Introducing Your Kids to Camping (in the Backyard!)

Whether you hold fond memories of childhood camp outs or you are new to the world of camping, it is an activity that never goes out of style. If you have visions of roasting marshmallows in the chill evening air while a campfire illuminates the precious faces of those you adore most, you should consider a family camping trip.

Do not worry if it has been a while since you have spent time in the great outdoors, or it is your first time taking young children along. We suggest a trial-run camp out in your backyard before venturing hundreds of miles from home. Not only is your home safety net within footsteps, but you can also gather a fair idea of how well you and your children will adapt to sleeping under the stars.

After many camp outs with both mishaps and successes, we have compiled our best tips for a successful backyard camp out with the family. Here is what we know.

Benefits of Camping with the Family

There are the obvious benefits of having a family camp out like bonding with your spouse and kids, disconnecting from daily hassles, and creating fun memories. It is rare for many families to have the opportunity to spend down time together like camping allows. Once everyone is unplugged from all their devices, there is nothing left to do but connect with each other.

Whether they act like it or not, each family member wants to feel like a part of the group. There are loads of responsibilities that come with camping, and each person is needed to pitch in and help out. Whether cooking, clean up, or even hunting and fishing (if you choose), there is a job for everyone. Not only will your kids feel needed and useful, which can build self-esteem, but they will also be learning new skills.

Exercise is another aspect of camping that is so beneficial to families. As everyone is becoming aware, exercise helps to boost immunity, improve mood and increase overall health, but many people are not getting enough of it. Trying out new activities like hiking, kayaking, or paddle-boarding can help your kids find new ways to keep fit.

Another benefit of a camp vacation is that it can be much more affordable to most families than a traditional vacation. Your initial expense will be purchasing your camping gear — more on that later, and after that your overall expenses drop exponentially depending on how you camp. Oftentimes, campground fees include use of their amenities which can include such things as waterparks, horseback riding, canoeing, and hiking. On top of that, you will likely be cooking most of your own meals instead of dining in pricey restaurants.

Why you Should Camp in your Backyard

As mentioned, a backyard camp out is a great way to test the waters if you plan to go on a longer trip farther from home in the future. You may find that your overly confident toddler prone to climbing the walls like the floor is lava inside the house becomes a sobbing, inconsolable over-sized paperweight once outdoors for a duration. If you are just outside your home, it is easy to eighty-six the camp out and leave clean-up until daylight.

On the other hand, you may find your recluse teenager is quite charming and a natural at making s’mores over an open flame. Either way, now you know your toddler might need a few more years to be fully ready for a camp out, and that you should stock up on the marshmallows for the big camp trip.

How to Camp in your Backyard

A camp out in your backyard can be as close to the real thing as you choose to make it. In order to truly test the waters, we suggest getting as real as possible. Place your camping area as far from your house as you can and tell everyone to pretend the house simply isn’t there. The biggest thing to remember is to have fun. If your trial camp out is not fun, you can bet the family will not be excited about the real thing.

Customize the trip by setting expectations and rules. A few questions to ask prior to your camp out include:

  • Will you use the home restrooms?

  • Will you stay outside or will inclement weather cancel the camp out?

  • Will you leave lights on outdoors/indoors for restroom trips?

  • Will electronics be allowed?

What you will Need for the Backyard Camp Out

If you do not already have some camping gear like sleeping bags or camping tents, this is where your adventure can get a bit pricey. The good news is that this is a one-time expense — until your gear begins to wear out. Even more good news is that because of our years of camp experience, we know just where to direct you for quality gear that will not break the bank.

Tents If you plan to make camp trips a regular occurrence, your tent is one of the most important items to purchase. One important tip to remember is that tent sizing is misleading and does not include room for gear like sleeping pads or air mattresses. A four-person tent should fit four people, but it is more likely to be comfortable for two. It is smart to get a tent that sleeps two to three more people than you actually have in your party.

A mid-range quality brand like this Coleman Sundome tent that sleeps six (think four comfortably) can be found at places like Target or Walmart and costs between $85 to $100. If you have five or more people in your family, you could use an eight-person tent or two smaller four-person tents.

Sleeping Bags Both adults’ and kids’ sleeping bags come in a large selection of styles and coldness ratings. Deciding upon one depends on where and when you plan to camp. Sleeping in extremely cold climates is most likely not on your agenda with kids, so most three-season sleeping bags with around a 40° coldness rating should suffice.

An outdoors shop like REI or Cabela’s can show you all the sleeping bag options available. We like this KingCamp Lightweight Envelope sleeping bag. It comes in a large selection of colors, so no fighting over which sleeping bag belongs to whom.

Air Mattress An air mattress is a great way to stay off the cold, hard ground and get a good night of sleep in your tent. Even a thin, inflatable mattress offers protection from direct contact with the ground. This will keep your kids warmer, and allow them to sleep better. Air mattresses can be found nearly anywhere, and some even come with self-inflating mechanisms.

Tarp Putting a tarp down before pitching your tent provides extra protection from a wet or potentially wet ground. Most tarps are inexpensive and have multiple uses like rain and sun protection.

Propane Stove You may not need to purchase a camp stove for your backyard adventure, but you will find that the number of foods that can be cooked from a stick over an open flame is limited. On a longer camp out, you will have access to much more variety of food with a propane stove. This Coleman Classic Propane Stove is an affordable and user-friendly camping stove.

