Camping trips are really great for kids – especially NYC kids —they get to spend the entire time outside and learn new self-esteem building skills, like how to canoe, fish, chop wood, cook over a fire, pitch a tent, and lots more. Camping trips are low-tech (although I have seen electrified tents), so they allow families a time to unplug and reconnect with each other. Plus, pitching a tent is an affordable alternative to a hotel.
Me and my family are camping enthusiasts, our basement storage unit in NYC is packed with tents and backpacks and my son has been sleeping outside since the tender age of two. We plan an extended camping trip every year, I've recently told you about my gang's amazing camping trip in Letchworth State Park and we will pitching our tent in the Adirondacks later on this summer.
Yes, camping can be dirty and difficult, requiring lots of equipment, including a car, which could 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 11 sites in the tri-state area that are perfect for first timers and families, packed with things to keep the kids busy and all with in a couple of hours travel time. Two of these campgrounds are within the city limits and a number prime destinations are accessible via mass transit, plus there is a campground that even provides nearly everything you need.
There's really no excuse not to hit the woods for a family vacation this year.
New York City
Fort Wadsworth — Staten Island
210 New York Ave
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 also pitch a tent at one of the 7 primitive spots at this historic military site? Campers at Fort Wadsworth in the Gateway National Park 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 on-site showers. And in true NYC-style the park is accessible via mass transit, just hop on the bus from the Staten Island Ferry. Fort Wadsworth will be closed for the season after September 30, so move fast or put it on your radar for next year.
Floyd Bennett Field — Marine Park
Also in the Gateway National Park, Floyd Bennett Field's campsite is larger than Staten Island's with 32 tent sites and a number of RV sites. The park offers more amenities too, including a camp store, fishing, hiking, biking (if you don't have your own wheels you can rent them 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 you car nearby on the street. A great option for urban families who want to give camping a try without a large travel commitment.
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 rather small but it offers a 13 acre pond, a swimming beach, and kayak, canoes, and rowboats to rent. The area is famous for its fishing with the popular trout fishing spot, the Beaverkill River, right outside the park, but junior anglers can can drop a line right into pond. The 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. The 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 their gear in. There is also a small camp store, a diner, and a 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, so there is plenty of water fun to be had, swimming, boating and fishing are just a couple of the activities to enjoy here. On my family's trip here a few years ago we found kids running or biking from site to site making it feel sort of 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 lots of opportunities for hiking. The best part is the ice cream truck that drives around the campground twice daily, selling anything you may have forgotten and fun extras like glow sticks, ice cream, 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. At just about an hour from NYC, right off the Taconic Parkway, Fahnestock State Park is a quick and popular weekend jaunt accessible via mass transit. Hop on the Metro North to the Cold Spring Station and take a $20 taxi ride straight to the park. The taxi must arranged before you arrive cars don't wait at the station. The park offers opportunities for hiking, environmental exploration, and lot of enrichment programs for kids along with fishing and row boating in Canopus Lake. One warning thought, with its proximity to NYC and convenient travel options this park does tend to get crowded.
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 first time urbanites and seasoned campers alike. This is not car camping — there are no cars allowed— 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 so you can get to the campground, then bring your gear to the camp site. The sites are really something, platformed and stocked with a kitchen box, table and everything else you may need for roughing it. All you need to do is pop up your tent and get down to having fun. For a more rustic experience opt for a primitive site that is completely DIY. The hikes range from a kid-friendly half a hour walk to a five hour trek. The best part of camping at Malouf's is that you can order the ingredients for all your meals in advance and have it waiting for you when you arrive or you can order prepared meals from a local restaurant, both for an extra fee.
Hither Hills State Park — Montauk
164 Old Montauk Highway
Want to head out to Montauk but don't want to 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 there is a lake if you need a break from the ocean, plus the park offers playgrounds, walking trails and ranger-led programs. The camp sites themselves do not have any cooking options, there isn't a barbecue grill or a fire pit, so you will need plan accordingly or head into town to dine out. The spots at Hither Hills book quickly so plan as far ahead as you can.
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 tent spot online but with only 26 sites you need to plan well in advance. Campsites here are sandy and bare but steps away from the ocean and the rest of the national park's amenities, which include a snack bar, full-fledged restaurant, and general store. This is another car free destination, like getting to the rest of Fire Island you have to arrive by boat. If you have your own vessel you can park it at the dock while you camp or you can take the Fire Island Ferry to the isle and hoof it to the campground, appx a 20 minute walk from the dock.
High Point State Park—Sussex
1480 New Jersey 23
Camp at the highest point in the Garden State at the aptly named High Point State Park, in the verdant Skylands region. The park offers cabins and 50 tent sites and is a great spot to kick off a hiking trip with over 50 miles of nicely 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. There is a war veterans memorial monument at the top that you can climb too, reachable by car or foot. For non-hikers the park offers fishing and boating on Saw Mill Lake and the local area has a couple of gorgeous and kid-accesible waterfall walks.
Stephens State Park—Hackettstown
800 Willow Grove Street
The Musconetcong River runs through this small park on the edge of the Allamuchy State Forest. Families can pitch a tent along the river but few of the camp sites are actually waterfront. A cool feature of this park is checking out the remnants of the locks from the circa 1831 Morris Canal that was inside the park's borders at the time. There are lots of other activities here too, including fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and boating.
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 time campers since it has a camp store where you can buy simple meal items and get respite from the weather, which were both particularly useful to us when we arrived here in the pouring rain and needed to feed our toddler! Dingman's Campground is a privately run facility on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware Water Gap National Park with over 100 sites, some along the river. A popular spot for paddlers due to its 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.
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.
Animals are iffy. Contact the campground to find out of you can bring your pet with you before you go.
State run facilities tend to be rustic and situated in state parks while privately run campgrounds usually offer many amenities including pools, electricity, stores and entertainment.
Many campsites tend to close mid-October and stay shuttered through the Winter so plan accordingly.
Some parks offer rustic cabins, yurts and tipis as accommodations for longer trips or for families that don't want to rough it.
There are firewood restrictions in place at many camps so don't bring your own without checking them first. You can purchase wood on site or from a local dealer.
Pack for rain, even if you don't use what you bring, it's better to be safe than sorry.
Most camps have showers and bath houses with flush toilets, some primitive spots may have outhouses.
Bears are common in some of these areas, heed any bear warnings from the park rangers if they have seen bears in the area.
Bring bug spray and be sure to check yourself and your kids for ticks daily.
Most campsites sell bagged ice if your supply runs low.
If you don't have equipment you can rent tents and sleeping bags at outdoor shops, Tents & Trails in Manhattan is a popular place.
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 get there.
- 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 and provide warmth are helpful too.
- Flashlights, lanterns and propane fuel are nice to have. Thanks to modern technology you can buy rechargeable LED lanterns, they aren't the brightest but they are tent friendly and can charge your devices in a pinch.
- 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 use the grill for every meal you can 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 the 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.
Originally published May 26, 2010