Sleeping outdoors with little ones conjures up playful images of nights under the stars, burnt marshmallows, and ghost stories—experiences that all children should have. Eric Schmidt, the general manager of Boulder’s Neptune Mountaineering and father of two, gives us the step-by-step to a happy-camping experience for your family.

Start Close to Home (really close): The first time you and the kids sleep in a tent, it should be in your own backyard. This gives them an opportunity to get used to the sounds and feelings that come with spending the night outside, without the fear of not being able to run into their comfy bed if need be. If they decide they’d rather sleep in their room in the middle of the night, let them. Then try sleeping outside a few more times before you head into the woods.

Pack ’em Up: With young children, you’re more likely to be car-camping than heading deep into wilderness. But even if the overnight trip is just 45 minutes from home, don’t skimp on the necessities. If they’re big enough, get the kids their own sleeping bag—in the correct size—so it holds heat. Little ones may prefer to snuggle into your sleeping bag rather than having their own. Provide comfort by bringing their normal pajamas along with, or a familiar pillow and stuffed animal friend. If you plan to hike, make sure you also bring rain gear, backpacks, and water bottles especially for the kids.

Chow Down: Skip the freeze-dried everything. Don’t skip the s’mores. You can’t go wrong with other favorites like roasting hotdogs and beans on the fire—and there’s no need to shy away from getting creative with meals you can normally make on the stove at home. (Tacos are a favorite for the Schmidt family.)

Drink Up: In all the excitement of staying outside, kids often forget to drink enough water. Here’s one guarantee: A dehydrated kid isn’t going to be happy.

Tune Out: Substitute all of your electronic devices for constellation charts and flashlights.

Bedtime Routine: There’s not much about bedtime that will be normal, but the one way to keep some routine is reading a bedtime story. Bring a familiar book, read a new one, or just tell stories in the tent.

The Golden Rule: Schmidt reminds parents that no matter how kid-proof the plans may be, they might get scared at midnight and refuse to sleep in the tent. Always be prepared to head home and try again another night.

—Image courtesy of Shutterstock