Locking Cooler Not only is a sturdy locking cooler essential to keeping your food fresh, but also for keeping it safe from wildlife. Like the camp stove, a cooler is necessary on a longer camp out. This Igloo 25-Quart Cooler is durable and under $100. Depending on the length of your camp out, you may want a larger cooler to store more food.

What to Pack to Camp in the Backyard

Whether you pack at all depends on how long you plan to camp and how authentic you want your backyard camp out to be. We will have a more in-depth camping checklist at the end of this article, but for the backyard, stick with packing just the basics including:

  • Toothbrushes and paste

  • Daily medicines or supplements

  • Ample snacks, drinks and food

  • Change of clothes and shoes

  • First-aid supplies

  • Sunscreen and bug spray

  • Lighter or matches

  • Firewood

  • Wet wipes and hand-sanitizer

  • Activities or games

Setting Up Camp

Setting up your campsite is the perfect time to involve everyone. You can even do it a few days prior to the great camp out if it fits better into your schedule. Let the older kids take a shot at pitching the tent, while younger kids can gather twigs and leaves for kindling.

It is a good idea to check with city or HOA ordinances prior to starting a campfire in your backyard. Some may not allow it, while others may only allow the use of small fire pits. A firepit would be efficient for roasting small items and simply enjoying the firelight, but you might need a camp stove for cooking larger items.

Camp Food and Beverages

Camp out food does not have to consist solely of roasted hot dogs. Eating healthy while on a camp out is possible with a little preparation. One of my family’s favorite meals to eat while camping is beef stew. You can cook it before your trip and store it in freezer bags. After a day of activities at the campground, simply warm it up in a cast-iron skillet over the fire or on the camp stove.

Spaghetti, Chicken Marsala, stir-fry, and tacos are other items that can be cooked ahead of time are surprisingly easy to warm up at the campsite. If you want to keep it simple, lunchmeat sandwiches are just one of many quick ideas.

We like to bring refillable water bottles like these Takeya Insulated ones. These vacuum-insulated, stainless-steel bottles sometimes keep our ice frozen for an entire day.

It is recommended to bring one gallon of water per person per day of your camp out, and you may want more than that if it is excessively hot or dry. We also like to bring low-calorie electrolyte drink mixes along to rehydrate after especially rigorous activities. Single-serve drink mixes do not take up extra space, and our kids enjoy having an alternative to water. Milk will also keep well in an insulated cooler.

Activities for your Backyard Camp Out

Your backyard camp out activities will certainly be a bit limited in comparison to the campsite, but you can still have fun. Consider taking a “hike” around your neighborhood as a family. If you are lucky enough to live within walking distance of a forest, check it out. You could even make a list of “scavenger hunt” items for the kids to look for on this hike including things like pine cones, maple leaves, and acorns.

While on your hike or even from the backyard, try to identify different leaves you find. This book, “Trees, Leaves, Flowers & Seeds,” is an amazing resource for identifying items in the plant kingdom. Similarly, bring along some binoculars and try to identify local birds and other wildlife. These are fun activities that require participation from everyone.

Games like glow bocce ball are fun to play with when it begins to get dark outside. Glow frisbees and glow sticks are also entertaining for everyone in the evenings.

When night falls, gather around the campfire for some good old ghost stories, charades, 20 questions, or pass around a book to read aloud. If you are musically inclined, begin a sing along. If you are not, begin singing anyway and listen to your kids make fun of you. When it is time to hit the sack, you will be surprised at just how much fun these people you live with truly are.

Cleaning Up Camp

At an actual campground, always adhere to the Leave No Trace policy; the camper’s principles on leaving the campsite or backcountry as you found it. Some of these principles include always setting up camp on durable surfaces, leaving natural objects where they are, respecting wildlife and other campers, and properly disposing of your waste. Why not begin instilling these principles at your backyard camp out?

Cleaning up after a camp out in the backyard should not take long if everyone pitches in to help. Older kids can help take down and store the tent in its bag, and younger kids can gather small trash items to throw away. Everyone should carry out anything they packed and brought in. Unlike at the campground, you can simply walk everything inside your house or garage and put it away.

Camping Checklist

We have touched on some items that you will need on your camp out through the article, but here is our ultimate camping checklist to help you get organized.

  • Tent(s)

  • Sleeping bags and pillows

  • Air mattress(es)

  • Tarp(s)

  • Camp stove

  • Cookware

  • Dinnerware

  • Food including precooked meals, snacks and items for roasting

  • Water for drinking and cleaning

  • Roasting sticks

  • Extra clothing and shoes

  • Coat, hat and gloves

  • Lighter or matches

  • Daily medicines and supplements

  • First-aid kit including bandages, antibiotic ointment, and anti-itch cream

  • Sunscreen and Bug Spray

  • Flashlights and extra batteries

  • Camp lantern

  • Biodegradable soap

  • Wet wipes and hand-sanitizer

  • Trash bags

  • Washing basin for dishes and cookware

  • Games, books, and sports equipment

  • Firewood

  • Paper products like bathroom tissue, napkins and paper towels

  • Locking cooler

  • Safety whistles on lanyards for smaller kids

The most important thing to remember about your backyard camp out is to have fun. It is easy to get caught up in how things should go, but stay flexible. If a middle-of-the-night meltdown occurs with your toddler or your older kids are just too cold to sleep outside, do not push them to remain outdoors. You can easily try again when it is warmer or when they are a little older.

If camp trips are something you really want to enjoy with your family, it is important to begin with only good memories of the experience. Starting out slowly in the backyard is one of the easiest ways to do this. Build up from the back yard and head to the campgrounds when everyone is ready. In time, they will be begging you to go on another camp out.