Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. I may receive a small commission from these links, but it doesn't cost you any extra. All opinions are my own and I wouldn't recommend a product I wouldn't use myself.
In honor of National Camping Month, I'll be rolling out a short series: So You Wanna Be a Camper? where I break down tips for tent camping with your kids (although these can be applied to any car-camping situation). Expect tips from where to sleep to how to cook and offer plenty of other tips for you and your family to have a stress-free camping trip.
So you wanna be a camper, huh? Well you're in the right place. Maybe you're a novice? Maybe you've never been camping but want to make family memories around the campfire? Maybe you loved camping and then stopped once you had kids? Maybe you've tried it a few times and have found it too complicated/stressful/dirty/etc. I get it. We've been there.
Before we had Weston, Dennis and I were avid campers. Of course we swore our recreational activities wouldn't change when we had a kid, but lets face it, adding a small child into the mix can make even the most simplest tasks seem daunting.
So you wanna be a camper? The first step is getting together the right gear. So the first installment in this series is CAMPING ESSENTIALS! The first time we went camping with Weston he was around one. We still had our backpacking tent made for two, so we stayed in Dennis's parents trailer and I hated it! We had a pack-n-play, but Weston hated that thing, so he slept on a mattress on the floor with us. I put him down to bed around 7 but I couldn't hear or see him when we were outside so that made me nervous. Also, he rolled off the mattress all the time and was crawling and just starting to get into things, so I was terrified that he would try to walk down the stairs and fall or get into something in the trailer (nothing was baby proofed) so I ended up just going to bed with him every night at 7 pm and I was miserable! I kept thinking that if we had brought our tent, at least I'd know he was safe, I'd be able to hear him if he cried, and he wouldn't be able to get into anything so I could just relax and hang out by the fire with everyone else!
After that trip we looked into buying a family tent. We settled on the REI Kingdom 4 which is large enough for 4 people and all their gear. It fits us, Weston, our dog, and our stuff. There is even a partition in the middle should you want to separate sleeping areas! We've used it ever since!
Over the past few years, we've been taking stock of our camping supplies, updating some things, getting rid of others, figuring out exactly what we need and what we don't. Trying to make the trips as easy and organized as possible. And you know what? You don't really need that much stuff to go camping! Kids pretty much entertain themselves with sticks, rocks, and bugs and hiking trails are not always stroller friendly. So we've forgone most of the kid toys, strollers, pack-n-plays, etc. and have really just concentrated on making it an awesome stress-free experience with a box of supplies, sleeping gear, day packs, and a cooler or two for food and beer in tow.
To help you get started getting your camping supplies together I've put together a list of camping essentials broken down into sleeping gear, camp kitchen supplies, and daytime adventure gear. Links to things that we use have been provided; however, there are tons of camping supplies out there for every budget.
You'll notice that I link to a lot of REI brand, Coleman, and Columbia camping gear. I find these brands to consistently be of great quality at an affordable price, so I usually recommend them. While other brands are just as good, most of us don't need an ice-proof tent for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and sleeping bags to keep us warm in -50 degree weather. But if you find something you like in your budget go for it, but make sure you check reviews and know the return policies just in case you don't like something!
First and foremost you'll need a tent. I've found that the bigger the better when camping with kids. A little more room in the tent provides for a little less stress when it comes to getting in and out of the tent, changing, and storing your gear.
I highly recommend REI's Kingdom 4 (1) or Kingdom 6 (not shown). The Kingdom 6 is just like the 4, but it fits up to 6 people. Don't forget the footprint to help extend the life of your tent (Footprint Kingdom 4; Footprint Kingdom 6). A footprint is like a tarp shaped like the bottom of your tent. It helps to soften the blow from sharp stones, sticks, and the general ware and tare of fabric rubbing against the ground. If the footprint stretches your budget, a generic tarp will do just a well.
Coleman also makes a great 8-person tent (2) recommended by the National Park Foundation. There are definitely smaller options for cheaper - like this Sundome 4-person or Coleman Evergreen 4-person, but if you have the budget I'd go a little bigger.
