Yesterday, I shared about how we planned and prepared for our very first family camping trip. Today, I want to share five valuable lessons we learned on our first camping trip.
1. Go With Experienced Campers
If you want to have an amazing first camping trip, don’t go it alone. It’s more fun with friends — especially friends who have a lot of camping experience under their belt!
We went with three other families from our community group at church and ALL of them had more camping experience than us. One of the families has pretty extensive camping experience and they served as our guides for the adventure. They picked the campground, they gave us suggestions on what to pack, and they planned the food for the trip.
Having people who had already done this many times before and who could help steer us in the right direction before the trip and while on the trip was incredibly helpful. We even had a meeting where they gave us suggestions on what to pack and then sent us a suggested packing list!
Yes, we had a huge leg up because of this — and I know it was definitely one of the reasons we were able to enjoy the trip so much much!
2. Keep the Food Simple
There are lots and lots of amazing camping meals you can make over the fire or on a portable cookstove. Instead of going all out on our first camping trip, we kept it simple.
Everyone brought cereal and milk for breakfast. (The milk stayed cold in the coolers with ice. If we had been on a longer camping trip, this wouldn’t have been as great of an option, but since this was just a three-day trip, it worked well.)
One of the families brought a Keurig so we could all have coffee, hot tea, and hot cocoa. Each campsite had one outlet, so we were definitely not roughing it as much as you could at other campsites out
in the boonies! (If you don’t have electricity, you could also use a portable electric tea kettle with instant coffee or some kind of pour over coffee filtration system or tea bags. Or you could go all out and make coffee over the campfire.)
We all brought stuff for our own lunches such as: sandwiches, chips, fruit snacks, veggies, fruit, granola bars, etc. We went on a hike one day for lunch, so we made sure all the lunch stuff was easily portable.
We also brought snacks and this was definitely a necessity! People had told me to bring extra food because everyone would be more hungry with all the exercise and walking we’d be doing. That was definitely the case! I couldn’t believe how much food the kids downed while we were there! They ate a lot at meals plus were hungry for snacks about every two hours! I was glad I had packed plenty of snacks.
For dinners, we all pitched in and brought some of the items and it made it really simple. The first night, we had hot dogs and sausages roasted over the fire, veggies and dip, pasta salad (made ahe
ad of time), and s’mores. The second night, we had a taco bar with taco meat (made ahead of time and heated up on a little portable cookstove), tortillas, lettuce, chips, salsa, cheese, sour cream, tomatoes, etc. And then we had campfire pies with different fruit fillings (or mountain pies, as some people call them) for dessert.
3. Prepare for Sleep to Be a Challenge
This one caught me off guard. I’m usually a sound sleeper — especially when I’ve gotten a lot of exercise during the day! But I struggled to sleep while we were camping. And I wasn’t alone; pretty much all the adults in our group did.
The first night, there were so many noises to adjust to, I struggled to get co
mfortable, it was warmer than I’d anticipated, and all of the nature noises kept startling me. And then, I think I was nervous about the fact that there wasn’t a bathroom in our tent and what would happen if I needed to wake up and go to the bathroom in the night. It was kind of silly stuff, I know, but I was surprised by how unsettled I felt sleeping in a tent as an adult.
The second night, I prepared better and used a few extra blankets to make the air mattress more like how our bed at home feels. We also used a sound machine app on our phone to help drown out the outdoor noises. Both of these things seemed to help and we both slept better, but it was still very fitful sleep compared to how I sleep at home!
If I had known I was going to struggle sleeping, I probably would have done a be
tter job bringing more pillows and a few of my favorite blankets from home. I may have also considered investing in some sort of portable bathroom for the night time so I wouldn’t have had to worry about leaving the tent to traipse to the shower house in the middle of the night.
4. Plan for Everything to Take Longer Than You Expect
I think this was the biggest lesson I learned from camping: it’s a LOT of work. I calculated that it takes about 10 times as much time to pack for a camping trip than a regular trip. I’m not joking.
