Learn to Camp—Without Leaving New York City
June 13, 2012

Learn to Camp—Without Leaving New York City

Camping conjures images of the simple life: walking along streams in thick forests, pitching a tent, cooking outdoors, waking up to the sound of birds, and generally leaving the modern world behind. But if you’ve never camped, getting started can seem overwhelmingly complicated. What should you pack? How do you set up a tent? How do you start a fire?

Moreover, it can seem risky to invest in all that gear and head up to the mountains to try something that might, in the end, not be a hit. 

For urbanites who are intrigued by the idea of camping but are daunted by the hurdles to getting started, two free family camping programs can help. Urban Park Rangers, part of the city Department of Parks and Recreation, hosts free camping excursions Friday and Saturday nights at parks in all five boroughs from May through August, and a team of National Park Rangers runs a similar program at Floyd Bennett Field, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, in Brooklyn. 

Camping 101 Programs

Nights under the city stars start between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and are open to about 30 participants who are selected by lottery. (Lottery deadlines are listed in the KidsOutdoors calendar.) The recommended age is 4 and older. Evenings begin with a cookout and a hands-on tutorial on setting up the tent.  Tents and food are provided, but campers must bring their own sleeping bags and flashlights or headlamps as the event features a night hike.

Camping spots are located near restrooms, such as at the Great Hill in Central Park, near Picnic House in Prospect Park, on Orchard Beach in Pelham Bay Park, and at the nature centers at Alley Pond Park, Marine Park, Pelham Bay Park, Fort Greene Park, Inwood Hill Park, Cunningham Park, and Wolfe’s Pond Park. A team of rangers rotates staying awake through the night so someone is always available for questions or an escort. For more information, visit nycgovparks.org or call 311.

The Floyd Bennett Field program is held one weekend per month from June through September. The recommended age is 6 and older. Campers bring their own food but all other equipment, including cooking utensils, is provided. Sleeping bags are available to rent for $8, or you can bring your own. Restrooms and drinking water are next to the campsite.

The program starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday and features independent and ranger-led hikes, meal time, and camping instruction. Sunday mornings begins at 8 a.m. with a pre-breakfast birding and nature hike. After breakfast, rangers drive everyone to nearby Jacob Riis Park to lead them in several hours of kayaking and seining (catch-and-release fishing using large nets). For more information, visit nps.gov/gate or call 718-338-4306.

Camp on Your Own in the City

When you’re ready to give camping a try without going too far afield, Floyd Bennett is also the only place in the five boroughs with a public campground, Ecology Village Campground.  It has about 40 tent sites and six RV sites and plans for more. Reservations and permits are required in advance. Visit nps.gov/gate or call 718-338-3799.

Camp at Home

It isn’t as silly as it sounds! Our children, Riley and Halina, became enamored of the idea of sleeping in something other than a bed, in a place other than a room in an apartment or house, by sleeping in a play tent that we set up in their room. It was a total thrill for them and the practice instantly became a weekend treat that they requested over and over. We also brought the tent on picnics during spring and summer, and in the middle of winter, we set up the occasional indoor picnic outside their humble abode. 

At ages 9 and 6, they have now outgrown the play tent, but not the idea of rustic weeks and weekends away deep in the woods. 


Photo Credit: The two outdoor camping photos, taken in Prospect Park, are courtesy of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. 


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