Here in Val in Real Life Land, the outdoor lifestyle— camping, hiking, geocaching, and such—is so normal to us that I forget how completely odd and unachievable it seems to some. I honestly do forget that there are kids out there who’ve never been camping for even one night, much less a weeks at a time.
Some people actually think we’re nuts for taking adventures like this. Of course we think they’re nuts for not doing it. Hey, maybe we’re all nuts. But for us, the opportunity to explore the outdoors is synonymous with freedom. I think for the uninitiated it may be synonymous with vulnerability or fear of the unknown.
Either way, if you’ve never done it before but you’re intrigued by the notion, doing your homework is important. Like anything new, a little up-front education greatly improves your experience by simply avoiding some common mistakes or misconceptions about what to expect.
8 Tips on getting started
Rather than give you an exhaustive guide, I’ll just throw out some general pointers as you plan your first adventure. This is geared towards the aspiring car camping family (as opposed to RVs, teardrops, or backpacking) since that’s what I know best with kids in tow. Other camping styles are very different beasts in terms of getting started and require different advice. So for you car camping wannabes, here goes:
- Keep it simple! Don’t try to bring all the comforts of home, you’ll just be frustrated trying to deal with unnecessary fluff. The point is to get away from all those complications, isn’t it? So don’t overdo it by trying to create a home-away-from-home. Make the most of the change in scenery and let camping be different from your day-to-day life. Not to mention, anything you pack for the trip has to be unpacked when you return. Don’t make more work for yourself, it takes the fun out the whole process.
- Make a checklist. You don’t want to forget something crucial. We’ve done it, it stinks. Until you’ve got your camping groove down-pat, your list is the ticket to a smooth journey.
- Stay local. For your first adventure, you’ll be doing enough just to get the whole family out of the house so keep the drive time short. Plan on rolling into your site with plenty of time to set up camp and get dinner completed before dark. Also, I highly recommend state and national parks over commercial campgrounds as a general rule here in the U.S. There are some very nice private campgrounds but by-and-large I find the state and national parks to be more peaceful, provide easy access to trails and educational programs, and to be less expensive.
- Quality gear is key. Do not skimp. This is your home for the duration of your trip! If your gear sucks, so will your trip. For example, if your sleeping bag doesn’t keep you warm and you spend the night shivering and sleepless, you won’t have fun and you’ll probably never go camping again. But don’t blame a bad experience on the destination if your gear is what fails you. With that in mind, quality gear can be expensive. If you’re just starting out it makes a lot of sense to rent and borrow whatever you can, not only from an expense standpoint but also to get a feel for the ins-and-outs of different gear before you invest. It’s always better to rent or borrow quality gear than to own inferior products.
- Know your gear. Always test your gear before you’re on your trip. You don’t need the surprises of missing or malfunctioning pieces when you’re miles from anywhere to fix the problem. That can ruin a trip. You also don’t want to be struggling with learning how to use equipment under the pressure of getting camp set up or dinner made.
- Don’t be afraid to get dirty. But keep the dirt out of your tent. Getting dirty is one of the joys of camping, especially for the kids. But keep the dirt out of the tent if you want to sleep. Grit in your sleeping bag makes for a very uncomfortable night. Make sure everyone is brushed off or wiped down for a good night’s sleep. Bring something to use as a doormat as well as teach the kiddos the butt-in-feet-out trick. Just have them sit inside the door of the tent but leave their feet outside while they take off their boots and brush off excess dirt. (But don’t leave boots outside since creepy crawlies often decide to make it their home for the night. Designate a spot inside the tent near the door to stow them, as dusted off as possible.)
- Get the kids involved. In other words, put them to work. Even little campers can have jobs and they typically relish the chance to help. It fosters independence and problem solving. Plus they usually love to be involved. The excitement of camping seems to bring out the best in kids when the parents stay relaxed and flexible.
- Go with friends. Not only is camping together a great friendship experience but buddying up on supplies can save space and sharing meal prep duties between families reduces work for everyone.
The wisdom of experience
I wish I could say we had all this figured out from the start but alas, it took us many years to find our camping groove. A lot of this seems like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised by the mistakes even experienced campers make.
This isn’t an exhaustive everything-you-need-to-know list but keeping these things in mind can be the difference between a frustrating, miserable trip and igniting your family’s passion for the outdoors. It’s a short step outside of your comfort zone into a whole new world. Enjoy!