Looking to spend time outdoors this summer while staying close to home? Plan a backyard camping trip! Get our best tips, fun activities, and favorite meals in this guide to pitching a tent in the backyard.
In the past, we’ve shared our tips on planning an impromptu camping trip as well as finding free camping. Both are good resources if you’ve forgotten to make a campsite reservation. But what about if you can’t get away at all?
If leaving the house isn’t an option, then consider a Backyard Camping Trip! It might not be the bucket list outdoor adventure you had in mind, but it’s still a great opportunity to spend some time outside. And you don’t want to let this gorgeous summer weather go to waste!
Reasons to Pitch a Tent in the Backyard
↠ Low-stakes way to initiate younger children to the concept of camping
↠ “Field test” new gear (i.e. sleeping bag, mats, hammock, etc)
↠ Make the most of a weekend with absolutely gorgeous weather
↠ Shake up the routine. Reset the norm.
↠ Something, anything to get these maniac kids out of the house!
Set the stage
Even if you’re not leaving your yard, you should still plan ahead a little to ensure everyone has a great time and that the experience feels special. Here are a few things to consider.
Pack as you would for a “real” camping trip
To keep this activity feeling authentic, and to prevent repeat trips back in and out of the house, we suggest having everyone pack their bag as if you were leaving town for your camping trip. Pack a change of clothes, layers like sweaters and beanies, a toothbrush, and any other items that you will need overnight.
Likewise, gather up all of the gear you’ll need and place it in the yard so it’s all ready for you when you’re ready to set up camp.
For food, we suggest coming up with your meal plan and going grocery shopping, then keeping all the food items in your fridge. Pack a cooler for cold drinks, sparkling water, and juice boxes and place that in a shady spot near your “campground”. Right before mealtime, you can grab the ingredients you need from inside and bring them out to prepare and cook the meal.
Setting ground rules and expectations
This is supposed to be fun, so make your rules as strict or as lenient as you want. But it’s a good idea to come up with a plan beforehand, get group approval, and try your best to stick to it.
Digital Detox? Are you leaving phones, tablets, etc inside? Or turning the Wi-Fi off? Going totally “off the grid”?
Bathroom breaks? Packing a cooler or using the refrigerator? Putting dishes in the dishwasher? When is it okay to go back into the house? Again, there are no wrong answers here.
When does this “camping trip” start and when does it end? If you’re worried about waning interest, start later in the afternoon or have a variety of activities in your back pocket (keep reading for some fun ideas!).
Turn off your sprinkler system. Nothing will strike terror into your veins like the hissing sound of a sprinkler system coming up to pressure.
Turn off as many lights (both inside and out) of your house as possible, which will allow the light of the day to naturally progress as it would at a campsite.
Setting Up Camp
Much of this will depend on your equipment and the type of backyard you have, but here are a few hallmarks of a good backyard “campground”.
Just like you would at a campground, find a nice level spot to set up your tent. If you have young kids, have them help along with the process. Struggling to make sense of your tent’s jumbled pile of stays and incomprehensible fabric loops is a time-honored tradition that should be handed down to the next generation.
But in all seriousness, this is about as low-stress a camping experience as it gets – so who cares if it takes a little while! The point is: you’re outdoors.
If you don’t own a tent already, no problem! Tie a nylon cord or clothesline between two trees, or a tree and your fence, and drape a tarp over it, using stakes to secure the sides to the ground (see how it’s done with this WikiHow tutorial). Add a waterproof ground cloth or tarp underneath and then pile in your sleeping bags, air mattress, pillows, and blankets!
Nothing sets the mood like a campfire! There are a lot of great small, portable fire pits that are perfect for backyard use. We’ve used the BioLite FirePit and the Fireside Pop Up Pit. Both have heat reflective mats to prevent your grass from getting burnt. Another option we love is Camp Chef’s propane fire pit.
If you don’t have a fire pit, you can use a standard BBQ grill for cooking, and then create a “campfire” on a sturdy surface using a collection of candles to add that flickering ambiance after dark (use candles of different heights if possible to create a more compelling effect).
If you plan on making a wood fire, we suggest doing a quick search of your local ordinances / HOA / neighborhood association to see if there are any fire restrictions. While it’s true, kids do love fire trucks, you do not want to deal with the fire brigade showing up to your house late at night in response to a code violation. Trust us!
Since you won’t have to haul this stuff very far, you can really customize your “campsite” with whatever you have available. Camp chairs and tables are great. A nice outdoor blanket. A cooler full of drinks. You can even make an entire outdoor living room space if you want!
While headlamps are very functional, some nice twinkle lights can really set a charming mood. They make a variety of portable, battery-powered twinkle lights which are nice for camping, but since you’re at home, your Christmas lights and an extension cord will work just fine.
