Now is the Absolute Best Time to Visit Congaree National Park and Here Is Why

This National Park floods in winter and that’s when you should visit. Trust me.

The US has 63 national parks stretching north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska and south to the Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean. While some of these parks are massively popular (I’m looking at you, Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains), other names barely register. Congaree National Park in South Carolina falls into the latter category.

The park, which is named after an Indigenous tribe that once lived in the region, is the largest intact example of what the Southeastern US used to look like before the landscape was logged and cleared, beginning in the 19th century.

By the 1950s, very little remained of the once extensive old-growth bottomland forests, and the tract in what is today the park is the largest intact section remaining. What’s more, the park’s lush floodplain forest is home to some of the tallest trees in the country and it has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies in the world with the average canopy reaching 100 feet.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It doesn’t sound all that tall but when you consider that much of the forests of the eastern United States have been logged at one point or another in the past 400 years, it is pretty impressive. Indeed, few other deciduous forests even come close to that.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? You’d think that everyone would be rushing to visit this ecological blast from the past, wouldn’t you? Well, they’re not, because most people haven’t heard of it.

Despite being only a 30-minute drive from Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree is one of the least visited national parks in the country. According to official National Park Service data, Congaree received only 204,522 visitors in 2022 (2023 data was not available at the time of writing), about as many as the much-harder-to-reach Virgin Islands National Park.

More people visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park in six days than visit Congaree in an entire year. But as the only national park comprised mostly of floodplains, this swampy paradise has one big thing going for it that its big-name competitors don’t: Its off-season is the best time to visit.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes winter the best time to explore?

While most national parks see the highest number of visitors in the summer, June through August can actually be a pretty miserable time to visit Congaree because it’s so hot and humid there. Temperatures average in the 90s and mosquitos love the marvelously muggy conditions the park provides as breeding grounds.

As such, visitation numbers typically peak in spring and fall. But strangely enough, the winter months (and January, in particular) actually receive the fewest number of visitors. Use that to your advantage: These smaller crowds paired with daily temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, make for prime visitation time.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though many of the park’s bird species do fly south for the winter, birding is still possible. It’s much easier to see birds when most of the foliage has fallen off the trees and winter is a great time to spot blue-headed vireo, winter wren, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, hermit thrush, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and white-throated sparrows.

The rusty blackbird is another special bird to spot here in winter. Although the species has seen a long-term population decline due to habitat loss the winter environment at Congaree perfectly suits the bird so it is hoped the park will play a key role in ensuring its survival in the long run.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, floodplain forests like Congaree National Park are especially high in productivity and species diversity because of how rich the flood-deposited clay, silt, and sand deposits make the soil.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Regular flooding keeps the soil rich in nutrients which in turn help produce the park’s high number of champion-size trees—the largest documented specimen of their species. One of the park’s record-breaking champions is a 168-foot loblolly pine that can be found along Weston Lake Trail. It’s about as tall as a 17-story building.

Congaree typically floods 10-12 times per year—and it happens most often in winter. Any significant rain in the upstate of South Carolina can cause a rise in water levels in the park without warning. Hiking through the flooded forest is impossible (or at least highly discouraged) as you may find yourself suddenly swimming with alligators and parasites.

Good thing the park’s best views aren’t from its forested trails. Even when those are flooded visitors can still access a 2.6-mile elevated boardwalk. It’s a great place to catch a glimpse of some river otters which are less out and about when the floodplain is dry. But if that idea doesn’t float your boat, you can always take in the forest views during flood season from the seat of a canoe or kayak.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kayaking and canoeing in Congaree

Speaking of which, kayaking and canoe tours are offered in the park year-round though you can also rent a craft and head out on the water alone. As long as the water is above about two feet high—and it usually is—it’s a straightforward, scenic float down Cedar Creek and back up to the landing as opposed to a potentially annoying game of bumper cars with the tree roots that criss-cross the creek. Plus, the higher the water, the deeper into the park you can paddle.

