Speaking of bears, I’m a big wuss when it comes to sleeping outdoors. But Liz Stanley from Say Yes raves about camping everywhere from Maine to Wyoming. Here are her genius tips for making camping awesome (including fancy pancakes and blow-up mattresses, no joke)…
WHERE TO PITCH YOUR TENT
Skip the campground. Campgrounds feel like cities, only you’re closer together. The only thing between you and a bunch of drunk college kids is a thin sheet of nylon. If you’re scared of bears, campgrounds are the worst place because they know that’s where food is. In Yosemite, we saw a couple a day!
Get off the beaten path. You are allowed to camp in any national forest or wilderness area surrounding a national park.
Go car camping. Set up your tent within several feet of your car. You can pull out a fancy-pants air mattress. You can bring a full grill. You can bring a baguette and cheese. For a long time, my husband Jared, who is super outdoorsy, treated car camping like backpacking — pack very minimally, still eat dehydrated meal packets. But then he went on a boys’ camping trip with an expert scout master, who pulls up in a huge truck just full of crap — huge canopies, La-Z-Boy camping chairs, the most comfortable accommodations. And Jared was like, of course! There’s no reason to torture yourself.
Find the perfect spot. You can Google national forests or wilderness areas near you. Then, to pick your exact camping spot, you’ll need to drive down dirt roads and explore a little. We look for water nearby (it’s so much fun to play in a swimming hole or stream, and water makes the best noise machine at night); flat, soft ground; not a lot of mosquitoes (the higher up you go, the better it is, since mosquitoes can’t deal with wind); and pretty views, if possible.
WHAT TO PACK
- A larger tent than you think you need. There’s no reason to be cramped in a two-person backpacking tent. We’ve gone camping with families that have luxury tents with separate zippered rooms for the kids!
- An air mattress. Every time we car camp, we bring an air mattress for the adults, plus a little pump. Our seven-year-old sleeps on a mattress pad. Our toddler sleeps between us. We bring Marmot 20-degree synthetic sleeping bags. We’ll often zip two together to create one huge luxury bag.
- Our real pillows from our bed at home!
- I always bring beanies no matter what, even in summer. There’s nothing worse than having a cold head in the middle of the night.
- Flashlights and glowsticks are so much fun for kids. And a soccer ball. We often bring our camera and take pictures of the stars at night.
- Folding chairs to sit around the campfire.
- A camping stove, especially if you’re a new camper and don’t want to rely on a fire.
- A cooler.
- Basic tools, like a big spoon, scissors, a knife, a measuring cup and a can opener. We have a set of enamel plates and cups that we take on every trip.
- We usually rinse our cooking stuff with water, but you could bring Dr. Bronner’s soap if you’re going for more nights.
- We bring a roll of toilet paper and paper towels. You need to pack up all your trash. Solid waste needs to be 100′ or more from a body of water, buried at least 6” deep.
WHAT TO EAT
We don’t try to prepare food at home beforehand; it’s too much work when you’re already packing. We just stop at a grocery store on the way. We buy a bunch of ice for the cooler, plus groceries.
For breakfast, we’ll make pancakes, eggs, sausages and potatoes. At the grocery store, I’ll crack the eggs, put them in a ziplock bag, and pop them into our cooler. We’ll buy pancake mix — all mixes nowadays say “just add water,” even the fancy ones — and pour the mix into a zip-lock bag with water; later, we’ll just clip the end with scissors to make pancakes. You want breakfast to be quick; kids always wake up hungry!
For dinner, we grill hot dogs or kabobs. You can bring an old pot and make meatballs and mac and cheese. We also love Mountain House backpacking meals. You just add boiling water. They have cobblers, brownies, pudding pies, beef stew, Mexican rice with chicken… And since they’re dehydrated in small pieces, they’re all baby/kid friendly.
The smartest thing we’ve EVER done is get a Jetboil. It boils two cups of water in like thirty seconds. If you’re hungry and want your backpacking meal, or a cup of tea or hot chocolate, it’s a godsend.
WHY IT’S SO WORTH IT
It’s so nice to wake up in the morning when it’s chilly, and have a long hot breakfast with coffee or hot chocolate.
I love feeling like we’re doing our parental duty of “letting them run wild in nature.” Let them pick up bugs, get dirty, throw huge rocks in the water, scream “echo” up the canyon 10 bazillion times. Remember that just yesterday you wouldn’t let them throw a soft pillow in the living room too close to your face so this is their chance to be a real kid!
Sitting around the campfire at night — drinking a mug of wine, talking, making s’mores — is amazing. Since it gets dark at 8pm, we’ll often hang out for a while yet still go to bed early, which feels so good, too.
My husband and I once took a kayaking trip and ended up on a gorgeous lake under the Grand Tetons. We went skinny dipping at midnight. I loved that combination of paddling and camping. It was magical.
Thank you so much, Liz (who is currently on a ladies’ canoe trip in Maine)! These tips make me really want to go camping, something I never thought I’d say.
What camping tips do you have? Where do you guys camp? Any campsites you actually love? I am so curious to hear…