Tents are the new hotel room, and we're loving the trend. No flights, no car rentals, no hassles. Camping may be your easiest (and cheapest) family vacation ever.

By Rachel Mount
April 28, 2010
Blend Images/Getty

Time to Camp!

After a hectic school year of car pools, mommy-and-me classes, and soccer practices, chances are you're ready to welcome the sunshine and family downtime that summer brings. But while the warm weather is free, a vacation doesn't come cheap. With everyone looking to get away without going broke, it makes sense that camping is this season's hottest holiday trend. According to Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), the largest system of family-oriented campgrounds in the country, more people pitched a tent in 2009 than ever before.

The benefits of camping go way beyond the wallet, however. Studies show that outdoor experiences make children more environmentally conscious, help them manage stress, and reduce restlessness and boredom, even symptoms of ADHD. "Kids today are spending more time indoors and plugged into a screen, so camping is a great activity because it gets them outdoors, whether they're hiking or telling ghost stories by the fire," says Meri-Margaret Deoudes, spokesperson for the National Wildlife Federations's Be Out There initiative, which encourages kids to get outside. If a walk on the wild side isn't your idea of a relaxing vacation, there's some good news. Fresh facilities and programs make camping a convenient and comfortable experience for the whole family, even the baby, while still preserving classic traditions. Get packing with our guide to camping out (roughing it optional).

Pick Your Park

Have fun choosing your campground; each one delivers a unique experience.

National Parks

This is where to head for mega-size adventure (nps.gov has links to all 392 National Parks). You'll find jaw-on-the-floor natural wonders, whether it's glaciers in Montana, geysers at Yellowstone, or dinosaur fossils in Texas. And newbies to the camping scene shouldn't worry; if you think you'll need help, just call about the park's specific family offerings. Shenandoah National Park, in Luray, Virginia, for example, has family-oriented seminars conducted by rangers. And be sure to stop by the visitor center and sign kids up for the Junior Ranger program available at many parks (ages 3 and up). They'll be psyched to sport the badges they earn for learning about wildlife, plants, geology, and history through workbooks and instructor-led activities.

State Parks and Public Campgrounds

If visiting a National Park is too much of a trek, there are areas all around the country that rival the big guys in scenery and offerings. Your family can take a wagon ride at Nebraska's Fort Robinson State Park, in Crawford, or view loggerhead turtles on a ranger-led walk at Sebastian Inlet State Park, in Melbourne Beach, Florida. State Parks tend to be less crowded, and they may have more amenities. Plus, you'll often have access to lakes with beaches and lifeguards, as well as hiking trails and wide grassy areas for games and sports. Go to stateparks.com to find one in your area.

Private Campsites

Consider yourself more of a five-star than an under-the-stars sort of family? Then you'll appreciate the conveniences that private grounds offer, such as a general store, kiddie pools, and fully equipped lodges in lieu of tents. Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, where Chip 'n Dale make nightly appearances at the campfire for sing-alongs, is sure to top your tot's wish list. And guests at KOA campgrounds can enjoy petting zoos, outdoor movies, ice-cream socials, and even spas (for Mom!). With private sites scattered all around the country, there's probably one closer to home than you think. Check out gocampingamerica.com for listings.

Play It Safe

Keep your family members free of any wilderness woes. Check out our easy tips for getting through the camping basics.

Build a Campfire

Get kids fired up for an evening around the pit with these tips from Richard Wiese, author of Born to Explore: How to Be a Backyard Adventurer. First, have your child collect small twigs and bark (tinder), short sticks (kindling), and larger logs (fuel). Put the tinder in the designated fire pit and place the kindling, tepee style, over it. Use a match to light the tinder, slowly adding the additional sticks and logs as the fire builds. Stay safe by drawing a zone in the dirt three to five feet around the fire and instructing kids not to pass the line.

Avoid Animal Encounters

While lions and tigers may show up only in campfire stories, bears and other critters do inhabit some parks. Randy Johnson, author of Best Easy Day Hikes: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, says you can lessen your chance of run-ins by cleaning up thoroughly after every meal and storing all of your food in your car and out of sight under a blanket or a towel since smart bears can look as well as smell. While hiking, sing or talk so you don't surprise any unsuspecting critters; they'll stay out of your way if they know that you're coming. And make it a rule for everyone to use the buddy system, even for short walks to the restroom.

Properly Check for Ticks

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends inspecting the entire body for ticks, including the scalp, armpits, groin, and belly button, after being outdoors. Stop ticks and other pesky insects from bugging you by using a child-safe spray with 20 to 30 percent DEET on clothes and exposed skin, wearing light-colored clothing, and tucking your pants into your socks or boots when out in the woods or walking through tall grass.

Identify Poison Ivy

Don't let a bout of poison ivy make you have to scratch camping plans mid-vacay. To steer clear of the plant and its cousins, poison oak and poison sumac, teach your children the phrase "Leaves of three, beware of me." If your child does come in contact with poison ivy, have him quickly soap up in the shower to rinse off the resin (baths can cause the oils to spread) and apply a calamine lotion to help reduce the itching.

Eat Out

Spice up camp cuisine with these eats from Catherine McCord, creator of the kiddie foodie site Weelicious.com.

Sunny Start

Cook oatmeal in a pot over the campfire, then stir in walnuts and raisins for a protein-packed breakfast that'll keep you going all day.

Pizza Party

Spread tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese on a whole-wheat tortilla and add toppings such as veggies and shredded chicken. Cover with another tortilla, and wrap in foil. Come dinnertime, place the foil-wrapped quesadillas directly on your campfire's embers or unwrap and heat in a cast-iron pan or directly on a grill. When the cheese melts, cut the tortillas into wedges and serve.

Fruity Fun

Skewer a whole, unpeeled banana and grill over the campfire, like you would a marshmallow. When the banana is soft, split down the middle and sprinkle with chocolate chips or sauce and scoop straight out of the peel with a spoon. Your crew will be begging for s'more bananas!

Get Your Game On

Try these boredom busters if the little rangers begin to get restless.

Sky's the Limit

Just look up for easy entertainment. By day, search for hippopotamuses and floating castles in the clouds; at night, connect the dots to see what's hidden among the stars.

Scout's Honor

Hand kids a list of objects (yellow leaf, shiny pebble, fuzzy moss) to look for around the campsite or while hiking, suggests Lisa Hanson, coauthor of The Siblings Busy Book. Give them bags to stash their treasures in. For younger kids, cut out pictures ahead of time so they can match up a picture of a rock, say, with an actual one.

Pebble Pets

Gather pebbles (or shells) with your child and decorate them with markers to resemble wild creatures.

Center Stage

Use a flashlight as a spotlight on the tent's walls to give your hand a starring role. Make a bunny, a wolf, or a snake, and have your child concoct stories about its escapades.

Go High-Tech

Get more out of nature with these phone applications (just ignore the work messages!).

Take a Hike

You won't have to leave a trail of crumbs to avoid getting lost with this app's network of detailed off-road and high-def maps. AccuTerra ($10; iTunes)

Paws for Thought

Help your kids match photos of animals with their footprints. Sierra Club Animal and Bird Tracks Knowledge Cards($5; appworld.blackberry.com)

Shoot for the Stars

Point this guide to the night sky and the app reports back with constellation names, satellite info, and astronomy lessons. SkyGazer ($3; iTunes)

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