Pictured: Camping in our Big Agnes tent in the Great Smoky Mountains. 

Family camping can be an incredibly rewarding experience for both parents and kids, but it can also feel overwhelming and intimidating—especially if you are venturing into territory that feels unfamiliar. In the nine years we’ve been traveling and camping with our boys we have definitely had our share of intimidating moments, and now that we are on the road full-time those lessons learned are constantly being put into action and new challenges pop up daily.

So how do you camp with little people and actually feel like you’re on vacation? How do you embrace a camping trip without fearing it’s going to be miserable? Below are a few suggestions to help make the camping experience a pleasant one.

1. Take Your Time Prepping For The Trip:

If you think you need two days to pack and prep, add two more. This is a lesson we are still trying to learn, and often when we think we can pack up in just a few hours we end up needing several more and the stress of falling behind the clock kicks in. Nothing gets a trip started off on the wrong foot like pulling out of the driveway already stressed out. When you are moving items from your home into your RV or packing up the car, things never go as planned. Give yourself extra time and space.

2. Arrive Before Dark

Whether you’re in an RV or tent camping, trying to navigate a campsite and get things settled is near impossible in the dark, especially if this is something you don’t do frequently. We live by the 2-2-2 rule – arrive by 2 pm, drive no more than 200 miles and stay for 2 days. Now, this really applies to those families who full-time or who are taking an extended road trip, but there is a little bit in there for everyone – arrive by 2 pm. Arriving mid-afternoon gives you plenty of time to set-up camp, get dinner going and enjoy a campfire. Again, stress-free is your camping motto.

3. Embrace the Dirt

Hug it, love it, kiss it, whatever, just embrace it. Kids will be messy and part of camp life is dirt. This was a hard one for me to reconcile with at first, but then I realized this: My boys’ dirt means they have been playing and engaging with the natural world. They don’t collect dirt when they’re on the X-Box or watching Stampy videos on YouTube (we love you, Stampy!). Also, dirty kids are exhausted kids, which means bedtime is a breeze. So, let them run wild and give them a good wipe down before bed. Dirt = happy kids.

4. Leave Julia Child at Home

For many, cooking is an incredibly rewarding experience, but if you’re out camping with your family for the weekend, I say eat hotdogs and roast marshmallows. Remember, this is your trip too and you deserve all the fresh air you can get inside that hammock reading a good book. There are plenty of easy camp meals that taste great and require very little prep and clean-up. If you’re taking a longer trip, definitely enjoy a few prep-heavy meals, or better yet, check out some local grub. Just remember, cereal for breakfast is awesome, sandwiches taste better outside, and sometimes a carry-out pizza around a campfire taste like a five-star restaurant. For meal inspiration check out our Pinterest page or RVEpicure, or just pick your family’s favorite easy meal and call it a day.

5. Take a Hike

Nothing resets our family quicker than a hike. If you get into your camping experience and find everyone is climbing the walls or the kids are just arguing non-stop, go for a hike. Even the simple loop trail around your campground can work miracles. There will probably be moaning at first, but it will stop. I promise. There is something about removing yourself from one space and immersing yourself on a hike that just works. Call it magic nature dust if you will, but I tell you, it works. So, next time you feel your family is about to go nuclear, tell your crew to “take a hike.”

6. Don’t Over-Schedule

There’s this idea that camping makes us slow down, but anyone who has kids knows that is almost never the case. And if you’re camping in a national park or staying near a major metropolitan city, you’re going to want to see it all. But don’t. This is really hard advice for me to follow, but it is an absolute must – YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT ALL. Ever wonder why we go on vacation and come back exhausted? It’s because we do too much. We try to jam an entire park or city into a weekend or a week, when people who live in the area could tell you they still haven’t seen it all. Whatever your vacation goal, let it include some downtime. Time to go to bed early, time to sip a morning cup of coffee and take in the surroundings. If you have kids that can tolerate it, drop the bedtime routine, and if you have kids who need that regularity, make sure it is there for them. If you hit the ground running and fall into your sleeping bag exhausted, you’re overdoing it. Trust me on this, I know. I struggle with this feeling every time we pull into a “new to us” location. Everyone will last longer and dispositions will be cheerier if there is downtime to do nothing but hang out at camp.

7. Have Fun

This is such a simple idea, but it can be truly difficult to accomplish when camping with kids. There will be arguments, and meltdowns, and the kids will have a hard time too, but if you take each moment as it comes and remember that RV and tent camping is an adventure—and for some it’s one that takes a bit of time and adjusting to—the grown-ups can have just as much fun as the kids. Just remember, this is an experience unlike any you’re likely to find in a hotel, so do what you can to make it work for YOU. Have fun, enjoy the moment, and you may come out of this whole camping vacation counting the days until you can do it again.

Have a tip for making the camping experience work for your family? I’d love to hear from you, so leave a comment below!

Categories: Family Travel

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Coffee drinker, skoolie owner, partner, roadschooler, and parent. Along with Jason, Abby is the co-host of the RV Miles Podcast and America's National Parks Podcast. When not talking National Parks and RV living, you can find Abby talking theater as the managing editor Of PerformInk. Find her on Twitter @abigailtrabue or search Our Wandering Family across all social media.