Imagine a stress-free vacation where you actually love getting there. No ridiculously expensive, non-refundable plane tickets, long airport lines or cramped flights. No lugging heavy bags in and out of hotels. No expensive and often unhealthy restaurant meals. You can take your dog with you and anything else you want from home too. You’re relaxed and worry-free. Your schedule or even your destination can change on a dime and it’s all good. Best of all – your kids are happy and actually talking to you.
Camping creates memories your kids will talk about for the rest of their lives. It’s one of the few places where they can experience what many of us had growing up: free-range play with no strict schedules or hovering parents. They find their own fun, make instant friendships and spend the day playing outdoor, knowing they have to be back to the campsite when the campground lights go on!
Now, I’m not talking about pitching a tent and sleeping on the ground, praying it doesn’t rain. That’s not my idea of a vacation. Fortunately, camping has become easier and more luxurious than you can imagine. The goal is to bring your family together away from the crazy itineraries, play dates, organized activities, and technology – and just connect with each other and nature.
A great resource to find everything you need to get started on your camping adventure is www.GoRVing.com. They are a one-stop-shop for RV dealers and rental agents; campground directory; what to bring; games for the kids and easy recipes for the road.
The National Park Services website (www.NPS.gov) lists national park amenities, campsites and bear alerts where applicable.
How to Camp:
You can rent a luxury RV starting around $100 a day from agents such as El Monte RV with hundreds of offices nationwide. You don’t need a special license to drive a motorhome and will get the hang of maneuvering turns and backing up in no time. Just be sure to give yourself time for the tutorial at the dealer or rental agent. Many campgrounds also rent trailers or motorhomes that are already at the campground and come with everything you need to enjoy your stay.
Trailers range from super small to 400 square feet of living space and can be pulled with a car, truck or SUV. Livin’Lite RV makes a trailer you can pull with a Prius! Once you get to the campground, you can unhook the trailer and use your car for day excursions. A huge camping trend is destination camping – that’s when you leave your camping trailer at a campground for the season and travel back and forth on weekends or holidays.
Motorhomes are great for families that want the freedom to walk around while they’re traveling, make their meals, play board games at the table, watch movies or TV. They have tons of storage space and come in all sizes and price ranges. The Minnie Winnie is the iconic Winnebago crafted specifically for families with a bed over the cab, a full kitchen, TVs, slide-outs for extra living space and an outdoor entertainment system.
This is how I learned to love to camp! Packing was always my biggest camping-deterrent. Staying in a park model RV (aka cabin) changed all that. I pull up, unload a few snacks, my bag and my kids and am on my front porch swing in minutes. Park Models are fully-loaded cabins with a separate bedroom for the parents; bunk beds for the kids; a living room, kitchen, bathroom and a/c. Park Models are a great way to try camping with no fuss. Everything you need is already there including a fire pit, grill and loads of campground activities at your front door.
Where to Camp:
With more than 16,000 campgrounds in the U.S. and hundreds of national and state parks, camping is as easy as heading down the road a couple hours to campground near you. Rustic, outdoor adventure, spas, vineyards, beaches, mountains, eco-conscious, culinary, pet-friendly – there is a campground for every lifestyle. There are campgrounds at major family destinations such as Disney World, Washington, DC and even outside of NYC!
If this is your first foray into camping, start with baby steps and stay in a park model at a campground near you. You’ll get the feel for what you like (and don’t like) about camping. Most campgrounds offer a club house with activities such as tie-dying, obstacle courses, outdoor movies and arts & crafts. One of my favorite campground chains is KOA (Kampgrounds of America). Every KOA has a ‘jumping pillow’ that kids love along with a pool, miniature golf, recumbent bikes, a general store and your own fire pit for campfires. Campsites start around $35 a night and can go as high as $150 for a luxury park model.
Considering you’re not paying for lights, hotels, restaurants or even pet boarding, camping can be anywhere from 24-59% less expensive than traditional travel.
