If you’re one of the many people who didn’t grow up camping, your first trip—especially one with kids—might be a little intimidating.

Parents, have no fear: It can actually be quite easy and satisfying to go camping with the kids for the first time. And who knows, after you’ve gone once, you might want to go again and again. After playing in the dirt, sleeping under the stars and eating s’mores, the kids certainly will!

Go 'Car Camping'

If your children are young (under 10) you will appreciate having a car full of gear and supplies at your disposal. Once you’ve determined that you are driving to your campsite (as opposed to hiking there with backpacks) pick somewhere within easy driving distance—one that your children can handle without getting too antsy. If they’re exhausted from the drive alone, they’ll be no fun out in the woods. And don’t forget to pick a good time of year to go; summer is the most popular because of warm conditions, but don’t rule out spring or early fall, as long as the nights aren’t too cold.

Reserve a Campsite

This is a must. The last thing you want to do is show up without a reservation and be told that there are no sites available. Look online for county and state parks that offer campsite reservations. Many will allow you to make the reservation and handle the payment online. The cost is low—under $50 in most places—but be sure to inquire about parking rates, the hours of ranger service and what the facilities offer.

Pack Enough Gear

If you’re a first-time camper, you probably don’t own much in the way of camping gear. Before you run out to REI and buy everything (remember, this is a low-cost vacation!) see what you can borrow from friends, family and neighbors. The camping community loves to share equipment. First, make a list of the items you’ll need. You’ll want to start with:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bags, pillows
  • Sleeping pads
  • Firewood (if the campsite allows campfires)
  • Flashlights
  • Clothing in a variety of weights
  • Jackets
  • Fire starter (lighter, matches)
  • Food, utensils, plates and napkins
  • Drinking water
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Towels
  • Wet wipes
  • Garbage bags

If you find you can’t borrow the big items like tents or sleeping bags, many large camping stores such as REI will rent them at reasonable rates.

Plan Simple Meals

A cooler filled with drinks, hot dogs and hamburgers for dinner should make for a classic camping feast. Bring breakfast bars or instant oatmeal, and fruit and nuts for breakfast. Don’t forget the instant coffee if Mom or Dad needs to fuel up in the morning! The simpler the food, the less you have to worry about.

Set Up the Tent Right Away

Since you may be unfamiliar with setting one up, it’s a good idea to get this step out of the way. You also don’t want to be setting it up in the dark! Another tip is to take a walk with the kids to the bathroom so everyone knows where it is located. This is important because if anyone has to go in the middle of the night, they’ll remember where it is.

Go Over Safety Rules

Remind kids not to wander off without telling an adult, to stay away from the fire and not to eat anything growing in the wild. Campsites usually provide information regarding the wild animals that live nearby; read this information and let your kid know what to do when near an animal. If poison oak or other dangerous plants are around, show kids what they look like so they can avoid them.

Let Kids Explore

One of the best parts about camping is letting children be out in the woods making their own fun. If they need some assistance in the play department, here are a few ideas to help keep them entertained:

  • Make a treasure hunt where each kid has a list of things they have to find. It can be a certain color of leaf, a number of twigs, a banana slug, a twig with three branches, etc. When they all return with their loot, they can get a glow stick as a prize.
  • Task each child with finding a special rock or stone. They can spend the entire afternoon looking for it. Bring some thin wire and a roll of leather or cotton cord with you. When everyone has settled on a special stone, have them wrap the wire around and around the stone until it makes a nice pattern and there is a hoop on top. String the leather cord through the hoop to make a necklace, and voila! They’ll always remember their first camping trip—and so will you—when they proudly wear their camping memory necklace.
  • Check out all of our nature activities for more great ideas.

Dinner by the campfire is a great time to talk about the day, share stories, and ask each other about their favorite part of camping. And of course, no camping trip would be complete without making lip-smacking s’mores. They’re often the best part of the trip for the kids, so don’t skimp on the graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows: the perfect ending to the perfect first-time family camping trip!