Are your kids begging you to go camping but the idea of sleeping on a hard floor or with loads of unfamiliar gear seem daunting? Let me help you get more comfortable with family camping for beginners! The basics, tips for meal ideas, fail-proof things to do when you are tent camping with kids – the whole deal!
PLUS I designed a printable checklist for tent camping at the bottom of this post to help you stay organized and have everything you need for camping with kids! Want to do a practice night or two? Check out our tips for camping in your backyard first!
If you google “family camping” or “tent camping with kids”, you’ll find an outstanding overwhelming amount of ideas – everything from special tents for dogs to luxury glamping with wine coolers – none of which you are looking for probably if you’re camping with kids!
Although you may worry about keeping your kids “busy” while camping, generally kids are easily entertained in nature once they realize they have nothing else (ie – electronics) to distract them! Let me help with that worry right now. Aside from hiking, fishing, finding new friends to play with at the campground, geocaching, biking, etc., below are some simple outdoor games for kids to play while camping.
Simple Outdoor Games to Play While Camping:
- hide & seek
- scavenger hunts
- tic tac toe (with rocks & sticks!)
- bring a frisbee, ball, etc.
What to Bring While Camping with Kids:
So what do you actually need in order to go camping? All you REALLY need is a tent, sleeping bags, toiletries (toothbrush?!) – and some food if you are not planning on going out. But in reality you’ll have much more than that. At the bottom of this post I’ve got a printable checklist for camping that will help guide you while packing.
Camping is one of those great things where you can bring very little, or you can bring more than a house full! You could literally spend more money buying camping gear than going on a vacation if that’s your thing! Camping gear will depend on the age of your kids, your budget, length of stay, and how comfortable or “roughing” it you want to be!
Let’s talk about each “section” of camping gear you will want to consider.
For some reason tent styles is one the biggest hang-ups I had before camping! I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a tent that we wouldn’t like since we were on a tight budget. You can choose to buy a cheap tent for a trip or two and then upgrade if you like camping, or buy it right the first time!
Below are some things to consider when purchasing a tent for camping.
- Size – how many does it need to fit? (read reviews to see how many ACTUALLY fit!)
- Extra space – do you NEED an extra “room” or “porch” to be comfortable
- How long does it take to set up?
- Reviews – ALWAYS check the reviews!
- Cost – determine your budget first!
- Kids vs. Adult tents (best for tweens/teens+)
There are A-frame tents, octagon tents, multiple room tents, individual tents, pop up tents, rooftop tents for your vehicle, etc. We personally have these AMAZING Coleman pop up tents for when we want a quick set up or are moving around frequently (they take under 5 seconds to set up – literally!) and we use a big 8 person tent for the 5 of us when we want extra space to move around. The pop up tents is what we took on our 9000 mile road trip.
*NOTE – when you see “INSTANT” labeled on a tent it does NOT usually mean instant!!! It can range from 60 seconds to 20 minutes! Make sure you read the description AND reviews carefully!
*TIP – No matter what style tent you buy, set it up at home FIRST to learn how to use it! While it’s up ALWAYS first coat it with a waterproof sealer so if it rains when you’re camping your tent won’t leak! Pay special attention to crevices and corners.
*TIP – ALWAYS lay a tarp down UNDERNEATH your tent first! This will help it stay cleaner when it rains and give you an additional waterproof barrier inside!
- Temperatures you will be sleeping in.
- Comfort vs. Need (aka – sleeping bags vs. air mattresses – see more below)
- Electric pumps or hand-pumps?
- Flooring under your tent (rocks, cement, grass/dirt, etc.)
AH – the age old question – am I too old to sleep on the floor? Do I need an air mattress to go camping? What about those cots? This is completely personal preference! It can also depend on your space as well. We started with just sleeping bags on the floor. It’s quickest and cheapest and requires less space for packing. You can try a layer or two of comforters or yoga mats underneath your sleeping bag to help pad it out – but again, space and cost are the issue here.
Now that we’ve camped well over 10,000 miles worth, we decided to upgrade to inflatable air mattresses to use when we have our large tent. They are certainly a luxury item but they’re awfully nice! The BIGGEST thing to note here is that there are hand pumps and electric pumps.
Electric pumps: For electric pumps (my personal preference) you’ll obviously need electricity which isn’t always available while camping. You can buy a converter that you hook into your car too – just be mindful of draining your car battery! (yep, done that before too!)
Hand pumps: Hand pumps are easy to bring but a pain in the butt when you’re hand pumping 4 air mattresses every night!!! Hand pumps are my extreme last resort – I’d almost rather just sleep on the floor! Even with kids helping, this is quite the ordeal for multiple mattress set ups if you’re moving around every night to various campgrounds.
Food & Kitchen Gear:
Kitchen gear and food can vary wildly depending on your comfort and budget! From going out to eat for every meal, to cooking all meals over the fire pit, to springing for some awesome portable gas grills – there are so many options here to try out and see what you prefer!
Our very first camping trip was pretty meager when it came to kitchen supplies. We literally ate canned everything and cold hot dogs. We quickly realized that we definitely do not prefer that! So our first real camping investment was a nice portable grill.
Pros vs. Cons of Cooking over the Campfire:
- Campfires are AWESOME when camping!!
- Food takes longer to cook and needs to be monitored.
- Cast iron cookware can be expensive and HEAVY to pack.
- Firewood can add up in cost for every meal.
- Tough to cook and light a fire when it’s raining.
