Packing the car: camping supplies


We’ve been car camping for about 6 years now, and we’ve put a lot of thought into what we should bring camping. We prefer to keep it as simple as possible, and since we drive a small Toyota Corolla space is an issue. Here’s what we have narrowed it down to, but we’re continually reevaluating and modifying as needed. One thing about kids… your needs are always changing depending on their ages! (Keep in mind we are car camping, usually at a state park with bathrooms available – if you are backpacking then your priorities will be different, of course!)

Camping Gear

TENTWhen it was just the two of us, we used an inexpensive tent that we bought at Walmart and we loved it. It was so easy to set up. But, it was a little small for more than two people plus stuff.
Our new tent

Now we have a big Kelty tent. It has some cool features – tall enough to stand in the middle of the tent, a vestibule (front porch). It also is complicated to set up, though not impossible. We’ll probably be tent-shopping in the next few years – look for future posts about that.
Our tent

FOOTPRINT/TARPTo protect the floor of your tent and extend its lifetime, it’s important to put something in between the tent and the ground. We have a footprint for our big tent that actually buckles into place so it doesn’t move. For the smaller tent, we just use a tarp, which works just as well. Just make sure that whatever you use is smaller than the tent itself – you don’t want water to collect and go underneath the tent if it rains or mists heavily. If your tarp is too big, just fold it back to make it the right size.

MALLET AND HATCHETThe mallet for pounding in stakes; ours also has a hook on the other end of the handle, useful for removing the stakes. The hatchet is good for firewood.
Mallet & hatchet

SLEEPING BAGSWe turn our sleeping bags into a double bed by zipping them together – you can do this if the sleeping bags unzip all the way. Our 3 year old has her own sleeping bag, and our baby sleeps in the double sleeping bag with us. Right now, we’re in the process of figuring out the best sleeping pad. We liked the self-inflating ones we rented from REI, but they’re a little pricey to buy. Some people use an air mattress. For pillows, we have smaller camping pillows that can roll smaller into a little bag (to save space).
Inside our tent

BLANKETSIt’s always a good idea to have a few throw blankets; sometimes temperatures can dip down, especially in the spring or fall.

WHISK BROOM AND DUST PANFor cleaning out the tent before packing it away.
Broom and dust pan

WELCOME MATUseful for wiping off feet before entering the tent; it keeps the tent cleaner and we also leave our shoes there. We made it from a piece of discarded carpet.

LIGHTINGWe have a variety of lighting devices. Camping with kids has a different spin in that it’s not “every man for himself”. So, we are starting to focus on more larger-range lamps and less on single-person lamps. We have a big family-sized LED one that we like, and we’ll probably get a second one before our next trip.

We also have headlamps that we use for walking around outside the campsite. We have one per person, including for the children – this is important. We have found that our 3 year old LOVES having her own headlamp, and she WILL steal ours if we’re not careful. 😉 So we bought her a cheap one (that only has on/off) and we have nicer ones with more settings.

Eating and Food Prep

CAMP STOVEWe have a double-burner Coleman camp stove that we love. Don’t forget to bring extra fuel. Also important is to bring matches and/or a lighter.
Making lunch

COOKWAREBecause of our space issues, we like to invest in compact camping cookware. We used to have a small set that fed two people, and actually recently upgraded to the GSI Outdoors Bugaboo Camper set. It’s kinda amazing – two pots with lids that have strainers built in, a frying pan, 4 insulated mugs with lids, 4 bowls, and 4 plates that all condense into one handy-dandy carrying case that doubles as a sink.

DISHES AND UTENSILSAs part of our cookware set, we have 4 plates/cups/bowls. We also bring 2 other plates that were our original camping dishes before we got that set – extra plates come in handy for food prep. For utensils, we have “sporks” by Light My Fire. These are fork, spoon, and knife all rolled into one piece. They come in a lot of bright colors, which my daughter loves (she’s really obsessed with green).

TOASTING STICKSToasting sticks are useful for marshmallows and hot dogs. I like having these collapsible sticks dedicated to the purpose – I’m not really one to use a stick I picked off the ground!

PICNIC BASKET AND COOLERWe got a picnic basket for our wedding that we use to transport all our dry goods and food. We use a soft-sided cooler for anything that needs to be kept cold. We love that this is smaller than the hard-sided one, and it has two openings which makes food organization simpler.
Picnic basket

TABLECLOTHBecause campsite tables aren’t always the cleanest! One that is plastic will be easier to wipe off.
Picnic table

DRINKSI like to buy a case of bottled water because it’s easy to grab. I also bring those Crystal Light drink packets which have enough powder mix for a bottle of water. This is great because you can just bring water and each person can then decide how to flavor it. Don’t forget to bring a sippy cup if they’re not old enough to drink from a regular cup or water bottle.

FOODThe subject of camp food goes beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll briefly summarize. We like simple, easy-to-fix meals that take as few ingredients as possible and can be cooked either on a camp stove or over a fire. We also bring along snacks to munch on during the day.

Miscellaneous Items

BUCKET AND MISC. ITEMSBuckets are useful to have around for carrying water and doing dishes. For transportation, I fill it with a paper towel roll, a box of ziploc bags, aluminum foil, and a box of garbage bags. I’ve found each are good things to have around! I also keep a sponge, dish soap, and dish towel in here for washing dishes. And finally, a few plastic grocery bags for things like dirty diapers.

