How can I make camping awesome?
March 20, 2013 9:35 PM   Subscribe

We used to camp fairly often before kids, but our past couple of camping trips have been terrible. How can we love camping again? Give me your best camping tips. (Bonus if you have suggestions for spots within 4-6 hours of LA.)

I've been wanting to camp again but the past couple of camping trips have been so bad, they're comical. Part of it is we've had some bad luck picking camping spots or just had lousy neighbors. There was the trip where we were next to the drunk guys blasting death metal. There was the campground where we woke up a couple of times to trains loudly going by our heads, the time we were next to an RV with a large screen and movies playing all night, and the trip where we were parked in a big ugly parking lot in 90 degree weather, swatting away flies. If there's no hiking or some water nearby or some other mischief to get into, the kids are whiny and not fun. And then there's the preparation that goes into camping and the drive....I want it to feel fun and worth the effort!

In general, the big barriers to camping at the moment are:
* It seems that the camping we've done near LA is parking lot camping--not too pretty, lots of partying and noise
* There's is so much prep and hauling of stuff that we're exhausted by the time we set up and we come home dirty and having slept badly

I'm hoping to get some tips from people who camp regularly (this is car camping, btw). Assuming we can find a quiet, lovely spot--can it be done hassle free? In my ideal world we would be out in nature, with hiking spots and, even better, fishing spots. Even if it's parking lot camping, campground would be nature-y. I could easily assemble meals with minimal shopping and cooking. We would get a good night of sleep (comfy sleeping arrangements if possible).

What are your tips for:
* camping prep (shopping, assembling, hauling of stuff)
* easy food
* gear that makes camping comfy/better/more fun

and bonus:
* lovely campgrounds

What am I missing? Are we just not cut out for camping? Sometimes I think about someday having a camper...does that make it any better?
posted by biscuits to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (32 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
We have a Honda Fit with roofracks and a pod, and it's just perfect (we have two kids) although a little extra room would be nice.

Something that helps me out is packing the car the day before, so it's easier to head out after work on Friday. If I can't take time off from work to leave early, eating an early dinner at home saves some time and also means we miss rush-hour traffic.

We have dedicated camping gear, most relevantly to this AskMe: a frying pan, pot, knive, cutlery, etc. We keep it all in a bin.

Instead of a massive camping stove, we use a small butane range. That saves a lot of space.

Since our youngest is three, we typically don't go to a campsite much more than 50 miles away (I am not sure if that is doable in your case). The total trip takes two hours, including a stop halfway at a grocery store to pick up some snacks and firewood. This gives the kids a chance to stretch their legs.

We live on Vancouver Island, so there are quite a few parks to choose from (some are going to be as far as 100 miles away) from where we live, so can't help you there.

I think what has made camping better, at least for me, is air mattresses. Lots of air mattresses.

We also have a lot of flashlights. And a nice battery-powered lantern. A tarp with poles in case of rain. Several groundsheets so there is a zone where there are no shoes allowed. We have an extra tent for clothes.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:55 PM on March 20, 2013

Seconding air mattresses. And big tents. Sleeping discomfort is the biggest kid-mood killer, trailed closely by boredom, so bring some fun activities, too.

I wrote an article on this subject a little while back.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:13 PM on March 20, 2013

Yeah I'm contemplating buying a second big tent.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:24 PM on March 20, 2013

It seems like you're not doing much research before picking out spots...I remember growing up my parents had some sort of book with descriptions and ratings of campgrounds, possibly California seemed helpful.

As for locations I would highly recommend Joshua Tree when it's not too hot (lots of rocks for kids to climb around on) or Sequoia which is a bit of a drive but really nice!

I think the key is going to really nice spots where there are some expectations of quiet, not just "hang out" camp spots.
posted by 12%juicepulp at 11:39 PM on March 20, 2013

Joshua Tree is a solid recommendation- if you go, you want to avoid Hidden Valley campground. It's the most popular with climbers and tends to be the loudest.

I'd also recommend checking out camping on BLM land; my understanding is that excepting a few areas you can camp anywhere you like on BLM land for up to 14 days. The first area that came to mind is the San Bernardino National Forest near Big Bear- you can contact the visitor's center for details. There are many other places within 3 hours of L.A. that would be great for camping, and if you're willing to drive on some gravel/dirt/rough roads you will increase your likelihood of solitude. No water or toilets though, but that's the price you pay for peace and quiet.
posted by EKStickland at 12:07 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I camped a lot when I was younger and have camped as an adult, with no kids, a lot too.

