Last weekend, I decided to take a last minute fall camping trip with my two nine year-old nephews. I keep all of my camping gear together in a giant plastic bin so packing last minute for myself is fairly easy. But camping with kids is something else entirely and I always end up bringing a heck of a lot more stuff. Plus, the kiddos aren’t very helpful with the packing so I need to remember everything, for all of us.
Each time I take the kids camping, I forget something different. This time it was camp chairs. Last time it was headlamps. It is obvious I need a packing list.
I have used packing lists for myself for years. I have different ones for international travel, beach trips, ski vacations, etc. They are indispensable for helping me pack quickly, efficiently, and to stop me from forgetting those pesky little things like extra wall plugs or even the big stuff like bathing suits on a beach trip (been there, done that). I love my packing lists, and I have finally made one for camping with the kids. I have included it as a pdf at the end of this blog that you can download and use at home to make your life easier too
*** To be clear, this packing list assumes that you are driving to a campground. My backcountry list would eliminate probably 90% of this list. When it comes to weight vs comfort for me, I’ll often pick weight. Bring on the Ramen!
What To Pack When Camping In A Campground With Kids
Quick Drying Shorts, Pants, Shirts
The specifics depend on the season and number of days camping. Plus whatever activity we have planned for the days- hiking, mountain biking, or paddling.
Always pack 1 more outfit than days, 2 more for kids. You’re in a car so take advantage of the ability to bring stuff.
Same rules apply (1 more pair than days, 2 if packing for kids)
Camp Wear- Clothes and Shoes
Even if I can’t take a shower, I always like changing into dry, clean clothing or at least a fresh shirt when I get back to camp after a fun day exploring.
A change of shoes is also welcome after a long day walking. I often use flip flops or my Tevas as comfy camp shoes. Crocs also work really well as they are easy to get on/off for nighttime bathroom breaks. Plus they offer a little more protection from snakes if that’s a concern.
I will usually double-duty my camp wear as sleepwear so I like it to be comfortable. Leggings, T-shirt, and pull-over fleece are my go- to’s. I also usually wear my camp outfit for more than one day/ night but will bring a spare outfit just in case.
Again, I use my general rule of +1 but I increase the multiplication factor. Pack 2 more pairs than days camping, 3 more for kids. Kids can find a puddle anywhere. And wet socks are not cool.
I like Smartwool socks, even in summer, as I find they keep my feet the most comfy and they smell the least. I will bring a pair of fleece socks if winter camping- they keep my feet extra warm in my sleeping bag.
I have an over-sized, quick drying towel that I have had for years. Works great and truly does dry in no time so you aren’t carting home a big wet towel.
Even if I have plenty of room in the car I won’t bring a bath towel from home. It is an easy way to cut down on what you are bringing without sacrificing comfort.
Toothbrush, Toothpaste, Floss
Liquid Soap- because often the campground bathroom is out or does not supply it
Shampoo and Conditioner- only if I am lucky enough to be camping somewhere with showers
Face Wipes- Because I break out easily. If there is no shower in the campground, these also work in a pinch for a quick and dirty body wash
Roll of Toilet Paper (or more)- because not all campsites are restocked frequently.
Bug Spray- I am a mosquito magnet so I never go anywhere without bug spray
Tent and Sleeping Equipment
I have a Mountain Hardwear Optic 3.5 that I love. Great for warm weather camping with its huge mesh ceiling and sleeps 1 adult and 2 kids easily. The rain cover kept us dry despite a downpour the last morning of a recent camping trip. The setup is so simple that my 9 year-old nephew mastered it in no time, a huge plus when they can actually help get us ready for the night.
With the rain fly on and some mummy sleeping bags, the Optic tent does well enough to take me into early winter but I haven’t tried it anything colder than just below freezing temperatures yet.
I always put a tarp underneath my tent since I am usually camping in the Southeast and the ground always seems a little damp. It also helps with cleanup as well as it keeps the tent bottom clean for easy put away. You can see the tarp under my tent in the picture above.
