Our kids are going to have the weirdest memories of this time, and, ideally, some of them will be beautiful. Or at least comedic. This is where backyard camping comes in. Think s’mores, stars, the air mattress deflating with a cartoony hiss. Picture your children’s faces, fire-lit and, for just another minute, little. It could happen in farmland, suburbia or the Bronx — and it could be lovely. (And if you don’t have access to the outdoors, consider adapting these tips for the middle of your tiny apartment’s living room.)
Pleasure-wise, for me, backyard camping falls somewhere between the rigorous horror of backpacking and the deluxeness of oceanside camping with a cooler full of bacon and peaches. But the comparisons don’t matter, really, since right now you’re pitching a tent on your own lawn either because you can’t go on the real trip you’d planned, or because you’re sick of being in the house, or both.
So first, accept a few things about backyard camping: You won’t be somewhere gorgeous (unless you already are), and you will miss such lovely, traditional-camping things as the piney cathedral of the woods, the glittering pond, the clam shack and, sigh, the fried clams you would have eaten there.
But, happily, you’ll also miss the dreadful Jenga of packing up the car; the campground bathroom; the campground bathroom spiders and moths; your sand-hating son complaining on a beach in his dark socks and white sneakers like Walter Matthau; the biting flies; the thick, slow and steady traffic to your campsite.
Backyard camping is camping distilled to its essence. It’s about the novelty of sleeping outside, the being together, the fire. You have access to the house! Clean bathrooms and real showers! You can easily call it quits if it rains or if someone gets a sudden, intractable case of the willies. Plus, it’s pretty much free and doesn’t require lots of stuff or planning. At a minimum, you will need:
A tent. You really will need a tent — even in your yard and even if the weather’s good. The only exception is if you live somewhere free of biting insects. (Although we once camped without a tent in mosquito-free California and were snuffled around all night by a wild boar.) Borrow a tent or two from a friend if you can, especially if this might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for your family. The adults will also want to have air mattresses or at the very least some sort of sleeping pad — unless you have magical fairy-tale hips. Make up the beds with real sheets and blankets, unless you’re a child with an exciting sleeping bag you can’t wait to climb into.
Chairs. You’ll need somewhere to sit: camp chairs, beach chairs, deck chairs or even kitchen chairs you drag out from the house. A hammock is fun — either a free-standing one, or the lightweight tree-to-tree kind.
Lights. Headlamps or flashlights, at the very least. But ideally something more atmospheric as well, such as a lantern, twinkle lights (solar ones are great) or even a citronella candle from the supermarket.
Fire. For some kids (and adults) camping is all about sanctioned pyromania. Plus, besides setting stuff on fire, a campfire is also good for warmth, atmosphere, cooking and keeping the bugs at bay. That said, you’ll need to figure out what your local laws are about recreational fires. (Can you have one? Do you need a permit? What kind of fire pit is required?) You will also need a bucket of water nearby to put it out when you’re done or if it goes awry. Can’t have an open flame? Remember you may already have a barbecue or grill (and there’s always the actual kitchen).
Food. For the kids, this is the place to go all out with treats and novelty.
If you can poke it onto a stick, it’s good for cooking on the campfire. Think hot dogs and marshmallows, obviously. But also pizza or biscuit dough, which you can roll into skinny ropes, wrap around sticks, and cook over slow coals.
Fancy is fun too. You can make foil packets to cook fish and veggies over the coals. Add a piece of butter, a splash of wine, and a sprinkle of salt and herbs; tent the foil and seal it; then stick it somewhere it can cook without burning.
And coffee. If you have an old metal coffee percolator or espresso pot, a campfire is a fun place to try using it — especially since you have the backup plan of working electricity if things go awry. (I once walked into the campground bathroom and found someone’s coffee maker plugged into the floor outlet and brewing away! Genius.)
Bring a Swiss army knife. For authenticity. Also for opening bottles, sharpening marshmallow sticks (you can use a twist-type pencil sharpener instead in a pinch) and whittling. As long as your kids are old enough to not immediately cut their own hands, I cannot overstate the pleasure of whittling. Yes, you will have to say, “Away, away, away from your body” like a mantra. But it is such elemental fun, turning a stick into … well, something a little less stick-like.
Activities. For kids, camping is mostly about the everyday gone strange, which you should preserve as much as possible: Brush your teeth outside (or don’t brush them at all), cook over the coals, don’t eat any vegetables, sleep all together in a pile. Aside from the aforementioned whittling, you really won’t need much more to keep you busy — especially since we’re talking a night or two, tops. But, these are some tried and true activities:
Games. Think traditional backyard games like tag or Frisbee, or, if you have a set, play cornhole. Word games can be fun around the fire, though you may be usually too busy eating and singing.
Music. If people play (nonelectrical) instruments, bring them outside: guitars, ukuleles, recorders, harmonicas. Or just use your voices and teach one another favorite songs in any genre.
Field guides to wildlife, clouds or constellations. We always have binoculars too, though we rarely remember to use them. A bug catcher is good, especially if you have a book about insects.
Googly eyes and craft glue. We call this the “instant friends kit,” and it simply involves gluing googly eyes to various objects to make pet rocks, leaf friends and marshmallow ghosts. Painting rocks is another fun activity for crafty types; acrylic craft paints are perfect for this.
Go phoneless. Everyone is Zoomed-out, Tiktoked to within an inch of their life, supersaturated in grim news. Leave your phones in the house and connect in person. Even people who don’t think they need a break from screens might find themselves tilting their heads back to look up at the stars.
That’s it! And if sleeping outside is scary for anybody? You can try reassuring or cajoling — but you can also just go back inside and enjoy the relief. It doesn’t need to be harrowing; it’s not “Survivor.” But if you do return indoors, make a couch-cushion fort and sleep in the living room, so the adventure won’t feel like it’s ended. This pretend trip is just a little break from the too-realness of real life right now. Time together, on purpose and unordinary, is what matters. The details of how and where? Not so much.
Catherine Newman is the author of “How to Be a Person.”