Think of this as Camping 101 — a “for dummies” guide to camping for beginners, if you will. Because I’m a newbie at this whole family camping thing and I’ve learned a lot in just the two guided canoe camping trips and now one DIY car camping trip we’ve taken.
And there’s a lot to learn.
Thankfully, we relied on some intel from Ontario Parks’ Learn to Camp program. In non-pandemicky years, the program looks a bit different. While we’re still immersed in the unknown, however, Ontario Parks is is focusing on online educational videos and workshops to help newbies like me feel more at ease with the idea of camping under the stars. There are even parks with dedicated Park Ambassadors who run in-person, one-on-one camping workshops right at your campsite.
After two nights of car camping (that is, we literally drove to our campsite and parked there) at Sibbald Point Provincial Park, I’m thrilled to report that between some of Ontario Parks’ online resources, our awesome Park Ambassador, Cassandra, and some suggestions from friends and readers, our first-ever family campout was a success!
Going into this, I had some camping 101 questions of my own:
- What the heck do we pack?
- What kind of food should we bring?
- How do we wash dishes?
- How do we keep ourselves and our kids safe?
- How should we leave our campsite at the end of our trip?
Not quite ready for an overnight camping trip but want to check out a few provincial parks in Ontario? My road trips from Toronto post has lots of ideas to explore.
Camping for beginners — the basics
Now that we’re on the other side of our first camping trip, I can confidently tell you that it’s really fun to go camping as long as you’re prepared. Not only prepared with the right food and equipment but also prepared with expectations.
For example, expect the first day to be a bit stressful and the first night a bit rough. After all, if you’re not accustomed to setting up a tent or fetching water to wash dishes or sleeping on something other than your plush mattress at home, and if you think everything will make sense, seem intuitive or feel instantly like home, you’ve got another thing coming.
Even with car camping, you’re probably “roughing it” in comparison to life in the city or ‘burbs.
Allow yourself and your family some time and space to come down from the hectic pace you’re likely used to and to find your camping groove. Nature has a pretty magical way of soothing even the most stressed souls — but don’t rush it.
Use these five camping for beginners tips and some of the additional hacks I’ve added at the end and you’ll be off to a great start.
1. Camping for beginners: leave no trace principles
If you’ve been around anyone remotely outdoorsy, you’ve probably heard them say “leave no trace.” It’s important to remember that although provincial parks and other campsites have staff, their jobs should be focused on keeping the trails and amenities in good shape for visitors — not picking up garbage.
Our family has become much more environmentally conscious during the past decade. Sadly, I admit that I haven’t always been this way but something about having kids and wanting better for my future grandchildren made me want to do better now. So applying the leave no trace principles when it came to our recent camping trip wasn’t a big stretch.
Although there are seven ethical principles that create the leave no trace framework, I think the three most important aspects to share are these:
- Pack it in, pack it out: minimize food waste and take home everything you don’t eat; remove every speck of trash (even if it was there when you arrived) properly; and ensure there’s no spilled food or grey water on your campsite.
- Leave what you find: explore and enjoy your adventure, but don’t mess with the ecosystem by bringing anything in (like a non-native species) or take anything out (for your own garden or memory boxes).
- Never feed animals: it’s actually illegal at provincial parks to even feed birds, but feeding wildlife in general interferes with nature. This is also true for leaving food out after meals and especially at night; it can draw animals into campsites, which may not end well for the campers or the animals.
For more ideas and inspiration, check out these two Ontario Parks blog posts:
2. Camping for beginners: easy camping meals
Make-ahead camping meals are totally the way to go! I solicited ideas from followers on Instagram before our camping trip and also checked out some of these camping recipes. Then I made a complete meal plan for each day of our trip and created a grocery list by outlining every ingredient I needed for each meal. I also created a list of things I needed to bring from our kitchen, which I’ll share in the camping checklist below (see No. 5).
Once I checked off all of the ingredients we already had, we shopped for what we needed and then did a LOT of prep the morning of our trip. Your own meal plan will change based on whether or not your campsite has electricity (ours did not), if you have a portable grill or cooktop (we used a propane-powered, two-burner camp stove and also tried out a smaller, more portable stove powered with fire — the camp stove won, hands down) and depending on how big your cooler is and how long you’re staying. You’ll also need a grate for an open campfire for some of these easy camping meals. Our campsite had one at the fire pit when we arrived, but you may need to ask at your own site’s office if you don’t see one when you arrive.