A quick disclaimer: While a typical flood will raise the water level to around eight to 12 feet deep, sometimes there’s a borderline biblical deluge. In 2015, the flood was so intense that the water gauge broke making it impossible to measure the exact depth of the water though locals estimate it reached a whopping 17 feet.

Very high and rapidly flowing water can increase the chance of your craft flipping, so don’t attempt to kayak or canoe without a guide unless you have significant experience. As it’s easy to get disoriented in a sea of trees, any sort of paddling without a guide is discouraged even if the water isn’t rushing fast enough to flip your boat.

When the water level is low, you’re confined to Cedar Creek which runs through the park. You can still see out into the surrounding forest but you can’t paddle into it. When the surrounding rivers flood water level rises and the creek rises and spills out into the forest. Just imagine leaving the calm comfort of the creek and entering the enormous expanse of the floodplain.

Tupelo trees enshrined in Spanish moss welcome you to the forest as do 125-foot bald cypress trees and loblolly pines. Great Smoky Mountain National Park could never.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning your trip to the park

At around 26,000 acres, Congaree is the seventh smallest national park so you don’t need a full week here as you do with some of the larger ones. Paddling and hiking the boardwalk trail each take a few hours so you could easily do both of these popular activities in one day while still getting a good feel for what the park offers.

And because Congaree National Park is so close to Columbia, you could easily make a day trip from there after enjoying visiting the Columbia Museum of Art, biking along the Three Rivers Greenway, and (if it’s Saturday) perusing the 150 or so vendors a the Soda City Market.

Congaree is also only two hours from Charleston. Congaree could be easily tacked on any kind of road trip around South Carolina or the South in general. If you want to stay overnight in the park, you could stay at one of the park’s primitive campgrounds or in the backcountry— just keep in mind that reservations are required.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the park isn’t flooded during your visit your kayaking or canoe tour will likely take a break halfway through so you can walk around a bit in the forest perhaps searching for evidence of the wild boar that likes to root around at night. For a proper hike, hit up some of Congaree’s 25-or-so miles of trails. Most hiking trails start at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and are best explored when the park is not flooded.

In addition to the previously mentioned boardwalk loop, there are also a handful of proper forested hiking trails like the 4.5-mile Weston Lake Trail (a loop that offers regular views of otters and wading birds) and the 12-mile out-and-back Kingsnake Trail. The latter is the best for birding though some sections can be difficult to follow. The trail is marked with brown, numbered signs called blazes but if a blazed tree falls you could be in danger of getting lost. That is even more true if the vegetation is overgrown.

If the park is flooded, your only option may be the boardwalk trail but lucky for you it’s a beautiful walk that offers an excellent view of the seemingly endless forest of sky-high loblolly pine and cypress trees. Woodpeckers frequent the trail and you will probably hear them pecking before you see them so simply follow the sound to catch a peek. You’ll also see evidence of their work on tons of mangled trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Signs along the trail point out local flora, fauna, and unique items such as a rusted old still that was used by bootleggers who hid within the park during Prohibition. Other signs explain interesting phenomena like the knees of the cypress trees (knobby nodes shooting up from enormous tree roots). Sometimes rising several feet above the ground, these knees are generally found in swamps though their function is still unknown. If the park isn’t too flooded, you’ll see hundreds of them.

Spend some time in the Harry Hampton Visitor Center where thoughtful displays describe the area’s geography and early history including that of Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and enslaved Africans who were brought and forced to work on nearby plantations and farms and who sometimes escaped and sought refuge in the park’s wilderness.

Some who successfully escaped formed Maroon settlements and thriving communities in the forest where they relied on the rivers for food and the dense vegetation for safety and protection. Much of the land surrounding Congaree National Park is owned by the descendants of former farm and plantation workers, both free and enslaved.

