Backyard Camping Basics – Everything You Need To Get Started

Winter Camping Symposium - Row of winter tents set up at YMCA Camp Miller

What is Backyard Camping?

Backyard camping is exactly what it sounds like, spending a night sleeping outside your home. It is the best way to dip your toes in the water and give camping a try. It can be as easy or complicated as you’d like. We often don’t even eat back there! We have a nice dinner in the house and then retire to the backyard to explore, have a bonfire, roast s’mores, and enjoy a night listening to the frogs and birds. It 

Even though we are experienced campers, we still love to do it. At this stage, we use it to test new gear and ideas and to just enjoy more time outdoors. For example, when we decided to try winter camping, we set up our SnowTrekker canvas tent in the backyard for the entire winter! The first couple of nights we didn’t even sleep in it. We set it up, set up our gear, started a nice cozy fire, and played some cards. We later had movie nights down there with the neighborhood kids and some adult-only happy hours. It was a great way to get used to the tent and to get out of the house during Minnesota’s long winters. 

Eventually we spent the night there, but again, didn’t cook. Finally, we decided to have a nice breakfast one morning with eggs and bacon. For us this was an easy way to spend more time outdoors and test out our skills and gear while we were still close to home. We eased into it over the winter and now have a good base level of skill to try camping away from home.

If you have never camped before, start by just setting up the tent in the backyard and letting the kids get used to it. You can try nap time if it is cool out. You can play card games. You could have a movie night under the stars. Then you can go inside and sleep. Once you are ready, you can set up camp and spend the night. We promise you the kids will love it no matter how far you take it. 

Essential Gear to Get Started

It does not take much to enjoy your first evening under the stars, and backyard camping does not require much for gear. Below are two lists, one is the must-have list and the second are some nice to haves that can help to make your evening more enjoyable. Just remember, people have been sleeping under the stars for centuries with nothing more than the clothes on their back. There is no need to overcomplicate this activity. Just make due what you have and be proud of yourself or your kids for taking that first step!

Gear List

1. Tent

Backyard Camping - REI Trail Hut 4 is a great tent for families with young children
REI Co-op Trail Hut 4

Yes, you should have a tent! We recommend the REI Co-op Trail Hut 4 (review here) for families with 2-3 young kids. It is the perfect blend of weight, functionality, and price. It is not made to stand up in, but you shouldn’t be standing in your tent anyway! Stand outside, sleep inside!

That being said, None of us have unlimited budgets. Have a friend with a tent? Ask to borrow it. Parents have an old one from when you were a kid? Test it out. You can also go on Facebook Marketplace and find used tents quite easily. They do not have to be perfect. They just need to keep the rain and bugs out!

2. Sleeping Bags

Backyard Camping - REI Kindercone 25 sleeping bag is perfect for young children
REI Kindercone 25 Sleeping Bag

For kids, we recommend the REI Kindercone 25 bags. They are cheap, reasonably light weight, and warm. They come in fun designs and have a unique cinch strap by the feet so you can shorten the area for small kids (less bag space = easier to stay warm). 

For adults, we like any of the REI brand adult bags. The REI Trailbreak 20 and REI Trailbreak 30 are both great starter bags that won’t require a second mortgage. 

 If you have good blankets, go ahead and use them. If it is Summer, you may not need much.

You can find great sleeping bags used online. Just avoid the old Coleman style ones. Get a decent 30 degree mummy bag. That way you can drape it over you on hot days and stay warm during the Spring and Fall months. 

Both Kristen and I have had our bags for over a decade (Kristen more like 20 years…). 

3. Sleeping Pads

REI Co-op Trailbreak Self Inflating Sleeping Pad (Men’s)

REI makes a Kindercamp sleeping pad for kids, but we don’t think they are necessary. We prefer buying the women’s version of the REI Trailbreak Self-Inflating pad. Women’s sleeping pads are a little shorter and lighter than the men’s version, so they’ll save on weight should you decide to continue camping. They are bigger than the kid versions, so you will get far more miles out of them for a similar price. The men’s version can be found here. We like these self-inflating versions because they are more comfortable than the foam versions while still providing some insulation.