Cook your meals outside!
For us, so much of the camping experience is about the food. Hot dogs, sloppy joe’s, s’mores and banana boats… These hallmark camping foods are half the reason we want to go camping to begin with!
Besides, with a cold drink in one hand, a spatula in the other, cooking outdoors is just a lot of fun.
Things to make ahead
Meals to cook on a camp stove
Not everyone has a BBQ or fire pit to cook over, so bring your camping stove (here’s our favorite) outside and try some of these meal ideas:
Meals to make over a fire pit or BBQ
Camp meals seem to taste just a bit better (and are more entertaining!) when made over the fire, so if you have a grill or fire pit available, add some of these meals to your menu:
Activities for kids
Having a few activities planned for the day will help prevent hearing whines of “I’m bored” and ensure that there are plenty of opportunities to spark curiosity about the natural world while building fun memories with your kids.
Nature walk on a local trail or park
If you have local trails or parks nearby, consider going on a short nature walk.
If you don’t have access to trails or parks, or just want to stick close to your neighborhood, this printable Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt from REI’s blog is a fun way to make a walk around the block feel more adventurous.
Arts and crafts
If you ever went to summer camp, you know Arts & Crafts was one of the best activities! Here are a few backyard-friendly projects we loved as kids.
↠ Leaf Suncatchers: Using contact paper and leaves, grasses, or flowers, make a pretty suncatcher to hang in a window after your trip. If you don’t have transparent contact paper, I seem to remember using sheets of wax paper and an iron to do this when I was a kid.
↠ Nature Mandalas: Turn your nature walk into an arts-and-crafts project by making nature mandalas.
Don’t know much about Bird Watching? Download the Cornell University’s Merlin Bird ID app to get started. Select your geographic location and identify the visual traits of the bird you’re looking at. The app will produce a list of likely birds. Sample audio of the bird’s calls can help you verify you found the right one.
If you want to learn more about how to bird watch with kids, Back Road Ramblers has a great post full of ideas.
If your neighborhood is light on birds, there are always clouds to watch. Ask your kids what shapes and figures they see… It’s nature’s Rorschach test!
If you have active kids, having a few games to play together as a family will help occupy them! Here are some great ideas from Taste of Home.
Flashlight backyard scavenger hunt
Just like the backyard scavenger hunt concept above, but in the dark and with flashlights. This is also a good way to get young kids accustomed to being in the dark.
Turn down the lights and take a look up at the night sky. See how many stars and constellations you can make out. There are lots of great apps to help you identify different constellations and planets. Sky Guide is our favorite.
Be sure to check ahead to see if there are any meteor showers that you can plan your trip around!
Camping books for children
Spend some time reading together before your trip, around the fire, or by flashlight while you’re all snuggled up in your tent after dark. Here are a few book ideas to start with.
A colorful book with outdoor illustrations and corresponding actions (age 0-3).
A fun rhyming book about Mr. Magee and his pup Dee’s camping misadventures (age 4-7).
This book introduces kids to different elements of camping, from natural environments and national parks to camping essentials, in a fun “ABC’s” format (age 5-9).
If your child is a reluctant camper, they might relate to this story about Alvin’s apprehension about an upcoming camping trip (age 6-9).
A beautifully illustrated book about the US National Parks and the plants and animals that live there. Perfect for daydreaming about your next camping adventure beyond your backyard! (age 6-9)
Activities for adults
Who says adults can’t have some fun activities and time to relax while backyard camping?! Whether you have kids or not, here are a few of our favorite ways to enjoy a day outdoors at home.
Read a book
Set yourself up in a hammock or camp chair, pour yourself a nice glass of iced tea, and settle into a good book. An outdoor-themed book can really help set the camping mood.
A few of our favorites are Roughin It by Mark Twain, Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier, My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir.
Take a moment (or two), away from the distractions of your indoor life, to check in with yourself. If you’re interested in meditation, but don’t know how to start, check out Headspace.
Draw or paint
Bring your sketchbook and paints outside and paint a scene from your yard. If you’re not much of an artist yet, try a nature-inspired “adult” coloring book, or explore a new skill with a watercolor how-to book (we love the look of this one and this one)
Make it a date
If you don’t have kids, turn your evening into a fun date night. Buy a nice bottle of wine to share and cook a gourmet meal together.
We suggest these prosciutto-wrapped grilled asparagus, fancy steak nachos, and a dessert of “camp” chocolate fondue (melt 2 oz chocolate with ¼ cup milk, cream, or coconut milk in a small sauce pot, then dip strawberries, peaches, cookies, or marshmallows in!) or grilled peaches with honey yogurt.
We hope this post inspires you to plan a camping trip even if it’s very close to home! We’d love to hear all about your backyard camping experience or your favorite activities in the comments below.