A 6 x 8 is enough to cover the bottom of my tent but I prefer an 8 x 10 so I have a little room to put shoes outside the tent door off the ground.
I almost always bring my sleeping bag as I get cold at night even in 70 degree weather. I might unzip it and use it as a partial blanket in those circumstances but I like having it. I have a 10 year old Sierra Designs mummy bag that has done well throughout the years, even if newer bags obliterate it on weight. If you need a sleeping bag, don’t skimp on buying one. Nothing sucks the fun out of camping quicker than a night shivering while waiting for dawn. Expect to spend at least $200 for a good bag.
Camping frequently in the Southeast, it is often way too hot for a sleeping bag, especially when I first hit the hay. My solution was to some old sheets, fold them in half, sew the edges together, and voila!- great sleep sacks for all of us. You can buy them online if sewing isn’t your thing, or maybe a Christmas gift from Grandma?
Inflatable Sleep Pad
I have a Basecamp Therm-A-Rest from 2002 that is still going strong. I love it. It’s basic and awesome. The older I get, the less likely I am to be able to be able to sleep anywhere and a little padding goes a long way.
Some people bring pillows from home, but I like the Therm a Rest compressible pillow. Really does pack down to nothing and expand to be a decently sized pillow. I would err on the side of the larger sizes for car camping.
Coleman Classic Two Burner Stove and Fuel
This thing works fantastic considering you can usually pick one up for $50 or less.
I have cooked soup, pancakes, quesadillas, grilled cheese, and mac n’ cheese so far on mine. It boils water in no time for coffee, an urgent necessity for me in the morning.
The stove requires 16oz propane tanks that can be found lots of places-- Target, Lowes, grocery stores, ACE, etc. One tank easily lasts me through a weekend but I usually bring 2 just in case.
I have an ancient pair of MSR pots that nest and are great. The larger pot holds enough mac n’ cheese for 2 adults, 2 kids and the smaller one is perfect for side vegetables and heating water for coffee and hot chocolate. The lid fits nicely in either. MSR doesn’t make the exact same ones anymore but this is the closest set to mine I have seen.
Spatula, slotted spoon, ladle, sharp knife, small cutting board, hot pad, and tongs make up my basic camping cookware set.
I usually just bring stuff from home but I am hoping someone gives me a nice camping set for Christmas. I scouted this one out on Amazon and it looks like just what I need and comes in its own carrying case, always handy for storing.
Plates, Cups, Bowls, and Flatware
All of our old plastic plates and bowls from when the kids were little has now migrated to the camping bins. Lightning McQueen lives again when we go camping as do various other cartoon characters. It works great as they are lightweight, pretty easy to clean, and don’t break easily when dropped. Paper plates are also handy but I hate the waste. If I already have to make a trip to the campground sink for cleaning dinner pots and pans, I might as well wash plates and bowls too.
Flatware I again usually just borrow from home or raid our stash of disposable silverware accumulated from various restaurant to-go orders over time.
Cups are a little bit different as we love to have hot chocolate while camping so plastic cups don’t always work well. These stainless steel tumblers are good for any beverage and are easy to clean and store. That’s about perfection for camping stuff— easy to carry, clean, and multi-functional.
Cast Iron Griddle
I use mine for pancakes and quesadillas but I know others make burgers and even steaks on theirs. Most 2-burner griddles will fit on top of the Coleman stove mentioned above.
If you get a cast- iron one, you can also use it on a campfire. I love the one made by Lodge (and its made in TN so it’s especially cool). It is super heavy but does a great job and is easy to clean.
Newspaper, Lint, and/or Fire Starters
Popular campgrounds have slim pickings for kindling as most of the good stuff gets used quickly. Bringing a few newspapers and wads of dryer lint can go a long way to getting your fire started without many twigs. So can a Duraflame in really dire situations.