Sleeping Bags and Pads
Nice sleeping bags can be expensive, so this is an area that you'll have to feel out the cost benefit. I like mummy bags because they tend to keep you warmer in the Spring and Fall because they cut back on the open airspace in your bag. And you can stuff them into a stuff sack to save space. If a more expensive sleeping bag isn't in your budget and you have some extra space in the car - a plain 'ole rectangular roll-and-go bag will do just fine, like this one from Coleman.
I am smitten on this Kindercone bag (5) from REI. It is made for toddlers (over 12 months) and up. This bag also grows with the child. The stuff sack is attached to the bottom, so you can tuck the bottom in to shrink the bag to your child's height (check out the REI video). I've been nervous to put Weston in a sleeping bag, but now that he's almost three, I'm thinking this is the one I'm going to buy for him.
Sleeping Pads are definitely optional but they do keep you quite a bit more comfortable than just sleeping on the floor of the tent. We have thin, self-inflatable sleeping pads (7) that we bought for camping and backpacking years ago; however, Weston now hogs mine most nights so I'm thinking of purchasing the Queen-sized one shown above (8).
(1) Wealers 7 Piece BBQ Utensils - Everything you need for food prep.
(2) Pitt Mitt- For handling hot items over an open flame.
(3) Dutch Oven- For cooking delicious foodstuffs!
(4) Coleman 24 piece Enamel Dishware Set- Enamel Plates and mugs, stainless steel silverware for 4.
(7) Camping Trash Can - Collapsable
(8) Dish Pans- Pick up 2. One for washing, one for rinsing
(9) Etekcity Collapsible LED lantern- collapses for easy use. Great light source for prepping and cooking food in the dark.
(11) Campfire Grill - Many campsites come with a campfire grill, but many don't. This one can be set up anywhere and moved from side to side and up and down.
12) Camping Chairs- (Not pictured) Again, many campsites come with a picnic table, but many don't. Also, you'll want something to sit in when you are hanging around the fire. You can go super cheap to high-end on these, so again, whatever fits your budget will work. We have some pretty low-key chairs from Wal-mart that have lasted 5 years and counting. If you are a Costco Member, they usually have some nice chairs during summer, or Target, REI, or really any Sporting Goods store will have some good ones. One thing to keep in mind is - the bigger the chair, the more space it will take up in your car!
Be sure to bookmark my Amazon Camping Essentials list so you know what you'll need!
Our camp kitchen is pretty basic and portable. Everything except the swivel grill fits into a rubbermaid tub for easy transport from storage to campsite like so:
We tend to cook really simple meals while we are camping (check back soon for some campfire meal recipes). Something on the grill or in the Dutch Oven. We carry all of our food to the campground in one or two coolers- depending on how long we're gone for. We recently scored this old school Coleman at a thrift store! It keeps things cold for sooo long and can really take a beating. You can find a newer version here or just use whatever cooler you have. Or, if you're really fancy, you can buy this $600 cooler insulated with cork! ( Who the F buys these things?)
Chances are, if you are camping, you plan on doing some sort of out door exploration. Whatever it is you choose to do there is gear for it. Here, I offer some universal day gear options:
Day pack- When you're out exploring, you'll want to bring lots of water and snacks, not to mention sunscreen, bug spray, camera, wallet, keys, etc. So I highly recommend a daypack. Find one that pulls double duty and holds a hydration reservoir.
Hydration Reservoir- Carrying water for you and your kids can take up a lot of room in your pack, not to mention be really heavy. I have a 3-liter camelbak bladder that I can switch in and out of packs. If you'll be out for long periods of time, I recommend one for everybody who can carry their own backpack. They come a few different shapes and volumes, so you should visit your local outdoor sporting store to find which ones works best for you or your kids.
Child Carrier - If the kids are in tow you will probably want a child carrier. While many trails are stroller friendly, many aren't and this makes carrying a child so much easier! There are many different styles, so I encourage you to head to your local outdoor sporting store to try them out before you buy one. Some even have daypacks attached with places for camelbaks too!
Well, that pretty much covers the bear necessities! Now that you have an idea of what you need be sure to check out my campground map to help you find a place to go! And be sure to download my free car camping checklist so you can spend more time outdoors and less time at the store buying stuff you forgot.
Seasoned campers- Am I missing anything? Do you use any of these items or do you recommend anything else? Let everyone know your favorite camping essentials in the comments below.