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How to Prepare for the Great American Campout (on a Budget)

Have you ever taken your family on a camping trip?

For many families, the answer is no. However, camping is a magical experience that can leave lasting memories with your kids.

Planning a family camping trip is an iconic summer ritual for some people, and most kids love the idea of heading outdoors to sit beside a fire and sleep under the stars. Camping is also a cheap family vacation, especially if you don’t have to travel far to a campground. Pitching a tent, building a fire, and cooking dinner over the open flames is a frugal and fun way to break up your routine.

And there’s no better time to give camping a try than to head out in late June for the Great American Campout.

What Is the Great American Campout?

The nonprofit National Wildlife Federation (NWF) started the Great American Campout in 2005 to help families reconnect with nature and discover the wonder and delight of the outdoors.

The Great American Campout occurs on the fourth Saturday in June, so the exact date changes each year. In 2020, it will take place on June 27. Events take place throughout the summer, however, and particularly during June, which is Get Outdoors Month. The Great American Campout also takes place a month after Kids to Parks Day, a national event on the third Saturday in May that encourages families to head outside to play at a local, state, or national park.

There are many public events scheduled for the Great American Campout. These events can help you connect with other families who are interested in camping and get your kids involved in activities like scavenger hunts, public bonfires, and wildlife hikes.


The Benefits of Camping

Camping is an excellent way to introduce your children to the natural world because it’s such an immersive experience that’s rich with new sights, smells, sounds, and tastes. Your family can explore the wonders of the woods or a nearby meadow, sit around a campfire telling stories and making s’mores, and sleep under the stars.

While camping offers plenty of good, old-fashioned fun, there are many other benefits that you and your kids will experience when you head outside.

According to a 2017 meta-analysis of studies published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, kids who spend more time outdoors have better concentration, improved memory, more self-discipline, and less stress. Kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also experienced fewer behaviors and symptoms of the condition when they spent more time outdoors.

Nature can also help alleviate stress, and there’s no doubt that most of us could benefit from that. According to The American Institute of Stress, 77% of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress, and 73% frequently experience psychological symptoms caused by stress.


How to Get Ready for a Campout: Tools & Supplies

There are some camping gear essentials you need before you head out for a night outdoors. These include:

  • A Tent. You’ll need a camping tent big enough to house everyone in your family. Getting a larger tent than you need is often a good idea, especially if you have a pet, as it will give you extra room for gear or a dog bed. For everyone’s comfort, get a tent size that’s one bigger than what the rated capacity suggests. For example, for a family of four, consider a six-person tent.
  • A Tent Footprint. A tent footprint goes under your tent to help reduce wear and tear, cut down on moisture, and add warmth. You can purchase a footprint made specifically for your tent or simply use a plastic tarp.
  • Sleeping Bags. Your sleeping bag should be rated lower than the lowest expected temperature you’ll experience on your trip. Fortunately, June is relatively warm in most areas of the country, so a bag rated at 40 degrees F will work fine for many people. However, always check the weather forecast before you head out. If it’s going to be cold, a sleeping bag liner can provide added warmth.
  • A Sleeping Pad. Everyone in your family needs some sort of sleeping pad. A quality sleeping pad increases your warmth and comfort and helps ensure you get a good night’s sleep.
  • A Cooking Stove. Most park campsites come with a fire pit or charcoal grill, and often they have both. If you’re camping in a place without one of these amenities, you’ll need to bring along a small camp stove for cooking.
  • Pots and Pans. Bring along a small selection of pots and pans to cook food. If you’re cooking over a fire, make sure your pots are suitable for an open flame. Cast-iron cookware is an excellent choice for open-fire cooking. You can often find used cast-iron cookware at thrift stores for a few dollars.
  • A Small Table. Having a small foldable table is not essential, but it will make food prep more manageable, especially if your campsite doesn’t have a picnic table.
  • Folding Chairs. If you don’t have some already, pick up some basic folding chairs. You can find them for around $26 at Walmart to $100 or more for high-end models.
  • A Flashlight. Flashlights and headlamps are indispensable on a camping trip.
  • A Cooler. You’ll need a cooler for foods that must be kept cold, as well as plenty of ice to go in it.
  • A First-Aid Kit. Never go camping without a fully stocked first-aid kit. Add some camping-specific items like sunscreen, bug repellent, and moleskin for blisters.
  • Warm Clothing. Check the weather carefully before you head out camping, as some locations can still be quite cold in summer, especially at night. Pack a raincoat for everyone in your family along with an insulating layer, such as a fleece jacket.
  • Wet Wipes. Wet wipes or baby wipes make it easy to wash your face and feel clean when you’re camping, especially if there are no public facilities.