As weekends tend to be the most popular days in the park this is when you’ll also find the most activities such as twilight hikes and owl prowls which are Ranger-led hikes to learn about the park (and its many residents) after-hours. Park programming depends on staffing levels and park conditions but be sure to check the park’s calendar which can include discovery hikes, nature walks, and yoga classes.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the backcountry

If you want to rent a canoe, check out a company like River Runner Canoe Center which can even deliver it to the creek for you and give you some tips before you head out. Canoeing the creek takes two to three hours but ambitious paddlers may also want to look into the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail.

This water trail begins at Bannister’s Bridge, meanders southeast, and ends at the Congaree River. To complete it, you’ll need an outfitter like River Runners to drop you at the starting point and pick you up at the end which costs about $175.

Paddlers should also consider that while the Cedar Creek portion of the trail runs 15 miles, it’s another 11 miles until the next pick-up point at Bates Bridge landing. As such, paddlers should expect to paddle about a marathon’s length in total.

While it’s possible to paddle the entire route in a single day, it depends entirely on the paddling conditions and the paddler’s experience. Say, if flooding has loosened trees in the floodplain and they’ve tipped over and blocked the route, you may have to get out and carry your craft around and over to the other side (which is called portaging).

While this can sometimes be a quick process, in other cases you may have to backtrack to find a spot. If you have to do this several times, it could add quite a bit of time to your excursion. Most paddlers do this as an overnight trip which requires a free backcountry camping permit that can take up to 72 hours for the park to process.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources on Congaree National Park:

By the way, I have a series of posts on South Carolina:

Worth Pondering…

For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.

—Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

Outdoor Activities Bucket List: 18 Fun Things to do Outdoors

From chasing fireflies to floating down a river, this list can break you out of a summer rut

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Not only can heading outside inject excitement into a blah-feeling day, but it can also deliver serious health benefits: Exposure to greenspace is linked to a whole slew of physical perks including reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormone cortisol, according to a 2018 meta-analysis of 143 studies published in the journal, Environmental Research

Separate research supports the outdoors for your mental health too. Time in nature can decrease mental distress while boosting happiness, subjective well-being, cognitive functioning, memory, attention, imagination, and creativity, a 2019 review in Science Advances concluded.

In short, there’s a lot to gain from stepping out of doors. And with a handy list of outdoor activities at your fingertips, you can soak up all the awesomeness of nature.

From chasing fireflies to birdwatching, here are some pretty amazing things to do outside. Let this article be your outdoor activities inspiration guide.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Lace up for a mindful nature walk

Feeling on edge or unfocused? Slip on your sneakers, head outside, and get in some steps. Not only is walking an excellent form of exercise but intentionally strolling through a natural setting can help you chill out.

When people with chronic stress walked outdoors for 40 minutes, they decreased their cortisol levels more than those who did likewise on a treadmill or who watched nature programming on TV for the same amount of time, a 2020 study published in Environment and Behavior found. They also experienced more a mood improvement afterward. 

To make the most of your stroll, tune into the present moment including what you see and hear around you. Mindful hiking is the perfect way to explore how being present in nature can transform how you feel. For more on mindful hiking you can read these two articles:

2. Gaze at the night sky

Stargazing, one of the most underrated outdoor activities has much to offer: It’s free, accessible, and can be incredibly calming. For an optimal experience, try to get as far away from city lights as possible and turn off all sources of manmade light.

The ultimate stargazing spots are fittingly called Dark Sky Places, designated pockets where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars can shine in all their glory. And the keeper of those Dark Sky Places is the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). 

Across the 94 Dark Sky Places in the United States, you’ll find friendly amateur astronomers and ample opportunities to gaze uninterrupted into the heavens. Consider picking up a red light headlamp—a hands-free way to illuminate your path but not obstruct the experience. Check the weather forecast, bring layers and plenty of water, tell someone where you’re going, and don’t forget to look down every once in a while. You can fall off a cliff if you’re not paying attention.

