We’ll be the first to admit nobody is describing us as ‘outdoorsy.’ Seriously. Nobody.
But you know what we are? Free-range parents who are always looking for ways to encourage exploration through memory-making experiences that are kid-focused, and mamas, sometimes that includes pitching a tent in the middle of the desert for an overnight experience.
We’re so excited to give you a cheat sheet of how to camp in the desert with kids (ours were aged 19 months to 6 years old), and a few mom hacks that made this mommy-and-me campout experience turnkey for three city moms.
Amy, Cara & Kim
None of us own camping gear, and weren’t ready to purchase our own, so we opted to go with a local camping gear company that rents out the essentials (tents, sleeping bags, etc.) that are mandatories for camping.
Campsite Outfitters services several campsites around the Valley (they change seasonally) and they do all the heavy lifting in setting up camp, in addition to supplying the gear.
We’re talking tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, camp chairs and lanterns.
All the equipment was so clean and well-maintained, it really felt like we were borrowing a good friend’s gear, not renting it.
It was amazing to have the hardest part of camping done for us, giving us moms the freedom to focus on packing just the food and fun for our five kids.
Mom hack: Campsite Outfitters also can do backyard campout setups, if you’re looking for a unique birthday party sleepover idea, this would be very fun!
We camped at Usery Mountain Regional Park, which has more than 70 individual camping sites and loads to do within the park.
Each campsite includes a picnic table, barbecue grill, and fire ring, plus immaculate restrooms with flush toilets and hot water showers. (Promise, they were really immaculate toilets.)
The proximity to home from Usery also was a little bit of a security blanket for us moms, knowing that if something went terribly wrong, or we forgot something essential, we were just ten minutes from a Target.
Yes, it’s the desert, so there’s cactus at your campsite, but our kids all did fine navigating them. Only 2 out of the 5 had a run in with the cacti and we called it an “Arizona kid rite of passage.” Campsites are $32 per night and must be reserved online in advance.
Our best advice: don’t overthink meals, and pack twice the number of snacks you think you need.
Cara made spaghetti in the crockpot the day we checked into camp so that it was ready to eat as soon as sunset began.
Amy was a little skeptical of how it would travel, but honestly, it was truly turnkey—exactly what we wanted. It stayed warm (we just kept the lid on). Leftovers the next day could be cooked on the camping stove, making it easy for a second day, too.
For breakfasts, we kept it pretty simple with bakery muffins and fresh fruit, plus pancakes and sausages cooked on the cooking stove.
Mom hack: pack a gallon of cold brew coffee and your favorite creamer for your morning caffeine so you don’t have to mess with campfire coffee. Or, do what Kim did, and make a run to Starbucks off Ellsworth & Brown, just a few minutes from camp.
For lunches, keep it simple with cold cuts for sandwiches and deli sides like pasta salad.
And of course, s’mores are a mandatory when camping, so the kids made those while we sipped wine around the campfire.
Usery Mountain Park is turnkey when it comes to activities for kids—we honestly didn’t plan too much.
- The Visitor’s Center has a few reptiles on display that are fun to see, including a rattlesnake. They also provided coloring books with lots of info about the desert surroundings. Braylin (6) was especially fond of these!
- There’s a playground within the park as well—it’s geared towards older kids, not many toddler-friendly options, but the older kids (5-7 years old) were good fits for the equipment.
- Merkle Trail is a one-mile, flat loop path that is kid-friendly (the older kids probably could have done Vista Trail, which cuts up the little hill that Merkle Trail meanders around and is only .75 miles)
Each kiddo also had packed a favorite toy, and it was fun to see them play with them for hours (much longer than at home!). Maverick brought his favorite dump truck, Bella brought a baby doll, Joel brought a bag of small cars, etc.
We also had a big bag of sand toys that helped encourage free play as well. Bella (5 years old) and Braylin (6 years old) spent hours pretending to cook soups, pies and more with the sand toys and the dirt. We did had to stop the fun when they added water to begin making muddy soup…that was our limit…we’re easing into this, remember?
Mom hack: Let them explore, even if that means risking a scrape, cut (or run in with a cactus if you’re Cara’s kids). Letting them explore their surroundings and learn first hand some of the consequences of desert exploration is good for them!
We camped in early November and it was chilly, but nothing unbearable. The sleeping bags Campsite Outfitters provides were temperature rated to 30 degrees, which it didn’t even get close to.
Mom hack: Don’t forget flashlights or even headlamps! It gets dark out there and your phone flashlight only goes so far when you’re trying to preserve battery life. Campsite Outfitters did provide small lanterns that were super handy inside the tent!