CAMPING CHAIRSWe bring folding camping chairs – one per person. (If you’re camping in a big group, I highly recommend bringing an extra chair. When our daughter was 2, we had a small child-sized chair that actually was a booster seat. However, she can easily get into the adult-sized chairs now and the small one is a little too low to the ground for her.
From the door of the tent

ROPE/TARPRopes are useful for making clothes lines, putting up tarps, and other things. We’ve camped in the rain enough that we invested in a heavy duty tarp after the other one we had ripped (see picture below).
Our campsite

BUG REPELLENT AND SUNSCREENBugs can be a major problem while camping. Avoid scented perfumes and soaps that might attract them. My preliminary research shows that out in the woods, “natural” bug repellant doesn’t work very well, so we use the regular stuff and try to use it sparingly. We always bathe everyone before crawling into bed to avoid getting bug spray in the sleeping bags. As for sunscreen, rash guards and hats are the best defense against the sun. Look into where you’ll be camping to see if you’ll need sunscreen for swimming, hiking, or just being in the sun at the campsite.

FIRST AID KITYou can put one together yourself, but we bought one at REI that we like. You may also want to consider having rubbing alcohol for tick removal – we had trouble with that when we would camp with our dog.
First aid

Personal Gear

CLOTHES, SHOESLayers are the way to go while camping because the daytime can be hot while the nighttimes chilly. I bring shoes for hiking and sandals for easy removal when around the campsite. I try not to bring anything that I don’t mind getting dirty – especially for kids’ clothes. I also include a plastic bag for dirty clothes.

TOILETRIESWe try to keep toiletries simple. Avoid scented things that might attract bugs. I do usually bring shampoo/conditioner needed for a shower – they are essential for washing off dirty but happy little bodies and also removing bug spray at the end of the day. On cold days, a warm shower can really help.

TOWELSYou’ll probably want a regular bath towel (one per person), and perhaps a hand towel and/or washcloth depending on what you normally use. (Remember: keep it simple!) Also, if you’ll be swimming you may want a separate beach towel. I like having a dish towel as well.

BABY CARRIER – If you have a little one, a baby carrier is a must! I want to do a future post expanding on the different kinds, but we use ours for both when we’re hiking and when we’re trying to get things done around the campsite (like setting up the tent). I have an Ergo, and can wear both my baby and my preschooler. (The second picture was taken just a few weeks ago at age 3.5!) Baby carriers can be a must if you have a child who likes to bolt. (Another idea to contain a small child is a stroller.)
Savannah takes a nap
Not too big to wear!

ACTIVITIESWhat you bring for activities will depend on what is offered at the campground. We tend to find the hottest part of the day and the evenings right before bedtime are when we have down time. I like to bring along my camping guidebook for reference and notes. I also like to make sure I have a deck of cards, and as our kids get older I want to include family games. You’ll want to think through what kinds of toys your kids might want along. During our last trip, we brought a reusable shopping bag with books, coloring books and crayons, and miscellaneous toys. (I wouldn’t necessarily recommend crayons if the weather is going to be hot, though!) The toys were for inside the tent only – very useful for when she woke up extra early and we weren’t ready to crawl out from our sleeping bags yet.
Toys for camping

CAMERATo capture the memories! Make sure the battery is charged and you have your memory card.

That’s a basic rundown of what we pack in our car, but that doesn’t mean these are the only things you need for camping. Everyone has their own personal requirements for a happy camping trip, and it will depend on your needs, the ages of your kids, and your destination. I hope to go into depth about my favorite items in the future, but this should be a good basic list to get you started.


9 thoughts on “Packing the car: camping supplies

  1. Pingback: Camping gear: cast iron pie irons | Tents and Trails

  2. This is awesome. The pictures are great. I am having trouble getting all my gear in the back of our truck for a family of 5. LOL.

  3. Great list for the car campers out there. A large rubbermade bin is great for storing your dry food and keeping it organized and out of the rain. It also makes it easier to put in the car at night to help avoid tempting the animals.

    As for tarps – even the heaviest duty ones will rip in strong enough winds. If the corner grommets tear off, just wrap a small stone in and then you can tie the rope around the stone. Hoisting the entire tarp over a main ridgeline has also become my family’s tried and true method. It takes the bulk of the weight which helps prevent tearing. It also gets the tarp up into the air before tying off the corners so you can easily position it as you like. It’s usually better for drainage too, eliminating the low spots that collect huge lakes of water that like to dump on your head.

    During the day, fold up those extra throw blankets into long cushions for the picnic table. It’ll keep them warm and cozy.

  4. I have a larger heavy duty rubbermaid tote that I designate my camp box. All the cooking stuff, trashbags, first aid kit, etc that you take on every single campout stays in the box. Duck tape a laminated list to the outside to make packing it easier. A lot of your packing is eliminated because you just put the box in the trunk.

  5. Hello! I found your blog while searching for tips on how to pack a car for camping. Do you have a picture of how all of this fits in your car? I have a hard time getting everything in my suv and I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s