The key to easy camping meals, though, is to be prepared and to make friends with tin foil.
Here’s the meal plan we used for our two-night, three-day family camping trip:
- Dinner, day 1: nachos
- Mix taco seasoning, a splash of water and ground beef into a cast iron pan and pre-cook just before you get on the road — cover with lid or foil and transport in your cooler (ideally)
- Chop lettuce and tomatoes and pack in a leak-proof container
- Pack a bag of nacho chips, grated cheese, sour cream and your favourite salsa
- On camp stove, re-heat meat in cast iron pan, add cheese, lettuce and tomatoes
- Serve on reusable plates and top with nacho chips sour cream and salsa
- Dessert, day 1: crustless apple “pie”
- Cut up Granny Smith apples (one per person — with or without skins) and toss in a bowl with nutmeg and cinnamon to coat completely
- Take big squares of tin foil (one per person) and divide apples among the pieces of foil
- Add a heaping tablespoon of brown sugar and a tbsp of unsalted butter on top of each pile of apples, then tightly close the foil by twisting the corners together
- Over a campfire, place each foil packet on a grate and be sure you move them around (with tongs!) every five minutes or so to ensure they get an even distribution of heat. Roast the packets for at least 20-25 minutes and serve warm (with forks!)
- Breakfast, day 2: omelettes in a bag
- The day or morning before you leave, crack a bunch of eggs into a large freezer-safe Ziploc bag (I did two eggs per kid and three per adult), whisk gently with a fork directly in the bag
- Add whatever omelette ingredients your family loves (we added grated TexMex cheese, diced onions, diced red pepper, and some salt and pepper), give the bag a bit of a shake and pop it in the cooler with a stick of butter
- Using the same cast iron pan from the night before, add a couple of tbsp of butter into a pan on medium heat and once melted, literally throw the bag of egg mixture into the pan and cook like scrambled eggs or omelettes as desired
- Lunch, day 2: hot dogs and kebabs
- Buy prepared kebabs from the grocery store if you’re short on time like I was and bring packaged buns and hot dogs, along with your family’s fave condiments
- We let the kids roast their own hot dogs over a campfire and we packed buns and small, squeezable bottles of ketchup and mustard — basic and EASY!
- Dinner, day 2: tin foil pita pizza-dillas
- We packed pitas, a squeeze bottle of pizza sauce and our fave toppings (sliced mushrooms, sliced pepperoni, grated mozzerella, hot peppers, a tin of anchovies) plus tin foil, a cutting board and pizza slicer
- Over a campfire grate, make the pita pizzas by placing a pita on a sheet of foil, adding your sauce and preferred toppings and then finishing with cheese and a second pita covered in pizza sauce face down on the top, like a quesadilla
- Wrap these entirely in tin foil and place over the open flame on the grate, moving them and turning them over every few minutes to ensure they cook evenly and don’t burn
- Slice and serve once the pitas feel crispy and the cheese is thoroughly melted
- Dessert, day 2: S’Mores
- Y’all know about S’Mores, I’m sure — the OG camping treat!
- Ontario Parks has a recipe here, but I suggest levelling up your S’Mores game by swapping out chocolate squares for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
- Don’t forget to pack a marshmallow roasting stick so you’re not tempted to use eco-sensitive wood from your camping environment
- Breakfast, day 3: Toad in the hole with bacon
- Because we had our cast iron pan, this favourite of mine from the UK was a no-brainer
- We packed bacon, sliced white bread, eggs and butter
- Cook the bacon separately at the same time if you have another pan, or just cook it before you make your Toad in the Hole entree
- For Toad in the Hole, remove a circular piece of bread from the middle of each slice you’re making (about 2×2 inches around), butter the heck out of your cast iron pan but keep the heat on your camp stove low-medium so you don’t burn the butter. Place as many slices of bread — with holes in them! — as will fit into your pan full of hot, melted butter and then crack an egg in each of the holes. Let cook until (a) most of the top of the egg has firmed up so flipping is easy if people want a hard yolk or (b) with a lid to cook the egg white but keep the yolk runny…my personal favourite
- Serve as desired with a side of bacon
- We brought a French-press coffeemaker, coffee grounds, cream and sugar
- We also brought hot chocolate mix
- In our cooler, we packed bottled water and juice boxes (there are some good tips on how to pack a cooler here)
- Fruit: we took apples, bananas and oranges
- Granola bars
- Jiffy-Pop (we found it at the Parks Store at Sibbald Point!)