For more on stargazing and Dark Sky Parks check out these posts:

3. Chase fireflies

Remember how magical the outdoors felt when you were little? Recreate some of that wonder on a summer night by catching fireflies in a jar and briefly observing them before setting them free. 

There are a number of different species of fireflies, none of which are actually flies—they’re beetles. They get the names firefly and lightning bug because of the flashes of light they naturally produce. This phenomenon is called bioluminescence and the bioluminescent organs in fireflies are found on the underside of the abdomen.

A similar group of organisms are glowworms. The term glowworm can refer to firefly larva or wingless adult females—some of which are not in the firefly family lampyridae.

Both glowworms and fireflies are bioluminescent. The important distinction is that fireflies have wings and glowworms do not. Fireflies can reach up to one inch in length.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Dust off your bike and go for a ride

Cycling is a healthy exercise that can be enjoyed by people of all ages from young children to older adults. Cycling strengthens your heart muscles, lowers resting pulse, and reduces blood fat levels. A Danish study conducted over 14 years with 30,000 people aged 20 to 93 years found that regular cycling protected people from heart disease.

If you want to blend low-impact exercise with quality time outdoors, make biking one of your go-to outdoor activities.

5. Be a tourist in your town

Can you confidently say that you know your city in and out? Take the time to visit more than just your usual hangout places. 

Be a tourist in your city, go someplace new and you may be surprised by just how wonderful that old town can be. Most cities have free tours too. You could discover streets, shops, and landmarks that you never knew existed. 

Camping in Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go camping

Camping could mean different things to different people. It can be a chance to bond with family or friends, rediscover yourself, or take a break from regular routines and away from distractions. Nevertheless, it is one of those outdoor activities that could spark that adventurous spirit within you.

You may be wondering, “What are the best places to camp near me?” One of the greatest things about traveling around the U.S. and Canada is that from coast to coast there’s no shortage of beautiful places to camp. Nature lovers can enjoy fresh air, glorious mountains, and clear lakes and streams during a weekend (or longer) camping trip.

Not only can you set up an RV or tent at these picturesque locations, but they also come with plenty of picnic areas, hiking trails, and ample opportunities for fishing, swimming, and other outdoor activities. From scenic forests in New Hampshire to peaceful beaches in Florida and majestic Rocky Mountains in Alberta, there amazing places to camp in the U.S. and Canada.

For more on camping, check out my other posts:

Exploring Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Explore a state park

If you are interested in the outdoors, being active, or exploring something new, or the combination of all three, perhaps it’s time to take your day exploring the nearest state park. Whether you are looking to explore the mountains, woodlands, or prairies, hike, mountain bike, or horse ride there’s a state park for you. 

From my many articles on state parks here are a few to get you started:

Birdwatching at Bisque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Go Birdwatching

You could go birding right now—this very moment—no matter who you are, where you are, or what stuff you do or don’t own. The most important thing—and really the only thing—you must have as a birder is yourself and your awareness.

There are certain tools that you’re going to want to enhance the experience although the list is short. You don’t need to start out birding by splurging on binoculars that run well above $2,000. Quality binoculars for birding cost between $100 and $400. You’ll also need a bird book (it can be an app as well) and a good amount of patience. You can also connect with any local birders in your area for tips and more.

Here’s more on birding:

9. Float down a river

For super-adventurous folks, whitewater rafting may make the list of ideal outdoor activities. But for people seeking chill time on the water, a gentle river float may be just the ticket. And don’t forget to grab life jackets and tie a whole bunch of inner tubes together and then float on them down a river.  

Rivers are trails. They invite a visitor to put in and travel a distance to a destination or simply float to another landing upstream or downstream. 