1) Try and break the drive up if it is long. As a kid, my parents used to do 10 hours of driving there and 10 hours back. It was probably hell for them but we were away for 3 weeks at a time so it made it worthwhile. Be prepared to break your journey into 2-3hr chunks with decent breaks.
2) Get your prep totally sorted when you pack; your aim is to get to a point when you arrive that within 30 minutes you can be sort of functioning and the kids have somewhere to hang out. Ideally within no more than 1 hour everything should be set up.
3) Don't disrupt eating or sleep patterns if you can avoid it: for your first night, make life easy and bring something either super easy to cook, or pre-made.
4) Sleep is important, and for you and your kids don't skimp on comfort because you are camping.
5) If your kids can walk, give them jobs to do so they are part of the "camping crew", even if they are trivial jobs. If they are older, give them small, but proper jobs.

On site selection: without knowing the area, I'd say this: you need to make a call between more rugged campgrounds and ones that are overtly tailored for families, with facilities to match. Up to the age of ~10 for your kids, family oriented campgrounds will make it a lot more enjoyable for your kids. You might sacrifice beautiful views or rugged wilderness, but they will have more to do, kids their own age to play with, and the vibe should preclude partyhounds and other people you wish to avoid. But it's not everyone's cup of tea.

Also: arrive earlier in the day to get better spots or book ahead - the ones with shade, which are level, away from roads and toilets etc. A recurring mistake, IMHO is to tip up at 5pm without a reservation and then have to take some crappy spot. A follow on mistake is to stay there for several days and hate it.

If you want to go down the rugged nature route, then the best piece of advice I have is this: places accessible by 4x4 (or where you can do it in a 2WD vehicle, but need to go slowly and carefully) typically rule out RVs, tour groups, and most asshats. Places without connection to electricity tend to be much quieter because people can't run lots of lights, TVs, stereos or keep their beer cold indefinitely so they tend to rise and go to bed with the sun. But - bring a lot of water. Both for safety, and because it is a pain to ration yourself when you need to do things like wash hands, dishes etc. My absolute favourite spots like this were all within a 10-15 min walk of some swimming water. If there is a 4x4-oriented camping guide to your area you might want to take a look.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:15 AM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

You know those giant Tupperware bins that are normally used for under the bed storage? They will save your camping! I use three:

Bin 1: contains plates, utensils, cooking utensils, 1 pot, 1 frying pan and 1 cutting board, and cups that are camping only and get thrown into the dishwasher and then repacked as soon as I get home. This bin also houses paper goods (paper towels, trash bags, etc.) and an aim-and-flame candle lighter that I just replenish when I get home. Literally, this bin is grab and go.

Bin 2: anything related to cooking, etc. that is flammable - dish soap, olive oil, bug spray, propane canisters for a Coleman tabletop stove. Also: bug candles and fire gloves, rope and/or tarp. Same thing - this bin is also relatively grab and go and gets replenished after each trip.

Bin 3: any food items that will not live in the cooler. The bonus is that the bin will protect from animals, moisture, and prevents you from over buying.

Then, a cooler with refreesable ice packs, Coleman stove, chairs, tent, sleeping bags and thermorest pads. I try to keep these packed and bundled and stored with bins 1 & 2, oftentimes in empty bin 3 when not in use.


Basically if you keep bins 1 & 2 packed with the stuff you know you'll need each time and just wash and repackage after every trip, it literally makes packing and hauling crap, a snap!
posted by floweredfish at 2:56 AM on March 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

I keep a checklist on the computer - and we adjust it after each trip as we figure stuff out. Over the years it's changed but we're far less likely to forget something crucial. And yes, we too keep bins packed with camping routine stuff so we just add perishables, sleeping bags, tents, clothing and go. Much easier.

Most crucial thing is to choose the place well so you aren't as likely to have annoying neighbors or problematic setting. Can't help you with those since I'm a long way away.

Easy food - plan meals in advance and have a list. I'll mix up a batch of dry pancake mix/bisquick that only needs liquid and eggs, maybe some fat - pancakes are easy as is cobbler if you bring a cast iron skillet. Melt buter in pan, through in some fruit and top with cobbler mix, bake on edge of fire. Depending on the age of your kids cooking anything on a fire is a big adventure.

Be sure you have a decent first aid kid packed too - anti-itch stuff, bandaids - nothing major but you want to be able to deal with insect bites, sunburn, blisters...

Lots of good advice above.
posted by leslies at 3:53 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like site selection is a large part of your woe - I'd start doing searches for "tent camping" specifically. (I tried looking for a book to link you to - there's a couple books about "tent camping" sites in New York and New Jersey, where they specifically look for places that won't be overrun with huge RVs and tend to encourage more peaceful atmospheres.) Here's one list I found online, and I note that in their second suggestion it says "RVs are not allowed."

