Until our fourth child was one year old, we had never gone camping. Now, our life revolves around life on the road or our next camping trip. For me, the open spaces that camping typically entails soothes my soul and allows me to breathe deeper, while providing my kids an environment to be active, get fresh air, and have a safe outlet to nurture their curiosity and need for discovery. But that doesn’t mean camping is easy by any means. Like most things in life, it gets easier with practice and requires enduring some discomforts and overcoming fears. But it also creates wonderful memories for your family and is an inexpensive way to travel or vacation. Here are ten things you should know before you head out on your first camping or RVing trip.
Reserve Your Campground Well In Advance
A good campground can make all the difference, especially if you are a newbie. A clean campground with nicer amenities will certainly help you be more comfortable. If you are a nature lover, choosing a campground in an epic location will make the few discomforts worthwhile.
Many campgrounds fill up fast, especially on the weekends. If you are traveling in the summer or near the coastline, it is a good idea to book your spot ahead of time. In some cases, they need to be booked at 8:00 a.m. six months in advance! Many of the campgrounds can be booked on reserveamerica.com, reservecalifornia.com, and recreation.gov. The national parks have incredible campgrounds and many are first come first serve. If you are trying to get a site by first come first serve, try to get to the campground by 10 a.m. to get your site, then go do your activity and come back.
What kind of amenities do campgrounds have?
Campsites come with either no hookups, partial hookups, or full hookups. If you get a site with no hookups you will want to be prepared by having your water tank in the RV already filled or plenty of drinking water if you are tent camping. Most campgrounds have a spigot to wash dishes and fill water, but it’s not always potable. To fill the water tank in your RV, you can use a regular garden hose from your house, or most campgrounds have a filling station. Make sure you fill with potable water at the campground and not the hose that is used to clean the dump area…sometimes these hoses are very close to each other.
If you get a site with partial hookups that usually means your site will have a spigot that you can connect a hose to. There are special low pressure hoses that you should use in this instance. When you are not directly hooked up to a water source, you will need to turn on your water pump inside the RV to get the water to flow out of the sink or to flush the toilet. Also, with partial hookups, you will have an electrical tower. Your RV will already have an electrical cord to plug into the tower. Many towers have an option of 30 amp or 50 amp and if your RV has the 30 amp plug (most do) it’s a good idea to carry an adapter in case you get a campground with the 50 amp option. To avoid those “duh” moments… make sure you “flip the fuse switch to “ON” when you plug into the tower. If you plan on visiting and staying outside someone’s house and want electricity from their house you will need a 15 amp adapter to be able to plug into an extension cord.
If you have full hookups this means your site has electricity, water, and a sewer dump, which is nice so you don’t have to worry about filling up your black water tank (from the toilet) or gray water tank (from the sinks). When we vagabond/boondock, this tends to be our limiting factor in the number of days we can go without campsites or dumping stations. When we get to a place with full hookups it makes things much easier because you aren’t constantly managing how much is going into your holding tanks. A couple helpful hints when it comes to holding tanks: Each one has an independent lever to pull in order to dump and it keeps the tube cleaner if you dump the black and then let the gray wash things out. If you have full hook ups, it keeps the smell down if you keep your valves closed and just pull the lever once a day or even every other day so it allows the pressure to build up and then everything comes out at once. This also keeps the fumes from the actual dump from seeping up the hose into your RV.
You need propane to cook in an RV, so make sure you have enough before you hit the road or have bought propane canisters for your cooktops if you are tent camping.
Setting up Your RV in Your Campsite
This sounds pretty basic, but I think Victor and I have had more arguments over where to park the RV (or set up the tent) than anything else in our marriage. It’s so bad that now he just hands me the keys when we get there and says, “Put it where you want it.” I have an internal level in my brain and can tell if the RV is the slightest bit slanted and it drives me crazy. I’ve learned to adapt better to this imperfection, but I know for a lot of other women this could be very irritating. First, make sure you carry leveling blocks (or wooden two by fours) so you can prop up any wheels to get the perfect equilibrium. Many RV’s come with levels on the outside to help you get the bubble perfectly balanced in the middle. Second, keep some perspective. You are camping, so get outside and try to allow more imperfection and unpredictability in your life. It’s good for you 🙂
If your RV has slide outs, make sure you don’t extend them until your RV is level and the jacks are down (if you have them).
