The Ultimate Guide for Backyard Camping with Your Kids

Backyard camping is a great way to introduce little ones to nights spent under the stars. Here's our guide, from setup to games and food, to make "roughing it" feel like the ultimate outdoor adventure.

By Rachel Seis, Associate Editor

Boy and a girl in a tent in the backyard under a starry sky. They are kneeling at the entrance to the open tent as their mother is coming out of their nearby house with snacks in hand

Shutterstock / RonTech3000

The easiest way to introduce children to camping? Pitch a tent in your own backyard! Kids get to immerse themselves in the outdoors, without all the packing, planning and gear-buying associated with traditional camping (plus, having nearby access to a clean bathroom is a pretty big perk). Plan your mini-getaway for an adventurous day outside—and a night under the stars—with a few helpful ideas for making it fun for the whole family. (Be sure to enjoy these amazing camping recipes.)

Three Ways to Create a Cozy Campsite

Teach kids how to work together to set up their temporary backyard home to make it as comfortable as possible. They'll love helping set up their cozy nest!

  • If you have a tent: Treat your backyard like an honest-to-goodness campsite. Take your tent outside and find a smooth, flat surface to call home for the night. Let kids help with setting up the tent, whether it's spreading out a tarp first, or putting together the poles. Make it cozy inside by lining the tent floor with yoga mats, bed rolls, or multiple layers of sleeping bags and cushy comforters. But if your little campers really need extra comfort, there's no harm in bringing out an inflatable air mattress for extra cushioning—it's not cheating, it's just making everyone's experience a whole lot happier!
  • If you don't: If you don't have a tent, you can easily create a makeshift shelter by tying a rope or clothesline between two trees and hanging a large tarp, blanket or canvas over top. Just make sure you have a dry place to sleep by laying a waterproof tarp underneath, then make it cozy by layering lots of blankets and cushy pillows on top.
  • Make it magical: Make it even more welcoming (and easier to see) by hanging lamps or stringing lights around the tent. They'll illuminate your campsite with a soft glow, and help little ones feel more comfortable spending the night outdoors in the dark.

Plan on Games and Activities

Prove to your kids there's so much more adventure to be had outside than when staring at a screen. From classic backyard games to hikes around the block, here are some fun activities to keep the whole family entertained all day—and into the night.

Neighborhood Nature Hunt: Make a list of different types of plants and animals to spot in the backyard, around your neighborhood or in a nearby park. Pack a backpack with a camera, a journal and plastic bags, then set out for your neighborhood hike. Let kids point out the objects they find from the list, then take a photo of each object. Record it in your nature journal, and ask kids to explain how it looks and feels. For small objects, collect them in small plastic bags to inspect later and create your own nature collection.

• Throwback Fun: Classic games like Simon Says, Telephone, Tag, and Name That Tune are fun for all ages. Plus, they don't require any extra packing!

• Flashlight Foraging: Hide a small trinket or toy somewhere in the backyard, then, when it starts getting dark, let kids go on a hunt to find the item. You may need to give them a hint for where to look, but they'll love scavenging to find their little treasure!

• Campfire Stories: What's a campfire without gathering around for some storytelling? If your kids are a little older, start with spooky stories regaled with an eerie flashlight glow illuminating your face. But if that's just a little too scary for younger kiddos, tell a story in-the-round, where each person takes turns to build upon the story as it goes. (Just get ready for giggles!)

• Stargazing: If it's a clear night, spread out a big blanket, throw down some pillows, and cozy up together to look at the stars. You can bring pictures of constellations your kids can search for, or let them use their imaginations to dream up their own constellations to describe what they see!

Cook Up Some Camp Chow

One of the best parts about camping? Eating around the fire! If you have a fire pit, it's easy to roast hot dogs, toast marshmallows, and even cook up meats and veggies in foil packets (check out some of our most delicious foil-packet meals). Or get inspired for your outdoor cooking adventure with any of these camp-friendly recipes.

If you don't have a fire pit, a small charcoal grill will do the trick. You can even make backyard s'mores (caramel s'mores, anyone? ) over the grill whenever that marshmallow-chocolate craving inevitably kicks in.

Of course, you don't need a campfire to eat like a camper. Pack sandwiches, trail mix, juice boxes and desserts (these family-friendly crispy bars make happy campers every time) in your cooler to grab at the ready. And because s'mores are a necessity, try these fun, fire-free mini s'mores that are easy to make in the kitchen and pack up to enjoy outdoors, even where there's no campfire in sight.

Make a Rule to Stay Outside

Make sure the event feels like a real campout by prepping ahead so you won't have to dash back in the house every few minutes. Pack up everything you'll need to sleep overnight, including a tent, sleeping bags, stuffed animals, pillows, flashlights, games, books, bug spray, and a cooler packed with snacks and drinks.

Once you have all your essentials, make a rule that everyone should only go inside for emergencies and bathroom breaks (no sneaking in to check phones!), to make it feel like a real rustic getaway. And, of course, all electronics stay inside (the same goes for you, too, parents!).

Whether it's your first time camping as a family, or your just wanting a mini trip without all the hassle, backyard camping is fun at any age—and your kids just may learn, more than ever before, to appreciate the adventure that can be found right outside their door.