First Time Camping Guide

Until now, my definition of “camping” has meant staying in a cabin while secretly scolding myself for not being up for tent camping. It seems like everyone (except me!) loves to camp.

When I ask friends what they did over the summer, the most common answer is…camping. At a recent playdate, the other moms could rattle off their favorite campgrounds in California…campgrounds in the mountains, on the beaches, near hot springs, and on and on. After all, California is a spectacularly beautiful state with a ridiculous variety of campgrounds for all tastes. So it seems like it’s high time I get with the program and start camping with my kids.

Another reason I want to start camping as a family is that camping is important at my kids’ school. They start camping with their class in third grade and learn related skills like how to pitch a tent, cook and serve a meal outdoors, and even make fresh butter from milk. In fact, Noah leaves soon for a camping trip among the sequoia trees at Calaveras Big Trees State Park to enhance their study of botany.

So this summer, we decided to start camping as a family. We wanted to do it right from the beginning — Rodrigo knows me too well…that if it didn’t go well, I probably wouldn’t want to try again.

We spent a lot of time researching, carefully deciding on exactly the right tent, mattresses and stove. We also took our time choosing a good campground (more on that below). I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but I slept just fine, which is saying a lot because I’m a finicky sleeper. The trip was a success, and I’m happy to say that we’re ready for more camping adventures!

If you’re at all like me and are wondering if you should take the leap to tent camping, I say, “Yes! Do it!” It opens up many more options travel-wise. It’s so affordable, there are many more accommodation options than just Airbnbs and hotels, and it’s such a fun experience with kids. And best of all, you get to be OUTDOORS.

Here’s my guide for first-time campers: what to buy, what to pack and what to look for in a campground:

My must-haves for camping:

An instant set-up tent like ours, the Ozark 10-person instant tent

A tarp to put between the tent and ground to prevent holes

Tablecloth (we brought a thin, light one from Brazil)

Baby wipes

Extra socks and shoes because wow, your feet get dirty while camping!

Foldable camping chairs

Towels, including dish towels for food clean-up

Lights: flashlights (more than one), headlamp and lanterns (for inside the tent and outside to help us find our way back to the tent in the dark)

Insect repellent. I use repellent with Picardin. It’s really effective, even prevents ticks, and doesn’t contain DEET.

Camping grill & stove

Cooler and long-lasting ice packs

Toilet paper

Bucket (um, for when you don’t want to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night)

Swiss Army knife

Baggies for dirty clothes, wet swimsuits, etc.

Garbage bags

Games: travel Qwirkle (love!), card games, backgammon

Frisbee, ball, and small toys for the kids

Outdoor “cargo vest,” magnifying glass and bug catcher kit for kids: approved by my boys after many uses!

How to sleep comfortably while camping:

Foldable memory foam mattress: I slept great thanks to this mattress!

We used cheap air mattresses for the kids, and they loved them. The only downside is that Gabe slid off his during the night.

A cot for those who don’t want to sleep near the ground. Rodrigo likes having this; I prefer my foldable mattress. You can get a thin pad to make the cot more comfortable.

Sleeping bags for the kids (we bought ours years ago)

What to bring for food and drinks while camping:

A medium frying pan, a pot and utensils

A dish towel to double as a pot holder

Lightweight cutting board

Tin mug for water/coffee

Plates and bowls (lightweight plastic, bamboo or recyclable ones would work great)

Boxed wine (No corkscrew needed! See why else I loved it for camping here.)

Coffee

French-press coffee maker

Eggs

Sliced bread

Nut butter and honey/jam

Meat and veggie kabobs for the first night

S’mores ingredients (of course!): marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers, and skewers

Snacks for the afternoons: look for items that won’t spoil easily and don’t need prep: chips, salsa, grapes, granola bars, healthy cookies, homemade trail mix or dried fruit and nuts

How to choose a campground:

We went around and around about the campground and ended up choosing Inn Town Campground because it seemed like the safest bet for us camping for the first time together. It is definitely a good choice for kids. The campground is clean, (mostly) quiet, and very family-friendly. They even have movies on a big screen some nights — it’s pretty cool to close out the night with a movie under those big trees.

Based on our experience, I have the following criteria when choosing a campground:

Flush toilets

Showers

Kid-friendly activities

Campsites that are not too close together

Ideally not more than 2 hours from home (so we can set up and then maximize our outdoor time)

Activities/hiking within walking distance from the campground

Restaurants nearby so that we don’t have to rely on camp cooking the whole time

Reviews that show that it’s good for families (i.e. not a campground known for partying)

Bonuses: (Inn Town had all these, so I know how nice they are to have!)

A kitchen

Private bathrooms

A shop for buying snacks, ice cream, etc.

Foosball/table tennis/pool/other fun stuff for the kiddos

Communal grill/firepit area since campsite fires are not allowed at many CA campgrounds

Near water for swimming on a hot summer day

Have you gone camping as a family? Any favorite California campgrounds? I’d love to hear!

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7 Comments

  • erin says:

    Thanks so much for your lovely write up, so great to have such a great list of things to remember (I’m constantly forgetting super critical things and then wondering why I’m not more organized). So glad you enjoyed the campground.

  • Ona henricks says:

    I am a traveler much time I camping anywhere but the first time varies impotent to know about camping. That is very adventure to do. The first time guideline is very important for anyone. Your guideline is very useful. I really a agree with your tips. Some idea is new. I am also learning some think about your post.

  • Traveolani says:

    Thanks for that post! We live in British Columbia and camping is a big thing here as well! Everyone goes camping during the summer… except us. It just looks like so much work and so many things to buy up front and I am not sure I want to do it at all. But having all summarized in a post certainly will help one day when I start researching 🙂

    • Jenna says:

      You’re right about all the gear and upfront costs. You may want to look into buying used gear or borrowing some of it from friends. We spent a lot of time planning and found ways to buy good stuff at fairly low prices. I hope to use the gear a few times a year, so for us, it will be worth it. You must have some amazing places to camp in BC!

      • Traveolani says:

        Yes, if you going to use it regularly, it is definitely worth the cost. A colleague offered to lend me her camping gear for the first time, so I might do that and see if we’ll like it.
        There are so many camp sites in the BC interior and on Vancouver island, some are on lakes and I heard it is so much fun for the kids. But I am sure California has even nicer ones 🙂

        • Jenna says:

          That’s a good idea! That would take a lot of time and stress out ahead of time (choosing gear, etc.). And yes, CA has some amazing campground locations, but anything on a lake or with a beautiful view in BC sounds ideal.

  • JooJoobs says:

    Thanks for sharing.

    That is one complete camping list. You should make it a downloadable pdf!

    Congrats on joining the tenting crowd.

    ~bibi

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