Planning a Great Summer Family Camping Vacation

A big summer family camping trip is not something that I would want to do every year and, indeed, it’s been four years since our last one, but with two full weeks of vacation available, this seemed like a great time for another. The difference between a “big” family camping trip and a regular summer family camping trip is the number of camping days involved. Big trips mean planning for things, like washing clothes, that you don’t normally worry about on regular camping trips.

Crags Campground, Lassen National Park

Crags campground, in Lassen National Park, is first-come, first-served. We had the entire campground to ourselves, in the early afternoon of July 7th.

You might think that a two-week family camping vacation takes a lot of preparation, but many times you can get by with last-minute campsite reservations. In fact, I made all of our reservations on June 15th, for our family camping vacation that would begin on June 26th. Our plan was to travel up the northern California coast to the Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park. After a few days in the redwoods, we continued on up into Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Finally, we would wrap-up our two-week vacation in Lassen National Park, on the way home.

Wizard Island on Crater LakeVisiting one of the national parks has been a theme in both of our big family camping vacations. There are 392 national parks and I would like to eventually see them all. But for now, occasionally getting to share the national park experience with my children is satisfying, enough. At Crater Lake National Park it was the deep blue water, in Lassen National Park it was the snow and the bubbling mud pots – there is always something in these parks that the kids find interesting and memorable.

A two week camping vacation is a lot more work than a weekend family camping trip, which is one reason that we do not do this every summer. Even with a scheduled stop in civilization so that the kids could visit grandparents (and we could shower, wash clothes, restock food, etc.), there are a lot of meals and changes-of-clothes to account for. In addition to the logistics, there is the basic fact that you have a schedule to meet. It sounds like a small thing, but having to be somewhere on a specific date is a lot less relaxing than camping in one place.

Campsite restroom facilities

Two federal campgrounds, two different restroom facilities. The Crags campground in Lassen has simple pit toilets, while the Panther Flat campground in the Six Rivers National Forest has flush toilets, a sink and coin-op showers.

You can start thinking about a big family camping vacation by making a list of all the places that you would like to visit, then grouping places together that can be seen on one trip. We limit any one day’s travel to four hours, which allows us to setup the campsite (usually at a state park) in the early afternoon and actually enjoy the place, before continuing on to our final destination. We also do not travel more than two days, in a row.

Obviously, you cannot see everything on one trip. It’s important to remember that this is still a vacation, which means more camping than traveling. Realize too, that if you are visiting multiple locations on one trip, you will only be able to get a general overview of any one place. This is fine for the kids, who tend to be more interested in variety, but may leave us parents wanting for more. I have been to Lassen twice, now – once as a child and once with my own children – and I still have not seen the Cinder Cone, in the northeast section of the park.

Finally, don’t forget your friends! Both times we have undertaken one of these multi-week journeys, some of our friends have been able to meet-up and camp with us, during some portion of our journey. This is a lot of fun for everyone and a great bonus to the trip, if you can coordinate it.

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17 thoughts on “Planning a Great Summer Family Camping Vacation

  1. I would love to plan a camping in wilderness but all alone…..just me and mother nature, something like Man vs Wild, looking forward to have tips from you 🙂

  2. You are surely a good planner, Roy. Summer is often the best time to go outdoor for most families. The weather is perfect for camping activities and the kids are absolutely free from any school assignments and pressures.

  3. Great post! One thought for extended camping trips: Bring a couple fishing rods! Just a small box with the basics (hooks, sinkers, bobbers) will do the trick. Hunting for worms is an event in itself (turn logs and rocks, uncovering various creepy crawlies is a plus).

    • We have one for the kids now, John – they have a lot of fun learning to cast. We are going to pickup another one or two this year, too.

  4. Excellent tips, Roy! I find good planning to be extremely important on all trips, but especially for camping and backpacking. It sounds like you and your family had a great time, especially at Lassen NP and Crater Lake!

    • Thanks, it sure was hard to come home! There is nothing more fun than playing in the snow when it’s really hot, down in the lower elevations.

  5. Great photos of the old Northwest! I grew up in Portland but now live in Chicago.

    Next we I’m taking my family (wife and 2 girls) camping to a great little camp site near Crater Lake.

    I’m a bit of a planner but time is limited with kids so we’ll also be flying by the seat of our paints.

  6. Excellent information Roy! I have yet to embark on big camping trip with family. My daughter is now two and is, I think, ready for such an adventure.

    I grew up camping but not on a big scale as you mentioned in your post. I will definitely benefit from this.

    Thank you!

  7. I like the addition of your logistics about not traveling more than 4 hours in a day, and two days in a row. We just returned from a week long trek to Minnesota and made the trip in two days. We also decided to come back a different route so we could see Mt. Rushmore too. That’s the great part about road tripping, making adjustments on the fly. With our phones, we were able to cancel one reservation and then research and make a new one, all while driving!

    Out of curiosity, how much time did you put into the logistics/planning? Just trying to get an idea of what the time commitment is up front.

    • We generally knew where we wanted to go, Marc, but we did not make any solid plans until two weeks prior. When some friends let us know that they could join us in the Oregon mountains, we scored another campsite for them the day we arrived – which was lucky, because all of the campgrounds were full the next day (Camp Sherman, OR – very popular destination).

  8. Great post! A lot of times people really have no idea how to actually plan a big camping trip. This post should help make their trip a little better.