So "tent camping" seems to be the magic word when it comes to looking for campgrounds. This does not preclude car camping, from what I've seen; RVs are the only things they seem to rule out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:20 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ps - I forgot to add: just because your camping doesn't mean you have to eat like a hobo. I like to buy and freeze a few filets before the trip and the place in a plastic shopping bag in the cooler. It doubles as an ice pack while thawing for a second day dinner.

Using ice packs nd the frozen meat method rather than a cooler of loose ice is just as effective and less drippy and gross and so much easier to clean.

Marinade anything the night prior to leaving in the fridge in a Tupperware (chicken, steak, etc.) when you get to he campsite that day, skewer and put over the fire on tin foil while you're setting up camp. Prosciutto wrapped around asparagus with a drizzle of olive oil and some red wine? Instant class at the campsite!

Bring a French press for morning coffee.
posted by floweredfish at 4:41 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

shake'n'bake (fry) technique!


i knew this great trout fisherman/camper...chad...could've gone pro

anyway, he would make these bags...breading, yummy spices...and he'd then he'd catch trout...


maybe you could adapt that idea...


all about saving time...


consider a canteen dog...i have a lab...(just joking)


i hope you all have fun...all the prep can be i wish you no stress
posted by sirlikeitalot at 5:54 AM on March 21, 2013

I have this book, The Best In Tent Camping (for New England). I have used it on about four campsites and have done very well. The sites are all non-RV and meant for car campers. The book will advise you on the best campsites, as well as the ones to avoid.

Anyway, there is a Southern California version you could try.

My only other piece of advice is to avoid ALL holiday weekends, no matter where you camp. The loud/drunk obnoxiousness comes out much more on those weekends, and the sites are inevitably filled to capacity.
posted by smalls at 6:01 AM on March 21, 2013

*points to smalls * That was the book I was trying to find for you! Seconding that - I have the New York and New Jersey editions.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:13 AM on March 21, 2013

I know you explicitly mention car camping, but consider that part of your distaste for past experiences may be related to the type of camping you are doing. I became considerably more happy with my outdoors experiences when I stopped "camping" and started "hiking". When you go camping, you are generally going to be stuck in one spot with a ton of other people you may or may not get along with. When you are hiking, you are on the move, pick your own place to stop and make camp, and if something isn't to your liking, you move on.

Much of the gear is similar in that you'll have a tent, a sleeping bag, some cookware, and some food, but the similarities are loose. I can pack up a week's worth of hiking gear in a small backpack. A week's worth of camping gear usually means coolers, beer, and bacon (1 lb per person, per day?). Cookware goes from lightweight single burner stoves and a single pot to cast iron skillets and portable grills. I have a garage full of camping gear, but a closet full of hiking gear.

You are very close to the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail. If you get out on these trails, you will see, first hand, what most people will never experience. Instead of waking up to the sounds of breaking beer bottles and AC/DC, you'll learn to wake up to clean air and wildlife. There is always something to do when you are hiking. You are either moving or working on something you need like food, water, shelter, navigation, gear repair, or just enjoying the scenery. Kids just don't get bored out there.

There are downsides too. You could make an argument that hiking is less safe because you are usually going to be in a more remote location with less access to emergency resources. You do need to pay more attention to your plan and learn skills to adapt to changing situations. You have to pay more attention to the weather. You have to not be eaten by a bear. Campgrounds protect you from all these things, but in my opinion, that's like eating sushi from the cooler at 7-11. You pay for the convenience and you get what you get. Hiking gear can be more expensive, but learning to make your own can be very rewarding.

Do some day hikes and see if you like it. Try an overnight. Next thing you know, the drive to the trailhead will become much more scenic and exciting. You can hike the most remote of remote places with little to no support, but the rugged, mountain man in me is even guilty of waking up in a nice bed and breakfast on the East coast, catching a ride to the trail head, hiking all day, then catching a ride home with a stop at a local pub before falling back into a comfy bed with clean sheets. Your experiences can run the full spectrum.
posted by boba at 6:17 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could try a dose of "glamping" at El Capitan Canyon as a transitional thing.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:23 AM on March 21, 2013

"Tent camping" is indeed the keyword. Look for campgrounds that are tent only, have fewer than ~20 spots and have a curfew or a rule against generators. My family used to prioritize campgrounds with pumps and pit toilets because those are really not fun places to drink beer and hoot and holler all night. I still do that when I'm planning camping trips, and it has always served me well.

My family also had an index card system. Some cards stayed in for years ("amandabee's teddy bear"), long after they were relevant, because they were cute. But I know that teddy bear card was in there because when I was three I did not sleep without it. We had cards because our computer was an Apple 2e that we used to write Apple Logo programs and it was 1982, BUT it also meant my mom could hand me a stack of toiletry cards and seven year old me could pack everyone's toothbrush. It also meant that we always had flip-flops and enough flashlights and sunscreen and whatever else you might forget because it wasn't on your list even though obviously you need socks. I recall feeling very important as I made tidy pile of 4 pairs of underpants and 4 socks and two t-shirts and one pair of jeans and one pair of shorts. I didn't get nagged I got a list and some responsibility. That might help packing feel like a family project instead of "ack, did you get ... we need to make sure we have ..."

