Family Camp Out:

Storytelling and S’mores Under the Summer Sky

By Ashley Talmadge

Camping: There’s no better way to experience all of nature’s offerings. A leisurely hike, jumping fish, s’mores around the campfire – it all adds up to hours of stress-free quality time with the ones you love most. And even the plushest camping accommodations are inexpensive compared to other lodging options. The Outdoor Foundation reports that one-fifth of American households with children go camping, and 70 percent of camping trips are made with friends.

The annual Great American Campout happens on June 25th this year, and the National Wildlife Federation hopes 125,000 people will pledge to spend the night under the stars. (Go to for details.) Why not join the fun? Pack up your family and head to the mountains or lakes – or simply out the back door.

Here are tips to ensure a great experience:

Research and reserve. Alaskans have it made: Our state offers hundreds of campgrounds that range from basic to fancy, with miles of accessible outdoor recreation perfect for active young bodies and minds. Get recommendations from friends, and access online information about campgrounds, including site maps and fees. It’s best to reserve your site well in advance. National and state parks often provide excellent camping facilities at moderate cost. Privately-owned campgrounds are more expensive, but may come with amenities such as laundry facilities. Narrow your search by clicking on desired features – showers, flush toilets, fire pits, picnic tables, hiking trails, rivers or lakes, etc. (See sidebar below searchable websites.)

Make a list and check it twice. A printout of must-haves can help you avoid leaving necessities at home. Who wants to drive 20 miles for a box of band-aids? A comprehensive checklist can be found at Love the Outdoors ( Pare and adapt according to your family’s needs.

Get your gear. Equipment can be expensive and there are many options. If you’re new to camping (or trying it for the first time with children) you may want to borrow a tent and other items from a camp-savvy friend. Equipment rental may be available through local sporting goods stores or organizations that run outdoor excursions. If you already have the essentials, be sure everything is in good working condition. You don’t want to discover the hole in the tent during a downpour.

Make a dry run. Before you hit the road, practice using any unfamiliar piece of equipment. Set up the tent, install the car top carrier, and light the stove. Not only will you avoid fumbling in bad weather, you’ll give the kids a preview of the camping experience. Maybe you’ll want to try a night or two of camping in the backyard before heading to the campground.

Plan meals. You can chop veggies ahead of time, and use pre-cooked frozen foods as ice blocks in your cooler. If you’re using a camp stove, foods that can be cooked with hot water (pasta, instant oatmeal) are quick and easy. And never underestimate the value of grabbing a meal at the local pizzeria or burger joint if you’re camping near a town.

Check the weather. Remember that evenings and early mornings can be especially chilly. You also may need to prepare for rainy or windy conditions.

Find the Perfect Campground

• For a list of Alaska’s national parks, visit For a list of campgrounds in the Chugach National Forest, visit
, or in Tongass National Forest, visit
. Make your reservations for any of these campsites at, $10-$20+/night. When booking your campsite on, pay attention to the site descriptions for more details.

• A helpful starting point is your local Alaska Public Lands Information Center, with locations in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Tok and Ketchikan ( Designed to help Alaska public land users, the centers offer information on local campgrounds, maps, passes, safety topics, and trip-planning advice.

Review rules and safety. When you arrive at the campsite, check it out before you set up equipment. Call a quick family meeting and point out site boundaries, bathrooms, trash containers and water. Remind the kids to respect neighboring sites, clean up after themselves, and refrain from feeding wildlife. Camping in Alaska is camping in bear country, so be sure to practice appropriate bear-aware behavior as recommended by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (
). Make sure everyone is aware of potential dangers such as creeks, cliffs and toxic plants. If planning any waterway fun, always implement family rules that include wearing life jackets. In Alaska, children under 13 are required to wear a US Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device while on a boat or when participating in water sports. (According to Alaska’s Office of Boating Safety, five out of six Alaska boating fatalities occur in sudden, unexpected events that leave no time to locate a life jacket.)

Relax and unwind. After you’ve set up camp, it’s time to let the great outdoors work its magic. Hike and fish. Organize a scavenger hunt. Prop your feet by the campfire. Eat s’mores. Tell ghost stories. Play a card game with the kids by the lantern’s glow. It’s all good.

Dealing with “tech deficit.” Younger than “tween-age” kids will have no problem occupying themselves with nature’s bounty: mud, sticks, rocks, water. With all the fort-building and bird watching, they’ll scarcely notice the lack of screens. But it also helps to bring toys, card games, journals, musical instruments and craft supplies for great family time. (Check out some great outdoor toys and games here). If you’re at a park such as Denali National Park, check out the Junior Rangers Program. Kids will love the ranger-led activities and guided walks, where they can learn about the local wildlife, flora and fauna. For older kids (parents too!), technology has its benefits. Fill your phone with nature-related apps, and there will be no need to lug 10 field guides and a journal on your next hike. Another tech bonus: you can easily log your discoveries. Check out for a review of apps related to animals, plants, rocks, constellations, citizen science and hiking trails.

