How to Make Your First Camping Trip a Big Success!

Family camping is a perfect way to get time alone with your kids, and they can experience the wonders of nature with you. No matter what they occasionally say now, they will remember these trips with appreciation later. So, you would like to have this type of experience with your kids, and you want it to be good and have them want more, but you don’t know where to start…right? No problem, we’re going to hit the essentials you will need to have a successful first campout. Through proper preparation and careful execution, it can be one that your kids will love, and tell their friends about (and say nice things about).


Let’s begin by dispelling some of the myths and rumors that keep many people from becoming campers and having an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Myth #1 – I’m not an outdoor person. Sure, camping is about being outdoors and enjoying it, but you don’t have to be “Ranger Tom” or a card-carrying Sierra Club member to enjoy camping! It is natural for people to be outside, breathing fresh air, getting a little color on their cheeks. With the proper equipment such as a good tent and warm sleeping bag, and some good food you will have most of the amenities that you have at home, only you’ll be outside. Myth #2 – It’s too expensive. Yes, everything you do seems to cost money. But where can you stay overnight with a family of four or more for under $50? Once you make the initial investment in equipment you will have many seasons of enjoyable camping at a fraction of the cost of staying in a hotel. Myth #3 – I don’t know what to take. Keep reading. This is a simple “Camping 101” approach that can give you the facts about the necessary equipment to bring. Myth #4 – Camping is boring. What will I do with the kids? Pick some activities that they like to do or let them choose what they want to do, while we’re camping. Get them involved by having them help plan and cook the meals. Go for a hike on a nearby trail. Go fishing. Bring pencils, paper, and crayons for them to draw what they see. Pack a football, soccer ball, baseball gear or any other sporting equipment that the kids will have fun with. Bring their favorite board game and a book each for evenings in the tent. Now that we have all those nasty rumors behind us, let’s talk about preparing for the trip.


For your first family camping adventure with the kids, we recommend a campground that is close to you, about an hour traveling time. This way you’re not spending too much time getting to the fun! Check with Woodall’s, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, or Reserve America or for campgrounds and facilities near you. Choose a campground that offers diverse attractions, such as hiking trails, a nature center, and a lake or stream nearby. There will be plenty to keep you and the kids entertained. The best and most popular campsites get “booked up” quickly, so once you have decided on a campground, make the reservation right away. Woodall’s also offers research and reservation services for both private and public tent campgrounds (with Woodall’s ratings) through its website at Reserve America offers online reservations for many state parks and most federal facilities. It has maps of the campsites so you’ll know what is available and see where your campsite is in relation to washrooms, streams, roads, etc. Most campsites will have a small car parking area and a camping area with a fire pit or ring, nearby water tap and toilet facilities, if available. Some of the nicer campgrounds will have picnic tables, public showers, and washbasins for cook cleanup. When should you leave home and how long should you be away? For your first campout we suggest leaving home early Saturday morning, staying overnight and leaving camp and heading home Sunday afternoon. You want to get to your campsite in the daylight hours (before noon is best), get your camp setup, and be able to explore the area a little while, before you have to think about cooking dinner.


We have taken all the guesswork out of selecting the right gear for your first campout. It is not really as daunting as it may seem to the novice. There are only a few essentials required for a great campout. The rest of the equipment is optional and is pretty much based on how much gear you can (size of your vehicle and your willingness to carry it to the campsite) lug around and the level of comfort you desire. Dry shelter, a warm bed, and good food are the basic essentials of life. So, it’s no surprise that you also need those to enjoy camping.