3. Camping for beginners: washing dishes while camping
In the Learn to Camp Backcountry Basics tips, and with the help of our Learn to Camp Park Ambassador, we learned a lot about washing dishes while camping.
We had Sunlight dish soap and a drying rack that fit into a larger tub for washing dishes. Sibbald Point Provincial Park has blue pillars with taps in them about every four to six campsites with potable water that you can also use for dishwashing. We were instructed to carry the dirty dishwater to the Comfort Station that was a few campsites away from ours to dispose of the dirty dish water (a.k.a. “grey water”) down the sink. Apparently, the bits of food left in the dish water can attract racoons (or worse…) if it’s tossed on your site or even in the forested areas beyond your site.
I know from our guided camping trips that if you’re near a lake, and you use biodegradable soap, there may be park rules that allow for doing dishes lakeside, but it’s always best to confirm individual park/site rules and recommendations.
4. Camping for beginners: camp safety
We studied the camping safety tips here before leaving for our camping trip. Even though we felt pretty confident that we wouldn’t be letting the kids out of our sight, my helicopter-parenting anxiety went to work and I managed to concoct an entire series of ridiculous scenarios in my head.
At the end of the day, a lot of what we read ahead of time was common sense, but here were the best reminders:
- Bring a first aid kit
- Bring whistles for the kids
- Swim only in designated areas (Sibbald Point, for example, has done an incredible job of clearly marking where the lake floor drops off)
- Bring PFDs (not to be confused with PDFs)
- If there’s a thunder or hailstorm, the safest place to be is in your car
- Do not relocate or build new fire pits (this is prohibited and can cause forest fires)
- Keep all valuables locked in your car and out of sight
5. Camping for beginners: car camping checklist
I strongly suggest creating a detailed camping packing list and crossing it off carefully (start with my ultimate camping must-haves checklist). Fortunately, there are a lot of essentials available at Parks Stores and some provincial parks — like Sibbald Point — are within easy driving distance of a town or city with good shopping, but forgetting the big stuff can have a big impact on the quality time you’ll have camping.
Using this camping checklist and this equipment list, I made my own list, which is specific to car camping for families who want an authentic but comfortable camping experience. If you’re canoeing into a site or doing some serious backcountry camping that you’ve got to hike several kilometres to reach, this is not the list for you.
Car camping checklist: what to bring
I’m going to break this down into the MUST haves and the OPTIONALs…
Must-haves for car camping:
- Ground sheet or tarp
- Mattress (and air pump) or sleeping pad — we had the self-inflating kind and they worked brilliantly and take up so much less room than a traditional air mattress, plus ours could zip together to create larger sleeping spaces
- Sleeping bags — note that you don’t have to spend a fortune on branded sleeping bags nor do you need down-filled bags for summer camping. We had synthetic “mummy” style sleeping bags that were all less than $100 and worked perfect
- Pillows — we used portable camping pillows since they take up so much less space than bringing your pillow from home, but they’re definitely not as comfortable so if you have the space, you may wish to bring the pillow from your bed with an extra pillow case to keep it super clean
- Camp stove with the required gas (e.g. propane tank)
- Pot to boil water
- All other kitchen essentials noted above, like food and drinks, tin foil, cast iron pan, campfire forks, spatula, cutting board, pizza slicer, tongs
- Oven mitts
- Lighter to light your stove and kindling if making campfires
- Reusable plates, bowls and cutlery
- Dishpan & biodegradable dish soap
- Dish cloth or scrubbie
- Dish towel or paper towels
- Resealable containers for leftovers
- Heavy-duty garbage bags
- First aid kit, health and benefits/insurance cards
- Sunscreen and bug spray
- Hats and sunglasses
- Swimsuits and rash guards
- Towels — we like the very small microfibre towels that pack into tiny squares but absorb a tonne
- Toilet paper if your campsite doesn’t have Comfort Stations
- Plastic bags for any personal hygiene or menstrual product disposal if your campsite doesn’t have Comfort Stations
