Our family took our first camping trip together last year. Long story short, it was amazing and we all couldn’t wait for the next camping trip. But that doesn’t mean everything went as we’d expected – in fact, we learned quite a few lessons by taking our first family camping trip.
If you’ve never been camping with kids before, don’t be intimidated to start! In this post, I’ll walk you through some things you should know about camping with kids, including what to pack, what to eat, and how to make the experience fun for everyone (yes, including YOU mom/dad!)
I’ve also got a great Camping Scavenger Hunt Printable you can download for free. It’ll give your kids something to do in the car and while they’re winding down to go to sleep in the tent.
I added some extra check boxes so you can add in some items specific to your location, for example: Your state bird, local plants such as cactus or birch, lizards, or landmarks.
Feel free to share it with your friends. 🙂
And now, some things I learned after our first camping trip…
Lesson 1: Go Easy The First Time
Our plan was for us to spend two nights, tent camping. To make things harder for ourselves, we chose a “primitive campsite” – with no access to running water and we weren’t allowed to make a fire.
Now, the primitive campsite stuff wasn’t so bad. It was nice not to be close to anyone else, we felt like we had the whole forest to ourselves, which was nice. But it did mean that my husband and I had to fill our backpacks with about a gallon each of extra water. We figured we could re-stock after the first night.
Water is heavy…. had we chosen a less primitive campsite, we wouldn’t have needed to hike all those extra pounds of water to our site.
I also feel like without being able to make a campfire, we missed out on some of the fun. Who doesn’t remember the fun of roasting marshmallows or hotdogs over a bonfire when they were kids?
It’s a mini-bummer that we weren’t allowed to have a fire, although I respect the park’s reasons for not allowing it (not only the forest fire risk but depletion of the natural environment for firewood). Next time we go, I’ll look for a less primitive site where we can focus more on our own family fun.
Lesson 2: Use The Right Kind of Gear… For The Right Time Of Year
Since we were planning all this in December and didn’t want to have to wait too long, we decided to book it for the end of May. At that time of year, it’d be plenty hot during the day, and cool at night.
By cool we estimated 70 degrees. So we bought sleeping bags that were rated for as low as 70 degrees.
In the middle of the first night, I woke up completely chilled to the bones. My head felt like a block of ice! Turns out the temperature sank to about 50 degrees that night. Fun.
Thankfully my kids slept through the night (we had brought their winter polar fleece pajamas), but my husband and I were shivering all night.
In the morning we agreed to go home on Day 2 instead of spending another night freezing our butts off in the forest.
So I recommend getting sleeping bags that are rated for colder temperatures than you anticipate. Down sleeping bags are lightweight and warm. I would definitely use those if I go camping in the springtime again.
Lesson 3: Take Lots of VIDEOS!
Photos are great – we took a lot of photos of our camping trip, and we love looking at them.
But nothing brings back our camping memories like watching the videos we took. The videos captured the mood accurately – parents relaxing and taking in the sounds of a small stream, kids excitement at all the small bugs they find, everyone laughing and chatting happily.
I love re-watching our camping videos and I’d definitely take more videos next time we go. We don’t usually take a lot of videos of ourselves together, so the ones of us having fun on vacation are particularly special to me.
Lesson 4: Plan As Far In Advance As Possible
There are a few good reasons why you should plan a camping trip as far ahead of time as you can.
One of the main reasons is that camping has become more popular over the years and there are only a limited number of campsites. When we booked our first campsite reservation, the soonest we could go was 6 months off.
Most national parks have an online reservation system where you can see the availability for all the park’s campsites.
So if there’s a particular place you’d like to go camping, be sure to check on the park’s website well in advance.
Another reason you should plan ahead is that you may need to invest in some camping gear. While camping is a relatively inexpensive activity, the initial investment in outdoor gear can be expensive.
We spent about $400 investing in our camping gear, since we were total newbies and didn’t own anything yet. The $400 included our tent, sleeping bags for 4 people, 2 adult backpacks, a lightweight cooking pot and portable stove, and some smaller items like insect repellent, a little hand shovel, snacks, and park fees.
Since we had about 6 months to plan and shop before the trip, it wasn’t too hard on us financially. I think $400 is on the cheap side for an initial camping gear investment.
