Intentional family camping

Intentional family camping

Renee EllisonApr 21, '21

Many years ago Dr. James Dobson conducted a study to identify what people thought were the most effective activities to bind a family together.  At the top of the list, after having a strong faith, came family camping, with not even a close second.  Apparently, camping embodied the bulk of people's fondest memories.  Children love to be squished into tight places with their parents, in ever-new "on the edge" surroundings, a unified force against the elements. 

To make camping a success and not a fiasco, one must become at least moderately intentional about preparing to have a good experience.  That means thinking through a fair number of details ahead of time. 

So, whether you have camped before but want to improve your efforts at camping or you are brand new to its challenges, here is a bit of practical hand-holding to help you boost the experience into the list of “fun things we did as a family”—and not a blackout bad memory. 

To begin with, you want to think of containers.  The first container you'll have to consider is your major overall container of how you will transport all of the stuff.  Determine whether that will be your car trunk, a rack on top of your car, the back compartments in a SUV, the open back of a truck, or a small trailer that you pull behind your vehicle (which means you'll have to get a trailer hitch, too).  The finished size of that space, established by you ahead of time, determines how much stuff and what weight and size of things you can take with you—because it all has to fit.  Some people with SUV's like to put columns of plastic drawers in the back so that when they open up the back of the van they have an instant tailgate kitchen already organized and ready to go.  Others like to construct wooden shelves in a small trailer so that all of their boxed stuff is neatly labeled and easily grabbed whenever they’re camping.

The first two big items to consider are your sleeping tent and a kitchen tent (if you want one).  After hours and hours of research we have a few suggestions of real winners for tents for famiy camping (not hardcore lightweight back-backer single guys : )  Those guys can survive with a nylon tepee tent—which only weighs 24 pounds and only involves staking the sides, setting one lightweight pole up into the middle of the inside of the tent, and presto they are done.  No floor, of course, on this unit.

Sleeping Tent

Cabela's Big Horn III and Cabela's Alaknak tents provide oceans of space for a family.  (The Big Horn has no internal poles to deal with—providing a large dome-like interior atmosphere.)  Downsides include weight, size, and difficulty of setup.

The Kodiak canvas tent, our overall favorite for short-term camping, is a lightweight canvas tent (canvas breathes better than nylon) and is super easy to put up for a single mom with children, or a single widow.  It has a sealed in floor for those who are squeamish about night crawlers, spiders, snakes, etc. gaining entrance into one's tent without a floor.

Kitchen Tent

Why would you want a kitchen tent?  Because if any inclement weather appears, it can immediately shut down your cooking efforts indefinitely.  Menacing weather of high winds, rain (with its attendant mud afterwards), hail, tornadoes, dust storms, etc. quickly drives you back into your car or sleeping tent until it blows over—which could last anywhere from a half hour to all afternoon or evening to several days!  If you want to keep your paper plates, chairs, and utensils from blowing all over the mountains you’ll have to provide some secure kitchen space.  An E-Z-Up shelter with tarps for sides will help in this endeavor, securely anchored with super strong tent pegs and taut ropes tied through each of the grommets on the tarp walls.  Or some outdoor tent gazebo which has both screened walls and tarp walls that can rapidly be let-down or unfurled when a storm approaches.  Or another canvas tent with no floor.  If you pick a tent gazebo with only screened walls the weather will march right into it and either lift it up in the air and hurl it into the nearby lake or collapse it all over your stuff.  Obviously for your kitchen enclosure there is no need for flooring other than the dirt.  You don't wany flooring, other than dirt or grass, so that people can troop in and out of it to eat without taking the time to remove shoes.

Be sure that you lock away all perishable food each time you leave your camp site and each evening after dinner.  You don't want food smells attracting unwanted animals.

Tent cost:  for both your sleeping tent and kitchen tent, you might look for used deals on Craigslist or E-Bay.  Some people start out with great expectations, but then sell their gear with dashed expectations not too long afterwards

Selecting your campsite

Pick a place higher up rather than lower down—so that if any torrential rains come you won't be flooded out, as the water pools down below.  If you find yourself with a lower spot as your only possibility, be sure to dig a small trench around the base of your tent—to collect and divert water should that become necessary during a downpour while you are sleeping some night.

If you pick a place higher up, make sure it is not all the way up on top of a hill.  You want your tent site tucked in closely a ways down from the extreme top edge, so that you don't catch sudden winds that tend to blow on mountain tops.

Laying your foundation

Give time to making a smooth foundation for under your tent, before setting it up.  Bring a shovel and rake along to get rid of any unwanted stones or fallen branches and twigs so that they don't poke holes through the floor of your tent.  Bring along a rubber mallet for pounding in your tent stakes.

