I have fond memories of family camping trips growing up: roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over a fire, using a pocketknife, and looking at the Milky Way with my dad. Now that I have a family of my own I've been eager to continue the tradition of camping but it's intimidating to make the transition from "being taken camping" to "adult in charge of a camping trip!"
Luckily the stars aligned and Team Wharton went on our first camping trip a couple weeks ago – to great success! What really gave us the push we needed was tagging along with two veteran camping families and having generous friends who lent us gear. I have a goal for myself to eventually have all our own gear and to feel confident enough that I can take the boys camping all on my own.
For this trip we camped for two nights at the Christopher Creek campground, a piney setting along a creek just about two hours from our house. It was perfect for exploring kids and at elevation so we enjoyed chilly evening temperatures. Thanks to a detailed packing list from one of the women we camped with plus advice from friends and recalling my own camping experiences, I felt like we did a great job bringing the gear and food we needed. I felt particularly proud that I packed just the right number of layers so that no one was cold (such a terrible feeling when camping!). It was really nice being with experienced campers who brought and shared gear that we don't have yet.
In case you are thinking of planning a family camping trip in the near future, I'd love to share some notes I've made about what worked and what we should do differently on our next trip:
Eventually I'd like to have a bin or two in our garage with all our camping gear. That way we know where everything is and can just load those bins into the car, pack food and clothes, and go!
Buying and borrowing gear. When you're starting out camping I would highly recommend borrowing gear and camping with more experienced campers so you can see what gear they have. When you're ready to buy, looking for used gear is a great way to go too. Of course quality is important so do your research on brand names and be sure to inspect any used gear you might buy. I didn't do this when buying a used sleeping bag and months later when I got it out I found the zipper to be completely broken. I'm hoping to repair it but it wasn't ready in time for this camping trip. Craigslist is a great place for used camping gear. For new gear I love browsing Sierra Trading Post and keep an eye out for REI sales events, especially great for getting pricey items at a discount.
Tent. My mom gifted us a new tent for our inaugural family camping trip and we loved our Coleman tent with a screen "porch." Although the tent says it's for six people it felt like a great size for our family of four. I learned that the number of people a tent says it will hold is based off of fitting that number of people in a tent and nothing else (like gear). Plus knowing that our boys will only get bigger I wanted to make sure we have a tent that will last for years. The "porch" feature of the tent was great and gave us a spot to take off shoes and track less dirt and leaves into the tent. The weekend before we camped we did a trial run setting up the tent in the backyard and even set up the sleeping bags and sleeping pads in it. That helped me feel much more confident when we set up the tent for camping the next weekend.
Tarp for under the tent. We did NOT bring a tarp on this trip and it's on my to-buy list. Even though it was dry our entire trip, dew and moisture collected under the tent so the bottom was wet and dirty when we packed it away. We had to get it back out at home, let it dry, and sweep it off. Putting a tarp under the tent would have meant we could clean only a tarp and not unpack the whole tent at home. We saw someone at another campsite hang up their tent tarp on a rope strung between trees, let it dry, then sweep it off. Noted!
Sleeping bags and sleeping pads. We considered using a queen-size inflatable mattress for Chris and me to sleep on but instead opted to use sleeping pads for everyone which gave us more room in the tent as well. We borrowed two sleeping pads from friends, found one that we still had from my grad school camping days, and used a yoga mat for one of the boys. Unfortunately my sleeping pad has a small hole, discovered during the first night, and slowly deflated, womp, womp! The Thermarest sleeping pads that we borrowed from friends were comfortable and roll up very small for storage. So I might want to purchase those for the family. Another friend recommended cots, at least for the adults. So that's a consideration as well.
Lights. We brought along headlamps for each of us and these worked well. I also liked that one family brought several small lanterns that could be set up on the table or hung in their tent.