- Minimal clothing (think in outfits — Ts and shorts for daytime, PJs for night, long pants and merino hiking socks for hiking)
- Hiking boots or at least running shoes (hiking in sandals is not a good idea)
These are optional, nice-to-have items:
- Folding chairs
- Hatchet (to create smaller pieces of kindling after purchasing firewood from the Parks Store)
- Headlamps and/or lanterns — we had fabulous lanterns that could either sit upright on our picnic table or hang from the highest point in our tent, perfect for getting ready for bed in the dark
- A multitool — ours has everything from a screwdriver to flint to serrated knives built into it
- A tarp and rope to cover your tent/picnic table if it rains
- Rain coats and pants
- PFDs, inflatables, beach toys
- Umbrella or beach tent — we bought one at the Parks Store when we saw how awesome the beach was at Sibbald and we decided we’d be spending 75 per cent of our days at the beach
- Canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and paddles, plus required safety kits — we have a tandem inflatable paddleboard that packs up into a backpack, which is a thousand times easier to manage than a hard board!
- A deck of cards
- Devices, charging cords, external batteries — just don’t expect there to be cell service at your site
- Fishing rod, tackle, bait and license
- Folding wagon to cart everything to and from the beach
- Bikes and helmets if your site has bike trails
- Hydration packs
- Tick Kit
- Clothes line — a pack-away, portable camping clothes line is awesome for drying wet bathing suits and towels
- Tent organizers keep flashlights, water bottles, headlamps, etc. close-by for easy-to-find-in-the-dark moments
Looking for provincial park hidden gems? Check out my Ontario Provincial Parks Map for some goodies.
Additional camping for beginners tips
Book at least two nights
Here’s the deal: your first night is probably going to be a bit rough. I mentioned this earlier and it’s worth repeating. You’re not used to having an outdoor kitchen with limited tools. You’re not used to sleeping in a tent. You’re probably going to have whinier-than-usual kids who are also experiencing a lot of “firsts” and having their own adjustment issues.
THIS. WILL. PASS.
But if you only book one night of camping, your only experience will be that first night full of growing pains. Those aren’t the memories you want to be left with, so book two nights and really give yourselves a chance to find a groove and settle in.
Get out of your comfort zone
Sure, sure — just the camping trip itself might be out of your comfort zone and if that’s as far as you’re ready to take it, that’s just fine. But remember that you can use this as an opportunity to try new things.
Maybe your family has never hiked before. Grab some water, a trail map and some bug spray and set off on an adventure.
Does your park or campground rent canoes, kayaks or paddleboards? Take one out for an hour or two and putter around close to shore while you attempt not to fall in the water. (Trust me, this can be hilarious! And for kids, this can also be a really nice equalizer because they’re often so much better at things like this right off the hop because they weigh less and usually have better intuition when it comes to their centre of gravity.)
Never made a fire without using a match or lighter? Why not try using flint if you have some available to you?!
Look for opportunities to take your camping trip up a notch, create lasting (and usually gut-busting, knee-slappingly funny) memories and try something together as a family that’s new to everyone.
Know your limits
Don’t set yourselves up for failure. Even though you’re getting out of your comfort zone, it’s equally important to know your and your kids’ limits.
So, OK — you aren’t really hikers but you’re trying out a hike. That’s awesome! But make sure you do the shortest, easiest trail first to try it on for size rather than overestimating your skills and tolerance for hiking.
This is really more common sense, but the main thing I want to impart here is to avoid biting off more than you can chew. It’s great to push yourselves but you also want to create positive memories and getting hurt because you took a trail designed for people with more experience or because you decided to let your toddler swim without water wings for the first time because the water looked shallow…well, these are easily avoidable problems.
Trust your gut, have fun and stay safe.
DISCLAIMER: Ontario Parks compensated me for this post. All of my ideas are based on personal experience and opinions are entirely my own.