Continental US / New England

5 Simple Tips to Pick the Perfect Family Campsite

For a long-weekend every summer my family stuffs the car full of tents, camp stoves, tarps, food and booze and heads north to whatever campground we’ve chosen for the year. We camp with three other families and the selection of the campsite used to rotate among the adults–that is until the infamous “parking lot camping” incident.

Mom has never been able to live down that campsite choice. As little kids, we didn’t see the downside of being surrounded by trailer campers in our cozy little tents, it just provided us with a metal jungle to explore, but it turns out the adults weren’t as excited by the glint of the RVs as we were. (Here’s a freebie, courtesy of my mother: if the campsite says they cater to RVs, be wary).

And in the interest of keeping you from the same fate, I’ve compiled my 21 years of camp sites and wilderness adventures to give you 5 simple, fool-proof tips to pick the perfect campsite for a relaxing weekend of family tent camping.

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1. Check out the nearby activities. Some of our best camping trips have been the ones with great hiking trails or wilderness adventures. This past weekend we tried out white water rafting for the first time at a combination dog-sled/rafting place in Gorham, New Hampshire. We had an absolute blast and it was only a couple minutes away from our campsite. See if there are nearby trails, beaches, or rivers and read some reviews before jumping onboard. And if all else fails, make sure the site has a good bike path and strap your bicycles onto the back of the Winnebago before you head out–a good campground bike path will keep kids and adults occupied for hours.

White Mountains 2013 (31) (1)

photo: Paige Montrone

2. Evaluate the local plants and wildlife. We’ve dealt with snakes, mosquitoes, poison ivy, and most recently bears and they are all very manageable as long as you know what you’re getting yourself in for. If it’s a bear you’re avoiding you’ll want to make sure to pack up all smelly toiletries into the car before going to sleep in the tent along with trash bags left hanging on a tree and any leftover food that may have fallen on the ground. If it’s poison ivy you’re afraid of make sure your family can identify it before leaving the house and wear long pants and high socks when walking around. Here is a good starting spot for your pre-trip critter research.

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3. Don’t pick a site too far form home and make sure it’s not so remote that you don’t have access to the necessities. I guarantee someone will have to go on a run for ice at some point to keep the perishable food cold and no one wants to drive more than 15 minutes for ice when they’re supposed to be relaxing in nature. By not going too far from home, you also ensure you’ll have enough time to pitch your tent before dark and you’ll cleverly avoid the mood swings and temper tantrums of children or spouses cooped up in the car for too long.

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4. Look into state liquor laws. If drinking a cold bottle of bear by the fire is part of your definition of camping you’ll want to make sure it’s not illegal in that state. For example, Massachusetts has a ban on liquor in state parks so we generally look for campgrounds a little further north, like New Hampshire (their motto is “live free or die” after all). However, if you are traveling with little kids and think that you’ll be so worn out by the end of the night you won’t be able to lift up that beer then maybe you do want to opt for a site with a liquor ban. Either way, make sure you know the laws before you decide.

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5. Take a look at the map of the campsites. If you’re looking for a relaxing and scenic weekend you want a site on the periphery, away from the central grassy area with the bathroom. I know it seems counter-intuitive–I mean, who doesn’t want to be closer to the bathroom?–but actually the sites close to the bathroom tend to be teeming with children, so unless you plan to be quiet at night and wake up early in the morning, I suggest bypassing the experience. Another factor to take into account is a water source, your ideal site is in close proximity to a faucet, but not right on top of it. You want your campsite to be: flat (so you don’t wake up in a puddle), far away from still waters where mosquitoes hang out, and out of the way of landslides or falling trees.

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Good luck choosing your site! Is there anything you would add to the list?

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