We all love camping, right? You know, that feeling of escaping town a few hours early on Friday, car packed, windows down, while the moist, green warmth of spring blows your favorite music through your adventure sled. Whether you’re headed out riding, climbing or just blissing by a river–for a weekend or a month–this is the stuff that makes us tick and brings meaning to our lives.

Then, for some of us, kids come along. We do it with the lofty plans of sharing  this with them, hoping with all our hearts that they enjoy it as much as we do. Fortunately, there is but one thing you must do to turn your budding adventurers into the rad kids you’ve been dreaming of: keep the outdoors fun. Seriously, that’s it; kid’s love fun things. As easy as that sounds, the little ones are occasionally going to make it feel more like a Sisyphean task than garden variety parenting.

To overcome the challenges ahead, you’ll need to be prepared, particularly when it comes to gear.  We all forget things to be sure, but the more you forget, the harder it can be to maintain the fun. So, in the spirit of keeping the fun alive on your next trip, here are some hard-won pointers on family camping essentials to pack for vehicle-based family adventures great and small.

view of family around campfire from tent

Start With A List

Never underestimate the importance of a packing list. We struggled creating one, but once we settled on a consistent road trip vehicle and knew what fit, we dialed one in. Packing became infinitely easier and forgetting stuff, far less likely.

We made a spreadsheet with tabs for Car Camping and Backpacking, broken out into sub-categories that made sense to us, like “Kitchen”, “Camp”, “Sleep” and “Fun Stuff/Etc.” the latter with more activity-specific things like climbing gear or float tubes, depending on the trip. The list will evolve nearly every time you use it, but that’s the beauty of it. It will reflect your most recent learnings, what your kids like best at that moment in time and, ultimately, what you need to keep things fun.

campers playing uno

Take Care of Yourself

The second most important thing to pack is your stuff, including group gear. It’s ok–and helpful–to be obsessive here. On a trip with friends, a missing tent pole could create a comical solution that everyone just dealt with. Not so much with kids. Depending on what you forget and how it’s handled, it can be anything from “no big deal” to completely destabilizing.

I also suggest planning for some extra comfort in general. Worrying about a small human is a lot of work, so being a little decadent offers a nice balance to the mental gymnastics of child rearing outdoors. It’s also universally true that with any activity you want your kid to love, you’ve simply got to make it enjoyable for them. You might not mind a little suffering, and kids can handle far more than most give them credit for, but having a place that feels safe and warm to retreat to, especially for the littlest ones, will go a long way to helping them feel confident outdoors.

The Essentials – Family Camping Checklist

When you first arrive, kids are just happy to be out of the car and will busy themselves pretty easily while checking out their new environs. (We’ve found that shutting down screens well before arriving helps this transition immensely.) For some kids, this can be short-lived so keeping them busy and not screaming for a screen is, quite simply, your biggest challenge. This is where the kid-specific stuff really starts to matter.

getting beverages out of tent gear vestibule

Outdoor Blankets/Carpets
A camp rug is not only decadent for adults, it’s an invaluable thing for an infant and a nice touch for everyone else. Something large that you can lay down in the dirt without worry gives you some rest from constantly pulling things out of Billy’s mouth and a place for Betty to play with her toys without making a massive mess. If space is at a premium, an Argo Blanket packs small, is durable enough (and machine-washable!) for a little one to crawl around on, and pulls double duty as a warm layer for the tent, car ride or evening campfire.

Endless fun, especially for two. Buy a quality one that can take some abuse because most kids see these primarily as swings, not a place to chill out. One per kid is a nice goal as these become coveted hang-out spots once they get tired. We’ve even seen spontaneous naps happen and books read, all due to a hammock hanging nearby. They’re magical.

kids in ponchos around campfire

Folding chairs, while really nice and require no set-up, often take up too much space to make them rational. If you have the room, I recommend these amazing chairs because they fold totally flat and are also table-height for meals. We still bring them on weekends. However, on longer road trips where space is tight, we find that the collapsible kind with poles and fabric that you assemble, provide as much comfort at a fraction of the size. They are typically lower as well, making them better for kids. We had durability issues with any chair designed specifically for kids, so don’t get sucked into the marketing hype and just buy a proper seat that you can enjoy for years.

making food at camp in poncho

A table will save you many a spilled meal with kids. Trust me on that one. I’d definitely save the space for other gear if I was going somewhere with a picnic table, but otherwise, this table from Kovea is, hands down, the most useful one we’ve found. It folds small, requires no assembly, works at multiple heights (dinner and coffee table) and is just pretty piece of engineering that is the perfect blend of aesthetics and utility.

