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9 Fun Ways to Plan a Backyard Campout

A Checklist to get Your Outdoor Space Ready for 'Roughing It'

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Backyard vacations (staycations) have become the holidays of necessity, as many would-be travelers have little choice but to stay at or near home due to the troubled economy. Look no farther than your own backyard or outdoor living space for some much-needed change of pace. Gather family and friends for a cookout, storytelling, a nature walk and some celestial star-gazing.

It's a money-saving way to have some fun, spend time with your favorite people and temporarily forget about your economic situation. Follow these easy tips for planning the perfect backyard campout. Oh — and don't forget to take pictures.

Finding an Outdoor Space to Camp

Photo © Lisa Hallett Taylor

If you've got plenty of room to roam in your backyard, the sky's the limit to where you can pitch a tent. For those with an outdoor living space on a much smaller scale or harder surface, the choices are more limited but certainly achievable. A small-space yard probably can accommodate a couple of tents and a portable charcoal barbecue.

Don't let a mostly hardscaped yard stop you from experiencing the pleasures of camping at home. Any surface will do: grass, decomposed granite, concrete, and on a patio, balcony, terrace, courtyard, veranda, porch, side yard, deck, rooftop patio, urban garden — you name it.

Identify the spot before camp night, take a few measurements to see if everything will fit, and let your creativity run wild.

Do a Quick Cleanup

Photo © Lisa Hallett Taylor
Once you've identified a spot in your outdoor space to set up camp, do a quick cleanup.
  • Sweep or hose off the area, checking for spider webs, dog doo, debris or anything that could kill the thrill of the occasion.
  • Since it's your yard, hopefully you maintain the area and remove or repair any potential hazards, like loose deck boards or steps, holes in the ground, or anything overhead that is not secure.
  • If your tent has been stored in a garage or basement for a few years, it might smell musty or mildewed. Set it up to air out a few days before the campout, and clean with a mild all-purpose cleaner or vinegar mixed with water.
  • If you'll be using a firepit, take precautions to ensure it'll be a safe and fun activity.

Who to Invite

Photo © Lisa Hallett Taylor

If you have children, nieces or nephews, or friends' offspring, it's a no-brainer — the kids are going to be giddy with the idea of doing something different from their nightly routine. If space is limited, make it just a family activity; if your yard is more spacious, consider a few more friends, cousins or neighbors. Encourage them to invite a friend who doesn't have a home with a yard — that child's excitement will be contagious and add to the thrill of the evening.

Involve backyard campers of all ages in helping out by setting up the tent, laying out the gear, preparing meals and cleaning up after eating. Part of the camping experience is learning to work alongside others.

The Tent, or Something Like It

Photo © Lisa Hallett Taylor
If you own a tent, you're set; if not, you might want to borrow or even buy one in anticipation of future backyard campouts or camping trips. If you're a novice, resist the urge to buy the biggest tent with a designer label. Start out with something that is simple, easy to set up, and will accommodate your campers. Alternatives to a standard tent include:
  • A pop-up tent, usually made out of waterproof material and one that requires no staking.
  • A patio umbrella.
  • If you have a gazebo with sliding curtains, your outdoor room is already waiting for you.
  • Any sturdy outdoor structure can become a makeshift tent with a few sheets attached to make "walls."
  • Let your kids design it: all they need to do is drape blankets over a few chairs.

The Campfire & What to Cook

Photo © Lisa Hallett Taylor

Again, if you own a grill, barbecue, outdoor fireplace, firepit etc., you're covered. Those whose great outdoors is a balcony or small patio may want to borrow or buy a portable grill or barbecue.

Cooking outside is an integral part of the camping experience. Plan ahead to make some kid-friendly cookout cuisine, including pizza burgers, healthy breakfast cookies, toasted marshmallows, the ever-popular s'mores and some variations. Practice common sense and safety when children are around an open fire. Keep an extinguisher and hose nearby.

What to Do & Where to Do It

Photo © Lisa Hallett Taylor
What's a staycation without some fun? Approach your campout like a real away-from-home adventure and plan a few activities. Here's some ideas:
  • Marshmallows and s'mores cooked over a campfire.
  • Storytelling. Make up your own or read short stories from a collection. If they can take it, a few ghost stories can add to the exictement.
  • Singing 'round the campfire. Corny as it may sound, it's still fun, especially if you sing group-oriented songs.
  • A nature walk with flashlights, either in your yard or in your neighborhood.
  • Stargazing. Tilt your head heavenward or lie on the ground and gaze at those bright lights in the sky.

What to Turn Off, Unplug, Silence, Ignore, Forget About & Not Wear

Photo © Lisa Hallett Taylor

This may be the most difficult part of your backyard campout: unplugging yourself from your regular sources of communication. That means no home phones, cellphones, internet, computers, hand-held games, TVs (including outdoor models), takeout food, cars, laundry, work or school projects, monkeys on your back, or anything else that might distract you. View your staycation campout as a real away-from-home trip.

Shed the work clothes. Dressing the part of a camper will help get you and your kids in the mood for the outdoors, even if the campout is on your balcony.

Bed Time

Photo © Lisa Hallett Taylor
Most kids can crash anywhere if they're tired enough. Heavy-duty sleeping bags will probably be overkill for summer nights; anything lightweight will do. Other ideas:
  • An outdoor lounge.
  • A hammock.
  • Lying on top of the sleeping bag or a layer of blankets.
  • An air mattress.
  • A bunch of pillows pushed together to form a bed.
  • The ground — it's only one night.

The Morning After

Photo © Lisa Hallett Taylor

Rise and shine, campers! Depending on where you live, if the sounds of the birds don't wake you, the traffic will. Make breakfast over the campfire or have something already prepared. Corral your kids to clean up and put away the tent, camping gear, cooking supplies, bedding, etc.

The next day — providing nobody has to go to work or school — continue your outdoors experience by visiting a park, nature or botanical preserve, zoo or natural history museum. After all, it's a vacation.

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