A good trick for ice is milk cartons. Rinse, don't fill all the way, freeze, and you'll end up with a good sized solid block of ice that will stay frozen longer than small cubes and will hold its own melt. I like cardboard cartons because you can fill them halfway, freeze on their side, fill the rest of the way, freeze standing, and you get a nice rectangular cube which is tidy and orderly, but a plastic carton works fine, too. So does a gallon jug, but it takes up more space, obvs.

My mom always planned meals around the ice-life. So early in the trip we'd have hamburgers (she froze patties in advance) and whatnot, and later in the trip we'd have spaghetti from canned sauce or Nile Spice soup, which was not perishable. Lately, I tend to go for minute rice (you can get par-boiled brown rice these days) and those mylar bags of Indian food or instant pad thai with frozen string beans. Frozen muffins will thaw their own selves after a few days and be lovely.

We kept all of our camping gear boxed in the basement. I don't think they'd invented plastic yet back then, but we had an orange carton (as in, a cardboard box that oranges had been shipped in) that was organized into sections with milk cartons. Silverware in one, knives and grater in another, and a stack of pots that we were cool with getting sooty and metal bowls and plates. Wash after each trip and re-stock. I don't have kids or a basement so I've kind of modified that but I still keep my camping stuff pretty organized so we can just pull it out and go.

My mom also always had a bag of presents at her feet. So halfway through day two of driving we all got a present -- a puzzle book or something new to keep us distracted. I think the secret is not making any promises and genuinely surprising kids, and picking things that are good to do in the car (like word puzzles and crosswords and logic puzzles). My parents also had a good radar for water parks and swimming holes. So planning for a place to stop for lunch where we could really run around and possibly get wet was huge, especially in the desert.
posted by amandabee at 7:09 AM on March 21, 2013 [10 favorites]

Some awesome practical advice here, mine is less practical but goddamn important for successful camping: take treats

There is nothing more satisfying than sitting back, you've set up your tent, you've eaten your dinner, you've got nothing to do except look at the stars til it's time to bed down, and you have an enamel mug of wine or whisky in one hand and a piece of excellent chocolate in the other. Bliss.
posted by greenish at 7:42 AM on March 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Agree about tent camping. There are people who like to camp, and there are people who like to party in parking lots, and with tent camping you are much more likely to get the former. Also, anything near water or a beach is good because there is automatically something to do - just walking the shoreline, finding seashells and rocks, building sandcastles, etc. is fun for kids. Are there any islands off the coast of California where you can camp? We camped on the Boston Harbor Islands and it was one of the best camping experiences of my life.

And amandabee's suggestion of presents. We took a 10-hour drive once when we were really little and my mom had a wrapped present for us to open for every hour, just something from the dollar store like a coloring book. Each one gave us something to do and we genuinely looked forward to the next one.

Also, whenever I go camping I like to make at least one really impressive meal, just because it feels so fun and out of place. It fills you up, everyone can get in on helping (if you trust your kids, let them build the fire and tend to it), and it does not have to be difficult at all. The last time we went I pre-cooked some pasta to just before al-dente and put it in a plastic bag and froze some linguica so it would be thawed by the time we got there. At the campsite, I cooked the linguica over the fire and set it aside. Pour out some of the linguica oil if there is too much - about two tablespoons is good. Add some olive oil, chopped garlic, and diced onions, cooking until soft. Toss in the pasta and cook for a minute or two. Toss with fresh chopped basil, a squirt of lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Serve with the linguica and a crusty baguette. The parents can have wine, the kids sparkling grape juice or something. Put some candles on the picnic table and it will be a meal you will remember for years. You can do desserts (bananas foster - no need to worry about flambeing your kitchen because you are already outside, and have your kids make the ice cream using one of those coffee can things), breakfasts (a good frittata), anything you want.

I don't know if I've ever returned from camping feeling physically rested, but certainly more relaxed and happy.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 7:48 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

LA county resident here, lots of camping experience when young vilter was young.

- Try, if you can, to NOT camp on weekends. Arrive on Sunday and leave on Tuesday for a much more relaxing experience.

-Joshua Tree is great! Try for some of the smaller camp grounds like Jumbo Rocks, which has a nice not too long hike right there. We've also stayed at Indian Cove, which is the smaller of the two large camp grounds happily.