Four camp chairs. A must have! Camp chairs are fairly easy to buy used (I found one on Craigslist) and we also love having kid-sized chairs for the boys. The dinosaur camp chair we have for Cedric is my favorite and has a safety lock feature so it can't collapse.
Cooking gear. This is gear we don't have yet and it was really helpful to see it in action. On my to-buy list is a camp stove; a refillable water jug with spout for filling cups and pots; a cutting board; lightweight plates and bowls; silverware (sporks?); a couple pots, a frying pan, and a kettle; a knife, serving spoon, and tongs; plastic tubs for washing dishes; and two sponges and dish towels for washing and drying dishes.
Hammock. One family brought a camping hammock and it looked so relaxing. It's definitely not a necessity but I'm putting it on my camping wish list.
There's nothing like eating outside around a campfire. Here are a few notes for next time...
Meals and drinks using hot water. In the mornings we would boil a kettle of water over the camp stove. That turned into bowls of steaming instant oatmeal, hot chocolate (with marshmallows of course), and even pumpkin spice lattes.
Frozen yogurt worked well. Before we left I froze about ten individual yogurts for us to eat over two days for breakfast and snacks. The yogurt thawed well and helped insulate the cooler.
Pre-made chili was a hit. On the first night one family served us chili they had made ahead of time and reheated on the camp stove. The also brought an impressive selection of toppings including chopped green onion, sliced radishes, sour cream, and avocado – it was so good! Dessert was homemade chocolate chip cookies. It felt like the perfect camp supper without too much effort.
More snacks is always a good idea. I'm making a note for myself to bring more snacks, especially for the kids. We had enough food for meals but they were extra snacky on the trip. Filling snacks like packets of peanut butter crackers, granola bars, or peanut butter-filled pretzels would probably be good. Snacks we did bring that were great included a batch of apricot-chocolate energy chunks, grapes, and "squishy" yogurt (the kids' yogurts in tubes).
Being outside went a long way in entertaining the boys plus there were four other kids on the trip. But at 3 and 5 some activity guidance was helpful.
Natural water is excellent entertainment for kids and adults. What kid (or honestly adult!) doesn't love to be near natural water? There are bugs to watch, rocks to skip or throw, and perhaps a fallen log to balance on. Especially living in the desert, being near water just feels replenishing for my soul. When looking for family camping spots I will definitely be prioritizing being near a body of water.
Collection boxes. A friend who had recently been camping recommended I pick up some cheap "collection boxes" for the boys – shallow plastic boxes with snapping lids and several little square compartments perfect for collecting rocks, leaves, and other treasures. I found mine at a nearby dollar store but it's very similar to this one. They weren't terribly into them but in the future I might give them more specific instructions or they might become more interested on the next trip.
Walkie-talkies. I finally changed the batteries in our walkie-talkies (we never have AAA batteries around!) and they were a hit. Dashiell especially was besotted with them. We let the kids walk down to the creek by themselves if they kept in touch on the walkie-talkies (the creek was just beyond the campsite so very close) and I loved letting them have that independence. They had fun talking back and forth to each other as well, although sometimes when they were sitting right next to each other, ahem. We did have to regulate when the walkie-talkies could be out, not after dark and not early in the morning, because of the noise. Plus ours have an unfortunate feature of a button that makes a very loud phone ringing noise when pushed and you can't adjust the volume of the buttons. So I would recommend walkie-talkies but maybe even simpler ones if you have young kids.
Bring a couple activities for the kids. Once we'd explored the creek all morning and it was getting a bit hot after lunch the kids were restless. Then my friend pulled out a rock painting kit! There were only two paintbrushes included so first we brainstormed nature paintbrushes and collected leaves, sticks, and pine needle bunches for brushes. Then the kids painted their rocks. Painting rocks kept many of the kids busy for half an hour or so and was a nice way to get then to rest a little. I'm making a note for next time to plan a couple of directed activities like this, either out of a kit or from materials I bring myself.
I would love to know what family camping recommendations you have! And if you've camped in Arizona, where should we camp next?