Camping With Kids Checklist
Here are some basic packing lists for camping with kids. I’ve linked to some recommended products that are budget-friendly or that make life easier. If you have a WalMart or FleetFarm (or Farm and Fleet, etc) nearby, I’d check there for camping gear since the price is usually better than Amazon.
I’ve had good luck using AliExpress for camping gear, but you need to order well in advance of your trip since it can take anywhere from 2-4 weeks for shipments to arrive from China.
Gear Checklist for Car Camping / Walk-In Campsite
Why waste precious family time assembling tent parts when you can literally just pop a tent out and be done with it? I’m eyeing this well-reviewed Coleman pop up tent for our future trips.
A utility cart or wagon can help take the load off your shoulders when setting up your campsite. Gorilla Carts makes excellent, high-quality carts with all-terrain wheels suitable for toting camping gear through grass, sand, rocks, etc.
You and your family should be warm and cozy in your sleeping bags, not cold and shivery! Go for a cold-weather bag like these inexpensive Coleman sleeping bags that are also soft and roomy.
Inflatable sleeping pad
You definitely don’t want to go camping without some kind of mattress pad. Who wants to feel those sharp little rocks poking through their sleeping bag as they try to fall asleep at night? An inflatable sleeping pad like this one makes a lot of difference in your comfort.
Folding camp chairs
These chairs are super comfy without adding a ton of bulk. They’re an essential for sitting around a campfire. Even if your campsite has picnic tables, these chairs are much more comfortable and make it easy to relax and unwind.
Kids will feel cozy in their own kid-sized folding chairs like these adorable bug ones.
Flannel-backed table cloth
If your campsite has a picnic table, covering it with a table cloth can make your kids feel a little more comfortable.
Gear Checklist for Primitive Camping / Hike-In Campsite
My kids got these nice little Quechua backpacks from my sister. She already had one herself and had remarked on how it can hold a lot of stuff while being quite small. They’re the perfect size for my kids, who don’t need to carry a ton of gear but like to have small things like their flashlights, water bottles, and camping journals with them.
Lightweight Tee-Pee Tent
We chose a tee-pee style tent like this one since it’s light, easy to set up, and doesn’t need any pole pieces. It’s just big enough for two adults sleeping in the middle, and two small kids on either side. You will need a set of trekking poles for the center support.
LED lights that hang like a light bulb are perfect for keeping your campsite illuminated after dark. We use ones that are similar to these and they were great for not only camping, but for when we lost power while we were hosting guests. They give a lot of light and have a long battery life. Lifesaver!
Ultra-light down sleeping bags
Pocket stove & butane tank
We got one of these small folding stoves that screw on to the top of a butane tank. I loved how light and small it is – truly pocket size.
Titanium Camping Pot
A small titanium pot can be used to boil water that you can then use for making hot coffee or tea, oatmeal, ramen, etc.
Thin Foam Sleeping Pad
I ordered a sheet of this thin yet dense foam as our sleeping pad. It cost less than $15 for a full sheet large enough to sleep our whole family, compared to these $18 single-person pieces.
We used an old Christmas tablecloth similar to this one with flannel backing as a lightweight picnic blanket when we went camping. It worked perfectly as a place for us to sit while we ate.
If you go camping in a place without any restrooms or outhouses, you’ll have to bring your own little “poop kit” consisting of a small hand shovel, TP, hand sanitizer, and plastic bags (preferably the zip-lock type).
Camping With Kids – Conclusion
In order to get the most out of your family camping trip, I definitely suggest to plan ahead as much as you can. Make sure that you choose a time of year that will be comfortable enough if you’ll be sleeping overnight in a tent. And of course make sure everyone has warm enough sleeping bags and pajamas!
There’s no shame in doing things the “easy way” the first few times you go camping, too. Especially if your kids are younger, need a lot of supervision. When they get older, they’ll be able to contribute a lot more in terms of setting up the campsite, making meals, taking care of their own needs and helping clean up afterwards.
Even though our first camping trip wasn’t exactly ideal, we all walked out of it feeling very refreshed. It was great for us all to get away from our typical life for a bit and get to experience a totally new environment.
We have more family camping trips planned for this summer – actually, we’ll be spending a week cabin camping in Finland, and the kids are already getting pumped up about the idea of getting to pick unlimited amounts of blueberries.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter HOW you go camping. Or what gear you use. Or how long you go for. The main thing is to become closer as a family, enjoy the beauty of nature, learn to work together, and HAVE FUN! 🙂