laying in tent with family while camping

If you’re sleeping in a tent, get a big tent. And I don’t mean a cheap one. Buy one nice tent rather than three cheap ones as they constantly let you down. You’ll likely save money in the long run if you use it a lot and the lack of frustration is worth its weight in gold. The Habitude tents from MSR should be your measuring stick for what makes a solid, functional family camping tent. Being able to stand inside–something we would have scoffed at pre-kids–is now on our mandatory list for car camping tents. As is quality. The lesser ones will leak, collapse in wind and the cheap zippers, poles, floors and stitching won’t last.

packing up camping gear in car

Whatever hassle and expense bringing bikes or a bike trailer may bring, it is totally worth it. We have never regretted bringing bikes and they are standard fare for any kind of car-based camping trip with kids – even if you only bring kid’s bikes. They provide an autonomy kids relish and allow you to go out and explore without having to pack up camp. If you pull into camp and take the bikes off the rack, most kids will be off exploring (and having fun) instantly.

playing games at campA tennis ball turned this wall into “Wall Ball” with rules and scoring my son invented that kept us busy for days.

In-Camp Activities

There are a million things you could bring to keep boredom at bay while in camp and certainly each of us are different, but here’s a quick list of things that we’ve appreciated over the years:

Shovel and a Bucket
Or even just a bucket to collect things in. Most kids will know what to do, but giving assignments “How many different pinecones (or leaves) can you find?”, or challenging them to see how many bottle caps they can find can teach and make them stewards, respectively.

Binoculars, Magnifying Glass, Bug/Fish Net
Nature is great, but it’s even cooler when you can see it up close.

Flora and Fauna Field Guides
These help make the previous idea more interesting and educational for everyone.

Things to Throw/Kick
A tennis ball, frisbee, soccer ball, etc. Intuitive perhaps, but we’ve forgotten them before! Add them to your list or, better yet, stash one in your vehicle permanently.

These are kind of bulky to pack but can be a focal point of attention with older kids and are great exercise to boot.

Scavenger Hunts
These can be a fantastic thing to save the day if you’ve forgotten something, or you can be intentional about them and make lists ahead of time. Either way, they work reliably wherever you are.

Hiking – The Trail Fairy
I recently asked my now-teenage daughter what I should include in this post and she said this was possibly her favorite memory of all. The Trail Fairy rewards good little hikers with Skittles (or some other small indulgence) on the occasional rock or tree stump, motivating them, spurring their imagination and empowering them to hike previously unheard-of distances. Make up your own benevolent forest character and have a ball.

kids drying off dog with packtowl at camp

Swimming – Something That Floats
Yes, swimming is fun, but not nearly as fun as having something that floats along. At some point we decided to stop buying a new float tube on every trip and finally started packing one. You just never know. Water shoes will also make your life easier, protecting little feet from all manner of things. And of course, bring PackTowl’s for everyone.

campsite at night

Camp Nights

Yes, of course, but be sure each kid has one too. You’ll have to constantly remind them not to look at you with them on, but they’ll get the hang of it and fall down a lot less.

These can be hard to pack and easy to forget, so keep it simple with compact games like Farkle or Quiddler and Uno. If you forget a game, Farkle is great because it can be played with any six dice (available at most gas station) and the simple directions downloaded on your phone.

camp smores and wine

Kids love things “especially for camping” and s’mores seem to still be the winner. We do fire-free s’mores these days, using graham crackers, Nutella and Marshmallow Fluff. Regardless of fire danger, we’re set.

child roasting marshmellow around campfire

Being Camp Cozy
After a big day, there’s little more satisfying for adults and kids like getting extra warm and cozy on a cool night. For hanging outside by a fire or just around the table, the Honcho Poncho Down is hard to beat. It’s like the warm blanket you want, without worrying about it falling off. I will warn you though, having only one around is like walking onto an island of castaways with only one water bottle.

family sleeping in tent on camping trip

First, what would a night camping be without a big, cushy mattress in the tent for the kids to bounce on? We recently switched to the MondoKing 3D and, though our kids no longer bounce on their sleeping pads, it was a game changer for us adults. I can also say with confidence that they are bounce-worthy for the smaller kids and built to handle that kid level of abuse.

And finally, we found quilts to be far more comfortable and intuitive for kids (and adults) than sleeping bags, largely because most “kids” sleeping bags are, quite honestly, kind of lousy. Their stuffed with cheap, heavy synthetic fill that takes up a ton of space, the temperature ratings are inconsistent at best, and kids tend to overheat in them, so you unzip them anyway. We’ve found the Corus quilts work spring through fall. They’re amazingly comfortable, warm and the kids will never outgrow them. Oh, and do not forget pillows.

Again, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but the top-of-mind things that we have used to keep our kids happy in the outdoors. Please share your ideas in the comments so we can all help each other give the gift of the outdoors to our kids while selfishly retaining our own wandering ways, even after kids!

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