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What to take. What to expect. Camping with kids takes work.
Want to go camping with your whole family? Never taken your child before? It can certainly seem like a daunting task. Camping with kids does take quite a bit of work to prepare, but it can make for one of the most memorable getaways that you take with them. In this guide, we’ll cover what you should do to prepare, and what you can expect on your trip.
This guide will be focused on car camping - you pull up to a camping spot and set up your gear right near your car. While backpacking and hauling your gear into a more remote location is a lot of fun, we don’t recommend it as your starting point for camping with kids. You can use many of the tips from this guide for such a trip, but make your first trip something a bit simpler. Having your car close by can be a lifesaver.
What do I need for camping with kids?
A crib, a sleeper, and lots of ear plugs. That ought to do you. More seriously though, you can get by with very little for camping with kids or you can take more. We try to take an approach down the middle, and we will cover the absolute essential items as well as a few nice to haves. If your kids are older, then some of these items simply won’t be as important as others.
These are items that you need regardless of whether you’re going camping with kids or not. They are really the bare minimum that you should take with you to be able to sleep in the great outdoors.
- Tent. You don’t need anything special, especially for car camping. You need something that will set up and down easily, and that will keep you dry. A basic 6 person tent should be more than enough space for 3 people. If you need something bigger, then go for it.
- Sleeping bags. You’re going to need something to keep you warm at night. The climate of where you’ll be camping will determine exactly what you want, but in general, something that’s rated down to about 30 degrees should be plenty warm for most people. Take an extra blanket in case it gets too cold for you.
- Sleeping pads. While not absolutely necessary for camping, going without a sleeping pad can lead to a very uncomfortable night. This is the case especially for you as a parent. Kids will generally be able to sleep better on the hard ground, but you’ll probably have a harder time. We love these sleeping pads from Klymit that get really small but are super comfortable.
- Flashlight. Make sure you have a reliable flashlight along with an extra pair of batteries. You don’t want to have to get up in the middle of the night only to find you left your flashlight on the night before.
- Bug spray and sunscreen. Don’t forget these items. Bug spray will keep those pesky mosquitoes away to some degree - you don’t want to get all eaten up by them. Sunscreen is a must as you’ll invariably be out in the sun. Getting burned up while camping is also not fun as you don’t generally have other remedies to help soothe your burns afterwards.
- Fire lighter. Don’t forget matches or a fire lighter to get your fires started. Trying to hit two rocks together just isn’t going to do it.
- Paper products. Plates, bowls, paper towels and utensils. All of these items are needed to be able to eat. Make sure you have enough for your entire trip.
First aid kit
You should have a first aid kit in your car, but have an extra one for camping as well. There are so many ways that you can get cut and hurt and simply need a little cleanup. Make sure there are plenty of band-aids for all the little scrapes and cuts that the kids will invariably get. Since you’re car camping, any more serious injuries can be taken in the car if you need. Have a basic but decent kit though as you’ll be far enough away from real help that you’ll want to have the supplies if you need them.
Do not forget baby wipes. If you’ve got diapers to change, then you’ll obviously need them for that. They can be used to clean up so many other messes. We like to bring an entire package of wipes for every 2 days that we’ll be camping. While we don’t generally go through them all, it’s definitely a must have.
Extra pair of clothes
Make sure you have an extra pair of clothes beyond what you’re planning to wear. You never know when your kid might throw up or you might fall into some mud or water. The same goes for your kids as well - include an extra pair of socks and change of clothes for them. They love to make and get into things that are messy. You can always put dirty clothes back on as well if you need to if you run out of clothes. Have an extra pair of clothes just in case.
This is one of those items that isn’t absolutely necessary, but is really nice to have. You can sit on the ground or find a rock or stump for sitting on, but a basic camping chair simply makes sitting by the fire at night so much more enjoyable. You don’t need anything fancy, just something that you can sit down in and relax after a long day of chasing around your kids.
Buying a camping stove isn’t a must unless you’re going to be cooking several big meals - they are nice to have for longer trips that you’ll be taking. If you’ll be cooking, then make sure you have a spatula and any other utensils you’ll need for cooking - using plastic utensils doesn’t work very well.
You will certainly need some type of cooler to keep your food in though - you don’t need anything crazy expensive, just something to keep your food from spoiling before you eat it.
What food should we eat while camping?
Eat foods that you normally eat at home. Don’t try a bunch of new foods while you’re out camping if you can avoid it. Getting the runs while outdoors simply isn’t that much fun - something that is more likely to occur with foods you don’t normally eat. Stick to things that you’re used to at home as much as possible.
If you’re going camping for a single night, then your food choices will generally be a little bit easier. If you’re going for multiple nights, then you’ll likely want to make sure you have something to actually cook on as your meals will get pretty bland otherwise. Plan your food accordingly for the tools you have, and how long you’ll be there. You’re likely going to want a cooler no matter what, but whether you have a stove or not is a different story.
