With National Park Week in full swing, get inspired for one of our favorite cost-effective family vacations: Camping!
Unplug, explore some gorgeous scenery and reconnect as a family. What could be better (and more budget-friendly)? To maximize fun, safety and savings, take this expert advice.
Do Your Campsite Research
Start with your state parks. “Most people have a good state park campground within an hour of where they live,” says Brian Eagen, director of field studies at Sequoyah School in Pasadena, California, and the creator of Outdoor Blueprint, an outdoor-adventure advice site.
National parks can be budget-friendly, too — roughly $10 to $35 per night for campground admission. Many offer free admission days, including the weekends of National Park Week between April 15 and 23 this year. Public parks generally book 6 months to a year out, says Eagen.
Make sure the site offers the key things on your wish list, says Lissa Poirot, editor-in-chief of Family Vacation Critic (TripAdvisor’s family travel site). “Does it have the kinds of hiking trails you want?” she asks. “If you have a pet, is it welcome?”
For a gentler introduction to the great outdoors, private campground chains, such as Jellystone Parks or Kampgrounds of America “lean toward having more amenities, like pools and a cafeteria,” says Eagen. Prices range from $35 to $350 nightly.
Pack Like a Pro
Start shopping and packing several weeks out.
First, The Basics: Visit Outdoor Blueprint or this beginner’s packing list from REI for a packing list. See if another family can lend you sleeping bags or air mattresses with battery-operated pumps, Poirot recommends. She also uses pool floats under her bed as padding. Practice setting up your tent in your yard.
Weather-Safe Attire and Food Staples: Bring clothing layers — research temps at your destination — as well as blankets. Also stock up on easy meals, like bread, peanut butter, pasta, boxed mac and cheese, and instant oatmeal. For perishables, pack an empty cooler and purchase ice on or near the campground. Poirot brings canned pie filling and a square-shaped panini iron, making “apple pies” by grilling slices of bread with the apples in between.
The Right Packing Equipment: Tight-sealing plastic bins, like the ones for holiday decorations, discourage animals.
Printouts of Important Info: Eagen brings a binder containing a paper copy of his campsite reservation, plus lists of the hospitals, stores, gas stations, and laundromats closest to the park. “You probably won’t have Wi-Fi, so don’t assume you can Google these things once you’re camping,” he points out.
Know the Ins and Outs of Safety — and Fun
Once you arrive at your campground, introduce yourself to the camp host, says Eagen. This on-site employee is there to help you with problems and answer your questions. Show your kids where the host and park’s rangers can be found (as well as the bathrooms!).
“Establish some basic safety rules, too,” says Eagen. Discuss what your children should do if they encounter wildlife, and point out any plants to avoid. If there’s a body of water, discuss whether the children are allowed to go in, and to what depth. Stress the need to keep your campsite clean to keep away bears and other animals.
Next, have some fun! Try the free stuff first: “I often find that going on nice hikes or playing in a river is as enjoyable as more expensive activities like horseback riding,” says Eagen. Many parks also have a free junior ranger program. Look for modestly priced activities. “We’ve rented kayaks and canoes, gone to local lakes that have lifeguards, done mini golf, and found cute ice cream stands,” says Poirot.
Prep for Your Next Adventure
Once you’re home, take care of your gear right away. “Wash and dry everything, and put it away,” says Eagen.
Be especially meticulous about your tent. “Open it up, lay it out, and make sure it’s dry before you close it again and put it away” to prevent mildew, says Eagen.
Once the clean-up is done, Eagen notes on his packing list gear that he wished he had brought, and what he didn’t use. “It’s a way to refine my approach for the next trip,” he explains. Chances are, you’ll want to do it again, too.