*Note: all of the campgrounds listed at the end of this post are open to campers. Please follow park websites' guidelines for Covid 19 safety.
We have been taking our children camping from when they were very young. But, this has by no means been wilderness camping!
There are some wonderful family-friendly start parks to camp in NJ or just a few hours’ drive into New York or Pennsylvania. We have always tent camped in state parks where our car could be nearby, and our site was at most just a short walk in. Our favorite places to camp are near water, particularly places with a stream or a brook where the children can explore or play. Our goal has been to provide our children with the opportunity to enjoy being out in nature; camping was never an endurance test for us or them. We keep things simple but also make sure that we have everything we might need to make the experience as pleasant as possible for everyone. Proper preparation is the key.
What’s camping with kids all about?
Set-Up: creating the best possible “outdoor home”
Cooking/Eating: it’s how we spend most of the time—it’s fun, and food always tastes better when camping!
The Fire: Bring/Buy plenty of wood for having a fire for cooking, relaxing after dinner, and for a warm wake-up in the morning
Hiking/Exploring: choose a park with a variety of hiking options, and possibly a swimming spot
Relaxing/Reading/Playing Games: bring plenty of options--the picnic table will be the central spot for this!
The very first thing we will do is spray the area with some good bug repellent (there are so many options out there these days, including many without deet). We have the children stay in the car or at a short distance away upwind and will spray around the site, focusing mainly on the sides of trees and low shrubs.
Then, we begin with establishing where we will place our tents. We look for level ground, with few tree roots or rocks that can’t be moved. We like a spot preferable between trees, in order to hang a tarp, but would avoid placing the tents under any big tree limbs if possible (in case of bad storms—during summer in the East, you never know!). We always involve the children in this decision. Sometimes, we will need to prepare the area by moving some rocks and/or raking away tree debris. Once we know where we are putting the tents, we begin to hang the tarps. Sometimes, we will bring along a lightweight aluminum ladder on our roof-rack to help in this process. In any case, we do our best to use twine to secure the corners of a tarp as high above each tent as possible.
We will also hang a tarp above what we have designated as the dining area, and this may involve moving the picnic table to an appropriate spot, near some trees but still close to the fire-pit. This process can take some time and definitely involves both parents, so before beginning the hanging of the tarps, we will find something to keep the children busy. We might take out a card game from the car and set them up at the picnic table. Or, if the stream is nearby and visible to us (and they’re old enough), we let them go play by the water.
Once the tarps are up, we lay the ground covers, and we set up the tents. Even when they were quite young (5 and 8 years old), our children would help set up the tents. Each tent is different, but most these days involve a pretty easy set up with a system of interlocking poles that give the tent its shape and a cover that is secured over the top. Once the tents are assembled, we use the tents’ ropes and stakes to secure the tents in their places. The children then will be in charge of inflating the air mattress and setting up the sleeping bags, while the adults set up the rest of the site (camping chairs, lanterns, tools for the fire).
Once all that is done, it’s time to take a deep breath, and get ready to enjoy our new outdoor home!
Preparing the fire and the evening meal.
We will usually bring some firewood from home (if allowed) or will have bought some at or near the park. It can take a little while for the fire to burn into nice cooking coals, so we start the fire before anything else. Having a fire also helps tremendously with keeping away the bugs! Once we’re ready to begin dinner prep, we will take from the car only what we need for each step. We usually camp where there might be bears, so it is extremely important to keep all foods (and any other items with a scent of any kind) secured in the car. This will involve a lot of going back and forth to the car, but it’s necessary, and all that walking makes us more hungry for dinner. Our favorite meals for camping are barbecue chicken one night and grilled sausage (both meat and vegan) for the other. If we’re camping more than two nights, we might grill burgers (grass-fed beef or veggie) on the third night. Along with the main dish, we will have corn and sweet potatoes (both can be cooked in aluminum foil on the fire) and salads (from our garden and some prepared). If cooking over a fire seems like too daunting a task, it’s easy enough to pre-cook your meals (baked chicken or bean and pasta salad, for example) and eat those instead and just use the fire for smores and after-dinner relaxing. If you bring a propane camp stove (we usually bring 2, one large and one small), that opens up a whole bunch of other meal options. You can use the stove to boil pasta or rice or sauté any meat, fish, or vegetable. You will see that our camping list includes two pots and two frying pans for this purpose. For the morning meal, we will use the stove to boil water for the coffee, prepare eggs or sometimes pancakes. Our children would often eat a cold breakfast (cereal and milk, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) instead. We still have a fire in the morning, just to take the chill off, and it’s so wonderful for the children to emerge from the tent to a nice warm fire in the morning.
Hiking, Playing, Sleeping—the really fun parts!
Even from when our children were really young, we camped in places where we could hike. We looked for two key things in our hikes: either a great view or access to water (stream, waterfall). The goal of reaching a view is a great motivator for little hikers (or for the big hikers carrying or pushing a little one), and we have been able to find some wonderful parks that offer manageable hikes (no crazy steep climbs, wide and well-maintained trails) to higher elevations with spectacular vistas—right in New Jersey or in nearby PA or NY. Another good hiking option is one that goes along a stream or brook. This provides for nice spots to stop and take a break and keeps things just a little exciting for children. The parks listed below have both these types of hikes.
