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Outdoor experiences and camping are a core part of who we are as Girl Scouts. We’re dedicated to getting girls outside and helping them discover more about themselves as they explore nature. That’s why we’re super excited to partner with local publishing company Moon Travel Guides to bring you some useful camping resources during the month of August!
Need fresh inspiration to #getoutdoors? Want to take your Girl Scouts camping this summer (or next) but don’t know where to start? Looking to level up your troop’s outdoors skills but can’t decide which Californian campground to try next? We asked Tom Stienstra, expert outdoorsman and author of Moon California Camping, to share his experience. For over 30 years, Tom’s full-time job has been to capture and communicate the outdoor experience. This has led him across California—fishing, hiking, camping, boating, biking, and flying—searching for the best of the outdoors and then writing about it. In this Q&A, he shares advice for camping with kids, helpful tips for first time campers, and suggests new campgrounds to explore in California.
What are the best times of year to go camping in Northern California?
TS: My favorite time begins in March when I start in the desert and lasts through August, when I end at the highest peaks. In fall, from September through early December, I reverse course. Lower elevation destinations like Death Valley are free from snow and heat in early spring, while high elevation campgrounds such as those in the Sierra Nevadas won’t clear of snow until July or August. If you match the seasons to the elevations, then you’ll have stellar camping conditions 10 months out of the year, rather than just July and August. But any night spent camping is better than any night in a bed.
How has camping in California changed in the last twenty years?
TS: The big change is at the marquee destinations. Yosemite, Big Sur, Tahoe, and Point Reyes National Seashore require reservations at the best sites. People have to game the system to get a spot. I tend to visit these famous destinations on weekdays in the offseason and enjoy the less-famous spots in the summer. That still leaves 400 lakes you can drive to, plus 200 sites at trailheads and along rivers and streams. With this approach, I always get a great spot—so can anybody.
What’s your favorite California campground and why?
TS: My favorite site is in the deep wilderness near Funston Meadow on the Upper Kern River and it takes two to three days to reach it. The river is a pristine jewel; in the morning, songbirds provide a symphony that make you never want to leave.
How can kids help plan, prepare for, and take the lead on an outdoors trip?
TS: Being outdoors means being present and aware of the world around you, so start by turning phones, tablets and computers off. Each kid can then assume a task or goal: it can be making a fire, skewing s’mores, or identifying plants or animal tracks on a hike.
For more on how to prepare kids for their outdoor adventure, check out this Moon article on How to Get Kids Excited About the Outdoors, Tom’s top budgeting tips, and T.D. Wood’s advice on camping with kids.
What kinds of camping equipment are mandatory and what things should we leave at home?
TS: You need to have the sleep thing figured out. To be comfortable, warm, and dry, bring a sleeping surface (a pad), a sleeping bag, and a pillow. Get it right and you will never sleep so well as when camping. Get it wrong and you will never want to go again. When you pack, keep it simple: Use the printable camping gear checklist in Moon California Camping as a starting point.
What kind of safety precautions and camp rules do you recommend so everyone stays safe and has a good time?
TS: The most important rule about a camping trip is getting along with people you are with. Most of your fellow campers have the same goals: to decompress, have a good time, and get a head-start on the next morning’s adventures. A few basic rules to ensure that everyone has fun and leaves friends: 1) Always come to an agreement with your companions over the day’s activities; 2) No one person is in charge. Instead, share all camp tasks and give everyone a chance to do something fun; 3) Lastly, no whining.
When it comes to campsite safety, you can do no better than to follow Leave No Trace principles. If you are concerned about personal safety around others, camp at a state or national park or at a campground with a designated camp host.
What if our kids are afraid of night-time noises?
TS: First, make sure children are warm, dry, and comfortable at night in their sleeping bags. In turn, parents should always tell their children they will protect them—that helps a lot—so they can give in and go to sleep. One trick to help kids calm down from the excitement and relax so they can go to sleep is to tell them to gaze up at the sky; they aren’t allowed to go to sleep until they see a shooting star. Given that job, they get tired of it quickly. When they finally see a shooter, off they go to sleep.
What are some recommended activities to do while camping?
TS: With youngsters, go to places where there is a guarantee of action: watching wildlife, swimming, boating, and fishing are sure-thing winners. At night, tell campfire tales about Bigfoot while snacking on s’mores and sipping hot chocolate or apple cider; that can be great fun. One of my favorite things to ask is: “If you could be any bird, animal, fish, marine mammal, or anything else, what would it be?” The answers are often classic. Ask kids to share what they love and what they fear. But do not expect them to enjoy long hikes or your philosophic rhapsodies. Stories of when you were a kid and fouled things up are entertaining; stories where you end up the hero are “totally boring.”
You asked, Tom answered
Back in July, we asked our parents and volunteers to submit any questions they wanted Tom to answer about camping with kids. Many of you were looking for specific recommendations of places to go with your Girl Scouts, and one of you asked how to keep the cost of camping accessible. And if you missed this opportunity, feel free to leave any camp-related questions in the comments section below.
