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Our Experience Family Camping in a NYC Park

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Our Experience Spending the Night at Alley Pond Park

When I applied for the NYC Parks’ ‘Family Camping with the Urban Park Rangers‘ event it was the day before the lottery was closing. Yep, you begin the process by creating a City of New York account (because this is NYC and everything operates on some sort of lottery system). Being that family slots are allocated on lottery system you do need to make note of the dates that you can apply and then check your e-mail and/or account after the lottery has closed to see if you were selected. There’s also a waitlist, so you there’s still a chance to be selected closer to the camp date, we received our confirmation less than 72 hours before the Family Camping event.

So yeah, if you live in NYC and want to go camping without leaving the confines of the five boroughs, you have this great FREE option. Here’s our experience and a few helpful tips of you consider taking advantage of this great program. Remember, this is a family event and intended for ‘families’ with children.

Selecting Our Camping Location: Alley Pond Park in Queens

Seeing as though we applied at the end of the season Alley Pond Park, which borders Long Island, was the only camping option available. If you’re like me, you don’t usually venture to the far off edges of boroughs you don’t live in. I figured there was nothing to lose and applied. 

In the end I’m glad that we were selected for this site. Alley Pond Park is a large, 650+ acre playground of sorts. As an intro to the city camping experience (we actually love camping) this location was a mix of city and nature/traditional camping. I’d definitely recommend this site to anyone looking for a spacious park filled with lots to do. We camped in the Adventure Course area of the park, which we likely would have not known about had it not been for this camping experience. Our staging area, where we built our tents (which are provided by the NYC Parks Dept.), was large enough to give each tent enough personal space while also being close enough to hear someone scream if a racoon rustled against their tent. 

The site had restrooms nearby that we were able to use in the evening. The facilities were well kept and had enough toilets and sinks for everyone dashing to use the bathroom before our twilight hike. You can use the picnic tables near the tents to enjoy a snack before or after setting up your tent. There was a water cooler available as well.

In the future I plan to apply for a camping slot at other sites. It’s worth noting that the further you get away from Manhattan (and the throngs of people looking to spend the night in Central Park), the higher probability you have if being selected. You can find NYC Parks camping events in all five boroughs from early June to mid-October. Seriously, mark your calendars for camping dates and hopefully you get to enjoy this opportunity with your family while it’s still available.

May the odds be ever in your favor. 

What's Included & What to Pack

I believe some locations may still include dinner or at least a BBQ, but don’t expect it. You should eat before you arrive or pack a meal that doesn’t need to be reheated. You can expect access to fresh drinking water and s’mores as far as sustenance, but not much else.

If nothing else, consider packing a thermos filled with a warm drink, soup or some fresh juice. Remember you can’t run to the bodega or ask UberEats to wander through the park if someone gets hungry. We packed more than enough food and I feel like it’s easier to eat before you get to the campsite and brings some snacks for the evening and the following morning.

Each family is given a battery powered light (we didn’t know we were supposed to get one, so be sure to ask for one) for your tent. There’s nowhere to charge your phone, you’re in a city park! Pack a flashlight so you don’t need to drain your phone’s battery and can actually charge devices while you sleep.

As far as sleeping, you will receive a tent for your family. There are tents that can fit 2-4 people comfortably (by camping standards). We were given a four person tent that was perfect for the three of us. You need to pack your own bedding, sleeping bags and pillows are not provided. You can’t go wrong with a sleeping pad and they have a molded pillow so that’s one less thing to pack. Whatever you do, don’t pack a full air mattress, it’s not that serious. Beside a sleeping pad (this will give you a more comfortable sleep) you should bring a few blankets or get a  double sleeping bag if you want a more campy feel.

Closed toe shoes and long sleeves/pants for an evening hike.