We usually pack for a 3-5 day family trip in about 1 1/2 hours or less. We have a system. Everyone works together. And we just get it done.
It took us every bit of 10 hours to get things ready and pack for this trip — and that didn’t even include the time I spent researching things online, making my lists, and making purchases!
Now that we have all of our camping gear together, it should be much easier in the future. But I’m positive that it’s still going to be more work to gear up for a camping trip than it will ever take to go on a regular trip.
And that’s just the packing part! It’s also a lot of work to set up your camp and to tear down your campsite, pack up your vehicle, and then unpack at home.
I don’t say this to discourage you from camping; I just wanted to give you the reality of it. I think that the packing and setting up camp and tearing down camp and unpacking are all part of the process. And you can enjoy it if you view it as such. But just go into things knowing that it’s going to take you quite a bit of time and there’s really no getting around that.
5. Bring Your Adventurous Attitude
A camping trip is going to be an adventure, there’s no doubt about it. It’s not really so much as to what happens on the camping trip or how much of it goes as planned as to whether you enjoy it; it’s all in your attitude.
It’s not going to go as planned. It’s not going to be perfect.
There will be bugs. Lots and lots of bugs!
It may rain. It might be hot. It might be cold.
You might have trouble getting your tent set up. You might forget to bring something.
It might be a long walk to the bathroom. You might have trouble sleeping.
You might get a sunburn. Your allergies might flare up.
You will probably miss some of the comforts of home. There’s a good chance that one (or more!) of your family members will have a bad attitude.
But none of those things have to ruin your camping trip. If you view the camping experience as an adventure, you can roll with the punches and have a GREAT camping trip!
A Few Other Tips:
- Shower ahead of time — You don’t know what the shower situation will be and you may not want to shower while you’re there! Gratefully, the shower houses were very decent where we stayed, but I’ve heard that is often not the case.
- Bring your own toilet paper and soap — The shower houses where we stayed did not have any hand soap in them. Gratefully, I had brought some body wash, so we all shared that. But next time around, I will definitely bring a pump of hand soap, just in case. Also, bring your own toilet paper just to have backup in case the bathrooms are out or run out.
- Expect your allergies to flare up — If you have outdoor allergies, there is a good chance they will flare up big time because you are basically living in a sea of allergens in the woods. I wish I had thought of this ahead of time and had brought some of our different allergy meds and remedies.
- Keep all of the towels, blankets, and clothes in your vehicle — If there’s any chance of rain at all, keep all of the towels, blankets, and clothes in your vehicle, just in case it starts raining. That way, once the rain lets up, you’ll guarantee that you have at least some dry clothes and towels and blankets!
Tomorrow, I’ll share my Camping Trip Master List with everything we brought, plus a few additions I’m adding for next time!
If you’re a camper, I’d love to hear your best advice and tips. Share them in the comments!
Stephen A Volsted Sr says
Years ago the first time I was going to go camping an experienced camper told me to pitch the tent in my backyard and stay the night outside cook over a fire grill whatever and everything else as your out camping away from home and then whatever you may forget you will remember to bring when you go on a camping trip I made a list too though and we didn’t forget anything when we went camping and it was fun in the yard too!
That’s such a great tip! Thanks for sharing! -Jordan, MSM Team
After tent camping for a few years and having some severe thunderstorm issues we purchased a pop up camper. We love our camper, but we do not cook in it, we cook outside on a tabletop sized ceramic grill. When just me and my husband our clothes are stored on the extra bed. If we have a camper full we indeed keep our clothes in the car. It is weather, insect and varmint proof. We have totes with sleeping bags, towels, soap, shampoo, propane, tarps, just everything we need. Everything gets cleaned and repacked so when the next trip comes up we grab the totes.
Also, try to find places that do not keep half of your money if you have to cancel reservations due to bad weather. In Virginia the State Parks will let you transfer your reservation from one date to another, even one park to another. Always sit outside at night at the campfire and reconnect, talk of the day, and enjoy the moon and stars.