Some family-friendly campgrounds to consider:

Campgrounds around Anchorage

Eklutna Lake Campground

Features: Picnic tables, two picnic shelters, fire pits, water, latrines, and ranger station plus an overflow camping area of 15 sites and a campground host
Recreational Activities: Fishing, boating, trails for hiking, ATV use, bicycle and horses
Number of Sites: 50
Location: Mile 26.5 of the Glenn Hwy., approximately 35 minutes north of Anchorage
Fee: $15 a night per site
Maximum Stay: 15 days
Contact: 907-269-8400

Eagle River Campground

Features: Picnic tables, one picnic shelter, fire pits, water, latrines, flush toilets, dump station, overflow camping of 10 sites, and a campground host
Recreational Activities: Fishing, whitewater rafting, and several hiking trails
Number of Sites: 57
Location: 12 miles north of Anchorage and one mile south of the town of Eagle River
Fee: $25 a night per vehicle
Maximum Stay: 4 days
Contact: 907-694-7982

Bird Creek Campground

Features: Fire pits, water, latrines, campground host, and overflow sites
Recreational Activities: Fishing, walking, whale watching
Number of Sites: 28
Location: about 20 miles southeast of Anchorage
Fee: $20 a night per site
Maximum Stay: 7 days
Contact: 907-269-8400

Campgrounds around Kenai Peninsula

Russian River Campground

Features: Fire rings and picnic tables at each campsite, latrines, playground, and lots of double campsites
Recreational Activities: Hiking (Anglers trail - 2.5 miles), fishing (coho, sockeye and pink salmon, rainbow trout - catch & release only - and dolly varden trout)
Number of Sites: 82
Location: Between the Kenai and Russian Rivers
Fee: $18 a night per site (or $28 a night for double campsite)
Maximum Stay: 14 days (Max stay permitted June 10-Aug. 20 is only 3 days)
Contact: 1-877-444-6777 or make online reservation at

Trail River Campground

Features: Fire rings and picnic tables at each campsite, latrines, firewood available for a fee
Recreational Activities: Fishing for dolly varden and rainbow trout in Trail River or lake trout and grayling in Kenai Lake
Number of Sites: 72
Location: 20.6 miles north from Seward
Fee: $18 a night per site
Maximum Stay: 14 days
Contact: 1-877-444-6777 or make online reservation at

Centennial Park Campground

Features: “Wilderness in the city,” including fire pits, picnic tables, restrooms, fish-cleaning stations, two boat launches, a pavilion, more than 650 feet of elevated boardwalk and 13 sets of river-access stair units will see you safely to the river’s edge
Recreational Activities: Boating, fishing (red and silver salmon)
Number of sites: 250+
Location: 349 Centennial Park Rd., Soldotna
Fee: $16-$20
Contact: 907-262-3151
No reservations; first come, first served

Campgrounds around Fairbanks

Harding Lake State Recreation Area

Features: Fire rings and picnic tables at each campsite as well as numerous other picnic sites, two picnic shelters, and a dump station
Recreational Activities: Baseball, volleyball, and horseshoes with equipment available at the ranger station as well as canoeing/boating, fishing, jet skiing, and hiking along nature trails
Number of Sites: 90
Location: 45 miles south of Fairbanks
Fee: $15 a night per site
Maximum Stay: 15 days
Contact: 907-269-8400

Rosehip Campground

Features: Water, toilets and boat ramp
Recreational Activities: Boating, fishing, hiking, rock climbing, and 4-wheeling along a forest trail
Number of Sites: 37 campsites
Location: Mile 27 of the Chena Hot Springs Rd.
Fee: $15 a night per site
Maximum Stay: 15 days
Contact: 907-269-8400

Campgrounds around Tok

Tok River Recreation Site

Features: Campground, picnic shelter, water, latrines, trail
Recreational Activities: Hiking and boating
Number of Sites: 27 campsites
Location: 4.5 miles east of Tok
Fee: $18 a night per site
Maximum Stay: 15 days
Contact: 907-505-0319

Eagle Trail State Recreation Site

Features: Picnic shelter, water, latrines, nature trail
Recreational Activities: Mile-long nature trail and 2.5 mile hiking trail
Number of Sites: 35
Location: 16 miles south of Tok
Fee: $15 a night per site
Maximum Stay: 15 days
Contact: 907-269-8400