Camping trips are great for kids, especially NYC kids. They get to spend time outside in green spaces that might seem to go on forever for city kids and learn esteem-building skills, including how to canoe, fish, chop wood, cook over a fire, pitch a tent, and more. Camping trips are low-tech—although I have seen electrified tents—so they allow families time to unplug and reconnect with each other. Plus, pitching a tent is an affordable alternative to a hotel.
My family and I are camping enthusiasts. In fact, our basement storage unit in NYC is packed with tents and backpacks and my son has been sleeping outside since age 2. We plan an extended camping trip every year, and recently enjoyed an amazing trip to Letchworth State Park in upstate New York. We plan to pitch our tents in the Adirondacks later this summer.
Camping can be dirty and difficult, requiring plenty of equipment, including a car. That alone can make an overnight trip to the great outdoors a challenge for many NYC families. But it doesn't have to be that way. There are at least 11 sites in the tristate area perfect for first-timers and families. These sites, within a few hours travel time, are packed with things to keep kids busy and two of these campgrounds are within city limits. A number of these prime destinations are accessible via mass transit, and one campground even provides nearly everything you need.
There's no excuse not to hit the woods for a family vacation this year.
The Staten Island Fort Wadsworth campsite offers views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and a short commute. Photo by Kathy Garofalo/courtesy of Gateway National Park.
New York City
Fort Wadsworth — Staten Island
210 New York Avenue
Camping in the five boroughs! Who knew? We've told you about the Urban Park Rangers free family camping program, but did you know families can pitch a tent at one of seven primitive spots at this historic military site? Campers at Fort Wadsworth in Gateway National Recreation Area can enjoy fantastic views of Manhattan, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and Lady Liberty from their tent sites. The park also offers beaches for swimming and fishing, birding, playgrounds, and tours of the Revolutionary War-era fort. Beware: It is cold water only in the onsite showers. In true NYC style, the park is accessible via mass transit. Just hop on the bus from the Staten Island Ferry. Fort Wadsworth closes for the season September 30, so move fast or put it on your radar for next year.
Floyd Bennett Field — Marine Park
Also in Gateway National Recreation Area, Floyd Bennett Field's campsite is larger than Fort Wadsworth's, with 32 tent sites and a number of RV sites. The park offers more amenities too, including a camp store, fishing, hiking, biking (you can rent at Aviator Sports and Conference Center), swimming, birding, archery and ranger-led programs for kids. You can take the subway to a public bus or park your car on the street nearby. It's a great option for urban families who want to give camping a try without a large travel commitment. Check out our full review of this camp site.
New York State
Little Pond Campground — Andes
549 Little Pond State Campground Road
This is my family's favorite place to camp. On the western side of the Catskills, Little Pond, as the name implies, is small but offers a 13-acre pond, swimming beach, and kayaks, canoes, and rowboats to rent. The area is famous for its fishing, including the popular trout spot, Beaverkill River, right outside the park, but junior anglers can drop a line right into the pond. Nature walks around the pond are easy and fun, and the park is also the entry point to some longer hiking trails. The sites are wooded, allowing for some privacy, and many are even right on the pond. Rangers offer programs for kids, too. Families with kids who can carry their own weight can choose a remote, no-cars-allowed site and pack or canoe in their gear. There is also a small camp store, diner, and grocery store in town for last-minute essentials.
Mongaup Pond Campground — Livingston Manor
231 Mongaup Pond Road
In northeastern Sullivan County, not too far from the famous Roscoe Diner, this large campground has the largest body of water in the Catskills. There is plenty of water fun to be had: Swimming, boating, and fishing are just a couple of activities to enjoy here. On my family's visit a few years ago we found kids running or biking from site to site, making it feel like a suburban street in the middle of the woods. My son made plenty of new friends during our stay. The park offers fantastic ranger-led nature programs for children and plenty of opportunities for hiking. The best part is perhaps the ice cream truck that drives around the campground twice daily, selling anything you may have forgotten and fun extras such as glow sticks and soda. The Catskill Fish Hatchery is right outside the park for a nice diversion, if needed.
Fahnestock State Park — Carmel
1498 Route 301
A perfect place to camp for the car-challenged family. About an hour from NYC and right off the Taconic State Parkway, Fahnestock State Park is a quick and popular weekend jaunt accessible via mass transit. Hop on Metro-North to the Cold Spring Station and take a $20 taxi ride to the park. The taxi must be arranged before you arrive: Cars don't wait at the station. The park offers opportunities for hiking, environmental exploration, enrichment programs for kids, and fishing and row boating in Canopus Lake. One warning: With its proximity to NYC and convenient travel options, this park does get crowded.
RELATED: 7 Favorite Upstate New York Getaways
The hike-in-only Malouf's Mountain Sunset Campground is ideal for first-timers. Photo courtesy of the campsite.
Malouf's Mountain Sunset Campground — Beacon
Old Town Road
I read about this hike-in-only camping site in Beacon on our Westchester site and have since put it on my family's outdoor bucket list. Malouf's Mountain Sunset Campground is a perfect site for both first-time urbanites and seasoned campers. This is not car camping— in fact, no cars are allowed on site. You can get to the area any way you like, but the proprietor will collect you and your gear at the Beacon train station, drop you on the trail to the campground, then bring your gear. The sites are platformed and stocked with a kitchen box, table, and everything else you might need for roughing it. All you need to do is pop up your tent and start to have fun. For a more rustic experience, opt for a primitive site that is completely DIY. Hikes range from a kid-friendly half-hour walk to a five-hour trek. You can order ingredients for all your meals in advance and have them waiting for you when you arrive or you can order prepared meals from a local restaurant, both for an extra fee.