Cereal and Pop Tarts are probably some of the easiest options. While not the healthiest, they are quite easy to just pull out in the morning when you likely haven’t slept that well the night before. You’ll need milk for your cereal, because you can’t eat them dry as that would be an abomination.
Pancakes are another simple option if you have something to cook on. Pre-mixed pancake mix that simply needs water added can be done with very minimal mess and cleanup.
Eggs, Bacon, sausage, and other tasty breakfast foods are really delicious when camping, but also a lot of work. If your kids don’t like these items, it’s probably not worth the hassle of trying to make them while camping. Cooking over a direct fire is also a lot of work if you’ve never done it, so if you don’t have a camp stove, then skip these items.
Lunch and Dinner
Hot dogs roasted over the fire are super easy. All you need are roasting sticks (you can make your own from a stick as well if you need) and you’re good. Buns, mustard, and ketchup and you’ve got a super basic meal. Kids generally love to hold things over a fire, so hot dogs are a great choice if they will eat them.
Sandwiches are another really easy meal that don’t require much prep, and don’t require really any cooking. Simply have your bread and all your condiments and items to put on the sandwich ready to go. Whether you’re doing peanut butter sandwiches or meat sandwiches, you’ll just need something to spread the toppings around with and you’re good to go.
Spaghetti is one of our favorite meals that we eat while camping. Pre-cook everything at home, mix the sauce and spaghetti noodles together, put it in a plastic zip-loc bag, and you’ve got a super easy meal while camping. You can certainly warm it up if you’d like, but you don’t have to. Pre-cooking food when possible makes eating meals at camping much simpler to accomplish.
S’mores are generally a must. Make sure you have a bag of marshmallows, some graham crackers, and chocolate. Don’t forget these items if you and/or your kids expect to have s’mores on your trip as it can lead to everyone being upset when you’re missing an item.
Trail mix is a really simple and tasty treat. You can make your own trail mix, or simply buy a pre-mixed variety. There are all kinds of options when buying a premade variety. Obviously, make sure that you’re not buying anything that you or your family has allergies to. If you’re unsure about allergies for your kids, then skip the trail mix as there are generally a lot of different nut varieties.
If you like dried meats, then jerky is also a great snack to have - it’s healthy and will keep your mouth engaged for awhile. It’s one of the few protein based snacks that our kids actually enjoy. There are plenty of different varieties, so find a variety you like before you’re already out in the wild.
Fruits are also a great choice to take as well. Apples, oranges, and bananas are all simple to put in with your stuff and can be pulled out when hungry. Any other snacks you eat at home are also totally fine. Fruit snacks, crackers, and other items that don’t require being kept cool are great.
What should I expect from camping with kids?
We’re not going to lie and say that it’ll be easy. Camping with kids, like most any trip or adventure with kids, is going to take a lot of work. Especially in preparing, setting up, and taking things down. However, a camping trip may be one of the things that your kids talk about for many weeks after you return home, and want to get back out there. While you can expect a lot of work, you should also expect to make some unforgettable memories as well.
Do not expect to sleep very well at night. If your kids sleep through the night while camping, then you’ve made it. Invariably they will be up throughout the night, and you’ll also likely be waking up. Part of camping is that sleeping is kind of non-existent as part of it. If your kids are good sleepers at home, then they should sleep fine while camping, but don’t be surprised if they wake you up a few times throughout the night.
Expect to work hard while camping. You’ll be setting up tents and places to sleep while also trying to make meals work while you’re out camping. You’re not going to simply sit and relax your entire trip by the fire. That doesn’t mean you won’t relax, but do expect to put in some good work as well.
Plan to sit and rest by the fire or under the trees while camping. Get off of your feet when you can and let your child explore some of nature. It’s totally fine for you to sit and rest while your child looks for another rock or bug as long as you can see them or they’re with another responsible adult. You don’t need to be a helicopter parent while camping - kids are going to get dirty and a few bumps and bruises. If there’s water close by, then make sure you watch them closely in those cases, but let them explore and have fun.
Wear your kids out during the day as much as you can - go hiking and exploring. The best way for your kids to sleep through the night is for them to be very active throughout the day. You’ll be tired at the end of the day, but it’s absolutely worth it when you lay down to sleep and everyone sleeps through the night for the most part.
If your child usually takes a nap at home, don’t expect that to happen. Kids can and will take naps while camping, but it’s not a guarantee that they will. Depending on how much they sleep at home for their naps, cut that in half. There’s just so much going on and so much excitement that it’s hard for them to calm down for a nap. Plan to try to nap with them as well - it’s the only way you’ll likely get them to sleep.
Camping can be a ton of fun, but also a lot of work with kids. Go in prepared for your camping trip to make it the best experience possible for everyone. Enjoy, and have a blast. You’ll relax when you get home.