Most importantly, make sure set up is a team effort, especially if you have kids. Once I have the RV perfectly balanced where I want it, my family knows it’s time to pitch in and get everything settled. Victor always takes care of hooking up the electrical, water, and sewer. A few of the kids help me get out our outdoor rug laid out and then start unpacking the under storage, while the other kids tidy the inside.
Every time we drive, the inside takes a huge beating. There are always dishes in the sink, piles of trash to throw away, and the floors are a mess. My oldest son is great about getting that back in order so that I can cook, because, of course, everyone is starving the minute we get to a campground.“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.”- Robert Louis Stevenson Click To Tweet
Setting up Your Tent in Your Campsite
If you are tent camping, then setting up camp is a little more involved. For the five weeks we did this in Europe we became a perfectly well oiled machine. Danny, Gabi, and Victor would find the most level spot that they thought mom would approve of and get the tent set up. We didn’t carry a tarp to lie under the tent, but a lot of people do put one down first, then place the tent on top. As a general rule when you set up a tent, lay it out where you want it, pull the tent taunt and drive in the stakes, insert the poles and lift them into place. (Make sure you have a small hammer to drive in your tent stakes.)
Isabelle was in charge of blowing up the air mattresses, with the help (or hindrance) of the youngest, Tatiana. I started on preparing a cooking area (and Jiraiya, my not-so-helpful-child took care of fighting any imaginary bad guys that may have been trying to infiltrate our camping domain).
If you are tent camping you should bring earplugs and eye masks just in case there are noises or bright lights that make it hard for you to sleep. Also having a low dose of Melatonin and lavender essential oil on hand is a good idea if you think you may have a hard time adjusting to a new time zone or different sleeping situation. One glass of wine or a beer can do the same thing, however, too much alcohol often causes more sleep disturbances.
Tips For Keeping Your Campsite Organized
It’s nice to have a few empty plastic boxes to put shoes in outside and for miscellaneous gear. We travel with a small table that we leave set up right outside the door and use it for making coffee and as a place to stack dishes, pots and pans, and other cooking equipment. If you have room, make sure you have an outdoor rug or tarp to put at the entrance to your RV or tent to minimize the amount of dirt that is tracked in and out as well as provide a place to sit if you don’t bring chairs (which we often don’t). However, we always travel with a hammock and straps to hang it with.
You don’t need a huge diversity for entertainment. We travel with a hacky sack, a frisbee, playing cards, dominoes, Settlers of Catan (our favorite board game) a book each to read, some journals to draw or write in, and of course, a ukulele. That’s about it. Keep it simple and travel as light as you can.
Tip: If you will be staying at one campground for your entire vacation, then you can pack heavier to make your campsite more comfortable.
Tips for Camping on a Road Trip
You want to travel light enough that set up and take down don’t become overwhelming but still have enough stuff to feel comfortable. We usually travel in our Class C motorhome and due to its relatively small size, setting up and breaking down is pretty fast. This also makes it easy to vagabond. A trailer takes a little more time to hitch/unhitch and vagabonding isn’t quite as comfortable (but still doable). If you are tent camping, it will be more important that you have campgrounds booked ahead of time (unless you are in Utah where there are plenty of BLM’s). And remember, while tent camping, setting up and breaking down camp will be much more time consuming. We can cover a lot of miles by not having to set up and break down camp every night.
Tips For Campfires
If this is your first camping experience, having a campfire at night is a must. Most campgrounds sell firewood and a lot of national parks ask you to burn their wood to protect the forest. Having a small hatchet is helpful to cut the large logs into kindling size pieces.
Teach your kids how to start a fire and to tend the fire safely. All kids love to play with fire and I find the more hands on experiences they get with supervision, the less likely they are to do something dumb later on.