-Fun easy meals that you can prepare in advance are nice for the first couple of meals. Hobo packets that you can cook on the coals are easy and kids tend to like them. Breakfast in baggies is fun too. Crack raw eggs into a baggie and then add cheese, herbs, pre-cooked bacon, basically whatever you'd like in an omelet. Seal up the baggie, squish it all up and drop it in a pot of boiling water.

-I think I know where you camped that you heard the train all night. For us, it just became part of the background noise after awhile. It was either Carpinteria or Refugio, both places we've loved. Carp is nice with kids because if you want, you're close enough to ride bikes or walk into town.

-I find lake camping generally to be avoided if you want to not be camped next to radios, loud drinkers etc. Anyplace you can bring a SkiDoo type thing to, stay away from.

-Try camping with one or two other families. Fun for the kids and you can pool resources.

-Try using some of the smaller regional parks for quick get aways. O'Neil Park in Orange County was nice the one time we were there. There are also several down San Diego way.

I am remembering all the camping trips we took with other homeschooling families and the fun that we had. It all went to hell when the kids started college and nobody's schedule matched up anymore, so do it now while they are young and you have the time. It does get easier every time you do it. The suggestion for packing lists is the best.
posted by jvilter at 8:27 AM on March 21, 2013

Everybody else mentioned tent-only campgrounds and prepacked bins of gear, so I'll just second those bits of advice. If you get a pop-up camper, you'll be limited to the campgrounds where the noisy people stay. Stick with the tent.


Anything that can be cooked using the campfire is great fun, and feels like "real" camping food. Hotdogs on the ends of sticks (use marshmallow roasting sticks) are quick and easy and taste better with a bit of campfire smoke in them. Cooking stuff in the coals is great, too. Tinfoil dinner (basically hamburger, potatoes, veggies, and seasonings wrapped in foil) is a classic.

I also really like to do hot sandwiches in the coals. Bring some large hotdog/brat buns, deli meat, cheese, maybe some dijon mustard or thinly sliced peppers or tomatoes, whatever your family likes. Everyone gets to stuff their own sandwich(es) with the fillings they like, then mom and dad double-wrap them in foil and toss them on the coals for 5-10 minutes until they're hot and gooey. Even better, stuff your sandwich with mostly-defrosted meatballs (count them from the freezer into a ziplock bag and keep in the cooler until day two), pizza sauce ("Pizza Squeeze" comes in a bottle with a reclosable cap, which is handy), provolone or mozzarella, and green peppers. Cut up some fruit to eat on the side, if anyone wants a side dish. It's handy to have some old junky oven mitts when you're opening foil packets, to avoid accidental steam burns.

There are 2 keys to foil cooking:
1) Cook in coals, not flames. Flames will turn the outside of your food to charcoal while the inside is still raw. You have to build a good fire and get some good coals going. Either let it burn down to coals, or just let the fire burn a while and then push it to the side so you have a nice bed of coals to work with (turn your packets frequently if you do it this way, so the flame-ward side doesn't burn).

2) Make a handle. You've got to have a way to get the thing out of the coals when you're done cooking, and trying to balance the packet on 3 sticks held by 2 people without piercing the foil is a recipe for disaster. I like to twist some extra foil at each end of the packet into one big loop, so that the packet ends up sort of like an easter basket - payload on the bottom, handle arching over the top. Then it's easy to lift out of the coals with a stick. It feels a bit wasteful of foil, but it's less wasteful then dumping your entire dinner loose into the fire.

And obviously, finish with s'mores. If you get bored with normal s'mores, sub in peanut butter cups for the chocolate. Or slit open a banana the long way, stuff in some chocolate chips and/or peanut butter and/or mini marshmallows, wrap in foil, and toss it in the coals for a few minutes.

You have to have comfy camp chairs. Nobody wants to sit around the fire if they're uncomfortable. There are lots of folding options out there, and some are ridiculously cheap, but try sitting in them for a few minutes in the store and look for a different model if your back gets sore. Kids will be happier in kid-sized chairs. Cup holders are nice -- make sure they're big enough to hold the water bottles you favor.

Bring bug spray and anti-itch cream. Being itchy will ruin the trip for anyone, especially a kid.

A lantern is really nice to have at night, so you can play cards at the picnic table or even just wash dishes if it got late. Headlamps are also super useful for hands-free lighting (think midnight bathroom trip, or reading in a sleeping bag), and kids love them because they're kind of goofy.

A frisbee or a football or a bocce ball set can be nice to while away a bit of the afternoon.

Tents: the number of people a tent is rated for is if you sleep like sardines and nobody tosses and turns. For 2 people, a 3 person tent is nice and a 4-person tent is perfect- especially if you want to fit a queen-size air mattress in there. I will say, though, that having separate air mattresses for each person makes for a better night's sleep. They're just too bouncy if somebody else is moving around on them.