A Recap of Our Night Camping at the Park

So boom, we’re on the bus heading towards the eastern border of Queens, somewhere I don’t think any of us have been before. We opted for the bus over driving because ‘why not.’ Actually thinking back to our trip (yes, going from one borough to another is a trip), we had plans to visit MOMA PS 1 for opening weekend of the Rirkrit Tiravanija exhibit (which you have to check out if you are around). Back to the bus. We got off at the stop Google Maps told us to and began our trek to the designated meeting location. 

We arrived, got checked in and are handed a tent. This process was very simple and straightforward. I believe the number or spots varies per date and campsite, but ours was limited to 10 families, three of whom did not attend. In total there were about 20 campers. The families that attended were lovely and while it wasn’t the full on campground neighborhood experience, no one was rude or off putting. Rangers were available to help setup tents if you have never built a tent before.

Since we hadn’t eaten before, we got our tent up quickly and then made our way to one of the tables to fill our bellies while our food was still warm. Icebreaker activities began shortly after we finished eating. I made salah and made my way over to the group, the kids had already joined in. With everyone a little warmed up the kids scoured the area for the best walking sticks and we followed our lead park ranger into the ‘forest.’

The hike was great for kids and adults alike. We learned about the park, the animals and plants that inhabit the area. There was even a fun activity halfway through that challenged our visual perception. The hike lasted about 45 min, but the trails were not challenging, I believe the smaller children were about 2 years old. We were greeted by a lovely campfire upon return and the walking sticks were soon replaced with marshmallow roasting twigs. The rangers told camp stories and we sang songs. It sounds cheesy, but it was reminiscent of camping scenes you see in movies.

Somewhere between 10:30-11pm  families began heading to bed, but we had other plans. We packed a telescope that we borrowed from our local library. Our plan was to stargaze and catch a glimpse at Jupiter, which made an appearance. Unfortunately the clouds took the main stage and we only caught a few looks at the stars hidden in the background. 

Once back in our tent, in typical NY fashion a small group decided to rev their engines and make some noise in the middle of the night, but the NYPD sent them on their way. They weren’t near us

The park doubles as a morning meetup for dogs. The kids were more excited to play with every dog within a stones throw. After we took down our tent and returned it we were headed back to our picnic table from yesterday and enjoyed some fruit before heading to the next stop on our tour of Queens. We left with more than memories, we had a unique experience that we can learn from. 

Is Family Camping For You?

For the most part, camping in general is for everyone, but you’ve got to keep in mind that there are different styles of camping.

Keep in mind this program is intended for families with children, so let’s not take away from them by applying if you don’t actually have a child (under the age of 18). While that is really the only disqualifier, there are a few other types of people that may prefer camping in their living room.

If you can’t put down your electronics for a few hours, this may not be the experience for you. The family camping is a great way to disconnect from our devices for a short time. On that note, if you are hoping for a Governors Island glamping experience then you might be better off making reservations there if you want to ‘camp’ within the city, but need a hot shower and comfy bed.

Lastly, if you or someone in your family needs major physical accommodations this may not be the experience for you. While each campsite is different, you may need to walk across terrain that isn’t easily accessible by a paved walkway. This is not to say that you shouldn’t apply, but the evening hikes tend to be on unpaved trails that may prove to be difficult to people with mobility issues.

Final Thoughts

I almost feel like I’m sealing the fate of this program by even mentioning this, but this free event is the embodiment of NYC of decades past. You trusted people even though you had never seen them a day in your life. I REALLY want to look back 10 years from now and be proven wrong, but I feel like someone is going to ruin this magical experience for the rest of us. Ya’ll, please don’t.

Respect this unique experience and allow it to flourish and hopefully grow for years to come. With everything going on in the world, little things like a night out with complete strangers is something that can be embraced. While it seems like a simple experience, this can be a profound experience that can be the catalyst that can shift the way we think, share and connect; both young and old.

We’re looking forward to the 2024 lottery and are counting down the days until we are setting up our little tent in another NYC park.

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