Shelter comes in many forms. In fact, if the bugs aren’t bad and there’s no rain in the forecast, sleeping under the stars is a magical way to end the day. But for enjoyable, first-time family camping we suggest that you pick a tent that will comfortably support the needs of your family. Tents come in three basic shapes: A-frame, dome and cabin-style or wall tents. A-frame tents, shaped like the letter “A”, are typically small, durable and sleep two to thee people. They usually come with a waterproof floor, mosquito (no-see-um) screen vents and doors. The breathable fabric allows the moisture from inside to be released while the waterproof rain fly protects the outside. The advent of flexible poles provided for the development of dome tents. The poles arch over and their ends are secured to the bottom edges of the tent. If properly staked to the ground, the dome tent can create a highly stabile structure capable of handling strong winds. This is probably the most popular tent shape you will see around today. They have spacious interiors, but the sloping walls cut down on headroom except in the center. Multi-room, hybrid-dome tents provide one or more “rooms” with interior hanging wall section for separating people or gear from you. Cabin-style or wall tents look like “condos” with upright sidewalls, a high ceiling and lots of room. The tent poles for these types of tents are often larger and heavier than the poles used on dome tents. They are basically made from the same materials (nylon and polyester) as the A-frame and dome tents, but are very often heavier and more bulky to transport. Depending on the brand and style, some are easier or more difficult to setup than the typical two-pole dome tent. For long campouts and maximum room and comfort, though, you can’t beat ‘em! We often recommend a simple-to-set-up, two-pole dome tent for the first-time camping family. This style of tent offers the novice a shelter with good stability even in strong winds. Some domes have multiple rooms and vestibules for dry and secure gear storage. The separate rooms give you privacy, too. And they’re easy to clean and dry. You can pull the stakes out of a dome tent and flip it upside down in the sun and dry the bottom of the tent floor. Domes often have square floorplans and are easy to roll up and get back into the bag it came in when it comes time to pack for home, too. Tents are rated as two-person, three-person, etc. Regardless of how they are “rated” you need to pick a tent that suits the “real world” space requirements for all your campers and your gear. We have found that many two-person tents will barely fit two campers and has no room for your gear. Most four-person dome tents give two (possibly three) campers lots of elbowroom and plenty of space to stow gear inside. As a “rule of thumb,” we add two to the number of campers wanted in the tent to make sure there is enough room. So, for a family of four (or five), you may want to choose a six-person tent. Do some shopping. Some outdoor equipment stores have tents set-up in their showrooms. Find one you think will fit your needs and crawl around in it. Check out the size, comfort, quality of construction and most importantly, the ease of setting up and taking it down. Look for tents with lots of no-see-um screen windows for venting that can be zipped shut with a waterproof cover, bath-tub style floors with no seams at ground level, large storm flaps over the zippers to keep water from leaking through, door and window covers that have upper and lower zippers to allow for top and bottom venting at the same time, and a full-coverage rainfly. Also check out the zippers around the doors and windows to make sure they’re large and easy to use.


A good sleeping bag that will keep you warm at night is the key to camping comfort, but may not be that comfortable unless you’re using a sleeping pad between you and the ground. A sleeping pad will prevent the cold ground from sapping away your body heat while you sleep and will also give you a cushy sleeping surface. Your best choices for sleeping pads are the foam-filled, self-inflating pads; or many camper’s favorite—the air mattress. On top of the pad goes your comfortable sleeping bag. The cloth or nylon outer fabric of the sleeping bag is called the shell. Inside the shell is the fill material of synthetic fiber or down feathers from ducks or geese. The air trapped in the fill holds your body heat and keeps it close to you for a comfortable night’s sleep. If you are too hot, you can simply regulate the heat by opening the zipper. Too cold, zip up or add a bag liner or a blanket from home. The summer season is the best time for your first family campout, so you can get sleeping bags with a +20º F or +30º F rating and you should be fine. Down is best, but also most expensive. For your purposes, good synthetic-fill sleeping bags will be fine. Look for bags with features such as draft tubes to keep the cold air from entering through the zippers, full and insulated hoods with drawstrings to close them up around your face, and large foot boxes for more comfort. Get kids-sized, smaller sleeping bags that can be used on your camping trips and that can also be used for an overnight sleepover guest of the kids, thereby serving two purposes. Let the kids go with you to pick out “their” sleeping bag so they are part of the process. Don’t forget their pillows and the kid’s favorite nighttime toy or doll—these go a long way in comforting children when away from home in a strange place. Most sleeping bag manufacturers give their bags a “suggested” temperature rating. Even though a -10º F rated sleeping bag will keep you warmer than a +30º F sleeping bag, keep in mind that these are guidelines rather than exact standards since they depend on a variety of factors such as your metabolism, physical condition, clothing, sleeping pad and shelter that influence warmth and comfort. Cold sleepers should look for a bag that is rated five to 10 degrees below the lowest anticipated temperature you expect to encounter. Tips for Sleeping Warm
  • Use a full-length pad under your sleeping bag. It will prevent heat loss to the ground.
  • Before getting into the bag, take a walk or exercise. Don’t work up a sweat, but just do enough to warm your body.
  • Wear a fleece or wool cap. Up to 40 percent of your body’s heat loss can escape from the head.
  • Consider a bag liner–this increases the temperature range of the bag.
  • Make sure the bag fits you. A bag that is too large is hard to keep heated. If the bag is too tight, the insulation will compress and not insulate as well.