A camping-only snack is great for setting the mood. As a kid we only ever had GORP (ours was raisins, M&Ms, and spanish peanuts) when camping, so it was something to look forward to. We also had a song we would play as we were pulling out of the driveway for a roadtrip, which was a fun tradition. I remember when we had to replace the tape with the CD, when we got a new minivan. I still play that song on my mp3 player in my car when I leave for a long journey. Any kind of tradition you can set up will make you feel more comfortable, more like real campers.
posted by vytae at 8:44 AM on March 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you bring air mattresses, bring a fleece or foam pad to put over them. You can lose a lot of heat to the mattress and few people sleep well when they are freezing. I tend to put a mylar space blanket under my sleeping bag to reflect my heat back up. It's crinkly sounding at night, but I don't notice since I'm actually asleep.

Starbucks makes an instant coffee called VIA that is better than most camp coffee I've had. I don't like their coffee in the store, but VIA is amazing.

If your kids will eat it, those foil Indian food packages are a great quick meal. I generally get Tasty Bite from the SuperTarget. There are similar bags of rice and beans that I like to use for burritos. I tend to add chicken that's also packed in a shelf stable bag and a lot of salsa. This is all for backcountry camping. For car camping, you can use a cooler and add real meat and cheese.
posted by advicepig at 8:58 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pretty much what floweredfish says - bins and tubs are lifesavers. Keep almost everything pre-packed and it's 90% less hassle when you're trying to get out the door. We always keep the camping cookware stored in a tub, and then add paper towels, spices, other miscellany before leaving. We also always had a Coleman camp stove as a kid. It's not necessary but it really expands your meal options. I have a huge, old, bulky version, but the new models are much more streamlined.

We camped a lot when I was a kid, and this is what I recall as far as meals:
1. Spaghetti. Don't ask me why, but I loved spaghetti when we were camping. Not exactly a one pot meal, but you can do it with two on the Coleman stove. They have spaghetti kits at the store that are easy to grab, or you can obviously assemble the ingredients yourself. One pot for pasta water and one pot for sausage/sauce. You could even precook the sausage or buy meat sauce and just heat it up on site. Texas toast/garlic bread can be grilled in the sauce pot (wipe it out after sauce is served on to plates) or over the fire.
2. Steak or "hobo packets." You know the drill - some sort of combination of meat, potatoes, carrots, onions in a packet and nestled in the coals of the fire. I used to love this in Girl Scouts. You can just do the veg in the packets and do a steak or chicken over the fire instead. You can cut up the veg ahead of time, and even make the packets ahead of time and just stash them in the cooler in a ziploc bag.
3. Hot dogs or chilli dogs. Easy camp food. Dogs on a stick, and get a can of chilli (or bring some from home). Leftover hot dog buns can always be used for garlic bread.
4. Maple sausage and roasted bell pepper on English muffin sandwiches. Great for dinner or breakfast. I don't know why the maple/bell pepper combo is so delicious, but it is!
5. Curry. We brought a wok camping once and it was really fun to do this over the campfire. Random veg (we had broccoli and onions) + tofu or meat of your choice + curry paste + coconut milk. You could get some instant rice to make it a meal.
6. Anything pre-packed as people mentioned above. The Backpacker's Pantry meals are super easy, although they tend to be more expensive for the quantity. There's a lot of "meal kits" out there nowadays that I don't usually consume at my house but are perfect for camping (even if they are a bit more expensive and obviously more processed, the convenience factor wins).

7. Obviously s'more fixins'
8. Pie irons are fun and cheap. Pick one up at a camping gear store. For the easiest adaptation you'll need a loaf of sandwich bread, butter and a can/jar of pie filling. Obviously there are a million other ideas on that site for sweet and savory foods, and cooking stuff over the fire is always fun.

As far as gear goes, I wish we would have had a larger tent once we got beyond the age of, say, 8-10 years old. My four-person family crammed ourselves in a tiny four-man tent until I graduated from high school (ugh). A larger tent or a second tent for the kids would have been nice. We had thermarest mattresses, but I see a lot of people using the large inflatable mattresses nowadays. They're cheap and easy to transport for car camping. As much as I love backcountry camping/hiking, I couldn't see doing it *easily* with kids until they were middle school age. (Maybe an occasional overnight starting a bit younger.) Also, everybody gets their own comfy camp chair!
posted by sararah at 9:23 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's lots of good general advice (esp: regarding packing in bins and camping with other families), so I have a couple of specific location recommendations for you:

20 some odd years later, my family still camps at El Capitan State Beach every year (note -- it's across the 101 from the glamping site that BlahLaLa mentions, and is near Refugio). You do have to be careful with what sites you book though, because there are some that are right next to train tracks. My parents wine taste in that area all the time, so every year a few months before the reservations open up, they stop by the campground on their way back and drive around to refresh their memory of which sites are the best (84 and 85, by far). The beach is just a short walk away, and there are some nice nature walks too. Full facilities (you have to pay for the showers though) and a general store in the campground itself. Plus, town is a short drive away. It's a crowded camp ground (you have to make reservations online something like 6 months in advance, as soon as the dates you want are available), but in all the years I've been going there, I've never been kept awake by noisy neighbors. Kids bring their bikes and scooters and zip around the campground all day.

