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!)
TENT – When 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.
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.
FOOTPRINT/TARP – To 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 HATCHET – The 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.
SLEEPING BAGS – We 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).
BLANKETS – It’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 PAN – For cleaning out the tent before packing it away.
WELCOME MAT – Useful 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.
LIGHTING – We 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 STOVE – We 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.
COOKWARE – Because 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 UTENSILS – As 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 STICKS – Toasting 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 COOLER – We 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.
TABLECLOTH – Because campsite tables aren’t always the cleanest! One that is plastic will be easier to wipe off.
DRINKS – I 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.
FOOD – The 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.
BUCKET AND MISC. ITEMS – Buckets 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 CHAIRS – We 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.
ROPE/TARP – Ropes 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).
BUG REPELLENT AND SUNSCREEN – Bugs 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 KIT – You 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.
CLOTHES, SHOES – Layers 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.
TOILETRIES – We 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.
TOWELS – You’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.)
ACTIVITIES – What 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.
CAMERA – To 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.