Pros vs. Cons of Using Portable Grills:
- Initial cost for the grill and continuing costs for propane tanks (about $6/small tanks).
- Packing space for grills & tanks.
- High wind can make it hard to keep your grill lit.
- Not always ideal in rainy weather or bad storms.
- Grill must stay cleaned in order to pack it in the car around everything else! (foil helps!)
Pros vs. Cons of Eating Out:
- Not as budget friendly.
- Restaurants may not be close by or open when you want to eat.
- You miss out on the camping experience!
- GREAT option for bad weather days when you can’t cook!
- Less food to pack = more space in the car!
We have never regretted bringing a well-packed cooler (or two!), especially when needing cold drinks! In fact we pre-freeze items that we won’t need for a day or two so that not only will the food last longer but it will also aid in keeping our cooler colder!
Typically when we are camping we bring TWO coolers. A small snack sized cooler that goes in between the seats in the front for road trip lunches and drinks, and then a large cooler that holds all of our “camping” meals and main food items which we bury under everything till we get to the campsite.
We have this Coleman Camping Grill for most trips and this portable camping bottle top for when space is an issue. I do have and love my double electric hot plate as well but only works if you have electric hook ups. It’s a little clunky to pack so we don’t bring it as often.
- shampoo, conditioner, body wash
- toothbrush & toothpaste
- shower bag
- flip flops
Above is the basic run down for our toiletries! It seems like a lot but it covers all of the basics. I do recommend a shower bag of some sort, that way you can hand your child the bag to head to the showers. It also allows them to hang their bag on a hook and not set it on a wet dirty floor. (We had too many times where we couldn’t juggle all the bottles with our clothes and dropped everything!)
I also HIGHLY recommend a pair of flip flops in your shower gear for each person – just a cheap $1 pair will do! Some of the showers you’ll come across are not nearly as clean as you might light them to be!
Lastly, let’s talk towels! They are the bane of my existence when we go camping because they take up SO MUCH ROOM! We ended up splurging on some nice microfiber camping towels that are paper thin but get the job done because they don’t take up much room AND they dry quickly which is a HUGE benefit! You can buy them on Amazon. (They’re also easy to hand wash and dry if needed on long trips.)
(See below how I organize our toiletries when we go camping!)
Clothing and Shoes:
I debated adding this in here but here are a few things I would have liked to known before my first camping trip.
- ALWAYS bring empty garbage bags – at least 6-10. Not only can these be used for holding trash in the car while snacking on the road AND for trash at the campground, but it is PERFECT for wet muddy clothes, toys, etc. It’s also good for covering dirty spatulas or tools you don’t have time or ability to clean.
- Have a second pair of shoes for EVERYONE! In fact on occasion we have 3 pairs each – which sounds overly excessive but hear me out. Everyone gets a cheap pair of flip flops to wear in the showers (trust me!), we each have a pair of water shoes we are comfortable using in rocky lakes (sometimes its just the shower flip flops!), and everyone has a good pair of hiking shoes. Many times our hiking shoes get wet in the rain or our feet are wet at the beach and we don’t want to put them in our hiking shoes!
- Buy a mesh laundry bag for dirty clothes. On our first camping trip we quickly realized as we were taking dirty clothes off that we had no place to put them!! It was a funny mess because we had to end up just throwing them loosely in the car and they were falling out everywhere. Now we know better and have a simple mesh bag that all dirty clothes get thrown into. We just hang it on a hook in the car or over the back seat headrest so everyone knows where it is.
- Plastic storage containers vs. cardboard boxes
- Drawers vs. duffel bags / luggage
Clothes – When we camp we have a pretty easy organization system that we keep the SAME for every single camping trip! My husband and I share a duffel bag and each kid gets their own small bag for their clothes to keep track of. It stays at the head of their sleeping area in the tent (when we bring the big tent).
Toiletries – For toiletries I have a “girl” bag and a “boy” bag since we typically can’t ALL share the same bathroom at the campgrounds. The boys have their own toothbrushes, shampoo, deodorant etc. and the girls have their own bag. That way when we go to the bathrooms we can just grab one bag per bathroom and share.
Kitchen gear and cooking stuff – ALL food and kitchen related items go into one plastic storage container! This includes lighters for the fire, paper plates/napkins/silverware, food, cooking utensils, propane tanks, etc. If it revolves around meal time it goes in this bucket!
TIP – Sometimes we use the “cardboard box” method. I pack all of our snacks and kitchen gear in cardboard boxes, and then as we go through our trip we use the cardboard to help start fires and shift down the space in the car so the kids have more room.
Fun Stuff & Extras:
Here are some simple fun “extras” you might consider if you’d like to stay well stocked and prepared for your upcoming camping trip. Consider:
- empty ziploc bags for leftovers, rocks/shells, keeping electronics dry, etc.
- blank notebooks for pressing flowers or journaling adventures
- mess-free art supplies
- magnetic games, travel toys, dress up, balls/frisbees, etc.
- small hand-held electronics that do NOT need internet/network
- kid-friendly camera for documenting their experience
- one small backpack for each child to fill to keep them busy
Emergencies & Safety:
Although this is listed last it’s ESSENTIAL whenever you’re camping – even if you are near hospitals and doctors!! You can see a full list in our printable camping checklist below but at the VERY least we always have a first aid kit with anti-itch cream, band-aids and gauze, antibacterial wipes, neosporin, water jugs, a pocket knife, Life Straw, whistle, and a compass.
PRINT CAMPING CHECKLIST HERE:
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