How to Make Camping Fun for the Whole Family

Outdoor adventures have been fabulous bonding experiences for our family. Over the years, we have learned that there are several things that you can do to improve your family’s experience.

Here are our top 6 recommendations that will help ensure a fun family camping adventure:
1) Test your gear, recipes and limits at home
2) Get everyone involved
3) Research your destination well ahead of time
4) Invest in comfort
5) Make meals simple, interactive and indulgent
6) Balance your physical activities with games and relaxation

#1: Test Your Gear, Recipes and Limits at Home

If you plan to take a major trip to a National Park in another state, try to minimize as many potential pitfalls to a successful trip as possible. The best way to do that is to test your plans beforehand at home. Start by trying overnight camping in your backyard. Do so in the worst conditions that you will experience on your trips, including rain, wind, snow or cold/hot temperatures. Your kids will likely be excited about these tests. You will learn important lessons such as finding a flat and clear tent spot, how to set up your tent and rain fly and whether your sleep system is warm and comfortable enough for your family.

Run similar hiking (or biking or kayaking etc.) tests / practices at local parks. Find the average distance your family can hike before the complaints start flying. Try to build up your family’s hiking capabilities by adding a bit of distance each time out.

Recipes and cooking techniques should also be tested at home. You may decide to prepare special camping recipes or dehydrated meal pouches on your trip. Many of these may be new to your family. Before you leave on your big trip, take some time to test these meals at home, preferably using the same cook systems you will use on your trip. Learn how to start a fire and watch some YouTube videos with the kids on fire safety.

#2: Get Everyone Involved

Involve the whole family in the planning process, from choosing the destination to meals to activities. Activities planned together balance the interests of each family member. Each member of your family will have their own idea of fun. Plan accordingly or you might find yourself with some grumpy camping partners!

Kids love to help plan meals. Some of our best camping trip memories revolve around food and cooking. Our kids are always talking about the time we made walking tacos and an unexpected storm hit. We all quickly assembled our taco “bags” and jumped into the car for cover!

Do not stop seeking participation when you arrive. Kids can help set up the tent, cook meals or lead the hike. Let the slower members of your family set the pace for hikes and other activities. Get some feedback on the day from the kids and make some adjustments, if needed, the next day.

#3: Research Your Destination Well Ahead of Time

Make reservations ahead of your trip. Find national parks and state parks including reservation information here. National parks may need to be reserved as much as 6 to 9 months in advance as they are popular destinations and can fill up quickly during peak season. is the website for national parks campground reservations. can be used for state park campground reservations. The National Park Service website ( is a great tool to help plan trips to National parks, however, you will still need to reserve your campsite at

Utilize online campsite site descriptions and maps to find the ideal campsite. Seek out campsites that have amenities that suit your needs. Park campgrounds can come with amenities like bathroom facilities, tables, firepits, electrical hook-ups and treated water. When our kids were young, being close to the bathrooms was key. Now we prefer privacy and access to trails more than potty proximity.

Hiking is a staple camping activity and planning your hikes ahead of time makes for a successful trip. Parks provide trail maps with descriptions to help you chose the right hiking for your family. There are several great, free (or inexpensive) apps to help you find hiking trails. has lots of maps, descriptions, and reviews. With tools like AllTrails, you can pre-select trails based on difficulty levels, scenic views, distance, and elevation gain.

#4: Invest in Camp Comfort

It is difficult to have family fun with grouchy kids and grown ups too! Before you go camping make sure you have the right gear to keep your family comfortable. Of course, we all want to unplug when we camp, so leave the electronics at home. That does not mean we have to leave our comforts at home too. Some ideas for nigh time camping comforts:

  • Sleeping bag that has the right temperature rating for your sleeping weather conditions. For tent camping add a sleeping pad. They make tent sleeping more comfortable and create a much-needed barrier between you and the hard-cold ground. Sleeping pads take up less space than an air mattress, make less noise when sleep shifting and are better at insulation. Sleeping pads have a rating system for insulation called R-value. A sleeping pad’s R-value measures its ability to resist heat flow through it. The higher a pad’s R-value, the better it will insulate you from cold ground surfaces. Sleeping pad R-values range from less than 2 (minimally insulated) to 5.5 or more (very well insulated). The right sleeping bag and sleeping pad will make ALL the difference for a good night sleep.
  • Bring a knit hat and warm socks. If you are sleeping in a tent or unheated cabin a knit hat and socks in addition to the right sleeping bag can help keep you warm on chilly nights.
  • Eye masks and ear plugs for those who are sensitive to noise and light.
  • Comfortable pillows. There are packable inflatable and foam pillows if space is a concern for tent camping. It is also helpful to let kids bring a favorite stuffed animal or two from home to help them sleep.
  • Bring comfy pajamas and only wear them to sleep. You do not want to sleep in clothes you have been wearing all day, yuck! It feels great to change into something fresh and cozy before bed.
  • Keep some bedtime routines. It is helpful for kids to have some routines from home like changing into pajamas, brushing teeth and a story, or reading time before bed.
  • Portable light. Flashlights, tent light, camping lanterns or headlights all work well. There are some solar powered options, but if you have battery operated lighting make sure to have extra batteries packed. A fun option is glowsticks for the kids at night.
  • Go to the bathroom before bed, more than once. I’m not kidding! Getting up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom while camping is not fun. Get in the habit of going to the bathroom right before bed.
  • Bring slip on sandals. Just in case you do have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, it is helpful to have some slip-on sandals nearby. If you sleep with socks, sandals that can be worn with socks work better than flip flops for those late night trips.

