Where to go camping with kids near Chicago this summer

There's a campground compromise for all kinds of families

Kristy's husband Scott with their daughter Julie during a tent camping trip.
 
 

Kristy MacKaben

 
Camping tips from the pros

It was our first attempt at roughing it with the kids and we were determined to get it right.

So we stuffed our SUV with a tent, camping supplies, coolers full of campfire-friendly food and enough clothes to last us at least a week, plus bags of balls, toys and games. There's no question we packed too much, considering our kids (Julie, then 5, and Johnny, then 2) entertained themselves with dirt, sticks, rocks and bugs.

Mother Nature, however, was determined to test us.

We got pretty much everything thrown at us-from bug bites and minor sunburn to a skunk infestation and a middle-of-the-night thunderstorm.

We thought we packed everything imaginable to enjoy a relaxing weekend at camp, but we didn't practice some camping basics. Local camping experts say these tips will help make your camping trip more successful.

1 Plan

Do your research weeks, if not months, before your trip, says Amanda Patrick, public affairs officer at Shawnee National Forest in Simpson. Many campgrounds require reservations.

"The more you plan ahead, the safer and better your trip will be," Patrick says. When choosing the campground, think about the amenities your family needs.

Don't just shove your every possession in the car like we did. Determine what to bring and make a list. Check off each item as it's packed. That way you'll be less likely to forget a rain tarp or a plastic tub for washing dishes. (Yes, we did that.)

2 Involve children

When choosing a campground, kids should be able to add their two cents, Patrick says. They also should be expected to help pack, set up the camp and clean up the campsite, says Justin Grygiel, who camps with his wife and kids.

3 Prepare for the worst

Have a contingency plan for bad weather, Patrick says. Pack a tarp to cover the tent. One beneath a tent can help with wetness.

Bug spray, a first aid kit and sunscreen are musts, as is a broom to sweep the tent floor, says veteran camper Kate Hall of Lake Zurich. A portable potty might be good for little ones who have to go in the middle of the night, she adds.

4 Know the campground rules

"Parents on a camping trip become guides and teachers, so brush up on your outdoor skills," says Mark McConnaughhay, park superintendent at Starved Rock State Park in Utica.

Sharon Passero of Downers Grove hates bugs and doesn't particularly like sleeping on the ground.

Her husband, Matt, however, grew up camping and wants their kids, Dominic, 13, and Amelia, 7, to make similar memories.

So they compromised.

Instead of tenting at a remote campground, the Passeros bought a camper and found a family-friendly campground close to civilization. There's a swimming pool, mini-golf and pizza.

Justin Grygiel of Bolingbrook spent most of his childhood summers roughing it at state parks. His wife Bonnie Lee, though, wasn't a fan, so they bought a camper and found a campground with dance nights, ice cream socials and hay rides.

Whether your family is looking for a family-friendly experience packed with daily activities or a low-key, deep-in-the-wilderness weekend, there are plenty of options within two hours from Chicago.

The Crowd Pleasers

1 Chicago Northwest KOA

Kampgrounds of America are known for being especially inviting to families. This one is no exception. About 75 minutes from Chicago, this campground is hopping with hay rides, ice cream socials, flashlight candy hunts and movies. There's no shortage of activities with hiking trails, horseshoes, a mini-golf course, swimming pool and volleyball and basketball courts.

2 Kankakee South KOA

This KOA campground provides many of the amenities as Chicago Northwest KOA and is about the same distance (an hour south) from Chicago. Kankakee River State Park is about five minutes away, which has miles of hiking trails, horseback riding and canoeing.

3 Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Chicago

Jellystone campgrounds please even the most wary campers with entertainment, picnics, hay rides and other family activities. This Jellystone has two swimming pools, a mini-golf course, crafts, movies, laser tag and dance parties.

For Nature Lovers

1 Illinois Beach State Park

  • 1 Lakefront Drive, Zion
  • (847) 662-4811

The biggest draw is the swimming beach, but there is also fishing, hiking and biking. This state park is located about 75 minutes from Chicago.

2 Kankakee River State Park

  • 5314 West Route 102, Bourbonnais
  • (815) 933-1383

Located on the Kankakee River, this state park is known for its fishing. There are playgrounds, canoe rentals and about 10.5 miles of hiking and biking trails, seven of which are paved, along with a 2.5-mile nature trial.

3 Starved Rock State Park, Oglesby

Fish along the Illinois River or hike 13 miles of trails with navigable canyons at Starved Rock State Park, about an hour from Chicago. Near the state park, there are marinas, horseback riding stables and paddle boat tours.

Camping tips from the pros

It was our first attempt at roughing it with the kids and we were determined to get it right.

So we stuffed our SUV with a tent, camping supplies, coolers full of campfire-friendly food and enough clothes to last us at least a week, plus bags of balls, toys and games. There's no question we packed too much, considering our kids (Julie, then 5, and Johnny, then 2) entertained themselves with dirt, sticks, rocks and bugs.

Mother Nature, however, was determined to test us.

We got pretty much everything thrown at us-from bug bites and minor sunburn to a skunk infestation and a middle-of-the-night thunderstorm.

We thought we packed everything imaginable to enjoy a relaxing weekend at camp, but we didn't practice some camping basics. Local camping experts say these tips will help make your camping trip more successful.

1 Plan

Do your research weeks, if not months, before your trip, says Amanda Patrick, public affairs officer at Shawnee National Forest in Simpson. Many campgrounds require reservations.

"The more you plan ahead, the safer and better your trip will be," Patrick says. When choosing the campground, think about the amenities your family needs.

Don't just shove your every possession in the car like we did. Determine what to bring and make a list. Check off each item as it's packed. That way you'll be less likely to forget a rain tarp or a plastic tub for washing dishes. (Yes, we did that.)

2 Involve children

When choosing a campground, kids should be able to add their two cents, Patrick says. They also should be expected to help pack, set up the camp and clean up the campsite, says Justin Grygiel, who camps with his wife and kids.

3 Prepare for the worst

Have a contingency plan for bad weather, Patrick says. Pack a tarp to cover the tent. One beneath a tent can help with wetness.

Bug spray, a first aid kit and sunscreen are musts, as is a broom to sweep the tent floor, says veteran camper Kate Hall of Lake Zurich. A portable potty might be good for little ones who have to go in the middle of the night, she adds.

4 Know the campground rules

"Parents on a camping trip become guides and teachers, so brush up on your outdoor skills," says Mark McConnaughhay, park superintendent at Starved Rock State Park in Utica.

 
 







 
 
 
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