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Who Brought the S'mores? How to Plan a Group Camping Trip

With built-in child care, group camping trips are more fun. Here’s how to plan one

Malia Jacobson

Published on: March 10, 2016

camping boy

Last October, the husband and I woke up on a brisk, clear morning to the sound of ocean waves and kids’ laughter. Our two daughters, then 5 and 8, tumbled out of bed, threw on coats and boots and jumped right into their friends’ outdoor play without missing a beat. I savored my coffee and set out breakfast dishes while a friend whipped up pancakes; my toddler son mooched bacon from another friend. An hour later, our bellies full, we set off on a hike that ended at a wide, secluded beach. Sounds dreamy, but I wasn’t dreaming — I was camping with friends on one of many group trips we’ve taken in the past few years. 

When it comes to vacationing with other families, camping takes top billing, at least in my book. First, a weekend camping trip is low-cost and comes together quickly, so your friends are more likely to jump onboard knowing they won’t spend all of their time and money on the trip. Plus, campgrounds near Seattle offer the opportunity to book for one night for those who aren’t sure they can rough it for a whole weekend, making a group trip a low-risk proposition for camping newbies. 

Compared to hotels, campgrounds give young kids more access to their friends, built-in shared playspaces, and the opportunity to “free-range” play within earshot. Sit back and witness the elaborate forts, bike jumps and Lego creations built between campsites by kids playing independently while parents chat. On this front, a hotel just can’t compare, since families are relatively isolated in their own rooms. Most parents, even those of the non-helicopter variety, would balk at allowing a preschooler to traipse down a hotel hallway or navigate a high-rise elevator alone to a friend’s room. 

Add in the chance for shared meals and more adults to swap out kid-watching, and it’s group camping for the win. Ready to plan your own multi-family trip? Here’s how.

Prime planning tool: Facebook groups

Families have been camping together for generations. Shannon Kim, a mom of three from Bonney Lake, remembers group camping trips growing up. “We always went for up to a week with anywhere from four to 10 families. One of the moms was an uber organizer, so she tended to head up the big details.” They planned without the aid of social media and smartphones, but thankfully, you don’t have to. Today’s technology makes planning a group trip easier than ever. 

All of my family’s group trips have involved Facebook. It enhanced the experience and eliminated the hassle of long email threads, group texts or the dreaded game of telephone. Creating a Facebook event invitation or a group page for your interested families takes a few minutes and gives prospective campers a place to talk dates, post questions, coordinate the borrowing of gear (a frequent occurrence if your group includes families new to camping), discuss day trips and hikes and plan meals.

At first site

One of the first big questions to tackle: Should you book a group site? Most Washington campgrounds have designated sites for groups, often consisting of a number of adjacent sites and a picnic shelter, says Washington State Parks spokesperson Virginia Painter. They’re a good option for groups of more than five families, and some larger group sites can accommodate up to 150 campers (!). 

But you may not need one, she notes. “If you have two or three families, you may consider just adjacent campsites. This is what we’ve done when we camp with two or three other families.” The maximum number of people per Washington state park campsite is eight, so smaller families may even be able to share a campsite. 

Keep in mind that some families may enjoy the group vibe but want a bit more privacy or quiet. Booking individual sites, as opposed to a group site, allows people to take part of the group trip but book a more secluded campsite according to their own preferences.

Early birds get the… campsite

Group camping trips can be planned spur-of-the-moment, but early planning is ideal, says Kim of Bonney Lake. Washington State Park campgrounds accept bookings nine months in advance, and early booking increases your chance of nabbing adjacent campsites or a coveted group site. (Find tips on booking campsites in Washington state.)

How to handle payment plans

As with any group vacation, the question of who pays what can come up. Group sites will need to be reserved by one party, who is then reimbursed by the others. (My friends and I use PayPal to split these types of bills and reimburse the person who pays.)

Painter recommends this tactic even if you choose adjacent sites, because it simplifies the booking process and ensures that your group snags adjacent spots before someone else does. Personally, I find it easier to have every family book and pay individually to eliminate repayment hassles. It’s simply a matter of preference. 

Many hands

There’s no getting around the fact that camping with kids is a lot of work. Camping with friends can mean help sharing the load. Switching out kid-watching with other adults makes it easier to complete camp chores, get meals on the table and maybe even sneak out for a hike or beach stroll with your partner. 

Speaking of meals, I suggest dividing up supplies for s'mores, desserts and adult bevvies. (The Facebook group is perfect for this.) For larger meals, we prefer to have each family provide their own food because of different food preferences, but we do schedule one potluck meal. It always ends up being the best meal of a truly memorable trip. 

Kayak Point

How to find the perfect group camping site

Find a group site

Visit Washington State Parks and select “Group” from the options on the left

Standouts close to home

  • Dash Point State Park in Federal Way features group camps and individual sites, more than 2,000 feet of sandy beach in low tide, hiking, scuba diving and marine life viewing, and a prime location near Enchanted Village and Wild Waves with city comforts close by.
  • Ocean City State Park in Hoquiam, near Ocean Shores, offers year-round birding and beachcombing with a popular group campsite and individual campsites.
  • Penrose Point State Park in Lakebay has miles of saltwater shoreline with boating, fishing, shellfish harvesting, swimming and birding. A short interpretive hiking trail offers a fun family activity.
  • About an hour north of Seattle, Kayak Point County Park in Stanwood sits on 3,300 feet of shoreline on Port Susan. In additional to tent and RV campsites, groups can book yurts in a “yurt village” that backs up to a trail leading to the ocean. 

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