Camping Close to Home

Fall is the perfect season to get up close and personal with nature -- on a camping trip.


There's nothing like sleeping in a tent, a cabin, or under the stars to recharge your spirit. Doing it with the kids in the cool of autumn can be a fun and fuss-free experience. Check out these simple ideas for easy overnighting outdoors.

Your own area is worth exploring. Maybe you've camped in your living room or your own back yard, but have you tried your local parks? Check a map, make a few calls, or go online to find out what nearby county, state, or national parks or forests allow overnight camping. You might also check for scenic RV campgrounds that have a section for car campers. Your Yellow Pages, government pages of the White Pages, City Hall, Chamber of Commerce, online searches and outdoorsy friends and neighbors can possibly make recommendations.

Roughing it is relative. We're not talking backpacks, U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps, and moleskin on blister-prone feet. We're talking about minimal effort and casual preparations. "Car camping" allows you to park near where you'll be sleeping so you can use your car as a base of operations -- a huge backpack on wheels. The concept makes packing a whole lot easier because as long as you and your stuff fit in the car, you're good to go. Your food can stay in grocery bags and ice chests in the back. Your air mattresses and pump, cots, quilts, pillows, and blankets can come along if sleeping bags don't sound comfortable enough. You've got the room. And, if you get to your campsite late, you've got light: Headlights come in handy in the dark (try not to disturb other campers, of course).

Make it easy on yourself, but be prepared. Make sure you reserve a spot in advance. Even in late fall, prime camping sites can fill up fast. And find out what kind of amenities you can expect. The easiest set-up is one where running water and electricity are supplied at a screened shelter or cabin, and toilets are available in a common area. Whether or not you have running water on-site, it's always a good idea to bring some. Get a two-gallon plastic jug with a spigot, or a collapsible water container (available at all camping and many sporting-good stores) that you can fill with portable water at the park. This will come in handy for drinking, cooking, washing up, and brushing teeth. If you have to supply your own light source, bring flashlights and battery-powered lanterns. As for sleeping, some cabins provide cots but require you to bring bedding -- be sure to ask specifically. If you are planning to cook, check beforehand to see if your campsite has an outdoor grill and/or firepot and plan accordingly. A small hibachi or grill from home is an option to consider. And don't forget the charcoal briquettes.

To cook or not to cook: Nothing says that camping has to be about freeze-dried food or canned stew. Approach this outing like a picnic where you just happen to being staying overnight under the stars, and you can keep the hassle factor low and tastiness factor high. Before you leave or along the way, stop for your favorite fried chicken, coleslaw, potato salad, and baked beans. Or get a carry-out pizza or even Chinese food. Stick your perishable food on ice in coolers, along with some bottled water and other favorite drinks. Throw in a dessert -- check BHG.com recipe center for quick breads and other easy-to-carry ideas -- and dinner's done. Even a bag of fast-food burgers takes on a new mystique when served outdoors.

Ice chests help make breakfast easy, too. Take along milk and cereal for the easiest of wake-up calls. Or bring some eggs, oil, buttermilk biscuit and baking mix, a frying pan, spatula, and syrup and have a stack of pancakes. For something delicious that needs no flatware, treat your family to breakfast tacos. Scramble eggs with lightly fried onions, and roll the mixture up in a flour tortilla with a little salsa. (Make-Ahead Tip: You can do the eggs and onions ahead of time and keep them in a Ziplock baggie on ice in the cooler.)

More Outdoor Fun

Campfires create memories. Be sure to build fires only if and where they are expressly permitted. Provided campfires are permitted and you have a safe fire ring, by all means let the Boy Scout of the group start the campfire. Call ahead to see if you need to bring firewood or you can buy it onsite. Make sure you follow park rules on collecting (or not collecting) firewood.

If it's been a while since you've built a campfire, refresh your memory and teach your kids at the same time: The North Carolina State Parks web site has good step-by-step instructions for kids on building a campfire. Print out the directions and take them with you. You and your kids can learn campfire safety online at the Smokey Bear web site or the National Fire Protection Association.

How to Build a Campfire

Smokey the Bear's Campfire Safety

Campfire entertainment. With your dinner done and fire going, campfire entertainment is in order. Nothing does the trick like a little sing-along and some roasted marshmallows. So break out the instruments and the bag of marshmallows. From kazoos to spoons, the Sierra Club offers good ideas on camp-worthy instruments to accompany your family's roast-a-thon -- even some that don't especially require you to be a musician.