Julie West says
Don’t keep your cloths in the car. All those experienced campers and none of them shared with you that storage bags are a campers best friend. It makes organization of your pack and cloths easier too. Each days outfit goes into it’s own storage bag. Roll the bag with the clothes in it before zipping it closed. This takes the air out of the bag and allows you to fit more into your pack, or take up less space in the car. The storage bags keep your clothes dry if water should get into your tent. A properly staked tent with a ground tarp under it, and seems sealed with silicone, usually stays dry on the inside though. Happy camping!!
Amy P says
Glow sticks are a great little nightlight for kids who are wary of being in a tent at night, especially if they’re on their own for the first part of the night before you join them! Just make sure that if you have really little kids, the glow sticks are sturdy enough to handle some chewing….I gave my 2-3yo the skinny bracelet kind one year and while they say non-toxic…oops!!
I do have one tip – buy the pre-made hamburger patties. It is so much easier than trying to do all that when camping.
No real camping tips – while I did a lot of camping when my daughter was a Girl Scout, we’ve only been once since. But a fun place go to camping is at Assateague National Seashore at the MD/VA border. You may have heard of the Misty of Chincoteague books. Well – there’s where they are from. You will still rough it in a tent, although you are free to stay at a nearby hotel on the mainland. But if you do camp, it’s very nice. You get a fairly private spot if you don’t reserve closer to the beach. There are facilities and even showers. You will get “natural” white noise from the sound of the ocean. But prepared to possibly be woken up by wild horses galloping outside your tent in the middle of the night! 😉
The cabins are exceptional in most parks but check out what your renting as well because some cabins are so old that there is not a mattress just a wooden bed frame for the kitchen there is just a set of cabinets and a coffee pot you are supposed to bring a cookstove and use the coffee pot on the cookstove.
No indoor bathroom with many of the cabins.
Bugs, bugs and bugs galore and sometimes in the cabins too.
I have enjoyed all your posts on camping. We love, love, love camping! It is a lot of work (especially for mom!), but the memories and great nature experiences are so worth it. Last summer my family camped our way from Georgia to Montana and back again in a pop-up camper. Staying in hotels would have been easier, but we saw some AMAZING sights and the kids had so many adventures that they never would have had if we’d stayed in hotels. Everyone knows about the National Parks, of course, but there are so many state parks to be explored — each with its own personality and beauty.
One piece of advice for people who are reluctant campers . . . most state parks have cabins that you can rent. They usually have beds, kitchens, TVs, bathroom, so in many ways it’s like staying at a hotel (and usually costs about what a hotel would cost per night). But nature is right outside the door! This is a great way to try out camping without having to rough it quite so much.
Crystal Paine says
Thanks so much for sharing the tip about renting a cabin. We joked that it would have been a lot easier, less time-consuming, and cheaper to stay in a cabin! 🙂
We bring ear plugs and head lamps. Can’t survive with out them. I cook and freeze as much as I can before hand so I can actually enjoy my trip. Hubby reheats, kids set table and get drinks. I reset everything between meals and before we go to bed. Bring bagged salads, sliced meats and such. We find we don’t eat lunch.. just snacks. We try to stop at a grocery store before we leave society behind and get all our produce and put it portable cooler bags with dozen water bottles. At lot planning to make the trip easy once you get there.
For body cleaning large towelettes / baby wipes does the job.
A few more tips:
A portable tabletop grill fueled by propane makes cooking a breeze. Empty toilet paper rolls filled with dryer lint make the best fire starters. Pizza mountain pies are delicious & there is nothing better than hot dogs & marshmallows roasted over a fire! ⛺️
If you are going to begin camping more, I highly recommend getting a camping stove. When I was growing up, we cooked most of our meals over the camp stove when we were outdoors. Our favorite breakfast was fried eggs, pancakes, and bacon. The smell was amazing in the outdoors of a morning!
I went camping twice when I was very young think Silas age and younger I got so sick I went to the hospital for over a week. I tried again when I was a bit older. Got really sick again. Now the running joke with our family is I don’t camp.