My other favorite campground is Boulder Basin up on San Jacinto, near Idyllwild. It's fairly primitive (pit toilets, fire pits, and picnic tables, but no potable water). You can get on the PCT for some hiking pretty easily, and there's a good hike to a fire watch tower nearby. The kids will probably love that.
posted by natabat at 10:50 AM on March 21, 2013

I just wanted to second headlamps. Getting a headlamp had a profound psychological effect on camping for me, if that's not too strong. It turned nighttime from a deeply annoying and frustrating time (trying to cook while holding a flashlight between head and shoulder, or getting bored holding a flashlight for someone else) to being smooth and easy. Wherever you look, it's light there. It avoids a million tiny difficulties that otherwise add up to sour the whole experience. All the camping/outdoorsy people I know love headlamps.
posted by echo target at 10:57 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm on the other side of the continent and I hate camping. But I still think I have some advice! Rather than going with tent camping, I'm going to suggest you go in the other direction: rent a small rustic cottage or a yurt somewhere.

I camp with my family (me, my 10 year old daughter, my parents in their 60s) for 4-5 nights every summer (as suggested above, we always go Sunday to Thursday) in a provincial park on Lake Superior in a yurt. It ROCKS. These yurts are very plain and basic, with plywood floors and futon bunk beds (you have to bring the bedding, we bring sleeping bags and pillows). They have electricity and a small fridge and a gas BBQ, though, which makes food so much easier. And there are two bathrooms with showers and a pump with potable water that serve the 3 yurts in that part of the park. For me, it's the best of both worlds: we have trees and the lake and nature, it's quiet because there are only two other yurts nearby, and there are rules about how they can be used. But there's a floor and a roof and showers.

Packing is still kind of a pain in the ass, but I don't think there's any way to avoid that.

And it looks like there are some options for this type of camping in California.
posted by looli at 12:56 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice here so I'll just throw in one tip that kind of saved my camping with kids life: a red wagon. I packed the wagon in the car along with all the camping stuff and then, presto, everything goes on the wagon and you pull the wagon along to the campsite instead of making umpty million trips back and forth to the car. This opens you up to more adventurous camping places as well, as in you're not camped right next to the car anymore. The added bonus is that the kids have a wagon to play with at the campsite and it's amazing how much fun they can suddenly have with it.
posted by mygothlaundry at 2:03 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lots of great advice here.

Camping was a big part of my childhood growing up in LA. We camped in many places, but without a doubt my all time favorite spot was Leo Carillo State Park.
posted by lex mercatoria at 2:39 PM on March 21, 2013

Oh heck yes, headlamps. You may feel silly wearing it at first--or the kids may think it's really cool!--but they really do make a huge difference. I consider one headlamp per person to be essential camping gear. I also really like a couple large LED lanterns--they provide a lot of light but are zero-hassle, unlike the Coleman gas lanterns we used when I was growing up.

Pack the day before! Make everyone participate in unpacking. Teach the kids how to do their own set-up as soon as they're old enough to hold a tent stake. My very large family did a couple big family camping trips per year and the kids were usually responsible for setting up their own tents starting ages 5-7, depending on the kid. It let the adults focus on the other stuff, and I thought I was a total badass for being able to put up my own tent.

And yes, keeping all the camping gear in labeled bins makes things a lot easier when it's time to pack, but don't forget to take stuff out to check it before packing it. Few things suck more than not discovering until you're there and setting up that your tent is ripped or your air mattresses are holey.

Speaking of air mattresses, I seem to be a minority in how much I hate them and find them uncomfortable, but in case you or anyone else in your family is with me, I recommend self-inflating sleeping pads. They usually have some built-in cushioning and only a tiny bit of air, but they provide a remarkable amount of cushioning without being air mattresses.

If you've got a car, there's no reason not to get a couple large tents. Large tents are much more comfortable to sleep in and hang out in, and I've always slept better in one than I do now in the two-person tent I take bike camping.

