Camping makes so much sense right now. It’s an inexpensive family activity in a tight-budget economy and a way to give your kids what they may lack in this go-go era: unstructured time outside, away from screens, homework, and an avalanche of after-school activities. Camping provides a rare chance for them (and you) to be a kid, and what could be more important? These nine pro pointers will help make your vacation in the great outdoors fun, safe, and enjoyable.
Pick Your Perfect Spot
“Some campgrounds are well developed and have toilets and running water and ready-to-go-fireplaces, and some are just a little spot of ground for you to set your tent up on,” says Buck Tilton, coauthor of Tent and Car Campers Handbook: Advice for Families & First-timers ($18, amazon.com). Tilton recommends that newbies opt for campgrounds that offer toilets, showers, and an attendant on call if assistance is needed. Websites like ReserveAmerica.com and Recreation.gov are great resources for locale suggestions.
After you find a campground that meets your basic requirements, think about the kind of experience you want to have. “When we’re bringing bikes, we look for a campground that has paved roads instead of gravel,” says Jen Aist, author of Babes in the Woods: Hiking, Camping, and Boating With Babies and Young Children ($17, amazon.com). When her kids were toddlers, she also eyed campground maps for safety, picking spots far from any hazards such as bodies of water or drop-offs.
Scott Adler, editorial director of Babycenter.com and author of its Dadler blog, whose 4- and 6-year-olds are already booked for 10 trips this season, searches online parent groups for recommendations of good, safe spots, then calls the campground itself to ask for the staff’s favorite kid-friendly sites. (Plus, says Tilton, “if you find out when they’re really busy you can avoid the rush.” The Fourth of July and August are peak season, so go then if you like your campgrounds lively but book well in advance.)
Pro secret: Adler suggests first-time campers look for a campground close to a town. “That way,” he says, “if there’s a pizza place, someone can pick up a pie and make dinner a lot easier on Mom and Dad.” You’ll also be less stressed when (almost inevitably) you realize you’ve forgotten something.