Camping at Hither Hills is an inexpensive way to visit Montauk. Photo by John Williams/courtesy of NYS Parks.
Hither Hills State Park — Montauk
164 Old Montauk Highway
Want to head out to Montauk but not shell out a month's rent on a hotel? Book a spot at Hither Hills State Park. This grassy, open campground is mere minutes from Montauk's famous sand and surf, where you can enjoy fishing, paddle boarding, and surfing. On the other side of the camp is a lake if you need a break from the ocean. The park also offers playgrounds, walking trails, and ranger-led programs. The sites do not have cooking options and there are no barbecue grills or fire pits, so plan accordingly or head into town to dine out. Spots at Hither Hills book quickly; plan as far ahead as you can.
Camp near the ocean at Fire Island's Watch Hill. Photo by Kevin Farley via Flickr.
Watch Hill Campground — Fire Island
Years ago, getting a reservation at Fire Island's coveted Watch Hill campground was by lottery only. Today, you can book a spot online but with only 26 sites families must plan well in advance. Campsites here are sandy and bare but steps from the ocean and the rest of the national seashore's amenities, which include a snack bar, full-fledged restaurant, and general store. This is another car-free destination—you must arrive by boat, like elsewhere on Fire Island. If you have your own boat you can park it at the dock while camping. Otherwise, take a ferry from Patchogue (accessible via the Long Island Rail Road) to the Watch Hill terminal and hoof it to the campground. It is about a 20-minute walk from the dock.
Find more great Long Island campgrounds here and here.
High Point State Park — Sussex
1480 State Route 23
Camp at the highest point in the Garden State at the aptly named High Point State Park, in the Skylands region. The park offers cabins and 50 tent sites and is a great spot to kick off a hiking trip with more than 50 miles of groomed trails in the park, including parts of the Appalachian Trail. The view from the summit is amazing with a 360-degree panorama of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. A war veterans memorial sits at the top, reachable by car or foot. For non-hikers, the park offers fishing and boating on Saw Mill Lake and the local area has several gorgeous and kid-accessible waterfall walks.
Stephens State Park — Hackettstown
800 Willow Grove Street
The Musconetcong River runs through this small park on the edge of Allamuchy Mountain State Park. Families can pitch a tent along the river but few of the campsites are actually waterfront. One cool feature: Check out the remnants of the locks from the circa-1831 Morris Canal that was inside the park's borders at the time. There are plenty of other activities here too, including fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and boating.
Find more NJ family campgrounds with this great post from the Mommy Poppins' New Jersey team.
Dingmans Campground — Dingmans Ferry
1006 Route 209, Dingmans Campground Road
This was site of my now 11-year-old son's first camping trip, when he was just a tot. Camping here is easy for new parents or first-timers. It has a camp store, where you can buy simple meals and get respite from the weather. Both were particularly useful when we arrived in the pouring rain and needed to feed our toddler. Dingmans Campground is a privately run facility on the Pennsylvania side of Delaware Water Gap National Park with more than 100 sites, some along the river. It's a popular spot for paddlers due to easy access to the Delaware River. You can rent a canoe or kayak nearby and hit the river on your own or opt for one of the canoe trips led by the campground.
Find more PA family campgrounds with this great post from the Mommy Poppins' Philly team.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Advance reservations are a must. Popular parks and even the best sites in a park can book up a year in advance for summer camping.
- State-run facilities tend to be rustic and situated in state parks while privately run campgrounds usually offer amenities that include pools, electricity, stores, and entertainment.
- Many campsites tend to close in mid-October and stay shuttered through the winter.
- Some parks offer rustic cabins, yurts and teepees as accommodations for longer trips or for families who don't want to rough it.
- Firewood restrictions are in place at many camps so don't bring your own without checking first. You can purchase wood on site or from a local dealer.
- Most camps have showers and bathhouses with flush toilets. Some more primitive spots may have outhouses. Check before you book.
- Bears are common in some of these areas. Heed any bear warnings from park rangers.
- Bring bug spray, and be sure to check yourself and your kids for ticks daily.
- Contact the campground to find out if you can bring your pet with you.
Basic List of Equipment for Family Camping
- A tent. For the best experience, set it up before the trip to make sure you know how to do it when you arrive.
- A sleeping bag or bed roll for each person. You can bring an air mattress with sheets and blankets if you prefer. Mats to cushion the ground provide warmth, too.
- Flashlights, lanterns and propane fuel are nice to have. You can buy rechargeable LED lanterns: They aren't the brightest, but they are tent-friendly and can charge your devices in a pinch.
- Pack for rain. Even if you don't use what you bring, it's better to be safe than sorry.
- Food. Keep it cold in a cooler and store it in your car to avoid pests.
- Beverages. Milk boxes are perfect since they don’t need refrigeration until opened.
- If you don’t want to grill for every meal, bring a portable propane stove, with fuel, pots and pans and utensils for cooking.
- Charcoal and matches for the grill.
- Mess kits or paper plates, cups and plastic silverware
- Leave the toys and iPads at home. Instead bring crayons and paper for nature rubbings, binoculars, magnifying glass, card games, glow sticks, beach stuff, a bike, and a fishing pole.
This article first published in May 2010 but has since been updated.
Top photo: Malouf Mountain. Photo courtesy of the campsite.