Are your kids begging to go camping, but you just don’t have the time?
Want to expose them to the great outdoors without leaving home?
Pitch your tent, grab some marshmallows and have a fun family campout in your own backyard.
A backyard campout has all of the joys of camping without the cost or time spent traveling. It’s the perfect solution.
In this article I’ll show you how to have a fantastic, adventure-filled campout right in your own backyard.
Why Have a Backyard Campout?
A backyard campout is a quick and simple way to enjoy the fun of camping without some of the hassles. You can take your kids on an outdoor adventure with very little planning, and you never even have to pack the car.
Camping is a great way to bond as a family, talking and telling stories around a campfire. It helps teach kids the value of working together to pitch a tent or cook a meal (or a s’more). And it’s a great way to get kids outdoors, watching the clouds or the stars instead of videos; playing live games instead of video games.
If you’ve got reluctant or first-time campers in your family, a backyard campout is a great way to ease them into the experience and get them hooked so they’ll be eager to try camping somewhere else.
Pitch a tent, start a fire (whether real or make-believe) and prepare food together. Explore nature, play games, sing songs and tell stories around the campfire. You’ll have a blast with your kids, and create fun camping memories that’ll last a lifetime.
We all need a break from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, as well as the electronic devices that keep us connected. Studies show that when you get out into nature, it helps reduce stress and keep us healthy. And if you don’t have the time or money for a family getaway, it’s easy to create a calm space in your own backyard.
To encourage families to connect through camping, the National Wildlife Federation created the Great American Backyard Campout. Every year, thousands of families pledge to camp out in their backyard through NWF. (This year it’s June 28, 2014.) If you don’t want to camp in your own backyard, partner with friends and family. Or camp at one of NWF’s public campout events.
The National Wildlife Foundation emphasizes the importance of camping with the Great American Backyard Campout.
Backyard camping’s a wonderful summer adventure. Invite friends and neighbors to join you. You can even have a campout-themed birthday party.
Campout to celebrate the end of the school year, in honor of someone’s birthday or just for fun.
Camp out once a week or once a month. Every adventure can be different, but just as exciting!
You Will Need
- Tarp (ground cover)
- Sleeping bags
- Matches (for parental use)
- Newspaper or other kindling
Food and Cooking:
- Cooler with ice
- Hotdogs, hotdog buns, relish, mustard, ketchup OR sandwiches
- Chips & dips
- Cut-up vegetables
- Roasting sticks
- Graham crackers
- Eggs OR cereal and milk
- Granola bars
- Drinking water
- Additional food
- Additional drinks
Games and Activities:
- Large bucket
- Water hose
- Cotton string
- 2 wooden dowels, sticks or PVC
- Paper and pen
- Warm clothes
- Bug spray
- Toothpaste and toothbrush
- 1 hour shopping for and preparing food
- 1 hour collecting your camping gear
- 1-2 hours setting up your campsite
- 8-12 hours playing camping games, finding sticks, telling stories and sleeping under the stars
A backyard campout is fun for the whole family. Unroll your sleeping bags and let’s have an adventure!
#1: Plan Your Campout
Start with a family meeting. Share the idea of going on a backyard campout, and get input from the rest of the family. Pick a day that works for everyone and talk about the different things you can do during your campout.
Want to expand your camping adventure? Call friends and family and invite them to join in. Once you have the day and number of campers, make a list of everything you’ll need.
Gather your camping gear: tent, tarp, sleeping bags, pillows, pajamas, sweatshirt, toothbrush and so on.
Make a list of everything you need and put everything together beforehand. Image source: iStockPhoto.
Identify cooking and campfire options: Do you have a built-in firepit in your yard, a firepit table or another place where you could safely build a fire in your backyard? Do you have a barbeque grill or camp stove?
A backyard firepit or fire table is a perfect place for your backyard campfire.
If none of these are available, don’t worry! You can build a fake campfire like this one made of tissue paper. Or place several candles or flashlights (beam pointing up) together in the middle of a table or patio. Your fake campfire will be a nice centerpiece to tell stories around and get the full campout experience!
If you don’t have a space for a fire in your backyard, make a fake one.
Idea: If your family really loves backyard camping, you may want to build a backyard firepit. It’s a big job, but all the fun family nights spent around the fire will make it well worth it.
Plan your meals: If you’ve got a firepit, grill or camp stove, you can plan meals to cook outside. If you don’t have a fire, plan meals that don’t have to be cooked: sandwiches for dinner, a no-cook dessert and granola/cereal or muffins/bagels for breakfast.
Be sure to bring a large cooler with ice to your backyard campout, so your food stays fresh.
