The Heart of New England
Happy Campers: Plan a Family
Vacation that is Affordable and Fun
By Marcia Passos Duffy

I want to make something perfectly clear: I’m not the camping "type." Please
don’t mistake me for someone who bicycled and camped her way through
Europe after college, or hiked the Appalachian Trail.  Not me:  I’m a hotel kind
of gal.  You know: Room service, pools, hot showers, maybe a massage?  I like
being pampered while on vacation.  I did go camping twice in my life – both
times B.K. (before kids) when I promptly filed away whole business as too
messy and complicated to manage with children in tow.

So when our friends asked if we wanted to go camping with several other
families for a week on Cape Cod, I politely declined and quickly booked
reservations at a “family resort.”  We ended up spending way too much money
and having only a mediocre time – and I wondered if perhaps these campers
knew something that I did not.

The following summer we decided to join these die-hard campers (who had
been camping with their kids for many years).  Before we left, I read articles
about camping with kids, talked to these camping families, and purchased a
tent, sleeping bags, a grill, and non-perishable foods.  On the morning of our trip
I was still wary, but felt, at the very least, well-prepared.   

“You’re taking too much stuff,” my husband remarked, as he packed up the van.
But I wanted to be ready for the worst-case scenario: Rain and boredom.

While I expected to endure my camping vacation, I never expected to love it or
even learn much from it.  But I am here to tell you that I did.  I am a camping
convert and I believe this is the type of vacation our family need these days –
away from the gadgets, our home, schedules and frenetic pace.

What surprised me was how easily I could let go of the trappings of modern life
– and how little I missed any of it.  I still did a lot of what I normally do at home
– tidying up, cooking, childcare.  But somehow it all seemed much easier.  There
was less stuff to pick up, less choices about food, less stress about spilled juice
(or other food); and surprisingly, boredom never factored into our days – even
in the rain!  I also felt healthy and so right to be outside all day long – even in
bad weather.  I had not slept so soundly since I was a child.  

Most importantly, our children enjoyed themselves.  They rode their bikes
around the campsite, swam, hiked, and sang songs around the bonfire at the
beach.  The pace was unhurried, spontaneous.  Sure, we did have some
incidences of whining, crying, and some misbehavior – but it seemed to quickly
dissipate and we were on to something else.

So what made our first camping experience a success?  Maybe it was beginner’s
luck.  Or perhaps it was the company of the other families that helped share the
burden of childcare, housekeeping and food preparations.   Maybe because we
did not truly “rough it” in deep woods – and life was made easier with our cars
nearby for storage, hot shower facilities, our cell phones (to keep families in
contact with each other), an ocean beach for instant entertainment, laundry
facilities, and a small indoor recreation center (with pool and ping pong tables)
for those rainy days.  Without those amenities, camping with the kids may have
been more of a struggle.   

Whatever the reason for our marvelous time, we have already booked our
camping site again with our friends for this summer, and plan to make it a
tradition.  After all, when you can have a vacation that is affordable, fun,
memorable -- and both kids and parents are happy -- who needs room service?

About the Author:

Marcia Passos Duffy is a freelance writer and the publisher of The Heart of New
England online magazine.  Subscribe today to her weekly newsletter by sending
a blank email to:
Tips on How to Be a Happy Camper

Start Slow.
Especially if your kids are toddlers.  “Start with one night at a campsite…or
even in your backyard,” advises Steve Young who runs the Vermont Wilderness
School (  If you have already booked your
campsite you can still do some “pre-camping” locally before your trip to get
your kids used to the idea.  

Select a Campsite That Suits Your Family.  Camping can run the gamut from
complete wilderness camping to actual “camping resorts” (which come
complete with activities, pools, entertainment), and everything in between – so if
you want to try camping, don’t feel like you are locked into jumping into to bare-
bones wilderness camping on your first try with the kids. When you do your
research, call the campgrounds and ask if it is suitable for your children and
their ages.  Does it have a playground?  A beach?  Will there be other children

Keep it Simple.  
Don’t pack in your days like you do when you’re not on vacation!  Most young
children like to simply explore their surrounding, instead of a busy itinerary
visiting local museums or other sites.  Older kids like to meet other kids their
age.  A frantic level of activity does not allow your family the “down time” that
lets spontaneity happen – and for you all to enjoy the full camping experience.  
Remember, you don’t need to entertain your kids 24/7 – camping is all about
learning to entertain yourselves without television or gadgets.  Leave the Game
Boy at home! The best way to plan is to have a loose itinerary, and then go with
the flow. “The beauty of camping is that you get to know a place in a big way,”
said Young.  “There’s always magic waiting to be discovered.”

Have a Plan B.   
You may not get rain, but do plan for it.  Before you leave, do some online
research on the surrounding towns and what they offer.  Check out the local
library for its summer activities (such as story time), or the local wildlife or
conservation organizations (which often have free or nominal-fee programs for
kids).  Call the campgrounds you selected and ask for suggestions for rainy day

Have Each Family Member Plan a Day.
Lay out the options for all the activities you will be doing for the entire week
(and remember, keep it simply and don’t pack each day with 5 activities).  Have
each member of the family pick one major activity they really want to do, such
as kayaking or horseback riding, shopping, or just going to the beach and having
ice cream.  This helps everyone participate and feel like their needs and wants
will get met (for at least one day!) during the camping vacation.  

Considering Camping with Other Families.  
This is a lot of fun -- and helpful with kids -- if you are all on the same
wavelength about what you want from your camping vacation.  You could also
coordinate your meals and cleanup – making this chore fun – and also organize
your camping list so that you don’t have to bring your badminton set or other
items. “It’s a great idea to camp with other families,” said Young.  “Kids are
more focused less likely to get in trouble and it keeps them from getting bored.”

Take Precautions.
While family camping can be a lot of fun, special precautions need to be taken,
particularly with young children.  The usual watchfulness is required – such as
never leaving your children alone in pools, lakes, streams or any body of water.  
Extra care should be given around the family campfire or grill.  “A simple thing
like cooking a marshmallow needs to be supervised,” said Ron Brown,
Executive Director of the New Hampshire Campground Owners' Association
( ).   Marshmallows melt and have caused 3rd degree burns
just dripping onto skin, Brown noted.  He also adds that parents should warn
children not to feed the animals.  “Teach your children that you are visitors to
the animals’ neighborhood…and animals need to be treated with respect,” he

Other precautions include not lighting anything inside the tent (such as a
propane lantern), and to put out campfires before going to sleep at night.  For
small children who may get lost, buy them a whistle that they carry with them at
all times during the camping trip.  “Tell your children that if they should get
lost, find a tree, hug it, and stay there blowing the whistle,” said Brown.  If a
child cannot be found, call 911.  “Don’t send out hoards of people looking for the
child because most likely dogs will be sent out to sniff the child out and by
combing the woods with many people increases the chance that the scent will be
trampled on.”   Camping with kids can be a lot of fun, but Brown says that the
key to having a successful trip is parental supervision of their children.  “Most
campgrounds on a busy weekends become a very large community – and every
precaution needs to be taken.”
happy campers
The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine ~ New Hampshire ~ Vermont
Camping with Family,
Cape Cod, Tent Camping

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