After each trip, hose down your tents and thoroughly dry them in the sun.  If your gear is stored dirty, its lifespan will be shortened.  If you pack wet gear, it may become moldy.  Then fold up and keep all of your camping gear packed and ready to go in ONE area of your storage area (garage, trailer, etc.).

Sleeping bags

Your next most important purchase is DOWN sleeping bags.  The deeper temperatures the bag is tagged for, below zero, the better.  Then you want a thin self-inflating 3 or 4 inch air mattress underneath (there’s nothing worse than having to inflate your air mattress by some manual means when you are already exhausted from putting up your tent).

Exped Down mats are the luxury liner warmest mats—but you have to inflate them.  There are several other easier models that work fine, obtainable from REI, for instance.  But if warmth is a higher priority, then go with the Exped mat.  For added insurance, purchase a thin exercise mat to put below your air mattress in case the air goes out of your air mattress in the middle of the night (and check for deflation before you go to bed, each night, top them off with some more air, if some was lost in the last 24 hours—this is a miserable job to do in the middle of the night, so tend to it BEFORE going to bed).  The exercise mat ensures that you won't be sleeping directly on the cold ground.

If you are the kind of person that just can't get warm—bring along a polyester warm blanket to further cut the air on top of your sleeping bag for when you first go to sleep.  Your body will warm up in the night and you can toss this extra layer off later.


Keep in mind that when coolers are full of ice and food they become super heavy.  So opt for several smaller coolers instead.  In addition to being lighter, this allows you to even categorize the types of foods via each cooler.  Put cheeses and yogurts in one, pre-cooked dinners in another, drinks in another, cut up veggies and fruit bowl contents in another, etc.  The 28-qt.  Coleman Extreme is ideal for this; it is built to retain the coldness longer.

Ice solutions: if you freeze your water bottles with water in them (allowing for expansion room)—either your own concoctions of bottle and ice or the large six packs of pre-bottled water—tossed around in the cooler individually, you double-whammy your space—because you can drink them as they defrost. 

You can buy several half-gallon cardboard containers of juice or rice milk, and freeze these with the liquid in them.  Because these become blocks of ice, they last far longer—and again you can drink them when they’re unfrozen.

Another way to keep the cold ice coming is to cram one cooler completely full of ice packs (no food at all in this cooler).  Each ice pack may keep all the other ice packs cold for a week.  Remove one ice pack a day to put into your food cooler and you'll not have to return to town so often to refurbish your ice.

Food choices

Pre-cook as many meals as will fit in your cooler.  It is wonderful to be able to open and dump dinner in a pot and have it hot and ready in five minutes.  Often there is no time or way to cut up the ingredients for dinner right there on the scene.  And you may be too exhausted from just mere survival which takes more energy than at home—or long day hikes, hauling water, etc.  For additional quick meals bring along dehydrated soups and canned food (don't forget a can opener) as well as bars and supplements and super food powders. 

Cooking utensils

Keep a duplicate set of all cooking utensils that you will be using so that you don't have to ransack your house trying to remember what to take each time you go camping.  Have all of these things already packed, for camping use only, and keep them packed for easy quick retrieval for fast getaways.  

Cooking burner

A simple lightweight Coleman one burner Powerpack stove may be all that you need.  This is a large 3 inch burner which runs on a propane canister and takes both small and large pans.  It has a metal frame to keep pans from slipping off while stirring.  Heat your tea or coffee or hot water first, and then set aside and heat your main meal in a separate pan, within mere minutes of each other.  Purchase a butane lighter-stick to make lighting this stove far easier than using tiny matches, and burning your fingers.  Propane tanks are handy, and the fuel doesn’t have a shelf like gasoline does.


An American Camper propane heater delivers 10 hours of marvelous heat with each can of propane fuel.  This is far easier than bringing along a wood-burning stove for short trips in the fall.


In addition to flashlights which only yield light directly ahead of you, purchase several lanterns that will give you light in all directions.  You need two or three.  One for your kitchen area, one for your tent, and one outside the entrance of your tent, if coming home to the tent in the dark.  Have both battery-operated and solar-generated versions of each of these so that if you run out of the other, you always have the opposite fuel for backup.  Goal Zero makes good solar equipment—an excellent source of renewable free energy.  


Keep in mind that even if you bought the most luxury editions of all camping equipment it would total far less money than any RV purchase—or hotel bills.  Nowadays, hotels have become so expensive for families that the popular phrase "spend a night, not a fortune" is on the lips of many travelers as they seek less expensive alternatives.

For further reading on this topic, order our Survival Planning for Simpletons.

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