Good food, and the group preparation of it, is the last essential requirement for enjoyable camping. This is the part that can be easy or exotic. If you are on your first campout you probably want to take the easy road until you get more comfortable with cooking outdoors. So, bring food that you like to eat and is easy to make! How about hot dogs with grilled corn-on-the-cob for the main course? Pre-packaged brownies and a glass of milk make a great dessert. One-pot stews or Dutch oven meals are also easy. For breakfast, scramble some eggs, fry up some bacon, serve chilled orange juice, brown some toast on your camp stove, and have some strong hot coffee. All the perishable items can be brought and kept cool in a large (get a 48-quart size to start) ice chest, making it easy to transport and store. Keep ice in the plastic bags, it will last longer. For longer trips, use a block of ice at the bottom of the ice chest—it will last longer than cubes. Most of all, include the kids in the meal planning. Ask the kids what they would like to eat. Sit down with them and prepare a menu. Have them involved in cooking and cleanup. Make sure there are snacks. Of course, don’t let them go wild with the food choices, steer them into good choices that they think that made. Make it fun food that they will want to eat and lend a hand cooking. You’ll need a camp stove and a cooking kit consisting of at least a couple of pots and pans. We recommend at two-burner camping stove to satisfy most of family cooking needs, and it is ideal for a multi-day campout. Two burners make meal preparation quicker, as you can have two good-sized pots going at the same time. Most have built-in windscreens, too. Two-burner camp stoves typically fueled by propane in pressurized tanks or “white” camp gas in tanks with pumps to manually pressurize the fuel. Either fuel system will do the job fine. If you choose pre-filled propane tanks you will need to make sure you bring enough for the campout and then properly dispose of the empties. With camp gas, you can bring along a small half-gallon supply and refill the canister as needed. It is messier (spills, and the need for a small funnel to help fill the fuel tank), but there are no empty propane canisters bouncing around. A typical propane two-burner stove has a canister attached at its side with a flexible hose connector or a solid pipe “goose neck” style connector; and it has burner control knobs on the front of the stove body for the left and right burners. When its time to pack up, the connector fits under the grill, the sides fold inward, lid shuts and you have a nice and easy packed stove. These are typically inexpensive and durable stoves that will last for years. Stove Safety
  • Always place your stove on a stable surface and in a level position.
  • FIRST light the match and hold it next to the burner, THEN turn on the gas slowly.
  • Don’t put over-sized pots on the stove. They can fall off or tip the stove over.
  • Let young children help prepare food for cooking, but not cook. Have teens help cook.
  • Never try to re-fuel a hot stove! Let it cool off first.
  • Let your stove cool off completely before packing it away.
  • Never use a stove inside a tent! You can be poisoned by the toxic fumes.
  • Never operate a stove near a tent! The tent fabric can catch fire or melt.
  • Never leave a lighted stove unattended.
Some disposable plates, cups and utensils and you are almost there! Most campsites have a picnic table and grill or BBQ of some sort, so bring some charcoal for those hot dogs and marshmallows. Keep in mind, you don’t want to do too much on the first campout and make it seem like work. You want to let the kids get a “taste” of camping and leave them screaming for more. We hope these tips help provide you with the essential knowledge to take the plunge and try your first family campout. CAMPING ESSENTIAL CHECKLIST
  • Tent (poles, ground stakes, ground cloth, hammer for ground stakes)
  • Sleeping bag, blanket, pillow
  • Sleeping pad or mattress
  • Personal kit (soap, tooth brush, paste, wash cloth, towel)
  • Camp stove and fuel
  • Cook kit (pots, pans, spatula, large spoons, matches, plastic table cloth)
  • Mess kit (spoon, knife, bowl, cup, plate) OR paper plates and plastic utensils
  • Cleanup kit (plastic tub, sponge, soap, cleaning pads, paper towels, trash bags)
  • Cooler with ice and/or “blue ice”
  • Charcoal and starter fluid
  • Clothing for the season
  • Drinking water (in bottles)
  • First Aid kit
  • Insect repellant
  • Sunscreen (SPF 15 at least)
  • Firewood, fire starting materials, matches, newspaper
  • Search for family camping information and campgrounds.