Extra Tools for Exploration

Most children naturally explore when they’re out in nature. They climb trees, examine busy ants, wade into creeks, and throw pine cones. You can help your children explore the outdoors by bringing some basic tools from home:

  • A small bucket
  • A magnifying glass
  • A shovel
  • Pencil and paper
  • Binoculars
  • Rope or paracord
  • Bikes

Children can use these basic items to explore the outdoors better. These items will also help facilitate open-ended play and learning. Before you travel, make sure there are bike-friendly paved trails or paths and check helmet laws in the park.

Camping Equipment Traveler Scout Travel Kit


How to Save Money on Gear

Camping can get expensive if you’re starting from scratch, but there are ways to save money on camping gear.

First, start looking at garage sales and thrift stores for used gear. Next, check for deals at REI. The company offers significant discounts on used equipment, as well as at their outlet store. You can also find quality used gear at Play It Again Sports. Another option is to look for used gear on Craigslist or Freecycle

If you’re not ready to buy, you can rent equipment through REI or Outdoors Geek.


Where to Camp

Many state and local parks will have scheduled activities for The Great American Campout. However, the COVID-19 pandemic might affect these plans, so call ahead before making a reservation anywhere.

Public Parks

County, state, or national parks are often inexpensive places to camp. You can find a local county park by looking at your location on Google Maps or by searching for “local park near me.” You can find a state park by searching the directory at America’s State Parks or a national park by using the National Park Service directory.

Keep in mind that not all public parks have overnight camping accommodations. Call or visit the park’s website to see what’s available. If camping is available, there might be several different options.

Primitive Camping

Primitive campsites are basic, inexpensive sites for tent camping.

Every park defines primitive camping a bit differently, but most primitive campsites have no electricity, running water, or bath and shower facilities. Primitive campsites are sometimes located deep in the park, requiring you to hike in with all your equipment. Many parks also have primitive drive-up sites.

Some primitive campsites come with a camping shelter, while others are open areas for a tent. Some might have a picnic table or fire pit ring, while others don’t. It’s best to call your park and find out what their primitive campsites are like so you can pack appropriate gear.

One of the most significant benefits to primitive sites is that they’re often isolated, which means peace and quiet for your family. However, primitive camping might feel daunting if you’re camping for the first time, especially if you have to hike in with all your gear.

Electric/Water Campsite

The next level up from primitive campsites are those with electricity and water. These campsites often have a poured concrete pad for RVs and motor homes and are typically located within walking distance of a public bathroom with showers.

Electric/water campsites make camping more convenient because you can plug in lights or devices, and they provide easy access to running water for cooking and cleaning. However, you pay more for this convenience, often double the cost of primitive sites. Another downside is that you might have close neighbors, as electric/water sites are typically organized in clusters around the park. And with neighbors comes noise.

Full Hookup Campsites

Full hookup campsites are for RV camping only. These campsites have a large, cleared pad and electricity, water, and sewer access. Full hookup sites are the most expensive.

Hipcamp

Hipcamp is an online booking site that helps you find campsites, along with camping experiences. On Hipcamp, you can find campsites at a local farm or winery, at a public campground, or on private land. You can also find campsites that have existing accommodations, such as a tiny house, treehouse, or cabin.

Tentrr

Tentrr is another online booking site that connects campers with private landowners who allow camping on their land. What makes Tentrr unique is that it offers camping-to-go sites all around the country. These campsites are fully setup by Tentrr with everything you need for camping, including a canvas tent, platform deck, chairs, bed, side tables, fire pit, solar shower, and wood stove. All you have to do is show up with clothes, food, and other personal gear.


