There are a plethora of things you can do before taking your kids camping to maximize your chances of a successful trip. You can choose a campsite that's relatively close to home, invite other families (read: other kids to entertain your own kids), and bring a solid supply of junk food, to name a few strategies.
The key to ensuring a successful camping experience is right in your backyard. I'm talking about the backyard camp out. If you want to see if your crew is ready for real camping, backyard camping is the only way to go. The benefits of a low-stakes test run (or two or three) are plentiful.
If someone is crying in your backyard, the only ones losing sleep are you and perhaps your neighbors. At a campground on the other hand, your kid's wailing multiplies your stress by however many campsites are within earshot. You can multiply that number by about a million or so if any of your fellow campers are drunk and/or belligerent.
It may be annoying to bring a miserable kid back into the house just when you've finally found a comfortable sleeping position, but it's downright harrowing to flee your tent in the middle of the night with only your crying baby, your wallet, and your headlamp as the rowdy guys in the adjacent campsite rapidly and loudly lose patience with your crying kiddo. (I speak from experience.)
Backyard camping means reveling in the pleasures of camping without the stress of all the packing. If someone's teething, the Tylenol (or Ibuprofen, homeopathic tablets, whiskey – no judgment) is in easy grabbing distance. Too cold? No problem, just run to the linen closet and grab a blanket or ten. Forget to charge your Kindle? Not to worry, the pile of magazines you've been meaning to read since the birth of your first child is in a neat stack just a few steps from your tent. Bonus: You're not shoving your partner awake to bug them about where the hell they stashed the teething remedy/extra blanket/emergency reading material, or whisper-yelling at them because they forgot to pack it.
Pro tips for the ultimate backyard camping adventure:
Include at least one adult who is thrilled about camping
I'm talking Birthday/Christmas/Hanukkah/Last day of school/Going to Target Alone levels of excitement. Though the effectiveness of trickle down-economics is sketchy at best, trickle down excitement is totally a thing (until your kids hit puberty). Additionally, if one adult in the family is trying really hard to enjoy camping but can't help occasionally dropping a snarky comment about how little sense it makes to sleep in a tent when beds are so comfortable, the excitement level of the adult who loves camping will result in a positive net excitement factor. (My husband and I may or may not demonstrate such a dynamic.)
Let your kids anticipate the event
As soon as it is reasonable, tell them about the backyard camping adventure so they can start getting excited, count down the days, ask you if you're camping today, ask you if you're camping tomorrow, and ask, “how much longer till we go camping?" Just how much notice you give will be a function of how well your children understand time and how much pestering your nerves can withstand. Whether you give them a week or an hour to wrap their minds around the idea is up to you – what matters is that there's time for their excitement to build.
Get your kids invested in the process
Let them pack their own backpacks. How much supervision they'll need will depend on their age and will vary from kid to kid. By doing this, you're giving them agency in a situation where the negative consequences of a mistake are practically non-existent. Let them pack whatever jammies they want, a favorite stuffed animal or two, and a few books. If they're old enough, give them a flashlight or a headlamp of their own. Speaking of flashlights, do not give your toddler a Mag Lite. Even if that's the only available flashlight, even if she generally a gentle, loving child, and even if you haven't yet fed her any sugar. (My husband may or may not have inspired this tip.)
Eat something delicious outside
Sure, you can practically see your kitchen table from your tent, but the kitchen table is boring. Half the fun of a backyard camp out is the novelty. Roast marshmallows or make s'mores together over your fire pit or your grill. If you have the strength to bring your kids to the grocery store, let them pick their favorite treat and let them eat it sitting on a picnic blanket or a camp chair under the stars. Yes, giving kids sugar right before bedtime is ridiculous, but some might argue that sleeping on the ground when you could be snuggled into your very own bed, just 20 feet away, is ridiculous too.
Most of parenting is reacting to random, unexpected situations on the fly. Sleeping in a tent may not be luxurious, but having the opportunity to prepare for it is nothing short of decadent.