Before the campout, decide when it is and is not okay to go into the house. For example:
- You can only go in the house to use the bathroom.
- If you don’t have a cooler, you can only go inside to take food that is already prepped for camping and sitting in the fridge.
- You can’t go in the house to replace something you forgot. If you forget to pack something (unless it’s something like a sweater and you’re really cold), you’ll have to make do.
- We’re camping—no electronics allowed. (That goes for you, too, parents!)
If you have older kids, give them different tasks: planning games, looking up song lyrics, deciding the menu and gathering gear. Young ones can team up with a sibling or a parent. Or do all tasks as a family.
Get everyone excited from the planning phase, and you’re sure to have a wonderful camping adventure.
#2: Set Up Camp
Look around your backyard for the perfect campsite. It should be flat, free of rocks or sticks, open and easy to make camp. Clean it up if necessary.
Lay a tarp on the ground. This will help keep the tent bottom dry and clean.
Then open up your tent and set it up. Don’t forget to stake it to the ground. Older kids love to hammer the stakes into the ground!
Always take off your shoes before going inside your tent. This will keep your tent nice and clean.
Roll out the sleeping bags and set up your pillows.
Set up your backyard campsite.
Now it’s time to build a fire. Remember, if you don’t have a firepit or safe place to build a fire, you can craft a make believe fire. If you don’t have any dry wood or sticks in your backyard, you may need to purchase some wood when you go shopping or find some scrap lumber, cut into short (1-2 foot [30-60cm]) lengths. (Don’t use plywood or other chemically treated wood. The fumes are toxic.)
Building a fire’s a great team-building exercise. Allow little kids to try their hand at lifting wood, let the older kids show the younger ones how to build a pyramid with the wood. Everybody can stuff newspaper in the center of the pyramid to help start the fire.
Everyone can help put together the campfire.
Once the fire setup is complete, adults take over and light the fire or an older kid can do so under adult supervision.
In the case of a fake fire, turn on the flashlight or electronic tealight in the middle of your staged fire.
#3: Play Games
There are plenty of games that you can play during your campout.
Games are a must for any camping adventure. Image source: iStockPhoto.
Mosquito Bite’s fun to play before dinner. Give everybody 12 stickers. The stickers can be any shape or size. Just use what you have around the house.
Once the cooking starts, so does the game. The idea is to get rid of all of your stickers without anybody knowing. You have to be sneaky because if somebody catches you biting them then they get to put that sticker back on your sheet, plus one more. The winner is the first one to get rid of all of their stickers.
More Campout Games
Telephone Game: Player #1 whispers something in the next person’s ear. They pass it along to the next person and so on until the phrase get back to the first player. See if it’s the same whisper when it gets back to player #1.
Simon Says: One person plays Simon. “Simon says” the other players need to do certain things. The players are supposed to follow along, unless a command is given that isn’t preceded by the words “Simon says.” If you do something that Simon didn’t say, you’re out. Winner plays Simon in the next round.
Truth or Dare: People ask each other if they would like to tell the truth or would they like a dare. The player must choose between truth or dare before they know the question or the dare. If they pick truth, they must tell the truth; if they pick dare, they must act out the dare or they are out.
Don’t Blink (a.k.a. Staring Contest): Two players sit facing each other and stare into each other’s eyes for as long as they can without blinking or laughing. The first one to blink or laugh is out. Everyone needs to play until the Don’t Blink champion is crowned.
Name That Tune: One player sings or hums a tune. Everybody else tries to guess the name of the song. The person who guesses right is the next one to sing or hum a tune.
Sing Row Row Row Your Cheap Inflatable kayak in the Round: One person starts off the song and everybody catches on singing in the round. Go faster and faster and see who can keep up. This isn’t really a game, but it sure is fun!
Plan out your games before your backyard adventure begins. Assign one or two people as the game director(s). They’ll prepare any props or toys you need for your games and will lead campers in the fun.
#4: Cook Your Campfire Dinner
Time for dinner! If you’re not cooking, lay out the sandwiches and other items and enjoy a picnic near the tent.
If you are cooking, put the hot dogs on your roasting sticks and hold them over the fire.
If you have young children, let them put the dogs on the ends of the sticks, while someone helps them cook. They can help set up the hot dog buns on the plates too. This is also a great time to break out the chips and dips.
Roast a hot dog over an open fire or prepare a no-cook dinner. Image source: iStockPhoto.
Not into hot dogs? Try a tinfoil dinner. There are lots of options for cooked and no-cook campfire dinners.