Most campgrounds require you to buy wood onsite to prevent insect contamination but not all of them store the wood very well. A fire starter brick can keep your nascent fire going long enough for something to actually catch when many of the logs are spitting out a ridiculous amount of water.
(A super trick a friend showed me years ago is to pour olive oil on wet logs and let it soak in for a bit before lighting them. I saw this work in a campground where it had rained for days. We had the only fire going in the whole place and I became a believer.)
Long- handled Lighter
This was one of the items that has been forgotten on a camping trip and one of those things that was a lot more annoying to do without than you might think. I had a small sized emergency lighter but it was a pain to light the propane stove with that. I ended lighting a twig on fire and then using that to light the stove. I worked but I immediately put a new long- handled lighter in the camping box for next time and I am just going to keep it there.
Because the whole point of camping is s’mores, am I right?
And once you have a watched a kid try to get up close and personal with the fire while getting their marshmallow just right, then the telescoping, 32” long sticks seem like a really good idea.
Clean-up, napkins, emergency fire starter-- a full roll of paper towels always gets used when I camp (2 rolls if we are going for more than a weekend).
A small bottle is usually more than enough for meal clean-ups. Also works in a pinch to clean clothes if the occasion calls for it. For instance, if your two nephews decided to ride their bikes though all the muddy puddles at the campground.
I usually bring at least 3 plastic grocery bags per day I am camping. That’s enough for food disposal, dirty clothes, and other sundry needs.
I bring a couple of pieces of tupperware in various sizes because I like to pack PB&J’s for the trail and they work well to keep the smell down. Tupperware also works to pack trash out- apple cores, granola bar wrappers, etc. And they are good for storing any leftovers from your awesome camp meals.
Tablecloth for the Picnic Table
Nice because there always seems to be bird poop on those tables and also because it makes the cleanup after dinner much easier. (You don’t want to leave food residue for bears to smell.) I like a machine washable tablecloth versus a disposable plastic one because it is sturdier, I don’t have to pack more than one for the trip, or think to buy a new one beforehand.
Empty 2-liter bottle
I bring an old soft drink 2 liter with me because it is so handy for carrying water from the campground spicket back to the campsite. I use the water for meal clean-up/ fire extinguishing/ gear wipe-down, etc.
My Shopping List For a Weekend Camping Trip:
Coffee - instant if it’s just me, ground coffee plus a french press if I have other adults along for the fun
Butter- a half stick is usually enough
Small container of olive oil
Mac and cheese- pre-made so then I can just heat it up on the stove
Soup- again, pre-made or in cans
Just-add-water pancake mix
Clif bars- we live off these things when traveling. They don’t melt or crumble and can fill you up.
Box raisins/ craisins/ fruit snacks
Baby carrots- no cooking necessary
Graham crackers, Hershey’s, and marshmallows for obvious reasons
Wine- I prefer Bota Box for this. Take the wine bag out of the cardboard box and it is the most easily packable item.
Gorp for the trail
Large tortillas and shredded cheese for cheese quesadillas
Canned peas or green beans- minimal cooking needed
Bread, peanut butter, and jelly- my favorite picnic lunch since I was 5
Water- most campsites have water but sometimes the wells can have an off taste. I have reusable 2 and 1 liter water bottles that I fill at home for drinking water.
Bring one for each person and spare batteries for at least two of them. Snakes can be an issue in most parks where I frequently camp and you shouldn’t walk around at night without light.
I have had an old Petzl headlamp for years that works great so I will buy again from them when it finally dies. The new ones look pretty cool though and I love the red light option for nighttime so you don’t blind your tent mates.
One of my most favorite Christmas gifts from last year, this is an amazing invention that I use all the time. Recharges on the dash of the car during the day and gives off so many hours of light at night. We always bring at least 2, one for over the picnic table and one to hang in the tent. They are waterproof too so I can take them with me on a paddleboard for night paddles.
Luminoodle Lights (plus portable charger)
Another excellent Christmas gift, this one is more for fun than is strictly necessary. Plug in a charger and you have instant fairy lights to add ambiance to your campsite. The kids love these things, especially if you string them up around the hammocks.
