A Guide to Backyard Camping—S’mores Hacks and Campfire Stories Included

A night under the stars at home is easy with these backyard camping tips
Image of roasting a marshmallow over campfire
Roasting marshmallows over a campfire

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The morning bird songs are well underway, green has begun to peek from the soil, and the desire to cozy up around a campfire is growing in many minds. But right now, camping at your favorite campground isn’t an option. In an effort to fight the spread of COVID-19, the Minnesota DNR has closed all campgrounds until at least May 1. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative and set up camp in your very own backyard. It simply takes imagination and a little time to gather supplies. With these tips, you’ll be kicking off your camping season at home in no time. So dust off your tent and grab the marshmallows.

Start by Taking a Hike

Immersing yourself in nature and breathing some fresh air will help inspire the camping mood. All state parks and nature centers are still open for use of hiking trails, although most park buildings are closed until further notice.

Top picks include the 18 miles of trails along the Minnesota River at Fort Snelling State Park and the multi-terrain loops through prairies and woodlands at Lake Elmo Park Reserve. (More beautiful hiking spots can be found here.) Plus, all state parks, along with other outdoor recreation areas, have waived their entrance fees during this time. Just be sure to practice social distancing while on the trails and call in beforehand to make sure that the park has not already reached capacity. Peak hours right now are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. For the most up-to-date information, visit dnr.state.mn.us/covid-19.html

Set Up Camp at Home

  • Shelter: Head outside and search for a flat surface to unpack your tent. (With a little extra time to spare these days, now is the perfect time for everyone to learn exactly how to properly pitch a tent.) Make it comfortable with cushy sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows, and if you’re feeling more like glamping, add extra padding with air mattresses, yoga mats, or foam play mats. (Being only steps away from home means you don’t need to worry about how much you haul in.) If you don’t have a tent, opt for sleeping under the stars, in a hammock, or DIY a snug tipi sanctuary with blankets and sticks.
  • Ambience: String lights inside your tent, and if there are nearby trees, hang paper lanterns or twinkling lights.

Cook Outdoors

  • Dinner: Gather up some firewood and start a campfire. Roast hot dogs, bratwursts, burgers, or a slew of sizzling foil-packet dinners directly over the heat. Or, invest in a Dutch oven and cook delicious meals like chili, sloppy joes, or pizza.
  • Dessert: No camping trip is complete without roasting marshmallows over the campfire for s’mores. For a special twist, try a banana boat s’more. Simply slice open the peel on one side, remove some banana for room, add in your favorite s’mores toppings, then wrap it in foil and briefly heat over the fire. Another twist? Fill a waffle cone with mini marshmallows and pieces of chocolate, wrap in foil, heat, enjoy. (And be careful when handling the hot foil.)

Plan Activities

  • Campfire stories: Not all campfire stories need to center around frightening tales. After all, there’s nothing quite as relaxing as kicking back and conversing with loved ones over the warmth of a crackling campfire. Take turns exchanging favorite camping memories, or get the conversations started by playing games like Twenty Questions or Name That Tune. If the urge to spook arises, grab the flashlight and share scary classics such as “Bloody Mary,” or a more family-friendly legend, “A Grave Problem.” These campfire stories, plus many more, can be found here. (For a Minnesotan twist, local author Benjamin Percy recently released a book of spooky short stories, Suicide Woods.)
  • Stargazing: Take time to look up. If it’s a clear night, you can view constellations such as Ursa Major, which includes the famous Big Dipper. Look for the outline of a spoon or a cup with a long handle, and from there it becomes easier to see the image of the “great bear” it resembles. (The cup is the bear’s chest, and the long handle is part of the bear’s head.) Once you locate the Big Dipper, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the rest of the night sky comes alive. Use this guide to know what to look for.
  • Games: Board and card games are always fun, and now, only steps from home, it’s the perfect time to bust out the yard games. Bean bag toss, ladder golf, and Yardzee are favorites. For something a bit out of the ordinary, use yard paint to make your own outdoor Twister game. Or, take advantage of the night’s darkness and get clever with glow sticks, setting up glow-in-the-dark hopscotch or a game of ring toss.

Other Tips

Resist the temptation to go back inside. Pack everything you’re going to need, because to get the full camping experience, you’re going to want to stay outside and embrace nature. But if you need to make a snack run, we won’t judge.

Unable to camp in your backyard? Recreate nearly all these backyard camping tips right inside your living room or basement.

Have fun. Make the most of the inability to camp at a campground. Sure, it’s not exactly the same, but the uniqueness will create good memories during a difficult time.