Sierra Club

Stargazing before bed. When it's good and dark, find a clearing and check out the night sky. If it's cool out, cuddle together in a quilt and share a pair of good binoculars. If you have a telescope, your constellation-gazing will be all the better. A star-finder is a handy item; Rand McNally makes one called the Glow-in-the-Dark Star Finder with Zodiac Dial. Star atlases and books that will help you navigate the night sky are available through your favorite bookseller. A couple choices to consider are Touring The Universe Through Binoculars: A Complete Astronomer's Guidebook (John Wiley & Sons, 1990) and Astronomy for Dummies (also John Wiley & Sons, 1999). Wishing on a Star: Constellation Stories and Stargazing Activities for Kids (Gibbs Smith, 2001) gives the young ones entertaining information on their level.

Make your list before you go. Think about the things you will be doing, as well as what the location and weather might require. You'll be traveling, eating, sleeping, playing, washing, dressing -- get a list going that allows you to be prepared. Here are some things to consider bringing: wipes, roll of paper towels, toilet paper, trash bags, flashlights, lanterns, fresh batteries, bottled water, first-aid kit, any necessary permits, camera(s) and film, binoculars, telescope, star atlas, ice chests and ice for perishables, paper plates, plastic forks/spoons/knives, paper tablecloth, tarp, extra-warm clothing, bedding/sleeping bags, food for as many meals as you'll be preparing, snacks, marshmallows (or fixings for s'mores), firewood, frisbee, bat and ball, instruments. Above all, don't forget safety-consciousness, a spirit of fun and a sense of adventure!

More for You

Click here to see 24 top Midwest campgrounds recommended by our sister magazine, Midwest Living

More Outdoor Fun

Campfires create memories. Be sure to build fires only if and where they are expressly permitted. Provided campfires are permitted and you have a safe fire ring, by all means let the Boy Scout of the group start the campfire. Call ahead to see if you need to bring firewood or you can buy it onsite. Make sure you follow park rules on collecting (or not collecting) firewood.

If it's been a while since you've built a campfire, refresh your memory and teach your kids at the same time: The North Carolina State Parks web site has good step-by-step instructions for kids on building a campfire. Print out the directions and take them with you. You and your kids can learn campfire safety online at the Smokey Bear web site or the National Fire Protection Association.

How to Build a Campfire

Smokey the Bear's Campfire Safety

Campfire entertainment. With your dinner done and fire going, campfire entertainment is in order. Nothing does the trick like a little sing-along and some roasted marshmallows. So break out the instruments and the bag of marshmallows. From kazoos to spoons, the Sierra Club offers good ideas on camp-worthy instruments to accompany your family's roast-a-thon -- even some that don't especially require you to be a musician.

Sierra Club

Stargazing before bed. When it's good and dark, find a clearing and check out the night sky. If it's cool out, cuddle together in a quilt and share a pair of good binoculars. If you have a telescope, your constellation-gazing will be all the better. A star-finder is a handy item; Rand McNally makes one called the Glow-in-the-Dark Star Finder with Zodiac Dial. Star atlases and books that will help you navigate the night sky are available through your favorite bookseller. A couple choices to consider are Touring The Universe Through Binoculars: A Complete Astronomer's Guidebook (John Wiley & Sons, 1990) and Astronomy for Dummies (also John Wiley & Sons, 1999). Wishing on a Star: Constellation Stories and Stargazing Activities for Kids (Gibbs Smith, 2001) gives the young ones entertaining information on their level.

Make your list before you go. Think about the things you will be doing, as well as what the location and weather might require. You'll be traveling, eating, sleeping, playing, washing, dressing -- get a list going that allows you to be prepared. Here are some things to consider bringing: wipes, roll of paper towels, toilet paper, trash bags, flashlights, lanterns, fresh batteries, bottled water, first-aid kit, any necessary permits, camera(s) and film, binoculars, telescope, star atlas, ice chests and ice for perishables, paper plates, plastic forks/spoons/knives, paper tablecloth, tarp, extra-warm clothing, bedding/sleeping bags, food for as many meals as you'll be preparing, snacks, marshmallows (or fixings for s'mores), firewood, frisbee, bat and ball, instruments. Above all, don't forget safety-consciousness, a spirit of fun and a sense of adventure!


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