It is for all the reasons you listed and more that I got so sick.
” I don’t camp” I’m quite old now but my personal joke was I camp just fine I camp at “Howard Johnson’s” which today would be Holiday Inn.
You could still do milk on a longer trip, you could purchase shelf stable milk. It comes in quarts and single serve containers. This will also hold true for almond milk and ect…
I have also seen on Pinterest of folks who make ahead pancake mix and store it in old coffee creamer containers.
We tent camped for years with our 4 children as it was the only way we could afford a vacation. I loved sleeping in the woods and the night noises were like a peaceful lullaby to me. My husband and 2 boys would cook breakfast over a campfire in the morning. We called the wood ashes that landed in the eggs, “wilderness pepper”. 🙂 Be sure to keep the food in the car; we discovered squirrels eat through Tupperware! I found it so relaxing because there was nothing to clean, like a cottage. Just research the campgrounds well because you can definitely run into some bad ones. (One we had booked had a train track running right next to it!! We found another place to stay.) One more thing – my husband always put tarps over the whole campsite so if it rained we stayed dry, unless it was a really strong storm. An adventurous attitude is definitely one of the best things you can bring because unexpected things are sure to happen!
Thank you for this, especially the viewing it as an adventure tip! My family is going to spend a couple nights in a rustic cabin this summer. No electricity, no running water, outhouse, no cell phone service… And my kids are 5, 4, & 3. :O Not only are there bugs, but grizzlies! I doubt I’ll sleep a wink!
You’re nice than I. You could not pay me enough money to sleep outside. I have a terrible fear of bugs. Little ones I don’t mind. But the big, forest, creepy bugs I can’t stand. The thought of a bug crawling on me during the night is too much for me.
I always take a battery operated white noise maker with us camping to help with sleeping at night. Makes a huge difference!
Kim J says
We usually keep meals simple… hamburgers, hotdogs, etc. We freeze most of our meat and the next meal is the meat that is thawed. We like to grill so even chicken or steaks or pork chops is an option. Oftentimes cold fried chicken, potato salad (both made at home) is our first meal. Easy to get ready after the campsite is set up or enroute to site. Freeze drinking water, milk, iced tea or juice in half or gallon jugs and drink as it thaws….this eliminated the need for ice. We keep a smaller cooler for our ice and canned beverages. Invest in hobo pie makers (campfire pies). You can make pies like tacos, ham and cheese, pizza, or breakfast pies with egg/meat/cheese.
I’ve been a lifelong camper and my mom always seemed prepared. She always fills an empty ice cream bucket with water, dish soap, and a rag. It has come in handy so many times to wash off tables, dirty hands, dishes, etc.
I’ve been camping in all sorts of weather. My top tips all have to do with being prepared for unexpected rain. Yes, it is a challenge, but you can still have fun if it rains.
If you are hiking to your campsite and won’t have your car, put all your clothes and towels in zip-lock bags. Bring rain ponchos to put over your backpacks.
Before you go, take your matches and dip the flammable tips into melted candle wax. If it rains and your matches get wet, you’ll still be able to light them.
Bring some dry wood, and put the wood you collect near the fire to dry out while the first batch burns. Bring big wads of dryer lint (in zip lock bags) because, “Lint from the dryer starts a good fire.” This will help if you have trouble finding dry twigs or are a novice fire starter.
Bring several tarps and rope in case you have to string up some protection from the elements.
Prescription medication bottles are waterproof and good for storing matches in too!
We use dryer lint packed in cardboard egg cartons then soaked in parafin wax as fire starters. Works like a charm. In a pinch (as I learned from boy scout camps) fritos also work well as fire starters.
Amy Has. says
If you are going to a camp site with a picnic table, a fitted sheet works well for a tablecloth that won’t blow away.
GREAT idea-thank you!!!
