Planning Your First Family Camping Trip
Updated: May 17, 2023
AAA Travel Editor Laurie Sterbens
Road trips and outdoor destinations are a natural fit if you're looking for a vacation that allows social distancing. Camping is a fun, budget-friendly way to enjoy a getaway in the great outdoors. However, it does take some planning and preparation. If you’ve never tried camping before, these tips will help make your first time a success.
What Kind of Campers Are You?
Camping covers a broad spectrum of experiences, from primitive camping with a small personal tent to parking a luxury RV in a campground with its own restaurant and swimming pool. If you’re new to camping, tent camping in a campground is a great way to get started, as it doesn’t require a large investment and your family can enjoy fun camping activities such as roasting marshmallows and sleeping in a tent while still having access to restrooms, showers and other amenities. Some campgrounds even offer extra features and activities for kids, such as the ones chosen by AAA inspectors as their top picks for "Coolest Campgrounds for Families." If pitching your own tent sounds intimidating, consider renting an RV or a safari tent at a “glamping” property, which will allow you to try out an outdoorsy vacation without having to invest in camping gear.
Where Should I Go Camping?
While it’s tempting to set your sights on a spectacular, nationally known park or wilderness area, for your first camping trip it’s a good idea to find a campground closer to home, or at least one within easy driving distance of a city. That way, you can easily head into town if you realize you forgot to pack something you need, an unexpectedly severe storm makes tent camping uncomfortable, there’s an emergency, or you (or one of the kids) suddenly decide camping is not your cup of tea.It’s easy to find nearby national forests and parks with the National Parks search feature in AAA’s . Enter a state in the search box and select a national public land from the drop-down menu. You’ll be taken to a map of the area that shows features of the park, scenic drives and nearby attractions. Click on the camping icon in the toolbar to see AAA Approved campgrounds in the area.You can also search for pre-planned, scenic Road Trips in TripTik Travel Planner or at , then locate campgrounds and attractions along the route.
Be sure to involve the kids in planning. Ask what activities they would most enjoy—swimming, hiking, riding in a canoe? Making s’mores? Thinking about the possibilities will get them excited about the trip.
Once you’ve decided on a destination and chosen your desired campground, reserve a campsite as soon as possible, especially if you’re traveling during the busy summer months. Consider campsite preferences when making your reservation, such as location of the campsite—do you need to be near restrooms? Close to or away from a shoreline or swimming pool? If the campsite allows both tents and RVs, find out if there are areas designated for tent campers only so there’s less chance of being disturbed by an RV generator running at night.
What to Pack for Camping
Once you’ve chosen your level of camping and your destination, it’s time to think about what to pack for your trip. If you rent an RV or stay in a pre-assembled glamping tent rental, you’ll have less gear to worry about, as your furnishings and cooking and dining essentials will probably be provided. If tent camping sounds like a fun fit for your family, here is a list of the basic gear to consider:
Tents are available in a wide range of sizes, designs and prices. Look for a simple design such as a dome tent that will be easy to assemble. A screened roof with a removable cover provides shelter from showers and shades your belongings from the sun during the day while letting you see the stars at night. Tents are categorized by the number of people they sleep, but pay attention to the floor dimensions instead. A four-person tent typically has just enough space for four sleeping bags side by side, with no extra room for belongings. When considering price, there’s no need to splurge on an elaborate, costly design if you’re planning shorter trips in mild weather. You can find a six-person, name-brand tent for under $200 that will work fine for a family of four.
Practice pitching your tent in the backyard so you’ll be able to set up camp quickly on your trip. You can even have a practice campout with the kids to test all your gear and let them experience sleeping outdoors.
Like tents, sleeping bags vary in design and price according to purpose. Consider the climate and season where you’ll be camping and choose your sleeping bag accordingly. An inflatable sleeping pad or mattress will make sleeping on the tent floor much more pleasant. In very warm climates in summer, you may want to skip the sleeping bag and use an old set of sheets over your sleeping pad instead.
Bring a canvas camp chair or folding lawn or lounge chair for each person, as campsites typically only have a picnic table for seating.
Most campsites include a fire pit that may have a grill rack over it, and many also include a charcoal grill. Either way, you’ll want to bring your own clean grill racks if you plan to cook your meals over the fire. Check ahead to see what your campsite includes; if needed, bring a small, portable charcoal grill. Campgrounds often have firewood available for purchase and may also have a camp store where you can buy charcoal and lighter fluid. Phone the campground before your trip to find out what’s available.
