14 camping hacks for families

Inspire little nature lovers with these creative outdoor shortcuts.

Karen Ung has a one-fingered hack for setting up the family campsite. As soon as her crew arrives, she punches a timer. Then daughters Miya, 11, and Emmi, 10, jump into action: They stake and raise the tent and bug-screen shelter, unroll sleeping pads and bags, and—conditions permitting—build a match-ready campfire. Their current record? Twenty minutes.

“At this point, I hardly have to do anything,” jokes Ung, who blogs on her website Play Outside Guide and serves as parks ambassador for the provincial parks in Alberta, Canada. “Open a book, open the wine …”

Like this race against the clock, camping hacks can be anything that simplifies and optimizes the family outdoor experience, from repurposing gear to harnessing campers’ energy and imagination. These shortcuts of creativity can be resourceful and playful means to take family camping trips to another level of simplicity, organization, and on-the-ground fun.

(Here are ideas and tips for planning the ultimate camping adventure.)

The case for pitching a tent

The benefits of spending time in nature are well-documented—especially when it comes to kids. Improved mental and physical health? Check. Boosted sense of well-being and fewer behavioral issues? Check. Better concentration and school performance? Check and check.

“There’s a whole body of research about the value of unscheduled playtime in nature,” says David Mizejewski, naturalist and media spokesperson for the National Wildlife Federation. “And camping checks all of those boxes.”

He adds that the positive outcomes of families pitching a tent together extend beyond any better-living-through-nature checklist. For one, outdoor adventure promotes grit and perseverance in kids, according to a study by the North American Association of Environmental Education. The mental muscles of resiliency grow stronger from engaging with unpredictable but more-or-less manageable challenges.

And taking kids camping is the key to raising tomorrow’s outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists. “You care about what you love,” Mizejewski says. “And you only love what you know.”

Hacking the campsite

Improvising fixes when faced with fickle weather, mischievous critters, and the inevitable forgotten gear are what make even a weekend of outdoor living an adventure. The key is making kids a part of the hacking experience.

“Don’t do everything yourself—get the kids involved,” Ung says. “They’ll have a lot more fun being a participant than just an observer.”

Here are 14 tried-and-true hacks to drop into your sack of campsite tricks.

Drinks and eats

Ice to water. Instead of buying ice for the cooler, fill a gallon jug about two-thirds full, freeze it, and use that instead. When it thaws, you have a ready supply of safe drinking water, Mizejewski says.

Less-mess s’mores. Bring ice cream cones, mini marshmallows, bananas, walnuts, and chocolate chunks. Have your kids fill the cones with all that yumminess, wrap them tight in aluminum foil, and heat them on a griddle over campfire coals or the camp stove.

Frozen dinners. Make camp dinners as easy as a snap-lid by bringing frozen one-pan meals thawing in the cooler. Prepping pre-portioned snacks is also a time saver. “I don’t want to be washing and chopping veggies at camp,” Ung says. And a camping trip can be the best excuse to empty the kitchen drawer overflowing with ketchup and soy sauce packets.

Ready-made omelet. Before leaving home, have each family member prep a quart plastic bag with whipped eggs and favorite omelet ingredients. On that first camp morning, drop the bags in a pot of boiling water on the camp stove, wait a few minutes, and serve up breakfast. You can even use freshly scrubbed Frisbees for plates to avoid disposable dishes.

Lighting it up 

Water lamp. Wrap the strap of a headlamp around the body of that full gallon jug or other clear water bottle so the light faces in. Voila! A camp lantern. (Add a carabiner for hanging.) Ung also recommends solar-powered LED twinkle lights that turn any campsite into a firefly festival.

Glow stick GPS. If you prefer the dark but still want to know where the kids are, hang a reusable glow stick around everybody’s neck.

Keeping it together

Hang it all. Camping gear tends to spread out and disappear. A hanging-closet organizer creates a space for everything—bug spray and sunscreen, first-aid kit, flashlights, snacks, books, art supplies, etc.

Camp caddy. Give a cardboard six-pack bottle carrier a new career as a table organizer for utensils or condiments. The handle makes it ideal for carrying all your stuff, and it later folds flat for easy storage. Plus, you can get your little artists to decorate the outside.

Repurposed bottles. Emptied vitamin bottles and other plastic containers are perfect waterproof storage for matches, spices, meds, and other camp needs, so you don’t have to pack the entire box or jug. Kids and a marker can be recruited to write the labels.

Creature comforts

Fire starters. To make fast and hot kindling, have kids dip dryer lint in petroleum jelly, then stuff it into empty toilet paper tubes or cut-up cardboard egg cartons. For a more dazzling fire, Mizejewski recommends flavored tortilla chips or cheese doodles—and their orangish dust—as tinder.

TP in a can. To keep toilet paper dry, cut a narrow vertical opening in the side of a plastic coffee container and feed the loose end of the TP through the opening.

Battling bugs. Mosquitoes and other biting bugs can quickly suck the joy out of a camping trip. Dried bunches of herbs like sage, rosemary, or eucalyptus sprinkled in the campfire is an old-school method of smoking them away. But it’s always good to have kid-safe bug repellent as backup.

Block that stink. A malodorous outhouse is the nemesis of many a young camper. A dab of menthol ointment or peppermint oil under the nose makes answering the call of nature a little less fraught.

DIY sunglasses. Duct tape has a-million-and-one uses, and here’s one more: emergency sunglasses. Rip off a strip 12 inches long. Carefully fold it in half so the sticky sides adhere, trimming off any overlapping adhesive. Mark where the eyes will be, then slice out two narrow horizontal slits. Add ear loops to complete the DIY.

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