic instead of bringing supplies to make a meal. But day-camping can also be the perfect time to learn how to use your cookstove or build a fire without worrying about being stuck if something goes wrong.

If your family hasn’t spent much time hanging out in the outdoors, day camping can help you get a sense of what you’ll need to pack, what your family enjoys doing, and your comfort level and preferences about locations. It will also help kids learn to entertain themselves without many toys or screens around.

Jackie Semmens

Easy beginner day camping ideas:

  • Head to an empty campsite to spend the day (you may still need to pay a use fee).
  • Check out day-use only state and local parks.
  • Find a fishing access site and picnic along the river for an afternoon.
  • After climbing to the top of your favorite summit, read a book aloud or play a card game and spend some time just relaxing.
  • Learn how to build a fire, or teach your kids to. If you’re new to fire building, it’s far less stressful to practice in the afternoon than when you’re pulling into a campsite and trying to get dinner going.

Safety note: If you plan on building a fire, please remember to only use designated camp fire rings and practice fire safety.

Solo stoves make it easy to have a safe fire without a fire pit

Camp local

I don’t mind a long drive to check out a great hike, but for our first camping trip, we wanted to stay close by. For one, I wanted to keep the option open to bail out in the middle of the night if need be.

But I also didn’t want to arrive at the campsite with tired, grumpy, and over-hungry kids. Camping is a great way to explore new areas. But for this trip, all of our focus was on learning how to get our kids to sleep outdoors. We picked a spot just out of town for our first trip.

If you’re heading to an established campground, be sure to bring firewood with you. Occasionally you might find a log or two laying around your campsite. But for the most part, any deadfall will have been used up by previous campers.

Reserve a spot

The world has gone camping-crazy this summer, and campgrounds are busier than ever. The absolute last thing I wanted was to arrive at a campground with a car full of excited kids and not be able to find a good spot. While there are quite a few online options to reserve sites, we really like Campspot.

Campspot is the only online booking platform that lets you research, discover and instantly reserve campgrounds across the United States. It also happens to have the lowest price guarantee.

I also love that Campspot offers campsite opportunities beyond just tent spots. Check them out for cabin, RV and lodge camping too!

If it’s your first time camping, read the site description and check out any available pictures closely. Is it close to a bathroom? (Great for potty emergencies, a bummer if slamming doors bother you). Are you by a busy road? Do you have shade or places to play? Does the spot allow RVs, pop-ups or tents? Is there potable water? Are dogs allowed?

Gather gear bit by bit

We know – we recommend a lot of gear on our blog. But we will be the first to tell you that you don’t need it all. Especially for your first camping trip.

Because we have done a lot of hiking and other outdoor activities with our kids, and camped some before they came along, we already had a lot of the basic camping needs. My twenty plus year old sleeping bag worked just as well as it always had! The rest we gathered bit by bit over the winter.

Of course, there are some basics you will absolutely need – shelter (tent or camper), sleeping bags, food, first aid and a light source. And there’s a lot of things you won’t need your first time either. You can skip the compass and water filtration and other fancy gear when you’re just camping at a local campground. Be sure to use our camping checklist – it was a life saver for me trying to get everything together.

To start, raid your kitchen. You can definitely pack up all the kitchen supplies you need every trip, but that could get exhausting. If you want to dedicate a camping tub for kitchen gear, search your kitchen first – that cutting board you never use? Perfect for camping. That can opener that needs replaced? Throw it in your camping tub. The spatula you left on the stove once and it melted weird? That’ll definitely work for camping.

I spent the weekend before our first trip gathering and organizing gear, packing tubs and making sure we had everything we need. I packed three main tubs – kitchen gear, general camping supplies, and dry food. After our trip, the first two tubs were returned to our garage, already packed and organized for our next tip.

Packing tips and tricks for beginner campers:

  • Give camping presents for birthdays and holidays. This will help you gather gear over time, and get your kids excited about adventures. Camping gear that’s fun any time includes lanterns, flash lights, pocket knives, mugs, mess kits, water bottles, sleeping bags, field guides, binoculars, rope and knot-tying books.
  • Borrow what you need to. If you aren’t sure that camping will be your jam, you might want to wait before making a huge investment. Ask friends and family to borrow tents, sleeping bags, cook stoves, and anything else you don’t want to shell out money for.
  • Check out thrift stores and yard sales for used gear, silverware, etc.
  • For more tips on finding affordable gear, check out our blog post here.
  • Pack books, stuffed animals, head lamps, and any other night-time must haves directly into pillow cases if you’re bringing pillows from home.

Keep camping meals easy

Amelia has written an AMAZING cookbook with delicious, easy camping recipes you absolutely must check out. She also has a second cookbook focused especially on camping with kids that is available for preorder now too. Check out Camping with Kids Cookbook here.

But for our first time camping, we kept things as simple as possible. We had cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and hot dogs for dinner. The second day, we repeated the menu, but with foil packets for dinner.

Food is always going to taste better outside, but can be a bit trickier to prepare. Before you leave, spend a few minutes thinking through each step of the meal and making sure you have the appropriate set up. Be sure to check out our blog post on setting up a camp kitchen here.

Here’s a few other meal tips and tricks for beginner campers:

  • Buy fruits and veggies like strawberries, baby carrots, snap peas that don’t require any chopping to snack on. Rinse your produce off before you leave.
  • If you have hot dogs the one night, use leftover buns for sandwiches the next day.
  • Cans of chips, like Pringles, are easier to pack than big bags of potato chips. (This one of my husband’s favorite tips, and I admit he has a point).
  • Remember your kids are going to be hungrier than normal. Pack lots of nutrient foods.
  • Be sure to check your campsite’s regulations about food storage. Whether or not you have bears in the area, clearing your campsite of food and storing it in the car at the end of the night is good for all critters.