I'll also nth the suggestion for real food. It's fun to find creative ways to cook it, preparing and cooking it takes up some time in the day (which can be a good thing if you get bored), the kids can help, and having real, tasty, hot food is very psychologically comforting. There are a ton of sites and blogs dedicated to cooking real or "gourmet" food while camping/hiking/bike touring. I really like this selection of recipes from the (not-yet-published) Pedal Inn bike camping cookbook.
posted by rhiannonstone at 2:57 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Make sure the kids have tasks. Washing dishes is a chore, more so at a campsite, but when the kids haul & heat the water, they can view it as an adventure. Pancakes while camping are a rule for us, esp. if somebody finds raspberries. Save a squeeze ketchup container, put dry ingredients in it, add milk & eggs at the site. My son has always loved the campfire, woodstove, etc., so bringing long forks for marshmallows, marinated kielbasa/ chicken/ steak, and other food to cook over the coals was a lot of fun. We also have dedicated camping stuff that's mostly ready to go (When I moved to a converted summer cottage, camping got kind of redundant).

Make sure you can build a fire, fast. I bring wood, newspaper and candle stubs and we've built fires in wet weather. Bring an extra tarp. No, get the bigger tarp. With bungee cords attached to trees, you can make a dry area in damp weather. My family could hire as rainmakers; when we camp, it's often rains, pours, mists; no hail. yet. Many campgrounds have chlorinated water. Freeze bottled water to keep stuff cool. As it defrosts, drink it.

Grownups on camping trips get a grownup treat, either a special cocktail (tangerine margaritas), good wine, olive tapenade. Kids do, too, usually these little cereal boxes, which we otherwise never get because they're full of sugar. When we camp with a group, everybody gets assigned a set of meals, and we email back and forth about any staples we need. Stir-fry, shish-kebab, grilled meat, baked sweet/white potatoes, rice pilaf, any stew that isn't fussy or terribly slow. Steak au poivre can be made on the campfire, but you have to plan ahead rigorously. It gets served with noodles which had the green beans thrown in to cook with them.

No electronics. Put away the smartphone. You can bring it on hikes for safety, but on silent, and no peeking. Use maps & compass, and learn to read trail signs. Tell ghost stories at night; severity tailored to the kids' ages and tolerance. We used to tell a lot of Scooby-do ghost stories where it was always the front desk guy dressed as a ghost or monster. Each hcild should have a flashlight/ headlamp of their own. Have joke-telling contests; winner doesn't do dishes. Bring nature guides and learn what those trees are. Bring lyrics and have a sing-along of Beatles songs around the campfire. I love national parks with kids; lots of sponsored learning events.
posted by Mom at 3:37 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

More things:

If you have a plastic table cloth, it goes a long way towards making a campsite feel tidy because you can clean it up in a way that you can't clean a picnic table.

My folks had a whole system for water, that made life a lot easier. We had a five gallon jeep gas can (which had never held gas, obvs) that we'd fill and keep at our campsite. Depending on how old your kids are that is a hugely good idea. Bigger kids can be sent off on water lugging missions, but with little kids, having water right there is really nice. It meant that we could wash faces (with a wash cloth) and brush teeth easily.

We always brought a bunch of smallish buckets:

- One for hand washing, which went at one end of the bench next to a bar of soap in a plastic holder and a hand towel. For little kids that's big. Grown ups don't seem to get quite as dirty.
- Two more for dish-washing. One gets hot soapy water. One gets hot clean water and a third (the hand bucket was part of the program) for hot clean water again. So you rinse clean dishes in the first bucket and then in the second and you end up with clean dishes without soap on them.

I tend not to bother with all that these days, but I think if I was camping with kids I'd want to get organized again.

Thinking back to boredom and kids, I have really strong memories of identifying trees and ferns using trail books. So I think I liked that. And we used to keep a scrapbook of every family vacation. We'd glue stuff in and write entries every day about where we'd gone and what we'd done. I'm sure we also logged plants we'd identified. I only realized this afternoon that this was not because my parents were desperate for a log, but because they wanted us to be a) doing something and b) practising some set of skills that comes with synthesizing your day. It was always more like one more exciting way to do something Very Important that was Not a Chore.
posted by amandabee at 1:23 PM on March 22, 2013

Just wanted to suggest Huntington Lake, about 65 miles east of Fresno. Perfect in Spring for quiet lakeside camping in the mountains. Rent a canoe or boats at the small resort, lot's of good hiking trails in the area, and fishing of course. We go for the rental cabins, but the campgrounds look good, too.
Google calls it a 4 1/2 hr drive from L.A.
posted by artdrectr at 6:06 PM on March 24, 2013

Oh, I just remembered, that my biggest tip for packing the car is to hum the Tetris song. I also ask everyone to leave me alone so I don't have advice I don't need or meddling. (I am a master packer.) No sense squabbling before we even hit the road.
posted by looli at 12:35 PM on March 25, 2013

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