Keeping Kids Busy

Many kids will entertain themselves outside, exploring and playing pretend in the woods, streams, or meadow. However, it’s always fun to have a few organized activities up your sleeve just in case they get a case of “I’m BORED!”

  • Scavenger Hunt. Children of all ages love scavenger hunts. The National Park Service created a fun scavenger hunt, “30 Things to Find at a Park,” which you can download, print, and take with you.
  • Boredom Booklet. The National Park Trust’s “Boredom Busters” booklet is full of activities and games you can do with your kids at a park.
  • Nature Crafts. Bring some nature-themed craft supplies and let your kids make signs for your campsite.
  • Let Them Help. Younger kids love to “help” setup camp. Put your kids to work doing chores like gathering firewood (if it’s allowed at your campground) or setting up chairs.
  • Camping Bingo. Download these free Camping Bingo cards from Crazy Outdoor Mama and play bingo, using small stones as markers.
  • Go Fishing. If you have fishing gear, bring it along. Most kids love to fish, and this will keep them entertained for hours if the park is located on a lake or near a stream. Make sure you have a current fishing permit if one is required. Some parks suspend licensing requirements for The Great American Campout; talk to a park ranger about what’s required before you go.

Two Toddler Girls Fishing Pole Lake

Use Technology

Many families relish the idea of unplugging while they’re camping. However, many apps can help you and your kids learn more about nature and enrich your experience.

  • Stargazing. The free Star Walk 2 app (iOS and Android) is a beautifully designed app to help you identify stars and constellations.
  • Plant Identification. LeafSnap is a free field guide by researchers at Columbia University, the University of Maryland, the Smithsonian Institution. Currently, it’s only available for iOS, and it only includes plants and trees found in the Northeastern United States and Canada. The Flowerchecker app uses real botanists to identify the flowers, moss, lichen, and plants you upload.
  • Bird Identification. The iBird app (for iOS and Android) can help you identify any bird in North America. The cost is $9.99.
  • Finding the Nearest Trail. Outdoor company The North Face developed Trailhead (iOS only) to help outdoor enthusiasts find the nearest trail based on their location. The free AllTrails app does the same and is available for both platforms.
  • Wildlife Identification. Project Noah is a free app that not only helps you identify and learn about local wildlife, but also puts you in touch with community projects (called Missions) to help add to their growing online database of images. You can submit photographs of birds, moths, spiders, ladybugs, mushrooms, frogs, and much more, as well as create a nature journal to document your experiences.

Consider RV Camping

Nothing says you have to rough it when you go camping. RV camping is growing steadily each year, and one reason is that RVing costs significantly less than more traditional vacations that involve air travel and hotels. According to a study conducted by the RV Industry Association, an RV vacation costs 21% to 64% less than a typical vacation for a family of four.

The cost of RVs vary significantly. A small pop-up trailer starts at $9,000, while large motor homes can cost $250,000 or more. If you want to give RVing a try without purchasing one, you can always rent a vehicle through sites like Outdoorsy and RVshare.


Final Word

The goal of the Great American Campout is to help families get comfortable with camping so that everyone can benefit from the beauty and wonder of nature. Camping is one of the best ways to help your kids develop a love of the outdoors. There’s no substitute for sleeping out under the stars, hearing the peep of frogs and hooting of owls, and waking up in the fresh air. It’s also a great way to take a frugal family vacation.

If your family has never camped out before, do a practice campout at home several days or weeks before your planned trip. Pitch your tent in the backyard or even in your living room to get your kids used to this new experience. This practice night will also help you learn how to set up the tent.

My family and I travel full-time in a camper, and we spend most of our nights camping in state and county parks. These parks are inexpensive and beautiful, and most of the time they’re spotless and well-maintained. Most public parks also have several organized learning activities on the weekends that help kids better connect with and learn about the outdoors.

Our time spent traveling has taught me one important lesson: We’re all happier outside. Being outdoors helps us slow down and connect with each other on a deep level. And we have a lot more fun outside in the campground than we do inside the camper.

Are you thinking about taking your family out during The Great American Campout? What activities interest you?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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