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Sleeping Under the Stars

Camping is an inexpensive vacation that allows families to get back to nature.


With tighter household budgets cutting into vacation funds, a getaway to a local campground becomes a fun and inexpensive summer activity for the family. Besides saving a few bucks and getting the kids to shut off their electronic devices, camping trips can also be a chance to teach outdoor skills and encourage exercise. Make it an annual tradition and you might instill a deeper appreciation for nature and the local environment, too. 

In New Jersey, the options for camping range from private campgrounds such as Cape May’s Beachcomber Camping Resort to county park land such as Turkey Swamp in Freehold. Do your kids like to swim? Pick a spot near a lake or a beach. Are they energetic and full of curiosity? Then maybe a location with a network of hiking trails would be a better bet. Keep in mind that you don’t have to limit yourself to tents, either. A number of state parks rent rustic shelters, cabins, and even yurts (tents built with wooden frames and wood floors) to families looking to ease their way into camping.

Once you’ve decided where to go (we’ve included a short list of suggestions on the next page for you), it’s time to make a packing list, plot your driving route, and pick up any food or supplies that you’ll need at your chosen campsite. Be sure to include the kids in this step; they’ll have fun helping to make decisions and will be far more excited about the trip if they’re involved in the planning. And think of it this way: By bringing a few extra things for them, you’ll be that much more likely to be able to enjoy a good time yourself. 

Mike Podlesny, a frequent camper and father of two young boys from Burlington, packs three items on every outing. “We never leave home without some of the kids’ toys. Extra clothes, and plenty of snacks are added in as well.” If this is your child’s first camping experience, consider allowing him to invite a friend along. You’ll give them yet another reason to look forward to the trip just by doing so.

Get camping

Where should you go? Do some research and planning to find the best places for your family, and make reservations if necessary. Start at the website for the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, Camping in NJ Parks. Or look into these specific camping areas:

• Allaire State Park, Farmingdale, 732-938-2371, $20–$40 per night (a historic village, a nature center, and the possibility of canoeing)

 Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, New Lisbon, 609-726-1191, $20–$45 per night (the chance to explore an abandoned village; pets permitted)

• Bull’s Island Recreation Area, Stockton, 609-397-2949, $20–$25 per night (fishing, as well as a living history farm is nearby in Lambertville)

High Point State Park, Sussex, 973-875-4800, $20–$65 per night (park programs, swimming, and impressive views)

• Round Valley Recreation Area, Lebanon, 908-236-6355, $17 per night (swimming and fishing)

 Swartswood State Park, Swartswood, 973-383-5230, $20–$30 per night (hiking, fishing, and swimming)

• Voorhees State Park, Glen Gardner, 908-638-8572, $10–$20 per night (hiking and sky-watching at the on-site observatory)

Packing essentials

When preparing for a camping trip, try to resist bringing all sorts of extras that will only get in the way of your enjoyment of the great outdoors. It’s very easy to overpack. Even if you plan on pitching your tent right next to your car, it’s possible to be fully prepared without lugging tons of unnecessary equipment around. Here’s a short list of essentials:

Tent. If you plan to go camping with any regularity, this is a worthwhile investment that will last for years. Try to think carefully about your long-term needs before buying a tent, though, as they come in many sizes and prices. 

Footprint. Consider purchasing this inexpensive accessory, also known as a ground tarp, to spread on the ground and protect the floor of your new tent.

Down sleeping bags and inflatable pads. While less costly, cotton sleeping bags absorb moisture and won’t keep the kids as warm on chilly nights.

Games and activities. Make sure there’s never a dull moment by bringing a Frisbee, card games, or your child’s favorite toy, but also pack educational goodies such as binoculars, a magnifying glass, or an animal identification guide.

Lantern and flashlight. Extra batteries are always a good idea, too.

Toilet paper and trowel. Toilets might not be available at some campsites, so remember to bury any waste a considerable distance from your tent.

Daypack or small backpack. Stuff this with useful items like maps, bug spray, sunscreen, water purification tablets, a small first-aid kit, matches/lighter, a rain jacket, etc.

Water bottle or jug. Be green, and avoid creating waste! And don’t forget to fill it up before leaving home.

Food and a cooler. Plan to bring foods that are easy to cook with minimum paper waste; don’t forget the S’mores!

Camping cookset, bowls, and utensils. All the more important if you plan to spend multiple nights at a campsite—and better for the environment than paper or plastic.

A camping stove. Or consider bringing your own cooking grate to use over the campsite’s fire pit. (Try out these scrumptious Campfire Breakfast Potatoes!)

Ben Keene is the author of Best Hikes Near New York City (FalconGuides, 2011).

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