#5: Do Fun Camp Activities
After dinner while it’s still light out, try some fun outdoor activities. Have a photo scavenger hunt, go on a nature hike through your neighborhood or collect rocks for a rock garden.
Or have a bubble-making contest and see who can make the biggest bubble. Here’s an easy way to make the biggest bubbles you’ve ever seen:
Pour 1 cup of soap into a large bucket. Fill it with about 3 inches of water. Mix it a little using your hand.
These are just approximate measurements. You’ll have to test out your soap mix to find the perfect blend.
You may want to add corn syrup, which helps keep the bubbles together. Plus, humidity changes the ratio: you will need more soap if it’s humid, less if it’s dry.
Take two PVC or wood dowels and tie a 6′ ½” [2 m] piece of cotton string between them. The string should be 2 feet [60 cm] across the top and 4 feet [1.2 m] hanging in a loop on the bottom.
The knots should be at the top, around the sticks. The middle of the center loop should be completely free from knots. You can also purchase pre-made bubble wands, but it’s more fun to make one yourself.
Everyone loves to blow bubbles. The bigger the bubble, the better.
Dip the sticks and string in the bubble mix with the two sticks touching. Then slowly open the sticks and move backwards to make your bubble. The slower you open and move, the bigger your bubble will be.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, everyone loves to make bubbles. Especially these giant ones!
#6: Make Shadow Puppets
As the sun goes down, look up at the clouds in the sky. Decide what shapes and creatures you see. Usually when a bunch of people look at the same cloud, they all see something different.
When it gets really dark, move inside the tent. Take your flashlight and shine it on the tent wall and make shadow puppets. Using your fingers, make shadows and have everybody around the campfire name the animal or letter you made.
Make shadow puppets when it starts getting dark. Image source: iStockPhoto.
To add some extra fun, tell stories about each shadow puppet. Everyone can have a turn making up stories. Or do an add-a-line story, where you go in a circle and everyone adds the next line of the story. The story can be silly, scary or both.
#7: Enjoy Campfire Dessert
Playtime was so much fun. It’s time for a sweet treat.
If you don’t have an actual campfire, make s’mores brownies ahead of time. If you do have a campfire, make s’mores. It’s a campout tradition, even when you’re camping in the backyard.
Take out the graham crackers and stack them in sets of two. Place a square of chocolate in the middle of each set, and set aside. Roast the marshmallows until they’re hot, but not on fire. It should look like it’s ready to melt off the stick.
Roast marshmallows and place them inside the graham crackers along with the chocolate to make s’mores.
Place the hot marshmallow on top of the chocolate and cap it off with the second graham cracker on top. Sweet perfection!
S’mores made over a backyard fire pit are just as delicious as the ones from a campfire in the woods. Image source: iStockPhoto.
While you’re enjoying your delicious treat, tell stories, sing songs or play games like Name That Tune, Truth or Dare or the Telephone Game.
#8: Sleep Under the Stars
Get ready for bed: wash up, brush your teeth and put on sleep clothes.
Then snuggle up in your sleeping bags in your tent. This is a campout, so there may or may not be a lot of sleep involved—it’s just too exciting!
This is another opportunity for family bonding. Talk about your day and have everyone share their favorite campout activity.
Snuggle up in your tent and enjoy sleeping outside—in your backyard. Image source: iStockPhoto.
You can also play the listening game. Close your eyes and take turns listening to all of the cool and interesting nighttime sounds. This may actually lull the little ones to sleep.
#9: Make a Campout Breakfast
Rise and shine. Before you conclude your campout, have one last outdoor meal.
Those cooking can make an omelet in a bag or another easy campfire breakfast.
Cap off your campout with a yummy breakfast.
If you need a no-cook option, make no-bake granola bars ahead of time. Or just enjoy a bowl of cereal outside.
Before you pack up and go inside, take a few minutes to reflect on your experience. Grownups and older kids can write down a favorite camping memory. Young ones can draw a picture. Save all of your camping stories in a camping journal that you add to on future campouts.
Some Final Thoughts…
Camping with your family will provide years of wonderful memories. But it’s so much more than that. The tasks your kids perform when planning and enjoying a camping trip will provide them with skills they’ll use throughout their lives. Teamwork, communication and bonding are just a small part of that.
Whether you camp in your backyard or head out to the wilderness, and whether you camp every week or just once a year, you’re bound to have lots of fun!
What do you think? Have you ever done backyard camping? What was your favorite part? Do you have any special treats you like to eat while camping? Are you planning to sign up for the NWF’s Great American Backyard Campout? We’d love to hear about your backyard campout experiences. Leave a message or picture in the comments below.