Old ice cream pail with lid for emergency tent toilet. Can upgrade to putting trash bag with kitty litter (you are the kitty) in it if you want to be fancy. Freeze anything you don’t need to use right away. I freeze a half gallon of milk. All used as ice. Cook bacon before you leave home. Pack in foil so you can just heat. I use a shower bag if no shower. I have to get sunscreen and insect repellent off before bed or I itch all night. Zip lock bags. To keep bugs out of everything. Love my double high air mattress. Make sure you have something thick (I have used eggcrate mattress or my 1970 sleeping bag) between mattress and you. Helps retain heat / prevent sweating from plastic. If elevtric available: Power Cord and surge protector bar. My electric blanket! Only water in the tent. No food. My husband stares at me all night because the animal noises keep him awake. Yes, creepy to wake up to. He visits for the day only. Neither of us are willing to tent together ever again! You will find what works best. I keep old stuff packed for camping. Sheets, blankets (hate sleeping bags – OK , I am claustrophobic a bit. Can’t control my hot flashes wih one either.) library books for rainy days.
Crystal – I have so enjoyed reading about your camping trip and I am so so glad that you were able to enjoy the time outdoors. I was a Girl Scout all the way through high school and now lead a couple troops (14 K/1 girls and 22 4th-8th girls) and so camping is old hat now. I’ve read a lot of other comments on other posts and wanted to throw a couple more things out there.
Your ‘mountain pies’ can be turned into so many other meals! We call them pudgie pie makers (the actual utensil you cooked in) and will do any meal in them.
Breakfast – bread with scrambled eggs (cooked at home) and browned sausage (also cooked at home) with cheese
Lunch – bread with lunch meat and cheese (hot ham and swiss!) or do bread with pizza sauce, pepperoni and mozzarella (pudgie pie pizzas)
Dinner – use tortilla shells with salsa, taco meat (cooked at home), cheese, black beans (pudgie pie quesadillas)
Dessert – pies (fruit pie filling) but we also do peanut butter with bananas and chocolate chips (pudgie pies in “Elvis” fashion) 🙂
Another super easy (and kind of fun) dessert are banana boats. Purchase one banana per camper and use a knife to cut into the banana peel on the inside of the curve, just under where you would normally open the banana. Pull the peel back but don’t pull it all the way off! Leave the strip of peel attached and the rest of the peel on the banana. Take a spoon and hollow out part of the banana (make a canoe with your banana really) and then put chocolate chips and marshmallows into the canoe part (the banana you remove for the canoe part can be eaten or discarded). Once full, move the peel part back to the original position (covering the marshmallows and chocolate) and then roll the whole thing in foil. Throw the wrapped banana on some nice hot coals until heated through. Carefully open and eat while warm. I searched Pinterest as I’m sure my directions make no sense…so check this picture out at least – it gives you an idea of what you’re shooting for. My girls love love love to make these banana boats (and I do too!). If you’re going to do this – long tongs or ‘Ove Gloves’ are much needed! I am in love with my Ove Gloves. Those things are amazing (and much easier to use than a pot holder since you’ve got all of your fingers separated and able to be used).
Finally – I would suggest a first aid kit. We have a decent sized plastic tote that holds all sorts of items that you might need – including a mini sewing kit, toothbrushes, $20 hidden in a Band-Aid box and the regular first aid type items (itch stick, ibuprofen/acetaminophen, Pepto, pads/tampons, Ace bandage). This kit stays with our camping gear and goes back and forth every trip. It has saved my tush on more than one occasion!
I can’t wait to finish reading your series on this experience. Thank you for sharing!
I suggested going on a camping trip with our family of 3. Husband, me, and son, and my husband said “NOPE. That’s why there are motels, and hotels so you don’t have to sleep outside.” Was every family member on board with the idea of camping outside in a tent? My son and I also have seasonal allergies. Was it hard on those who have allergies to deal with all the pollen and outdoor elements? Just curious. Sounds like you guys made the best of it though, and made memories. That’s what matters!
That is a great idea of storing towels and blankets in the vehicle during the day. Several years ago, ALL of our camping gear got soaked while we were hiking. We ended up only camping one night! Lots of fun!