Are there any organizations working with the underserved communities to get the kids out camping? Equipment costs can be huge – tents, stoves, backpacks, transportation all cost big money, and it seems more and more that camping and backpacking are reserved for those that have disposable income. And yet everyone needs to get outdoors – it’s so important not just for one’s self, but to gain an understanding of our environment and learning stewardship of nature. (submitted by Rene T.)
TS: I couldn’t agree more. Fortunately, there are organizations out there that rent, donate, or offer gear libraries so that everyone can get outdoors:
- Bay Area Wilderness Training “supports teachers and youth workers with training, gear, funding, and community to get youth outdoors.”
- Outdoor Outreach “connects youth to the transformative power of the outdoors” (mostly in the San Diego area).
- Outward Bound is the “leading provider of experiential and outdoor education programs for youth and adults.”
- Youth Outside has “provided funding for over 100,000 Bay Area youth to attend environmental field trips.”
- In addition, places like REI also rent gear (camp stoves, tents, sleeping bags, backpacks), which reduces costs.
Best camp to take girls who don’t spend time outdoors? (submitted by Meagan T.)
TS: For a Girl Scout on her first camping trip, a scenic spot with plenty to do and comfortable amenities will ease this entry into the outdoor life. Historic Camp Richardson Resort, set near the shore of Lake Tahoe, has cabins, a restaurant—even an ice cream parlor—with tons to do on or near the lake. Near Mt. Shasta, Lake Siskiyou Resort & Camp is a gem, with great swimming, an excellent beach, boat rentals, a playground, and movie nights in summer. Or, skip the tent and spend a night in the camping cabins at Big Basin Redwoods State Park or on Steep Ravine at Rocky Point on the Marin Coast.
For more awesome options, check out our 10 Best Family Campgrounds in California.
Our Mt. Shasta troop has camped at McArthur-Burney Falls and Sims campgrounds. Can you suggest other campgrounds nearby that are good for group camping? What are site fees and number of campers per site? (submitted by Carol W.)
TS: The Shasta area is rich with great campgrounds. For group camping here and in the Lassen and Tahoe area, I recommend the following:
- Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park also has five group sites ($70 per night) and the park has kayak rentals onsite, and many great destinations, like the fun walk to Bumpass Hell geothermal area, within driving range.
- Hutchins Group Camp ($70–75 per night) is on beautiful Bucks Lake near Quincy in Plumas National Forest and has three group sites for up to 25 people each.
- Lakes Basin Group Camp ($80 per night) is also in Plumas National Forest below Mount Elwell. It has one group campsite for up to 25 people.
- In the central Sierra, Pinecrest Lake is a great spot for Girl Scouts. The Pioneer Trail Group Camp ($90–130 per night) has three group areas for up to 50 or 100 people. In the south Sierra, another good destination with group camps is at Huntington Lake in the central Sierra.
What are the best places to go in Marin or on the Peninsula? (submitted by Jessica E.)
TS: In the Bay Area, the hike-in campsites on Angel Island State Park are great fun. After the ferries leave, you can have the island [almost] to yourself. In Marin, Samuel P. Taylor State Park, China Camp State Park, and Pantoll campground in Mt. Tam all offer easy access to this beautiful area. On the Peninsula, Butano Redwoods, Portola Redwoods, and Big Basin Redwoods State Parks all sit within groves of towering redwoods. The San Mateo County Park system also offers camping at Memorial County Park, stellar and less-crowded in the same region.
Campsites near water with lifeguard. Not Folsom. Also, if you need to narrow down prefer on or near coast. (submitted by Kathy M.)
TS: The best family-style swimming beach at a mountain lake in California is at Lake Siskiyou in the north state, nestled at the foot of Mount Shasta. Camp Sis puts up this array of giant inflatable water slides and structures to jump and slide off. A buoy line is set up to keep out all boats. Closer to Sacramento, the Rancho Seco Recreation Area has a 160-acre lake with swimming, kayak rentals, a wildlife refuge, a sandy beach—and lifeguards (in summer).
- Check out this related blog post: 3 Easy Steps to Get Your Girls Outdoors.
- Discover your next outdoor adventure with the help of Moon Travel Guides.
- Still have questions about camping with kids? Leave them in the comments section below!
Tom Stienstra—Tom is the nation’s top-selling author of outdoors guidebooks. He has been inducted into the California Outdoor Hall of Fame and has twice been awarded National Outdoor Writer of the Year, newspaper division, by the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He has also been named California Outdoor Writer of the Year five times, and recently won an Emmy for his documentary The Mighty T—Tuolumne River. Tom is the outdoors columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle; his articles appear on sfgate.com and in newspapers around the country. He also broadcasts a weekly radio show on KCBS-San Francisco. Tom lives in Northern California. You can contact him directly via the website tomstienstra.com.
Moon Travel Guides—Moon Travel Guides is committed to inspiring people to get outside, find their adventure, and explore the world. Publishing is one of the few women-dominated industries, and Moon Travel Guides knows how important it is to support the passions of young women. In conjunction with their author Tom Stienstra’s renewed focus on encouraging young people to experience the outdoors, the folks at Moon Travel Guides hope to empower a new generation of girls to get outdoors and explore their world their way.