Keep clean

You’re gonna get dirty camping, there’s no way around it. But you’re still going to need a way to keep things basically hygienic.

For your first camping trip, there is zero problems with bringing paper plates. We always have a few leftover from various kids birthday parties, and they do help save a bit of effort on dishes. But don’t forget you’ll probably still have some dishes to wash. Coleman sent us this collapsible sink which our kids got a big kick out of.

We filled one side with soap water and one side with clean water to “rinse” our dishes in. Then we hung them in a mesh sack to dry, and set bigger objects like cutting board and knives on a towel on a tub.

I did find one thing I will definitely do differently next time. We ate lunch right before we packed up, and I didn’t love that I had to wash a load of dishes right before packing. Next time we’ll stick to a “snacky lunch” (where you eat the jerky and crackers straight out of the bag!) or bring a few paper plates to make clean up easier.

We used this Coleman kettle to boil water for our sink, as well as to make coffee and tea in the morning.

More cleaning tips and tricks for beginner campers:

  • Keep a small broom in your gear tub to sweep out your tent. We were amazed how dirty it got, even after a day!
  • Wipe off feet with baby wipes right before bed. I don’t really mind if my kids are a little dirty, but getting feet clean before crawling into a sleeping bag keeps everything a little easier.
  • Bring easy to slip on shoes. If my kids are running around in tennis shoes, they were far more likely to sneak into the tent with their shoes still on. We had them wear crocs as much as possible, because they were so easy to kick on and off.
  • Wash the kids off in the same sink as your dishes. My kids LOVED doing a little spit bath in our collapsible sink before bed.

Plan one activity (but not much more than that)

Most weekends we are out hiking or biking and enjoying the outdoors in one way or another. But for our first camping trip, I didn’t want to get my hopes up that we could squeeze in a five-mile hike between what could potentially be a terrible night’s sleep and trying to cook meals by the fire.

We picked a campground with a lake, and spent most of our day relaxing by it. Everything from getting kids to sleep to cooking meals takes a bit longer while you’re camping, and it’s important to make time for that. Don’t set your expectations too high.

In the afternoon, our kids ended up needing a little down time to rest. Since plopping them in front of TV wasn’t an option, we had planned a few other down-time activities. We didn’t want to pack a bunch of toys, so after the lake (our one big activity) we went back to the campsite to relax and the kids kept busy with a few simple ideas.

If you’re looking for easy and seasonal activities, be sure to check out our Adventure Guide here or our Camping Activity Guide. They are both great ways to come up with an activity or two to keep your campers busy.

Easy camping activity ideas for first time campers:

Most comfortable way to sleep in a tent

Sleep was definitely my number one concern about camping, and the reason it had been years since we had been camping as a family. If my kids don’t sleep, I don’t sleep and if I don’t sleep, I’m miserable. So I pumped all of my camping expert friends for all their sleep advice, and here is what we did that worked reasonably well.

Note that we did go tent camping, but these tips work great for cabin, lodge and RV camping too.

When we got to the campsite, we let the kids play in the tent for a long time. The free-play time helped get all their excitement about the tent out. After dinner they weren’t too excited to simply snuggle into their sleeping bags. (Read out review of best kids’ sleeping bags here).

We also made sure we had good sleeping pads. Okay, so I packed the thickest one for myself (the Exped – read our review here). But my kids were pretty happy with theirs anyway. I was worried they wouldn’t be comfortable with the thinner ones, but they had zero complaints.

We also brought an extra sleeping back in case of accidents. Thankfully, we didn’t end up needing it, but I slept better knowing it was there.

I dressed my kids in base layers under their sweatshirts and pants, and put my youngest in a sleep sack. We also had hats and wool socks in case the temperatures dipped down into the 40s.

Keeping kids feeling secure at night

If you’re a beginner camping family, it’s pretty normal to have some night time jitters.

When it was time to go to sleep, we tried to stick to our normal night time routine as much as possible – teeth, potty, pajamas, and stories. I spent much longer on story time than I normally would to allow my children time to settle down. (Remember, everything takes longer camping!) We also played a sleep story that was downloaded on my phone that I absolutely swear by.

The dark can be extra scary for kids when they’re outside. We brought this Coleman lantern, which kept its charge all weekend long. I love that it’s easy to recharge at home. And when you’re camping, you can use it to charge your mobile device too. Also check out this post about great ways to overcome a fear of the dark while camping. It’s great for kids and adults alike.

When it was time for me to go to sleep, I used everything I could that would help including an eye mask and Unisom. I also brought my Kula cloth. If I woke up in the middle of the night to go the bathroom, I didn’t want to have to deal with throwing away toilet paper! I also packed my Kindle, knowing that if I was too anxious to sleep, at least I had a juicy page-turner waiting for me.

The best tip of all I got from all of my camping expert friends is that everyone sleeps better the second night. We all definitely did, and I’m glad we planned on two nights for our first trip.

Plan for the worst, but stay positive

For years, I’ve been happy to hike, bike, kayak and do all the other outdoor adventures we could. That is, as long as I got to sleep in my own bed at night. But my kids were dying to camp. And as soon as we got through the first night, I remembered why it was worth all the effort.

There was no to-do list staring at me in the face, my coffee tasted better by a campfire, cooking dinner was less of a chore and more of an adventure, and the kids were pleasantly worn out but excited all weekend.

We are already planning our next family camping trip. Tell us what’s holding you back from taking the camping plunge in the comments. We’ll help you brainstorm some ways to get you out there!

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