While it’s possible to cook entirely over a fire, a propane stove is a great addition to your camping equipment collection. Portable and easy to set up, it allows you to cook anything you’d cook on the stove at home and quickly and easily heats water for your morning coffee so you don’t have to build a fire.
Lanterns and Flashlights
As lovely as a campfire is, you’ll need more light to find your way around the campsite in the dark. Bring several lanterns to hang around the campsite and at least two powerful flashlights so family members can navigate to restrooms and showers at night.
Cooking and Eating Utensils and Other Necessities
Depending on what you plan to eat on your trip, cooking necessities might include a frying pan, a saucepan, spatulas and a pot for boiling water. Hot dog skewers are nice to have, as are grilling accessories such as grill baskets for fish or vegetables. Aluminum foil also works for cooking fish and vegetables on the grill or over the campfire.
Adding a set of reusable eating utensils, non-breakable plates and bowls to your camping gear will reduce waste and give you one less thing for your shopping list for future trips. However, be warned, some campsites discourage using communal water sources for washing dishes, so you may need to wash dishes at your campsite. For your first trip, consider disposables to keep dishwashing to a minimum. Phone your campground to find out what washing facilities are available. At a minimum, you’ll need biodegradable dish soap, a sponge and dish towels, and you may need bins or buckets. You’ll also need paper towels, napkins and trash bags, as most campsites don’t have individual trash bins.
Bring at least one large cooler with enough room to store perishable items. Ideally, bring a second cooler so you’ll have plenty of room for ice and beverages.
What to Bring to Eat
If it’s your first time camping, you may want to play it safe and stick with the classics: burgers and hot dogs cooked on the campfire or grill, chips and, of course, s’mores for dessert. For breakfast, protein or granola bars or instant oatmeal are easy options. But if you’ve invested in a propane stove and like to cook, you can be a little more adventurous. Fuel up with your favorite hot breakfast items such as scrambled eggs or pancakes. Pro tip: Canned biscuits are delicious when cooked in a buttered frying pan. Take your campfire dinner to the next level by grilling steaks or fish with a side dish like flavored rice or noodles cooked on the stove. Bags of premixed salads are great for camping. There are many websites and camping cookbooks available where you can find creative recipes and tips for camp cooking, as well as recipes for kids to make.
Staying Safe Outdoors
Bring plenty of insect repellant and sunscreen. A little rain is no problem if you pack a few inexpensive plastic rain ponchos. A first aid kit is handy for those little nicks and scrapes that come with kids playing outdoors.
More Tips for a Fun, Safe Camping Trip
• Pack favorite toys and games for younger children as well as games, puzzles or playing cards for older kids and adults. These can provide fun, screen-free family time for evenings and rainy days.
• Download apps with activities your family can do together while camping. Two popular apps are Geocaching, in which families can search for hidden items using GPS coordinates, and Star Walk 2, which shows stars visible from your location and where to look for stars, constellations and satellites. Apps for identifying birds, plants and insects can make hiking more fun for kids.
• Store all of your camping gear together in plastic bins so you can simply toss the bins in the car when you’re ready to go instead of having to hunt for and pack every item you’ll need for every trip. Laundry baskets are perfect for storing and transporting foods that don’t need to be in a cooler.
• At the campsite, store food, including coolers, in your car so wildlife can’t get to it. Don’t keep any food in your tent, or you may return from a hike to find that your snack stash has disappeared through a new, raccoon-sized hole.
• Don’t forget to pack masks, sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer for any stops you make on your way to and from the campground and any restaurants, stores or attractions you may visit during your trip.
Rely on AAA Travel for Every Mile of Your Trip
AAA Travel provides peace of mind for travelers—from the first mile of the journey to the last. Get inspiration for your next road trip with AAA’s TripTik Travel Planner, AAA Digital TourBook® or browse pre-planned itineraries on AAA.com/RoadTrips. Estimating fuel costs for your trip is easy with the AAA Gas Cost Calculator, and if your car needs a quick tune-up before the trip, find a AAA Approved auto repair facility near you at AAA.com/AutoRepair. For printed maps and trip planning advice, visit your local AAA office.
AAA Travel Editor Laurie Sterbens
Laurie Sterbens is a AAA Travel Expert.