After a nice hike, and then an easy lunch back at the site (usually something cold, like pbj, or last night’s leftovers), it’s time to relax. The camp chairs that we bring are comfortable (that’s important), and some are designed to lie back, so often we’ll read for a while and then nap right in the chair. When the children were very small, we would nap with them in the tent, and as they got older, they would usually occupy themselves by playing a game at the table or playing or reading in the tent (many Barbies and Legos have joined us on our camping trips!). After our little rest, we will usually take the children somewhere for a swim, if the park offers swimming, and then after that, we all shower and change into our warmer clothes for making dinner and enjoying the evening fire. At most parks, showering is a bit of an effort: we have to gather clothes, toiletries, towels, and some sort of shower shoe (flip-flop, water sandal) for each person from the car (remember, personal products need to be kept in the car in bear country!), and then we make our way to the shower facility. Some campgrounds have just minimal facilities near the site (pit toilet), but they will have hot water and showers at a building a little farther away. So, it’s either a short “hike” to the shower or we’ll take the car. In any case, getting us all cleaned and dressed usually takes well over an hour, but again, the effort just makes us all the more ready for dinner!
The End of the Day
After dinner, it’s time to relax by the fire. We might play word games or sing songs or just sit and talk. Usually, we’ll turn in early—especially since we tend to rise with the sun when camping. Getting ready for bed, again, is a bit of an effort. We will take whoever needs to go to the nearby bathroom. If there is no running water, we’ll use alcohol sanitizer for hands and bottled water to brush teeth and rinse and spit in an area just away from the site (pardon that bit of TMI, but parents might want to know how we do it). Then, we’ll go to the tent (or tents), bringing pajamas from the car (if we haven’t put them in the tent already), with a flashlight or lantern for each person. When entering the tent, we’ll make sure to leave our shoes outside on the ground cover (camping requires a bit of balancing!). Once inside, we’ll make sure the tent is closed up, with the screened venting open, and will settle into our sleeping bags to read. Depending upon how far we hiked, and if we swam as well, we might be so tired as to shut our lights within a few minutes. After a night of (hopefully) restful sleep, we’ll awake with the morning light, ready to light the fire, start the water for coffee, and begin a new day in the outdoors!
Favorite Places to Camp:
These all use an online reservation system. It is best to book far in advance—especially if you want to reserve a weekend. We always try and book two sites side-by-side (costs more, but camping is generally very inexpensive anyway, and it gives us more space).
Stokes State Forest, New Jersey –closest one to us. Best camping section is Lake Ocquittunk (a fishing not swimming lake). Choose a site near the Flat Brook! Section has pit toilets, with one full bathroom (flush toilets/hot and cold water/showers) a half-mile walk or short drive from any site. Some great hikes, with streams and waterfall. Nice views of western Jersey.
North-South Lake, New York—in the Catskills. Lots of great sites. We like Loop 2—sites sit above the stream to the North Lake. Has full bathroom facilities (flush toilets/hot and cold water/showers) within each area. North Lake has swimming. Hikes to scenic vista toward the Hudson. https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/24487.html
Promised Land State Park, Pennsylvania—in the Poconos. We like to camp in the Pickerel Point section, with water on all sides. Has full bathroom (flush toilets/hot and cold water/showers). Some good hikes, with streams and waterfall. https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/PromisedLandStatePark/Pages/default.aspx
Sacandaga River, in Adirondack State Park, New York—in the Adirondack mountains. The farthest away for us. Two branches of the Sacandaga River frame the park. Beautiful sites on the river (river is rather shallow in spots, so great for kids). Has full bathroom (flush toilets/hot and cold water/showers).Wonderful mountain hiking.
What to Bring
As extensive as this list is (remember, we like the kids to enjoy camping!), it is not exhaustive. These are just the things we have learned to bring in order to have the best experience. We know this is not for wilderness camping. We have purchased items on Amazon.com, at Target (they have great, reasonably price camping stuff!) and at Dick’s Sporting Goods (higher quality, higher priced options)
For the Site:
Tents (1 4-person, or 2 2-person)
Tarps (at least 4 for overhead, 2 per tent for ground cover) Shovel
Lg Dining Canopy and poles
Air Mattresses and Pumps (1 per person)
Sleeping bags (1 per person)
Small camping table (foldable)
Camping Chairs Lanterns and batteries
Large Propane Stove
Lots of twine/rope
Small Propane Stove
Stakes for tents
Ax and Small hand saw Hammock
Coffee and scoop
Dishes (plastic plates and bowls)
Oil and/or butter
Salt and Pepper/ Additional Spices
Sm Frying Pan, Sm Pot, handle
One gallon of water per person per day
Forks, Knives (2 steak knives), Spoons Snacks
Lgr Utensils: Tongs (2), Spatula, Wooden Spoons
Pot Holder (1)
Books of matches
Propane can and torch
Press Pot for Coffee
Cooking Grates for fire
Lg Cooking Pot and Frying Pan
Foil, Saran Wrap, Lg Baggies
Containers for storing leftover food
Lg and Sm Garbage Bags
Dish Soap, Sponge, Scrubby
Lg Tablecloth (plastic, washable)
Towels (2 per person)
Jackets (lots—for rain and warmth)
1 Flashlight per person
Heavy duty work gloves