What to Bring Camping:
There a few things you absolutely must bring on any camping adventure and a few luxuries that make it that much more enjoyable. You can buy these items or Rural TMOM advises in her Camping 101 article to attend a gear swap.
Folding Chairs – they start around $15 and come in every size. I like the ones that come with their own attached table (perfect for resting my campfire cocktail).
Cooler on wheels – We bring as much food as we can to avoid having to eat out. Although your RV or cabin will have a fridge, they’re typically small so if you have a big family, it’s worth investing in mack-daddy cooler that will keep extra food cold for days.
Duraflame Roasting Log with lighter/matches – Do NOT bring your own wood unless it’s a commercially wrapped log like a Duraflame. Most campgrounds have wood for sale too. Local woods can carry bugs and other insects that can damage another local supply. Love these roasting logs – they burn cleaner and they’re made from 100% renewable resources so no trees were cut down to make them.
Non-tech Games – If you set it up, they will come. One of the most important things you’ll take away from a camping adventure is the time spent with each other — away from being constantly connected via computers, TVs, and smartphones . Board games and cards never go out of style, and even simple arts and crafts with Mom and Dad are memories your kids will remember for the rest of their lives. Set up a board game on the picnic table outside and leave it out. Have your coffee or a snack there. It is like a magnet. Your kids – even teens – will gravitate to the table to play a round or more with you. It’s also a must for rainy days.
S’Mores! – Do not leave home without them and bring the bling! NO child should have to grow up without experiencing the joy of making a s’more over a campfire. Sticks, marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers. Once you get the hang of it, kick them up a notch with banana slices, giant flavored marshmallows, gourmet chocolates, Nutella or save a step and use chocolate covered graham crackers.
A Map – There’s no guarantee your GPS is always going to work or be right, especially if you are planning to camp off the grid. ALWAYS take a good-old-fashioned map with you no matter where you’re going. Maps are also a great way for the kids to help with directions and learn along the way. Go for the Big Atlas with all 50 states – also have the U.S. Road Trip Atlas for kids. About $7 each
First Aid Kit – Doesn’t need to be extreme. Neosporin, Bandages, Tweezers, Aspirin, and burn cream will only cost you around $10.
Our Own Pillow & Linens – Rental agents and campgrounds have kits for rent that include pots, pans, linens, and more – but I like to take my own pillow.
Sleeping Bags – Even if you rent linens, kids love sleeping bags, and they make making the beds so much easier! No matter what kind of camping you’re doing, sleeping bags are a must. From $20-$40.
Flashlights & Batteries / Lanterns – Most campgrounds have plenty of nighttime activities – but aren’t well lit for the walk back to your campsite. Make sure you have a lantern, flashlight or headlamp. A great option for kids is a head lamp. It leaves their hands free but lights the way for them. Starting at $5.
Bug Spray / Citronella Candles / Bug Repellent Bracelets – Campers are an all-you-can-eat buffet for bugs. My favorites way to keep bugs at bay are bug bracelets and citronella candles. Choose organic whenever possible – it’s better for your skin & the environment. The organic citronella candles I gave away on the Today Show segment were purchased at Back 40 Mercantile in for $18.
Walkie Talkie Wrist Watch – Campgrounds are the closest we have to the childhood most of us had as children – unsupervised play with neighborhood kids for hours. Just be sure you come home by the time the street lights go on! A very popular way for keeping tabs on your kids (since cell phone reception can be spotty and not every child has a cell phone) is to bring walkie talkies for the whole family. These are perfect – your kid wears it as a watch so they can’t lose it, but it’s also a 2-way radio with up to 3 miles reception.
JetPack / Hot Spot – Most campgrounds have WiFi but you’re sharing it with all the other campers – so it’s not as secure or reliable as your own hot spot. You can get a used one online for about $50 and spend around $20 a month (plus data) for your own WiFi. When you’re not traveling, just pause the service. It’s VERY helpful to have consistent WiFi when driving too.
*Today Show camping segment jewelry provided by Back 40 Mercantile