Backyard Camping Tips for the Family

After years of backpacking and rock climbing, I’ve learned that camping trips are one of the best ways to vacation with the entire family. It gets the kids exploring the outside world and shows what no nature special on TV or YouTube video can. Kids learn skills like how to fish or build a fire, but camping is also a great way to teach children real-world skills like cooperation, patience and planning. Better still, these excursions can be as long or as short as you need them to be, from multi-day backpacking adventures in exotic locales to weekend trips in a local wilderness area or state park.

If you’ve got little ones at home and you’re looking to take them outdoors, it is best to do everything to make their first camping trip fun, exciting and safe so they’ll appreciate it and be willing to try it again. The best way to introduce children to camping is by pitching a tent in the backyard. It’s a familiar environment, and close to the house in the event the little ones are uncomfortable and want to go back inside.

If you think your family is ready to try a backyard camping trip, make sure you talk about what to expect, such as the sounds they might hear at night. As a family, decide how “far” you want to take this first foray. Maybe you won’t sleep outside the first time. Or, if you plan to go all out, let the kids know they can ask to go inside at any time. Remember, this backyard field trip is about making it fun and exciting. Here are more tips to get you started.

Camping Gear

You won’t need a ton of gear for Camping 101, just the basic equipment.

  • Tent – Make sure you stake the tent and rainfly out. Any sort of breeze will make the fabric flap, which can scare the kids or keep them from being able to fall asleep. Drive the stakes into the ground at a diagonal so they don’t pull out during the night.
  • Sleeping bags/pads – If it’s a hot summer night, blankets and quilts will do. You can also use an air mattress instead of the sleeping pad, but it’s important to have something between yourselves and the ground for insulation and comfort.
  • Fire pit – This is optional, but tons of fun. I wouldn’t recommend building a fire in the middle of your lawn. It’s probably illegal, but more importantly doing so teaches bad habits. (A lot of National Parks don’t allow open-air campfires, but they will allow visitors to build one in existing fire pits.) You can still teach your kids the principles of building a fire and, if they’re in the mood, try to cook things like hotdogs over it.
  • Lantern/headlamp/flashlight – A good light source keeps the monsters and bogeymen at bay. It also prevents stubbed toes. I recommend having more than one kind on hand.
  • Stove – A propane camp stove is easy to use and also a key component of any emergency readiness kit.
  • Trash bags – Be sure to instill the principles of Leave No Trace camping early. Explain why it’s important for people to always pack trash out when staying in the great outdoors.

Camping Recipes

Cooking outside is half the fun of camping! Remember, you’re setting the bar for future trips away from home, so get in the habit of keeping your camping recipes simple. You should pick foods that are nutritionally dense and easy to make with as few pots and pans as possible.

  • The old standbys of soups or mac ‘n’ cheese work well. They’re easy to make and they also show first-time campers that they can still eat things from home. Another relatively easy meal is breakfast for dinner: eggs, skillet pancakes, etc. If you want to go the extra mile in creating the illusion, try preparing pre-packaged camping meals.
  • Desserts like skillet cookies are easy to make. You can’t go wrong with the tried-and-true treat of hot chocolate.

Camping Activities For Kids

Get an early start by setting up camp in the afternoon. Staying outside will help acclimate the little ones to the dark, reducing the scary factor. Like all ventures with children, it’s important to keep them occupied. Here are a few ideas to keep things fun and entertaining once the dishes are put away.

  • Catching fireflies in a jar is an oldie, but goodie. Depending on your kids’ ages, you can take this opportunity to teach them about bioluminescence or discuss other insects they may hear in the twilight hours like crickets. Show them that nature is special and not something to be afraid of.
  • Stargazing is another age-old activity. Camping presents more time to talk about constellations and the role stars have played in human history. For younger kids, use a green laser pointer and have them point out the shapes they can see. Remember: never shine a laser pointer at a plane or helicopter, as it can interfere with the pilot’s flying ability.
  • When you get the kids tucked in, lull them to sleep with some sound effect storytelling. You start with a story and pause to listen for night sounds. Ask the children to make something up that goes with that sound and use it in the next part of the story. This activity is designed to neutralize any fear the kids may have with unfamiliar noises.

Playing outside is one thing, but sleeping outdoors overnight is something else altogether. It’s an unfamiliar experience, and the first time can be frightening and intimidating for children. Camping in the backyard is a fun and easy way to introduce this family-friendly pastime. A few trips to the backyard and you’ll be ready for the woods in no time.


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