Camping 101 – Discovering a New Family Tradition

A friend recently revealed that she is taking her family camping for the very first time.  Her anxiety was increased when she told the campground staffer that this was going to be her first time camping and they burst into laughter.  She asked me, “Should I be worried?”

If taking your family camping fills you with terror, not to worry.  With a little planning, organization, and an adventurous spirit, you will soon be on your way to building new family traditions and memories.

Leaving all the comforts of our modern kitchens behind does present a few challenges.  However, some basic equipment such as a propane stove, several coolers, and a large family-sized griddle will have you whipping up some tasty vittles in no time. Here are a few more tips to keep you on track:

  1. Unless you’re in a RV or trailer, use paper and plastic and bring lots of garbage bags.  Go ahead and give up being green just for a few days.  There is no point in “getting away from it all” if you spend most of your time cooking and cleaning.
  2. Plan your menu in advance and cook the messy stuff before you leave and freeze it. When you load the cooler you won’t need ice for the first day or so because the frozen food will keep everything nice and cold. The pre-cooked food will warm up faster than cooking from scratch with less mess.
  3. Designate a drinks-only cooler for bottled water, juice with twist tops, and sodas with screw caps. Keeping drinks covered while they are sitting around the campsite will keep you from attracting bees and other insects. Make the food cooler off limits to the kids so you can lower ice consumption and avoid spoiled food from the lid not being sealed properly.
  4. Store your coolers in the shade as much as possible – under the car works if it’s high enough and you have no other option (just don’t forget to move it before driving away somewhere as this is kind of messy).
  5. Keep the menu easy yet delicious. Remember that you won’t have access to on-demand hot water for scrubbing greasy or stuck on pans so consider that when making food choices.  Ideas for a simple camping menu might include:
  • Breakfast – cereal, muffins, pop tarts, pancakes, pre-cooked bacon, eggs
  • Lunch – cold meat and cheese subs, PB&J, tuna salad, canned pasta, chips, fruit
  • Dinner – hot dogs (cooked on campfire), hamburgers (pre-cooked and frozen), fried chicken (purchased at the local deli the day you want to eat it), cold pasta salads, jello salads, canned BBQ beans, canned potatoes, pulled pork sandwiches (or cook a pot roast in the crock pot, pull the meat and freeze)
  • Snacks – granola bars, Nutri-Grain bars, apples, oranges, watermelon cut in advance and stored in Ziploc bags or hard container (no bananas – they get nasty and attract flies).

If you want to get creative, make recipes in advance that you can warm up in a frying pan.  My family loves when I make Monkey Bread at home and freeze it to be warmed up in a frying pan for breakfast.  The cinnamon and sugar make a memorable camping breakfast.  Other favorites include making toast over a morning fire stuffed with bacon and raspberry preserves (my childhood favorite).  Make your own food traditions that the kids will remember and pass to their children.


  • Lots of baggies in various sizes – everything gets wet in the cooler so even plastic containers (i.e. margarine tubs) or wrapped items (i.e. cheese slices) will need to be sealed in a Ziploc bag.
  • Aluminum foil, plastic wrap, 13 gal garbage bags (you will want to toss the trash EVERY meal so you don’t get critters so the smaller trash bags are better).
  • Plastic containers for items you don’t want to get crushed in the cooler.  A hard container large enough for bread items will also keep your bread, buns, and rolls from becoming bird food.
  • 2 towels for each person – one for the pool and one for the shower.  There is nothing worse than a wet or sandy towel when you just get out of the shower after a day at the pool or lake.
  • Ample clothesline for drying towels and bathing suits.  If a towel gets too dirty for use, hand wash it in the sink or shower (most campgrounds have laundry tubs if not a laundry mat on site) and hang it up to dry.  Items will dry quickly outside in the sun.  If it’s raining too much for anything to dry, cut your losses and go home.
  • Bring rolls of paper towels (double as napkins, dry dishes) and antibacterial wet wipes.
  • One good small sharp knife, a wooden spoon, a silicone spatula. I can cook and prepare just about anything with just these three kitchen tools.
  • Have a centralized bathroom bag – two bathroom bags (female and male) if you have a larger family.  Include in each bag a shampoo, conditioner, liquid soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, etc.
  • Use Rubbermaids with locking lids for non-perishables items such as food, dishes, etc.  They will store great outside and are water and pest proof (other than a really smart raccoon).
  • Tell your family that they can have one backpack or small duffel each. Unless you have a ton of room in your vehicle (which you probably won’t after the camp chairs, tents, coolers, stove, sleeping bags, etc) they may have to carry their stuff on their lap for the drive to the campground. Pack for camping – this is different than packing for a hotel. For example, wear your sneakers in the car and pack the sandals which take up less room; leave the “good” clothes at home; and pack items that condense well. Streamlining is the name of the game – not only is there limited room to transport it – there is nowhere to keep it once you are there. After jamming the tents full of sleeping gear there will be NO room for luggage.  If you are gone longer than a long weekend, plan to hit the local laundry mat.
  • If your campsite has electricity, bring several extension cords to operate a radio, lighting, fans or whatever else you need (no TV!).  If you are going primitive, then bring lots of batteries and/or fuel for these items instead.  Make sure you either have electricity for your air mattress pump or find one with a battery option.  Having to blow up even one air mattress will leave you blue in the face and searching for the Advil.
  • Bug spray and sunscreen are the only makeup needed.  Bring a hat and don’t worry about the hair.  You are on vacation – your family already knows you look scary in the morning so don’t worry about it.
  • Two bathing suits are nice if you have them.  There is nothing worse than putting on a wet bathing suit. Icky.
  • Instead of pj’s pack sporty shorts and a tank top to sleep in so you can run to the bathroom in the middle of the night if needed without having to get dressed.  Remind everyone to put their shoes where they can find them in the dark if needed. And speaking of shoes, shake them out before putting them on to avoid any painful surprises…just saying.
  • Have a trial run on putting up the tents BEFORE the trip. This will allow you to do whatever clean up is needed and ensure you have all the poles, tarps, etc.  Consider what tools you will need and make sure you pack them for the trip.  Trying to pound tent pegs with your shoe will not only look ridiculous but it’s not effective either.
  • Bedrolls take up less space than sleeping bags. If you are using air mattresses just take a fitted sheet and a light throw blanket for each person. If you don’t have air mattresses, the sleeping bags are good for sleeping ON rather than IN.  Personally I have a double high queen size mattress with a built in electric pump.  Roughing it shouldn’t mean not getting a good night’s sleep in my book.
  • Put together a basic first-aid kit or purchase one for your local pharmacy.  Somebody’s going to need at least a Band-aid and Neosporin every trip.  Advil, Tums, and allergy medications are also wise additions.  They don’t take up a lot of room and will save you a trip to the local Wal-Mart when you’d rather be heading to the lake.

Finally, remember these three things – keep it simple, focus on fun, and build those family memories.  Before you know it, the kids will be grown and gone.  There will be plenty of time for worrying about the hotel’s sheet thread count when you’re booking your senior citizen cruise or Branson music festival.


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