Family camping, from the backyard to beyond

Special to the Union Leader
August 02. 2018 10:19AM
Three reasons s'mores are high on the list of camping must-haves: crisp graham crackers, gooey marshmallows, and melty chocolate. (Meghan McCarthy McPhaul)

Some people — and I know a few — wonder why on earth anyone would choose to sleep outside when there is a perfectly good bed inside, covered by a perfectly good roof, with lights and plumbing and all the accoutrements of modern living.

To me, though, there is magic in sleeping under the stars, with a lullaby of the wind dancing through the trees or a babbling brook nearby — especially in the heady heart of summer. Done right, with good timing, camping is a family adventure that will captivate all ages of outdoors lovers.

While we haven’t tackled any extended backpacking outings — yet — my family has spent more than a few nights camping out. We’ve slept below big mountains and along babbling brooks. But it all started in the backyard, which is a great place to begin.

Prep work

Backyard camping is a great way to introduce kids to the idea of sleeping outside — and useful for working out kinks in the family camping system.

“When my kids were little, I used to set up the tent in the backyard and let them get familiar with it,” said Nancy Ritger, the Huts and Cardigan Program manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club, whose kids are now in their 20s. “It became this fun thing to do and seemed to get them away from any fears they might have about camping out.”

Backyard camping allows practice in setting up the gear and making sure all the parts and pieces of the tent are in working shape. It’s also a good opportunity to forget there’s a kitchen inside and try out whatever method of cooking — camp stove or fire — you plan to use on outings further afield.

Kids (and indoor-sleeping-prone grownups) may also feel more comfortable getting used to night sounds in familiar environs. And they can pile up the stuffed animals and other extras without having to carry it too far. Just remember someone’s got to haul all that stuff back into the house when it’s time to break down the backyard camp.

Location is key

When your camping crew is ready to venture beyond the backyard, there are endless camping options around New Hampshire, from state parks and White Mountain National Forest lands to AMC campsites and private campgrounds. Where you go next depends on what you’re after.

“We mix it up and like to discover new places,” said seasoned camping mom Beth Kenney of Lyme, who has camped with her daughter both in New Hampshire and in neighboring states. “The cool thing about camping is it’s always different. Car camping, tent camping, canoe camping all bring a different experience and different activities you can incorporate into the mix.”

Kenney prioritizes proximity to a good swimming place when selecting her family’s next camping spot, and Ritger agrees swimming and camping go well together.

For campers looking to get out of the backyard, but who are not quite ready to venture too far into the backcountry, Ritger said walk-in sites are an ideal middle ground. These are places where you have to carry your gear more than a few steps from the car, but not so far that reaching the campsite becomes a slog.

AMC maintains 20 walk-in campsites near its Cardigan Lodge in Alexandria. Campers will find outhouses, water for cooking at the lodge, and even wheelbarrows to help transport camping gear to a site.

“It’s a really nice introduction to getting away from car camping,” Ritger said. “It feels like an adventure.”

My family’s first foray into camping beyond the backyard was near a familiar hiking trail in the White Mountain National Forest. (For USFS regulations and WMNF camping site info, visit Tucked into a mostly flat area near a brook, there is space between the trees for setting up tents and an established fire ring. The walk in is about a mile, which made for a manageable challenge.

Like true outdoors junkies, the kids started asking to return to the spot for another camping outing nearly as soon as we’d packed up and headed back down the trail.

Creature comforts

Wherever the tent site is located, there are some camping comforts that will make sleeping under the stars more enjoyable. A good tent is key, of course. Shoot for something big enough so everyone has a bit of personal space, but small enough that it’s manageable to carry and set up. Top it off with a waterproof rain fly.

Even summer evenings can get a bit chilly, so an sleeping bag is a must, along with a sleeping pad to cushion campers from rocks and roots under the tent.

Camping lanterns help light up camp, but each camper should have his or her own light — ideally a headlamp, which allows hands-free lighting for everything from post-dinner cleanup to bedtime reading. Kenney’s must-have family camping list also includes a length of rope to string between trees as a clothesline. Other good ideas: a deck of cards, travel games, books, and a local natural history guide.

Ritger suggests adding a tarp to the mix if possible. This can be set up over the cooking area to provide shelter from rain, sun, or falling pine needles. And, speaking of cooking, Ritger suggests using a cookstove, rather than a campfire, for at least some of the cooking. This makes meal preparation faster, and some areas don’t allow campfires.

An important note on camping and food: all food, utensils, and anything that smells remotely like food (deodorant, toothpaste) should be stored away from the tent, ideally in a bear-proof container (sold by many outfitters). Walk-in sites like those at Cardigan often have bear boxes for use by campers. Hanging your food out of reach is another option. Kids should be taught to never bring food into the tent!

For short camping outings, Kenney suggests packing no-cook items like sandwiches, hummus, fruits, and nuts.

Kid buy-in

Like with any activity, kids will probably be more excited about camping and have more fun doing it if they are part of the planning process.

“They love being in charge,” Ritger said, adding that when kids are invited to contribute to planning, they tend to complain less because they know what to expect.

One area kids can help is with the menu planning, which includes figuring out how many meals, which options are easiest to carry in, and how meals will be cooked. Although Ritger prefers cooking with a camp stove, she notes kids often enjoy the novelty of something like cooking hotdogs over a campfire.

Kenney notes getting kids involved in packing their own gear allows them to think about what they really need — and how much they’ll want to carry on a camping outing.

“It’s lots of learning while they’re having fun, and before they know it they’re good at being prepared,” she said. “Camping is really great family bonding. I think like anything, if you start doing it when your kids are young, it just becomes a part of them and they’ll share it with their children, too.”

Leave no trace

Campers — especially outside of established tent sites — should follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace to minimize impact on the outdoors. The principles are:

1) Plan ahead and prepare: Know what the camping-related regulations are (for example whether pets are allowed, if camp fires are ok) for where you’re going. Check with state parks, WMNF, private campgrounds…

2) Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Camp only in designated areas.

3) Dispose of waste property: This includes packing out all trash, washing cooking and eating utensils properly, and using proper backwoods bathroom techniques.

4) Leave what you find: That old adage, “Take only photographs, leave only footprints,” is a good one. Don’t take rocks or plants away from a site, don’t build structures, and make sure those footprints are responsibly placed.

5) Minimize campfire impacts: Many designated camping sites have areas for campfires, but if you’re venturing into the backcountry, bring a lightweight cook stove.

6) Respect wildlife: Observe from a safe distance. If you have pets along, make sure they’re securely leashed. And please don’t feed the bears — or any of the other animals.

7) Be considerate of other visitors: The Golden Rule of sharing the trails and campsites.

For more detailed descriptions of how to follow the Leave No Trace Principles, visit

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