Some people get really fancy with these, I just bring my cheapest folding chair. I prefer sitting in these than at the picnic table. Again, if I have enough room in the car, why not?
Something For The Kids To Do At The Campground
A frisbee, soccer ball, football, cornhole, etc. Something active for them to do when I am setting up camp, making dinner, or I just want to chill out for a bit.
A card game is also a great idea. We are partial to UNO, but Go Fish and War are always good fun.
Hammock and Straps
This is another of my favorite recent inventions. I have a MalloMe hammock that I got for $25 off of Amazon and I never get to sit in it because there is always a child in there. There is nothing better than watching them chill in the hammock with a good book when we are camping.
Whatever hammock you buy though (ENO or knock-off), definitely invest in the ENO Atlas suspension straps (about $30). They are worth it because it considerably expands the distance between trees that you can have and they are ridiculously easy to use. Again, my nine year-old nephews can do it by themselves.
Nylon Rope or Paracord
I always bring about 25ft of spooled nylon rope. I often use it hang lights but it also works for an impromtu washing line, to use as additional guy lines, or tie down things that break. Because something always does.
Marine rope is handy because it usually has a loop at one end already, making it easier to attach to trees, tarps, etc.
Because I am from the south and do firmly believe there is nothing duck tape can’t fix.
First Aid Kit
I pack my own first aid kit but pre- made ones are fine too. Just make sure it includes an ACE bandage. One of the most useful first aid things ever. Good for sprained ankles and holding ice on a bruised leg but also really great at keeping bandages in place in awkward areas like the soles of your feet.
My First-Aid Kit (I have used every single one of these things at least once)
ACE Bandage- so useful
Large Non-stick Pads
Band-Aids- have a variety of sizes, including butterfly
Mole Skin- probably the other most useful thing in my first aid kit. Nothing works on blisters like mole skin.
White bandage tape
A bunch of gauze pads (If something is bad enough that you need gauze pads, you will need lots of them)
Cotton Q Tips
Betadine or Hydrogen Peroxide
A 10 or 20 cc syringe. For deep cuts you will want to use the syringe and a dilute betadine solution to flush out the wound before bandaging.
Tylenol- kids and adult
Ibuprofen- kids and adult
Pepto-Bismol Chewable Tablets- great for upset tummies in the middle of the night
Antacids- also surprisingly good for a variety of “I don’t feel good” complaints
Loperamide/ Immodium AD
Instant Cold Compress
You can often start with a pre-made kit and then add things you want. I liked this one on Amazon as it had almost everything except medications, ACE bandage, and a thermometer.
Packing And Storing All This Gear
This packing list may sound like a lot (and to be fair, when I packed the minivan, it was an impressive amount of stuff) but assembling it is not as hard as it may seem.
I like to store things in general in large plastic tubs- hiking gear in one, paddling gear in another, ski gear in a smaller one, and so on. Finding my camping gear is then easy. When it was just me, I would throw the whole tub in the car and go.
Nowadays, we have several, very large “Camping” tubs stored in the basement. When I pack up, I pull out these large tubs and take out what I need for each trip and put it into smaller tubs. I have 3 empty tubs for packing- a big tub for sleeping stuff, another big tub for cooking stuff, and a small tub for “other”.
My 3 tub system also make unloading and loading the car much easier. I just pull out the sleeping tub to set up the tent, the cooking tub when it’s meal time, and the other as needed. For clean-up, I usually just throw everything into its tub and sort it when I get home. I like to get everything out and clean it at the house anyway.
The 3 tub system worked like a charm on one of my recent camping trips as we packed up the campsite in a rain shower. The boys and I had it all in the car in under 15 min with minimal mess outside the bins and they easily figured out what tub to put gear in.
I hope this packing list makes your next camping trip a bit easier, I know it has for me! Click here for a pdf that you can download and use to check off as you pack.