Planning Your First Camping Trip

A First-timer's Guide


camping surfer style

Where should we go? When should we go? How long should the trip be? -


It is important to choose a time of year and a location this is mild and not challenging if you have NEVER lived outside before. Dealing with the heat or cold on top of the dirt can end your camping future on the very first day! For your first camping trip I would also suggest you choose a campground with bathrooms with running water and maybe even showers - not what you are used to….but much appreciated when you are living in the dirt! It is not bad to be around people the first couple of times you try camping as they can be very helpful and really make a difference to the kids.

Where you go is VERY important -
Do a little research on the campground and the surrounding area. Are there trees, a lake, a river, rocks to climb - something, anything for city kids to DO until they get used to the camping idea. Also, know that you absolutely will forget half the stuff you need to prepare meals and enjoy your outing so choose a campground that is close to a town! We (Joe) forgot our tent poles on a trip to June Lake and the closest place to replace them was two hours away (each way). We only took that drive after I determined every single room in town was booked and no other options existed. The next morning, on that very same trip, I realized I had forgotten the bread for French toast but was able to drive into the village a mile away and buy some more! Planning is EVERYTHING!

Book reservations early -
Yes, you actually have to reserve camp sites at most campgrounds!!! We use ReserveAmerica or the direct national or state park systems as appropriate. Reservations can normally be made a year in advance but they all differ. Nightly fees vary from $10 - $35 for tent camping and know that you will never be quite sure of what you got until you get there. Another reason for arriving when there is still plenty of daylight! Discounts are offered for seniors and national and state park members so read all that stuff when you make the reservations - very carefully. They will not give you anything when you get there! You will be expected to pay park admission fee on top of your camping reservation, if applicable. We buy an America the Beautiful National Park Pass every year and find it a big saving for our family. Seniors (age 62+) can purchase a Senior Pass for lifetime admission to all national parks (and it includes everyone in the car) for a onetime charge of $10.00! One of the better deals around!

Try a 'sort of' first time camping trip -
We took the grandkids to Yosemite to Curry Village for their first camping trip and it was excellent. We stayed in tents (permanent) that we did not have to build, slept on cots and ate at the buffet or in the food court. We did get to have many wonderful outdoor experiences without so much of the work and stress! This is a great way to introduce little kids to the great outdoors. You can give them a shower before bed and all of the bear activity is out in the parking lot where people have food in their cars!

Walk-In No Reservations -
You absolutely can give it a try-we have never had the nerve and have always found the campgrounds fully booked during the times we are able to travel….summer and school holidays. GOOD LUCK!

How you feel about this adventure is Key -
Take along your best mood because you will need it. Everything is a chore from setting up the camp to fixing a meal to simply brushing your teeth.

What time you arrive at the campground makes all the difference -
You will need several hours of daylight to make a camp and feed the family. Unpacking the car and turning all that stuff into a 'camp' and then starting a fire (forgot newspaper?) and cooking dinner is not easy - it is HELL in the dark!

Make the trip getting there part of the FUN -
Don't be in a rush, stop and smell the roses! DO Let the kids take their IPODS, hand held electronic games, phones for texting and/or a friend if you have an only kid like we do! Be sure to give them plenty of notice when you expect them to stop their game and get out of the car or take a break and enjoy the scenery to avoid hassles and unwelcome arguments. If you are going to an area with bear activity - make sure you eat lunch and snacks - even if you bring it along - OUTSIDE of the car. Cars that smell of French fries are the ones most broken into by bears! Make sure you get the car washed inside and out and that includes car seats too…..nothing makes a bear hungrier than a car seat with kid snacks smeared on it! Bone up on your sing along songs and car games…I spy with my little eye something ..….green…….or how about license plate tag….one year when we went back east we saw 48 states plates before the trip was over!

Goody Bags -
My grandmother (GiGi) always made up goody bags for our big summer trip and they were filled with all sorts of treats and fun things to do in the car. To this day we always have special candy treats as that was part of any trip and would not leave home without a little tablet and a pencil for "sink the battleship" with dots and lines! (We couldn't open them until we got to the freeway and Pam would save her candy and sell it to us when we ran out!)

Car Rules -
Everyone (no exceptions) has to TRY to go to the bathroom when you stop for gas and give some warning for an unexpected personal emergency stop! And….no one every can say, "I'm bored" or "Are we almost there, yet?" And...of course, Joe is no longer allowed to ask "Did you bring the......(whatever)?" over and over again after you are an hour away from home. He would know exactly what we brought if he had helped, right???

Packing List -
Make a list and check it twice! List everything and make sure it gets in the car!

Pack Light -
I do not subscribe to this idea at all….when it doubt…take it - if it fits in the car. You will wish you did if you don't is more to my way of thinking. Up to you…but for example, JJ asked if he could take his waveboard camping and I said, "No, silly, we are going camping and there is no place to waveboard when you are camping." When we got there every kid had a skateboard or waveboard and they were all happily going up and down the campground roads - except for JJ!

Menu -
Make a menu, make it easy and make sure you not only have the ingredients but the kitchen tools to get it to the table. Hot dogs and burgers are FUN, taste great and are perfect for camping. I actually cook teriyaki chicken, mashed potatoes, steak and other fabulous entrees and sides and freeze them into solid bricks in zip locks to take along. They stay nice a cold for several days and only have to be heated up - not cooked and simply taste great! The more prep work you do at home….the better time you will have camping!

Paper Products -
Use paper and plastic products - period! Doing dishes in cold water, bent over in the dirt in the dark is unpleasant to say the least and certainly not sanitary. Figure out what you will need and double it. You will absolutely use everything you bring. Don't forget those paper bowls for cereal the last day - paper bowls...what a world!!!

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