The National Water Trails System is a network of water trails open to the public to explore and enjoy. National Water Trails are a sub-set of the National Recreation Trails Program. National Water Trails have been established to protect and restore America’s rivers, shorelines, and waterways; conserve natural areas along waterways, and increase access to outdoor recreation on shorelines and waterways. The Trails are a distinctive national network of exemplary water trails that are cooperatively supported and sustained.

I have an entire article on river trails. You can read it at National Fishing and Boating Week: Exploring National Water Trails

You’re bringing sunscreen, right? Okay, good. Just checking! Additionally, you should bring a hat. And although you may feel tempted to leave your shirt back in the car, take it. At some point, you may want to cover up.

Canoeing Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Go Kayaking

Kayaking, as well as canoeing, is a physical outdoor activity you can do in any type of space with water, from a river to the sea. It’s a great way to exercise and improve your body’s strength, all the while being a low impact activity that can offer a whole lot of peace of mind. 

Kayaking can be a great way to get out on the water whether for a leisurely morning paddle or a more rigorous overnight adventure. When kayaking, it’s good to have clothing that you can easily move around in, dries quickly, and will help protect you from the sun. Since you’ll likely be getting wet, you want to stay away from anything cotton which will leave you dripping and soggy all day (and could cause chafing).

Zip line in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Go Ziplining

No outdoor activity bucket list is complete without zip lining included on it! This is an extreme sport where you are attached to cords that zip you from one tree to the next. It has grown so popular over the years it seems to be possible to do just about anywhere! And while it can get your nerves on overdrive before setting off, it’s usually totally safe to do.

Fishing Parker Canyon Lake, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Go fishing

Another outdoor recreation idea is fishing. Regardless of whether you catch anything, it can be a fun and relaxing experience. There’s something about just being out there in nature and the feel of the cold water rushing by you and the sound of the river. Fishing can also be a great way to find a sliver of solitude especially if you go in the early morning when few other folks are out. 

Hiking Thumb Butte Trail, Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Hike a new trail

Each season of the year offers something different for your hiking experiences from the nature around you to the trails that are best to be taken. Hiking offers amazing landscapes with the flowers and the returning greenery! This is your sign to hike a trail you’ve never tried before.

Check these out to learn more:

14. Journal

Journaling allows you to express your innermost feelings and ideas without fear of being criticized or seen by others. It may also assist you in better organizing and comprehending those items. It’s similar to maintaining a diary, except with more freedom. You are free to write (or even draw) whatever you like, so just scribble down any thoughts or emotions as they occur to you!

15. Take a bike ride

Biking is such a great outdoor activity, no wonder it’s so popular. Not only can the bike actually take you to the same places you might otherwise go by public transportation or a car but it’ll keep you fit as you do so. On top of which you might also get some great scenery to enjoy during your bike ride!

For many people, bicycling never stops and continues right into their 80s and 90s and has been an intricate part of their entire life.

Horseback riding Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Go horseback riding

Whether it’s a forested trail or along the beach, horseback riding is another amazing way to enjoy time outdoors and in nature. Horseback riding has an inherent relaxing effect. According to Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, Rheta D. Connor, “The natural rhythm of the horse aids in circulation and relaxation while gently exercising and massaging the rider’s joints, muscles and spine”. These physical motions bring about feelings of relaxation naturally without any thought on behalf of the rider.

Wildlife World Zoo, Litchfield Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Visit a zoo

What is your earliest recollection of going to the zoo? It’s likely that you were on a field trip with your class or your family, being fascinated by the many different creatures that make the place their home.

From thrilling encounters with lions to petting rabbits to holding a snake and more, a trip to the local zoo is an entertaining, educational experience for people of all ages.

Sunset Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Watch a sunrise or sunset

Whether you’re catching it from a mountain top, the beach, or someplace else, sunsets and sunrises are the days at their most beautiful. So find a spot from where you can clearly see it, preferably against nature’s beautiful backdrop, and perhaps bring along a picnic basket and a mat to fully immerse in enjoying the sight.