If you have a good back, or high tolerance for discomfort, you can skip the sleeping pads on warm nights. You can also throw some old blankets down. Again, it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive!

If you plan on getting into camping more, it is worth investing in some pads, especially if you will be out on colder nights as they keep you away from the cold ground. But if it is your first night out there, just haul out the blankets and have fun!

4. Head Lamps

Backyard Camping - Black Diamond Astro Headlamp is a cheap option for families that are just getting started sleeping outside

Any will do. We like cheap ones because kids (and adults) tend to lose or break them. At $20, the Black Diamond Astro 300 will do just fine. If you want to pay up for a kid’s version, you are more than welcome to here! The Black Diamond Tikka is also a great option at $30 with slightly more features.

On a budget? Just bring a flashlight! Or your phone! You just need a little light to find your way to the bathroom, find the kid’s stuffed animal that will inevitably be smashed at the bottom of their sleeping bag, read a book, etc. 

How Much Does it Cost?

Honestly, that is the basic kit we recommend for backyard camping and the good thing is everything will work great should you decide to move on to State Parks or even a trip to the Boundary Waters! In total, this gear will cost a family of four about $1,020. That included $300 for the tent, $140 for two kids sleeping bags, $200 for two adult sleeping bags, $300 for four sleeping pads, and $80 for four headlamps. While it may seem like a lot, it will last you for years and is much cheaper than a weekend at a hotel!

Remember, you can also start small with just the tent and a good old-fashioned flashlight. If you like it, add a little gear as birthday or Christmas presents. You can also buy used gear. We have a ton of gear we’ve picked up on Facebook Marketplace. We’ll warn you, once you start, it is hard to stop! Camping is tons of fun and a good experience for your kids. Just start with what you have and work from there. I promise you the kids won’t know the difference.

Nice to Have Items

Ok, so you are ready for more. What else do we have along with us on our backyard camping adventures?

  1. Deck of Cards
  2. Cheap hot dog roasting stick
  3. S’mores materials (Graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows)
  4. Hanging light for the tent
  5. Bug Spray
  6. Sunscreen
  7. iPad (if going the movie night route)
  8. Lighter and firewood

Here is another great list of things to bring camping.

What to Do and How to Do it

The first thing you need to do is set up your tent. If it is your first time, READ THE DIRECTIONS! It may sound silly, but each tent has a specific order that works best. Don’t be like me. Be like Kristen. Read the directions and do it right the first time. Also, make sure you pick a level spot and one that is not at the bottom of a hill. Level spots are much easier to sleep in, and staying away from low points helps you avoid a wet mess should you have rain overnight. 

Next, start a small campfire if you are able to in your neighborhood. This can be in ground or in something above ground like a Solo Stove. The fire provides the ambience and is what really makes the experience special. If you plan on eating, start small with some pre-prepared sandwiches, pre-cooked pasta, etc. No need to go crazy on night one! Later on you can roast hot dogs, prepare tin-foil meals, or go all out and grill a steak. As we always say, ease into it. You want everyone to leave happy and excited about the next trip. 

Then, get your sleeping system set up. Put your sleeping mats down first, followed by everyone’s sleeping bags. You can bring pillows if needed, otherwise just roll up a sweatshirt or jacket.

Looking for more info? Check out these family-friendly camping ideas for more inspiration.

Where Do You Go From Here?

The sky is the limit! Maybe the next time you bring food to cook over the fire. Or maybe you spend two nights in a row sleeping outside. Once you have backyard camping down, you can take the next step by going to a drive-in site at a State or County Park.

Then you can maybe try a hike-in site or canoe-in site at a State Park (Split Rock State Park has cart in sites that are BEAUTIFUL and are a nice middle ground between your backyard and hiking in with gear). Hopefully after that we’ll see you on the trail in the BWCA! Like everything, camping is a skill and you only get better through practice. 

We’ll be sure to post a follow-up article on what to expect and what gear to bring for your first camping trip away from home. Take smalls steps, enjoy the journey, and start with a camping trip in the safety of your own backyard!

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We are the Quills! An ordinary family sharing our extraordinary travel experiences. 

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