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Planning a Great Family Camping Trip

Car Camping
Backpack Camping

Planning a  successful camping trip, like anything else, begins with setting goals.  Here, we will look at two broad categories of camping adventures. Namely, trips where you can drive to within 100 yards of where you will sleep (car camping) versus those trips where you backpack your gear some distance to your campsite.  These really are very different endeavors,.  We hope that you see this information as a benefit to your outdoor experience.


Goal Setting:

Even if spontaneity is important to you, knowing what you hope to get out of your outdoor experiences can help you choose the places, gear, and activities you will pursue on your trip. There’s nothing wrong with a trip where you head to some beautiful campsite and just chill and decompress. There’s also nothing wrong with a trip packed with activities - the key is making the trip work for you and your family, and having thought through what will make this happen.


Some people use the acronym S.M.A.R.T. for a method of setting goals. The letters are sometimes assigned different meanings. Here, we will go with:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Attainable or Achievable

  • Realistic

  • and, Time Stamped (You have a set date for when the goal will be met).


We won’t get too heavy into all of this, since we’re focused on how to plan a good camping trip, but let’s just say that your goals should be specific, attainable, and realistic. Let’s look at a couple of hypothetical examples. 


A family with two kids, 8 and 10, want to introduce their children to camping. The parents have some experience camping, but they have never gone as a family. The kids are pretty oriented to their electronics and spend a lot of time indoors.  Mom and Dad decide they’d like to have their kids engage with the outdoors as opposed to with electronics. The trip will include leaving at 4 pm on a Friday, driving an hour to a campground, staying until Sunday at 2 pm, and then driving home.


For this trip, they set a goal that there will be four times, other than at bedtime, when everyone puts their electronics away and engages with their outdoor environment.  This then inspires the parents to find a location for their camping trip that has the opportunity for a canoe trip around a lake, a hike, a place to swim, and they decide to bring fishing poles to do a little bit of fishing.


Just by having this goal set for the trip, some things like location and gear to bring along are suggested, thus clarifying the planning process.  I’d strongly suggest making these types of decisions as a family unit, so that you don’t get to the place you're headed and end up in a big battle.


A family with three kids, 10 and up, decide they want to get into backpack camping. No one in the family is super fit, but they love the outdoors and have done a fair bit of car camping. Their camping trip time-frame is also a weekend. Their goal is to get in 10,000 steps hiking into where they will camp, and then the same coming back.


Assuming that this represents 4-5 miles of hiking, their parameters are set for finding a trail.  In this case, I would also be integrating other goals we might have for where we would camp.  So, if we’d like to have a swimming hole nearby, along with fishing, that would add in some additional criteria.  


The point to this with regard to goal setting, is we need a way to focus on what we need to integrate into the plan to make it a great experience for all involved. A specific aspect that needs a lot of attention in this planning process is determining a destination for the trip.


Where are we Going?

Nowadays there are so many resources available that can help with planning a trip of any kind.  It’s unlikely I need to mention Google Maps, but I just did anyway.  So what else is out there that can be helpful?


First let me mention a suite of resources that is offered to just in general assist people in evaluating different outdoor pursuits. At, you will find a suite of tools that will assist you if any of the following pursuits interest you:

  • Climbing (Mountain Project)

  • Mountain Biking (MTB Project)

  • Hiking (Hiking Project)

  • Backcountry Skiing (Powder Project)

  • Trail Running (Trail Run Project)

  • National Parks (National Park Trail Guide)

In each of these areas, there is a phone app available for IOS or Android.  I have used each of them  (all but Powder Project and National Park Trail Guide), and they each have the capability to download beta for offline usage when you lose cell coverage.  


So with these apps, you can look at an area and see if, for example, there are hiking or mountain biking trails that meet the criteria for your adventure.  There are options in most states for each of the apps I have used...with the caveat that my experiences have centered on the West, Midwest, and Atlantic states.  So, you will have to check things out for yourself if you live for example in the Southeast U.S.


I used to use the Google Earth platform quite a bit while doing research, for example looking at campgrounds to see which areas look the most awesome. But, now with Google Maps, the satellite overlays seem to kind of make the Earth app not so necessary...I still use it quite a bit just for fun looking around the world.


For researching National Parks, instead of using the Adventures Project app, The National Park Service has its own app I really like.  It allows you to do a ton of research on parks, make lists of ones you’ve visited, and much more.  It does not have great trail maps, so for that, the Adventures Project app would likely be a better bet.


Finally, many campgrounds and other facilities have turned over reservation services to They also have an app you can put on your IOS or Android device. It functions quite well. Just always pay close attention to the details of the reservations you make.  Once made, sometimes the process of making a change or a cancellation is very expensive.  Case-in-point, today I needed to cancel a one night reservation, but it actually would have cost me money to do so!


Camping Gear Considerations

You have completed your planning as far as determining what you want to do and where you will go.  Now comes the part where it’s really easy to mess things up. There’s nothing worse than getting to a really cool place and finding you have left something that you either have to have, or will make the trip a lot better if you have it or had it. So, you need a list.


We have a very comprehensive camping gear checklist. There are conceivably things we have left off that you might need or want, but it’s hard to imagine what they might be...except for the specific activities you have planned. But the real key to success here is to start crafting your own standard list for trips.  And, in my opinion, this part of the trip can be really enjoyable because you are really getting to think about the trip. It’s almost like you are getting bonus time for where you are going.


So, maybe use our list as a template to get started, and then craft it for your circumstances.  Then, in conclusion, when it is actually time to start the loading process, be careful not to actually completely check off an item UNTIL IT GOES INTO THE VEHICLE. 


This advice may not be pertinent to you unless you load the way I do.  I have a large section of the basement devoted to outdoor gear storage. I take my list and start getting each thing I need and puting it into a pile. Then, I move those items to the vehicle they are going in. So, a couple of times things have gotten checked and never actually gotten loaded. To accomplish the goal of getting things loaded, I check the item off as it comes to the pile, then I put a cross through the check mark when it goes in.


This may sound ridiculously cumbersome, but it actually goes quickly and I know it has saved me some catastrophes along the way. One of keys to all of this going quickly is making sure you have done a good job getting things stored away after a trip.


So, in conclusion, enjoy this process of preparation.  It can really extend the fun of your upcoming trip and make it a better one.  If you are worried that all of this will rob the adventure of spontaneity, simply assume that after you’ve done all of this and you are really prepared, you will be flexible and have fun once the trip begins.


Happy adventures!!!

Picnic After Camping
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