Day time comforts are also important:

  • Good coffee. Splurge here, you know you need it! And don’t forget ibuprofen (or an adult beverage) for your sore muscles.
  • Never bring new shoes on a camping trip. Break in those hiking shoes at home or on local trails. In addition, bring dry socks on the hikes for the kids in case they “accidently” end up with soaked feet 15 minutes in.
  • Bring and apply plenty of bug spray or lotion. The last thing you want is a kid with a leg covered with chigger bites (NOT fun). Deep Woods Off and other DEET products damage some plastics in your gear and have a strong odor. We use picaridin for bugs; it is just as effective on ticks and mosquitos and more effective on flies. If you don’t want to use bug spray, wear long sleeve shirts and long pants. As long as your long sleeves and long pants are bug resistant, loose-fitting and breathable, you can still be comfortable in warmer weather. If you really want to avoid bugs, spray your clothes and other gear before you leave with permethrin. Backpackers use this trick routinely.
  • Bring and apply plenty of sunscreen. Sunburnt kids are also not a fun bunch. Spray works great for most of their bodies, but they will still need lotion for their faces. Wide-brimmed hats are always a good idea if you can get your kids to wear them.
  • Proper layering should keep your body temps regulated and free from chaffing. If you are heading to a particularly hot and humid place, consider bringing and applying some Bodyglide or similar ant-chaffing product.
  • Pack lotions for bug bites (e.g. hydrocortisone) and sun burns (e.g. moisturizer with aloe). Here is a list of treatments including natural remedies
  • Bring rain gear on the trail and consider adding lightweight umbrellas. You never know when a sudden rainstorm may try to spoil your day.
  • While on your hike, periodically do a temperature check, especially in changing elevations or around sunrise or sunset. Kids who are too hot or too cold will turn on you quickly. Remove or add a layer as needed.
  • Pack a proper day hiking backpack, with extra water and snacks (and treats) for the kiddoes or, better yet, let them carry their own water and snacks. Just make sure their backpacks fit properly and the kids are wearing them correctly.
  • Take breaks during your activities to let short legs rest and break up some of the monotony of a long hike or bike ride. Stop and take in your environment, enjoy a treat or let your kids goof off.
  • Give your kids space if they want to talk privately or prepare trail activities for them to keep them engaged in something besides the challenging trek you want to complete.

#5: Make Meals Simple, Interactive, and Indulgent

Everything tastes better outdoors, especially following a long hike! Make meals a fun part of your trip.

Meal planning is probably the most challenging planning and prep task. You want to make sure you have the right equipment and all the ingredients at your campsite. Plan for each meal, bring trail-appropriate snacks and don’t forget treats. Special, warm and comforting campfire treats like s’mores will be a memorable end to your day.

Using a camp stove, you can easily cook your family favorites from home, like pancakes, and French toast for breakfast. The key to camp meals is to combine as many components as possible into one dish and prepare as much as possible ahead of time. See our article for quick and easy camp meals for more ideas!

It is also fun to try new recipes using a Dutch oven, foil packets or pie irons over a fire. If your kids are old enough, have them participate by cooking their own hotdog or marshmallow over the campfire.

#6: Balance Your Activities

Activities should have a balance of physically demanding adventuring and more relaxed, family time at your campsite. We have found that our kids want spend time in camp just as much as they want to explore the wilds away from camp. I highly recommend planning time at your campsite. Lots of imaginative play and bonding will take place just outside or inside your tent, cabin, or RV.

Camp time is also a great opportunity for the big people to catch up on some reading or crossword puzzles. Our girls will often grab an inflatable couch, drag it into the woods (away from the parents, of course) and enjoy some reading and chatting time together.

All of the following family activities can easily be planned together. A great way to do this is to schedule family meetings to come up with fun ideas.

Indoor Games Outdoors

Games that travel light and do not require a lot of set up are great to bring on your family camping trip. Leave your electronics behind and bring along some games to pass time and have plenty of family fun. Game ideas that can easily fit into a backpack or bin:

  • Card games
  • Story Cubes
  • Bananagrams
  • Spot It

Outdoor Games

One of our favorite outdoor camping games is performing skits. Skits performed around the campfire are terrific fun! More outdoor game ideas that require little or no equipment around your campsite:

  • Frisbee
  • Tossing a football
  • Horseshoe
  • Tag

In addition to games, encourage your kids to bring along a journal and a small pencil case. Writing in the great outdoors is good for the soul. Give the kids some meditative, creative time in a tent, cabin, RV or under a tree.

Trail Games and Activities

For younger kids, incorporating a scavenger hunt can make hiking more fun. Scavenger hunts can be as simple as finding a bug, spider web, a rock or different color leaves. For the budding naturalists, bring along a magnifying glass, camera or sketch book for those priceless observations. Junior Ranger programs often provide educational and fun activities for the kids.  

Campfire and Nighttime Activities

Staying up after dark around a campfire is big fun and likely the best part of camping for kids. Don’t miss out on the campfire and nighttime fun! Download Star Walk 2 or a similar app and study the stars and planets. Teach kids how to build a fire and how to be safe near a campfire. Roasting marshmallows, making s’mores, telling stories, or preforming skits before settling in for a good night’s sleep, immersed in nature, is what camping is all about.

Now get planning! 

John Olsen

John Olsen is a seasoned adventurer with 20 years of writing, public speaking, team leadership, analytics and project management experience.

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