Cumulatively, I have spent many years of my life in a tent. I’ve backpacked, canoed to wilderness spots, been a campground host, and seen about every type of weather there is from the confines of a thin sheet of material and some poles. That being said, I’ve made some serious mistakes, some not so serious, and some downright funny. I’ve also observed hundreds of families on their camping vacations and watched them as they had either the best or worst vacation of their lives. How is it that some families can have such a great time at the campground while the folks in the next campsite are acting much like the bears that ate their food in the night, and walk around holding their backs which now have permanent indentations from the roots beneath their tent? Why can some people wake up refreshed from the night’s rainstorm while others stumble out of their tents looking like angry, waterlogged sponges? Does it all boil down to superior equipment & expensive gear? In short, no! Did I mention that some of my best camping trips were in tents that I purchased for under $40? Ultimately, the success of a camping trip boils down to… well, if it was that easy I wouldn’t be writing this! Read on, and I’ll share some “secrets” to a successful (cheap) and fun family camping expedition.
Secret #1: Make a list!
Yes, it seems obvious, but this little detail can make or break your trip. My family actually had a list that they would print out before every camping trip. That way, any member of the family could check off an item as soon as they packed it. This avoids the inevitable, “Did you get my . . .” as soon as you pull into the campground. As well as a master list for camping in general, it is often a good idea to have members of the family come up with their own personal camping list so that Mom doesn’t have to remember Suzy’s favorite doll & Dad doesn’t have Joey upset at him for forgetting his tackle box. Everyone’s personal list is his or her own responsibility. The forgotten Game Boy is now Johnny’s fault, not Bob’s! Oh, and don’t forget to add pillows and earplugs to the master list! (Pillows are essential, the earplugs . . . let’s just say they help families to love each other better!)
Secret #2: Get the right gear!
So now you’re saying, “Hey, I thought you said gear didn’t matter!” Well, let me clarify. Expensive gear doesn’t matter — the right gear does! Let’s start with the tent. If it doesn’t have a rain fly, forget it — even if it’s on sale. Get the ones with the rain flap that goes as close to the ground as you can get. This truly is the secret to staying dry. Also, be sure to get a tarp for under the tent (keeps mud and moisture from wicking through) and another one for inside the tent (keeps your feet & gear dry, and you can save yourself hours of sweeping by just rolling it up & shaking out the dirt when you leave). Also on that note, a cheap welcome mat outside and inside the door is really helpful. Don’t worry, you can “pack” it by putting it on the floor of the car! “OK, so what about sleeping? Isn’t the worst part of camping having to sleep on the hard ground?” Whoever told you that was a rule?! Air mattresses are a must unless you want to spend a bunch of money on adequate cots (which take a lot of space). Want a secret? Those super cheap swimming mats usually work great! But since you’re being so cheap, be sure to pick up a couple of extras in case you get a leak or two. One of those hand-operated air pumps can also be really handy unless you have a resident windbag in your family (which, seriously, who doesn’t)! Another headache-saver is to get one of those collapsible 5-gallon water jugs to fill and keep on the picnic table. Who wants to make the scary trip to the water faucet ¼ mile away at 10 pm?
Secret #3: Food & cleanup doesn’t have to be difficult!
Pop quiz: you just saw a sign at the campground entrance saying, “Beware of Bears”. What should you do with your food? If your answer is, “Bring it into the tent so the bears don’t get it,” you’re in for a rough night! And you only need to hoist it up into a tree if you’re backpacking. Out west, most campgrounds have a bear-proof box to store your food in. Otherwise, the simplest solution is to put it in your car with the windows rolled up. At no time should you ever bring food into your tent! If it’s raining, eat in the car. Vacuum cleaners & scrub brushes can clean those spills, and it’s a lot cheaper than replacing your tent and paying hospital bills. Plan foods that are easy, like hot dogs, beans, or chili. You don’t need gourmet food on your camping trip unless you have more money than me and can go to a nice restaurant. Cooking over the fire is also over-romanticized. Bring a back-up plan like a propane burner or some cans of Sterno. It’s also helpful to have a separate set of pans, plastic dishes, and silverware for camping. You can usually pick them up second hand for next to nothing, and it makes Mom happy that her good pans aren’t being blackened by fire soot. My family always keeps a set of dishes and silverware pre-packed and ready to go. This saves lots of time and ensures that you don’t forget a sharp knife. Oh, and you can leave a roll of tin foil and some matches in there too. An easily overlooked essential is that of dishpans to wash the dishes in. Bring a couple of those square plastic tubs, and save yourself some heartache and burnt hands. Don’t forget to save some hot water for face washing before bed!
Secret #4: Delegation isn’t just for the workplace!
How exactly does a family roll up to their campsite, get set up, then head off to have fun without the whole thing turning into the best of Fight Night? The key is delegation. By the way, this should be done before leaving home. If this is your first time on a camping trip, practice by setting up your tent and gear in the back yard. You’ll discover a lot of little things that would have otherwise been forgotten — when the garage was much further away. Plan your setup, and figure out who should do what. Everyone can help, which will actually make it fun! Suzy can watch her baby brother while Mom gets the beds ready. Dad and Joey will set up the tent together since they’ve practiced together. Everyone needs an “official expedition position” — an area of expertise that makes the whole operation run a whole lot smoother. Test yourselves to see if you’re truly experts! If you can pull up and set up with under fifty words being said — trust me, the family in the next campsite will be very impressed!
Secret # 5: Don’t forget to have fun!
Relax! You’re on vacation! Don’t forget that attitude really is everything. Take a day trip to climb all the way to the top of that silly famous rock. Make it an adventure! You might even learn something along the way — about your world, yourself, and your family. Bring some board games to play in the tent in case it’s rainy, and a Frisbee to “pass” some time while supper is cooking. Also, don’t forget to get some time alone. The trade-off with the kids so both Dad & Mom can have a few hours by the beach or walking in the woods. Let 15-year-old Joey try out his map-reading skills on the trails. He’ll be ok, he really will. Mostly, make it a goal to slow down, learn something new, get some pictures to remember it by, and get the rest you need to head back refreshed and reinvigorated from the best vacation you ever had!