We have never, ever been camping. I think I’ve been a little intimidated by the process. We don’t have any hand-me-down gear, so the whole prospect seems very expensive. And uncomfortable. I would like to try an outdoor adventure someday, but we would probably start with a furnished yurt, to ease into it. Spending time outdoors and unplugged is important. For now, we stick to day trips and motels. Thanks for the article!
Melissa W. says
We have found that bringing a fan for nighttime works great. Of course, this only works if your campsite has electric, but we’ve found that a fan is great for drowning out all of the nighttime noises.
I have 3 battery powered fans. The cost about 7 to 10 dollars and are perfect for one person. We now have a camp trailer as tent camping with our special needs child became close to impossible because we rustic camp usually 10 to 20 miles from bathrooms and showers. Before we had the camper we had a portable toilet in a shower tent purchased for 40 dollars but she became scared of the cramped space and the moving walls. Life is a wonderful adventure.
When you decide to try out camping, consider renting gear. We have our own gear for trips close to home but rented gear when we went to Colorado last summer. I was pleasantly surprised how good of condition everything was in and it’s a much cheaper way to give it a try and see how you like it. As a bonus or gear rental store was staffed by experiences campers who knew the area and could give us some great tips.
That’s a great idea! I’ve never heard of renting camping supplies.
https://www.boldbetties.com/ Bold Betties is a great company to rent gear from (other than REI). Also, they have packing lists for different types of activities.
Check with your state’s Department of Natural Resources. Ours has a first time camper program in which they lend you all the equipment and a ranger helps you set it up, build a fire, etc. I haven’t used the program myself but it sounds like a great, low cost way to try out camping. 🙂
When we took students camping, one of the things we did for food was to scramble a lot of eggs and pour them into empty water bottles and freeze them. When we packed the cooler they would keep other food cold until we wanted to cook them, thus needing less ice in the cooler. The same with water botles. We would freeze them and so we never had loose ice in the cooler. We also froze water in dishes and put the blocks of ice in zip lock bags in the cooler. Melted ice can just ruin food if it is loose.
Crystal Paine says
Such a great idea!
Sarah in Alaska says
Create a editable master list – we took a 6 night car camping/backpacking trip about 7 years ago and I created an excel spreadsheet list that considered both types of camping. I have been able to easily modify the list to accommodate road trips with grandparents and paddling camping trips as well. The list also ensures that either my husband or I can pack us up if one of us have other commitments.
Water – I have had too many camping trips where the first day was lost to dehydration headaches or heat exhaustion. Make sure you have adequate access to drinking water and that everyone is drinking enough. For some this may mean water bottles, for others it may be 5 gallon jug and paper cups, and for others filtering and/or boiling. If you are going backpacking, make sure everyone gets a good drink before heading out.
Duct tape – bring a little duct tape as part of your first aid kit or wrapped around a sharpie in your kitchen box. This can be used for a multitude of things from repairing tent poles to covering blisters.
Be open to learning – every time you go camping you (and you children) will have opportunities that they hadn’t had before. You will learn what works best for you and become more confident. You will learn more about nature and the world around you too.
Crystal Paine says
Such great suggestions here! And I love the editable list idea!
karen b says
I have to giggle at some of this………not in a bad way but in a more expierenced way 🙂 as you camp more often trust me it shouldn’t take as long. If you plan on doing it regularly get some towels you are willing to set aside & put them in a large tote so they will always be ready. Also sheets, kitchen towels, and any anything you feel you can just “have ready”. Pack flipflops to shower in, never ever shower in bare feet in shower houses!!!!!(sorry I should have told you before) Our food is usually not real simple anymore but we have been doing this for almost 26 years as a married couple & my hubby camped as a kid w/ his family. You know some things you “just know” 🙂
Crystal Paine says
Yes! I was so glad we were told to pack flip flops for the shower house! I don’t know that I would have thought of that on my own and it’s definitely a must!
I’m hopeful that it will be much easier next time around — especially now that we have our trusty plastic Camping Bins at the ready with many of the camping supplies we got! But the first time around, it’s just a whole lot of work to prep for!!