The great outdoors: Tips to ensure a successful family camping trip

Erika Enigk

Camping can make for great summertime family fun. But as is the case with most vacations, preparation, or lack thereof, can make or break the experience. Joe Mueller, director of public relations for the St. Louis Area council of the Boy Scouts of America, and Jennifer Peter, program project manager for the Girl Scouts of the USA, offer these tips for a great camping trip.

What to bring

A warm sleeping bag, sturdy tent Even during the summer, the night air can get chilly, Mueller said. Having good shelter and warm covering is important. “Don’t sacrifice a good night’s sleep when you’re out there with kids,” Mueller said. “You need to have your wits about you when you’re making decisions in the outdoors.”

A first-aid kit Cuts and splinters can easily happen out in the woods, so be prepared, Mueller said. A first-aid kit can prevent an infection. Be sure to include sunscreen and bug spray as well.

Clothes that breathe “There’s an old saying that ‘cotton kills,’” Mueller said. Any physical activity that causes perspiration can make cotton clothing detrimental in the heat or cold. Visit your local sporting goods store for some items made of moisture-wicking material; it will dry faster than cotton, meaning better comfort and less chance of a rash.

Healthy foods and plenty of water Outdoor activities can be taxing, so it’s important to eat well while camping. Staying hydrated also is important. And if canned food is on the menu, don’t forget the can opener!

A latching cooler Many animals – raccoons in particular – can easily get into a flip-top cooler, Mueller said. Bring one with an extra latch, and store it in the car overnight or when out hiking to keep critters out of food.

What not to bring

Your electronics Leave the iPods, electronic games and, yes, parents, even the BlackBerrys, at home. Those distractions can take away from family together time and the enjoyment of nature. “In many families, this is the only time they all unplug,” Peter said. Bring one cell phone just in case, but be aware that out in the woods, it may be hard to get a signal.

Packaging Some parks don’t allow any refuse to be left behind, requesting that campers take it home before throwing it away, so don’t take anything that won’t be used on the trip, Peter said.

Firewood While bringing firewood may seem like a good idea, many parks advise against it. Insects that live in wood may get into the wood at the campground and cause problems that didn’t exist before. Most parks will have a list of local firewood vendors.

Sandals A pair of flip-flops for the shower isn’t a bad idea, but for outdoor recreation, wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots only. Sandals won’t protect your feet from rocks and other things on the ground, and they won’t keep you warm when the sun goes down.

What else to remember

Call ahead Check the park’s Web site for rules and regulations. Rangers may have some additional recommendations on dos and don’ts for their campsites. And don’t forget to find out what else is in the area, just in case weather interferes. A rained-out day of hiking and swimming would be much better spent at a museum than holed up in a tent, Peter said.

Safety first The outdoors can be tricky for those who aren’t used to it. When hiking, follow marked trails, and swim only in a park’s designated swimming area. Use the buddy system; no one ventures out alone. And just in case, know where the nearest hospitals are located.

Respect fellow campers Be mindful of the noise you make, Peter advised. If you want to listen to a radio, keep it at low volume; nearby campers may be listening for animal sounds or simply enjoying the quiet of nature.

Respect the land “When you’re gone from your campsite, there should be no sign that you were ever there,” Mueller said. Dispose of all trash properly. When disposing of dishwater, do so at least 200 feet away from the nearest water source to avoid contamination. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has more tips at

Campfire activities

1. Download a star chart and look for constellations. A campground is a great place to stargaze.

2. Listen for animal sounds. Try to identify what kind of wildlife lives in the woods around you.

3. Make snacks. S’mores are a camping staple, but so many great treats can be cooked over a fire. For example, try mountain pies. Buy a pie iron at the local sporting goods store, add bread and whatever filling you like, then cook over a fire till you have a toasty sandwich.

4. Play games. Try “Two Truths and a Lie,” in which one person makes three statements — two that are true and one that is false. The others have to guess which one is false.