Worth Pondering…

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is a society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more

—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Camping Activities Guide

Fun things to do while camping

It doesn’t matter how you camp—in a tent or an RV. Camping is an opportunity for serious fun and activities. Moreover, it’s an experience that you can customize for your family’s interests based on the season and where you’re camping.

You don’t have to pack to the hilt to stay entertained. In fact, there are plenty of simple activities for your next family vacation by the lake or in the mountains. 

Here’s my super RVing with Rex Checklist of Camping Activities.

Fishing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Water-based activities

There are tons of exciting things you can do in the water if your campsite is near a lake, seashore, river, pool, or other body of water. Some are very active; others are for lazy relaxing days. Slip on your bathing suit and have some fun in the water—here’s how:

  • Fishing
  • Swimming
  • Floating or lounging
  • Canoeing or kayaking
  • Boating
  • Water skiing
  • Tubing
  • Water volleyball or basketball
  • Diving
  • Snorkeling
  • Water balloon fight
Hiking is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Sports-related activities

Not all camping and RV resorts have a full list of amenities. If you’re rustic camping in the wild or you’re somewhere with limited amenities—or maybe just want some more variety—here are some great ideas to stay active with your family:

  • Disc golf (Frisbee golf)
  • Horseshoes
  • Ringtoss
  • Corn Hole
  • Lawn bowling
  • Soccer
  • Football
  • Kickball
  • Baseball
  • Biking
  • Hiking
  • Nature walks
  • Spelunking/caving (make sure you have an experienced guide with you)
  • Capture the Flag
  • Hide and Seek
  • Tag (there are dozens of variations)
  • Red Rover
Combining photography with birdwatching © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Nature-related activities

Part of the joy of camping is being closer to nature. Explore the great outdoors more with these activities. Be sure to respect the area where you are. Don’t disturb or damage the wildlife.

  • Birding (bird watching)
  • Animal watching
  • Photography
  • Sketching
  • Catching fireflies
  • Collecting leaves
  • Cataloging rocks
  • Fossil hunting
  • Exploring
  • Search for wild berries, nuts, and other edible plants
  • Watch the sunrise/sunset
  • Camping scavenger hunt
  • Geocaching
Canoeing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Winding down activities

Staying active and enjoying the day is an important part of every camping trip. But you also need to embrace the down time and give your mind and body a rest. Camping to relax and get away from daily stress? Here are some great ways to relax and enjoy the family camping trip:

  • Swing in a hammock
  • Watch the trees blowing in the breeze
  • Listen to nature
  • Take lots of naps
  • Daydream and let your mind wander
  • Float on the water
  • Stargaze
Fishing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Downtime activities

Maybe the kids need some downtime in the tent. Or perhaps someone isn’t feeling well. There could be some unexpected weather that is keeping you indoors.  Of course, you could just be relaxing under the protection of your tent to escape the bugs. There are plenty of things you can do inside the tent or RV either alone or with friends and family:

  • Read books and magazines
  • Read aloud to each other
  • Card games
  • Board games
  • Crafting (knitting, sewing, drawing)
  • Watch movies on portable devices
  • Play on other electronic devices (iPods, iPads, Gameboys, etc.)
  • Make up stories to tell each other
  • Snuggle
Enjoying nature is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Evening activities

The camping trip doesn’t end when the sun sets. A whole slew of activities become available when evening comes and dark settles on the campground. The darkness is a thrilling time while family camping because you’re not dealing with the lights and commotion of the city. Check out these awesome evening activities:

  • Sit around the campfire
  • Sing campfire songs
  • Play a guitar or other instrument
  • Dance around the fire
  • Try out new varieties of s’mores
  • Make colored fire (packages of colored fire crystals or pine cones are sold at many camping supply stores)
  • Make shadow puppets
  • Go for a nighttime walk (with a flashlight, of course)
  • Stargaze
  • Play flashlight tag
  • Play hide and seek in the dark
  • Go for a midnight swim
  • Play glow in the dark bowling. Put glow sticks in 2-liter bottles filled with water. Use a ball to knock them down.
  • Tell ghost stories
  • Play Truth or Dare

Now that you have great ideas for things to do while camping, it’s time to get out there and try them.

