You love the great outdoors, but family and household needs tend to keep you closer to home. Roughing it in your backyard cured your wanderlust for a little while, but you've long dreamed of taking the brood on a camping trip and bringing the kids closer to nature. You want to share the joys of cooking s'mores with your little ones and telling spooky stories by the campfire. You want to admire the stars at night and wake up with the dawn.
Being the backpacker you are, you've already done your homework: You've read up on equipment and supplies, and already have your tent, sleeping bags, the first-aid kit, the bug repellent all ready to go. But wait! You missed something! Where should you set up camp? If you don't answer that question well, all your preparation can be wasted.
Choosing the right place to camp -- and the right site within that place -- can make all the difference in whether your family has a great time or swears off camping forever.
Keep reading for tips on choosing a site that will make your dream come true – and keep it from becoming the stuff of nightmares.
Pick the Right Area
You should be a seasoned backpacker before you take the family out into the wilds for backcountry camping. If you are, you know how to select a site that will be safe and comfortable without leaving too large a carbon footprint.
If you're a novice, you should start by staying in a developed campground. But where? The answer depends on what you want from your camping experience.
If camping is the main goal, choose a campground that's reasonably close to home. You'll arrive with plenty of time to set up camp before dark. What's more, you won't have to deal with grumpy, travel-weary family members.
Since you'll be outdoors, choose an area with natural attractions. The beach and mountains are obvious draws, if they are close enough. Lakes and rivers also offer a lot. And for families who are usually in urban or suburban settings, simply being on the edge of a wooded area can be a treat. Unless you're en route to somewhere else and have no choice, avoid a campground that's little better than a glorified parking lot.
If the kids are less than enthusiastic about getting away from it all, find an area where you can take at least one trip to an attraction that will entertain them.
If camping is secondary -- that is, an inexpensive and fun alternative to a hotel while you visit a destination -- the right campground can make camping a real plus, not just a cheaper place to stay. Keep reading for help in finding that campground.
Know What You Want
When it comes to camping, the term "roughing it" is relative. There are campgrounds with rough sites where water must be carried from a central location, pit toilets, no showers, and no electricity. There are campgrounds with plush bathhouses, Wi-Fi, cable TV hookups, game rooms, heated pools and fake grass. There are campgrounds in the woods, and there are campgrounds with no trees – or shade – in sight.
And then there's ... everything in between.
Costs vary widely. You can find a tent campsite for $10 or less a night. At the height of vacation season in tourist areas, you can pay $70 or more for a tent site and even more for an RV.
What do want to do on your trip? If you're tent camping with the idea of communing with nature, a pricey RV resort is not your best bet. Tent sites at parks that cater to RVs often are little more than grassy or dirt plots with fire rings.
Scout out public campgrounds as well as private. Prices are often better at state or municipal parks, national parks and National Forest areas than in private campgrounds. Note the amenities and choose what's important for your family. You'll pay more at public campgrounds that have bathhouses and electricity and water at every site than at more basic ones. Are flushable toilets a must for you? How about hot showers? Do your homework in advance. Many of the public parks fill up quickly -- and you can't simply call up and make a hotel-style reservation.
Private campground amenities and costs vary as well -- even at chains such as KOA and Good Sam parks. If possible, scout out a campground before deciding to stay there. Are there retirees relaxing in lounge chairs, or groups of children running around with abandon? Take a look around the tent sites and facilities. Is there any nature to be enjoyed?
Find Plenty to Do
Adults may think of a camping trip as a great opportunity to relax in a hammock, walk in the woods and get away from it all. The kids, however, may find their parents' idea of fun to be, like, totally boring.
Include things for everyone in the family to do, especially if you choose a campground where the sites don't come with electricity to power the usual pastimes. Bring books, toys and games, but also look for amusements at the campground.
Choose a campground that caters to families like yours. Children often make friends easily when they're camping and all the "neighbors" are outside.
Here are some other things to look for:
- Swimming. If you're at a beach, or along a mountain stream, you've got this covered. If not, the campground pool can make kids happy.
- Campground activities. State and national parks offer ranger-led activities. Participate in programs, hikes, hayrides and more. Private campgrounds often have miniature golf, free movies and programs that amuse kids and give parents a break.
- Bicycling. Campground roads are often great places to ride. Some campgrounds are near good bicycling areas for the whole family. At the Cade's Cove area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, an 11-mile (17.7-kilometer) scenic loop road adjacent to the campground is closed to everyone but cyclists on Saturday and Wednesday mornings.
- Nature. Make the most of what's around you. Take field guides. Devise scavenger hunts.
- Civilization. It can sweeten the experience for kids if you choose a camping spot within an easy jaunt to a theme park, museum or movie (especially if it rains). Camping at Mammoth Cave National Park with a teenage boy? Drive to the National Corvette Museum in nearby Bowling Green, Ky., one afternoon.
You've chosen where you want to go, and you've picked a campground with the level of amenities that suits your family. Now you need to zero in on your campsite. Sometimes, you're assigned a site, or you get the last one available. But if you have a choice, do a drive-through before settling on a site. Here are some practical considerations:
- Bathrooms. Unless you're in an RV with a bathroom – and even then, if you're in a campground without hookups – proximity to the bathroom is a big question. Be close enough so that you won't have to hike in the middle of the night, but don't end up so close that everybody else traipses through your campsite en route to the facilities.
- Water. If it's a campground where water must be carried from a central location, strike a happy medium. Get close enough so that hauling water isn't too burdensome, but don't camp right at the water source, or you'll be dealing with lots of passersby -- not to mention puddles at your campsite.
- Trash. A site too close to the trash container can be noisy and smelly. In an area with wild animals, the trash box can attract bears, raccoons and other critters, not to mention insects.
- Traffic. Be wary of sites along the campground entrance or exit and near attractions that draw traffic -- especially if you have children.
- Privacy. Choose a site with trees or other natural sheltering features. Avoid camping next to RVs that run noisy generators at night. You may also want to steer clear of sites near group camping areas.
The ideal family campsite helps you enjoy nature's benefits while protecting your family from its dangers.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Shade. If it's warm, trees for shade are great. In cooler weather, pick a site that's sunny in the morning and shady later.
- Wild animals. In bear habitats, observe rules about food storage, trash disposal and no snacks in the tent. In some bear-prone areas, tents and cooking outdoors are prohibited. Raccoons and wild ponies wreak havoc on food and gear left on picnic tables.
- Snakes. A site near big rocks or fallen trees might seem fun, but be careful: Snakes love hiding places just like those.
- Mosquitoes. If you're camping at the beach, for example, a breezy site near the ocean can be good, even if there's not much shade. Mosquitoes gather in more sheltered areas.
- Poison ivy and other harmful plants. Don't choose a site bordered by poison ivy or poison oak. Areas of tall grass may have ticks and chiggers. If you have small children, check for poisonous mushrooms.
- Drainage. Choose a relatively level site, but make sure it drains. A flat area can make pitching a tent easy, but if it has any depression, it may turn into a puddle or pool if it rains.
- Hills. In cold weather, hilltops get icy winds, while frost and moisture settle into low areas. Choose a site midway up a hill.
- Trees. Leaning trees or hanging limbs can crash down on you.
No, nature isn't that scary. In fact, it can do wonders for your camping trip. Look for wildflowers bordering a site (but don't pick!). If you're near the woods or stream, be quiet at dusk or dawn, and you might see a deer. Do some stargazing if you choose a site away from artificial light.
As long as you respect nature, you can enjoy the pleasures of the outdoors. After all, isn't that why you're camping?
HowStuffWorks looks at the popularity of hiking in the U.S.
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