Enjoying nature while camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related Posts:

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Everything You Need for Lake Camping

Summer is prime camping season but if you don’t pick the right destination you may find yourself sweltering in the heat instead of enjoying yourself. That’s why camping near the water is key!

Lake life is where it’s at. Camping near a lake allows for playing at the beach, going fishing, boating, canoeing, or stand-up paddle boarding. Being by the water not only gives you plenty of things to do but also triggers a sense of calm and joy. I love hearing the sound of birds calling or waves hitting the shoreline. And there’s nothing better than ending a beautiful day of RVing with an even more beautiful sunset over the lake.

To prepare for a week of RVing at the lake, there are a few essentials to check off the list to make sure you have a great time while lake camping.

Boating on Lake Okeechobee, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Book early

Waterfront campsites are among the most popular spots at campgrounds. Be sure to book your lake campsite far in advance if you want to guarantee a spot for your RV. Be sure to hit the refresh button often and check for last-minute cancellations at campgrounds. 

Screen room at Poche’s RV Park near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shoo, bugs!

Where there is water, there are typically pesky insects—especially when temperatures heat up. It’s the unfortunate part of camping near a lake or in the woods. It is hard to truly enjoy the outdoors when you’re constantly swatting away unwanted insects. Mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks are among your worst enemies so come prepared with you anti-insect weapons of choice: bug spray with DEET, permethrin-treated clothes, Thermacell, and a screen room.

Related Article: 6 Scenic Lakes for Camping in the Southwest

Lake Wawasee in northern Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bug spray: Look for a spray with 25 to 50 percent DEET. Spray every couple of hours especially if you’re using repellent that isn’t waterproof. After a day on the water, douse yourself in bug spray before coming back to the campsite.

Permethrin: Treat your clothing with permethrin a few days before your camping trip for best results. The treatment usually lasts up to five or six washes. The best part is that after you treat your clothes there’s no odor or sticky residue that bug spray often leaves behind. 

Lake Martin near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thermacell: Create your own little forcefield of protection around your campsite by using a Thermacell or two. It works wonders for any outdoor area whether it’s the dock, beach, campsite, or the park. Thermacells run off a butane cartridge which heats up a replaceable mat that’s saturated in a repellent called allethrin which releases into the air to create a protection zone. 

Screened room at Poche’s RV Park near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Screened room: A screened room is an easy way to create an outdoor space that’s bug-free. It’s basically a large tent with screen walls so that you can still see and feel the outdoors while keeping unwanted pests away. It does take up space so ensure you have room for one when booking a campsite. 

Related Article: 14 of the Most Beautiful Lakes for RV Travel

Fishing at Parker Canyon Lake in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reel in your next big catch

If you’re camping by a lake, be sure to pack your fishing gear. In fact, many RVers choose lake campsites because they want to fish. It’s a great way to spend time outdoors alone or with friends and family. Consider keeping an extra travel rod in the RV in case you forget to pack the fishing gear or end up breaking a rod.

Fishing at Lynx Lake near Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Telescopic rods are perfect for RVers. The telescope in and out so that they can be a full-sized rod but also collapse to fit inside a backpack for portability. Be sure to have a ready-to-go tackle box filled with a variety of lures including spinners, jigs, bare hooks, crankbaits, spoons, and bobbers. And be sure to swing by the bait shop for minnows, leeches, nightcrawlers, or grubs depending on what you’re fishing for.

If you plan to catch and cook, then be sure to pack a sharp filet knife, cutting board, and your favorite dry batter. If you keep these fish fry essentials in your RV pantry at all times there will be fewer things you need to remember to pack.

Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Safety first with life jackets

When it comes to spending time on the water, safety is always first. If you plan to boat, kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddle board, a life jacket should always be worn or at least on board.

If you don’t like the bulk of life jackets, there are lower profile vests as well as inflatable vests that inflate upon immersion in water or manually inflate when you pull the inflation handle.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay safe in the sun

While soaking up the sun and having fun, it’s easy to forget about sun protection. Before heading out onto the lake, plan ahead and lather on your sunscreen. A day on the water usually means stronger sun rays due to reflection from the water.

Related Article: 10 Best Campgrounds with Lakes

Lake Mead, Nevada

UV rays can even impact your skin even when swimming in a lake as the rays penetrate through the water. Look for a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and apply it often.

If you’re not vigilant about putting on sunscreen, there are plenty of athletic and outdoor apparel brands with built-in UPF 50+ sun protective clothing. The material is lightweight and breathable while protecting your body from sun exposure.

Lake George, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And don’t forget to protect your noggin and peepers by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. A hat can not only be stylish but also helps block the sun from burning our scalp and ears. Eyes also need protection from sun exposure too. Look for sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection.

Boating (and fishing) on Lynx Lake near Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get on the water without towing a boat

No lake getaway is complete without a way of getting on the water. When towing isn’t an option because you’re already hauling an RV, there are still other ways to bring a boat with you to the lake. You can paddle around on a lake in a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddle board. It allows you to fish and explore different areas of the lake that you otherwise can’t experience.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many kayaks can fit through the door of most RVs. Wrap your kayak in a blanket before sliding it in to avoid scuffing up cabinets and walls.

Most toy haulers are perfectly suited for hauling all your water sports equipment. Kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddle boards will easily slide through the ramp door opening. Canoes tend to be longer than kayaks, especially if it’s a tandem, so be sure to measure your canoe before attempting to make it fit in your RV. Another advantage of a toy hauler is that they have hooks on the floor to secure any objects while on the move.

Canoe on a roof rack goes where you go © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to be able to take your kayak to a lake that isn’t within walking distance, you’ll want a roof rack for your toad/tow vehicle. Again, you’ll want to take note of the length of your kayak and how far forward you can secure it onto your roof rack so that there is enough clearance between your RV and kayak when making turns. 

If you don’t want to deal with hauling a kayak or canoe, look into the wide variety of inflatable boats that are available today. From kayaks to stand-up paddle boards, floating docks, and regular tube floats—there are many durable and versatile options to get on the water.

Many inflatable kayaks come in a kit with a carrying case for storage and portability and a manual pump so that you can pump them up anywhere. Since it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to fully inflate, consider an electric pump.

Fish Lake, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beach Party Essentials

A day at the lake may put you in the mood for a beach party or at least the atmosphere that feels like a beach party.

Related Article: 7 Serene Arizona Lakes for Water-related Activities

Must-pack essentials that make your lake day feel more like a party may include:

  • Folding beach wagon to carry all your items for a day at the beach
  • Beach bag to carry additional essentials
  • Sand-free beach towels as a way to mark your home base on the beach and to dry off after a dip in the lake
  • Portable beach chairs that you can place on the shallow shoreline to cool off your toes (ideally one with a cup holder)
  • Cooler to keep your food and drinks perfectly chilled throughout the day (throw in some freeze pops for a summer treat and also to keep items cold)
  • Umbrella or portable beach shade to protect little ones and grownups from the sun
  • Waterproof Bluetooth speaker to blast some Beach Boys or other lake-vibe tunes
  • Beach games like volleyball, water frisbee, water pickle, and velcro ball toss 
Quail Gate State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake camping comes with some preparation work but packing the essentials and planning ahead will help you enjoy your RV getaway even more. After that, relax! You’re on lake time.

Worth Pondering…

It is good to appreciate that life is now. Whatever it offers, little or much, life is now—this day—this hour.

—Charles Macomb Flandrau