Guide to Easy Camping with Kids

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We’ve been camping for years with our kids. It’s some of our favorite family memories together. It helps that Jared is a mountain man, for sure. But there are a bunch of tricks we’ve learned over the years as our family has grown. I’ve shared ideas before on backpacking with kidsa few basics tips, and a post on Cup of Jo. With summer camping getting started, I thought I’d share an updated post on camping with kids. A real comprehensive guide to what you need to know and what gear you’ll want to make camping fun and easy (i.e. no serious planning) for the whole family…

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Car camping, but not in campgrounds. With kids, we usually opt for car camping. Finding a spot within a 2 minute walk of the car is the easiest. We usually don’t camp in campgrounds (too crowded for us), but instead find spots in national forest or wilderness areas (you can find our more about camping in those areas here although each area is different). Obviously, this isn’t for everyone. It makes the drive more difficult since you have to drive around a find a spot instead of knowing exactly where you’ll be sleeping. Jared is a master at this though. He gets a general idea of what national forest or wilderness area he wants to go and we drive around to find the best spot (privacy and close to water is ideal).

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Camping food (without the intense planning). We are pretty spontaneous campers and don’t bring any food out of the house at all. We just grab our empty cooler, and then stop on the way at a big box store that will have food, ice and other necessities that we need to stock up on (like the ax we can’t find, another flashlight, more paper towels, etc). There always seems to be something that needs to be replaced each time we go.

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Easy meals that don’t require a lot of ingredient and that you can pick up on the way are: pancake mix (they have some in a bottle now where you just add water and shake!), sausage, eggs, fruit, carrot sticks, hot dogs and buns, boxed noodles or mac and cheese, bean and cheese quesadillas, grilled cheese hot cocoa packets, oatmeal, pb + j for lunch. Of course, s’mores supplies and other filling snacks as well like bars, pretzels, trail mix, and jerky. And don’t forget about the boxed wine if you drink, the ice, and water. We also use about 1 galloon of water per day of camping for drinking, cooking, cleaning.

I do love a tin-foil dinner though! One of these days I’ll have to make those, but it just always seems like there’s so much other stuff to do when we’re trying to get out the door camping that grabbing food on the way seems way more manageable.

Something to play with and something to read. Sometimes we bring a ball or frisbee. Other times we stop and pick up a fun outdoor toy on the way (maybe at the store when you’re getting food). For reading, spooky tales like this book is fun as a family, and be sure your older kids all have a book as well for quiet time in the evening.

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Devices. It may sound lame to bring your iPad camping, but up until Henry was three or four this was the only way we got him to sleep! We’d face the iPad down at the top of the tent where the mesh is so he could lie down and watch it while he fell asleep. Also be sure to let your older kids stay up and take photos of the stars with a long exposure (there are iPhone apps for it too). They’ll flip out!

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Adventure Walks. We love to look for animals, signs of animals, small treasures, pretty colors (‘let’s find something from each color of the rainbow’), really big or really small things (biggest leaf, smallest flower). If there are a lot of large sticks you can try to make a fort, even! Or take turns floating things down a stream (Henry’s favorite).

Let them run wild. This is their chance. Let them pick up bugs, get dirty, throw huge rocks in the water, scream “echo” up the canyon 10 bazillion times. Remember that just yesterday you wouldn’t let them throw a soft pillow in the living room too close to your face so this is their chance to be a real kid!

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Gear: 

1. Camping chairs to sit on. One for everyone!

3. Somewhere to put the baby. You’ll want to put her down on something too, especially when there are jobs to do and you need two adults to help. Bring her carseat from the car, a bumbo, Gathre leather mat, or a baby swing you can hang from the tree!

4. Enamel cups for hot cocoa, coffee, and boxed wine.

5. A camping stove + cast iron skillet. if you don’t want to do all your camping on the fire (which can be fun, but stressful with kids sometimes). We save the fire for hot dogs and s’mores.

6. A bigger-than-you-think-you-need tent. Reminder: tent sizes fun small. So a 4-man tent is really comfortable for 3. And you want to be comfortable so for car camping, be sure to bring…

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7. An air mattress + pump. No reason why you can’t be comfortable car camping! We always bring our air mattress.

8. Night activities: Lots of flashlights and head lamps. And other fun night time stuff like glow sticks and sparklers.

9. Poker sticks for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows (and poking at the fire).

10. Beanies and warm jackets, even in the summer. It’ll make such a difference especially in the cool morning.

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11. Keeping baby warm at night. For babies and summer camping, we like 20 degree sleeping bags that you can zip up together and putting baby in-between. So one bag with a left side zip, and the other with a right. We also bring extra blankets and swaddle blankets to wrap them up (and don’t forget the baby’s hat!)

12. Pillows from home. Great for the long car rides too.

13. French press.  Nothing is better than a cup of coffee and cocoa in the morning when you’re camping!

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Are you planning any camping trips this summer with your family?

 

Photos from our family trips to Saddlebag Lake right outside of Yosemite, Sonora Pass, and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park (just last weekend).

Comments

We have been camping for years at the Outerbanks and love it. Our 3 year old we took the first time at 10 months and our 1 yr old when she was 6 months old. It is more work but they love it. We usually go for 3 nights. This past weekend the 3 year old didn’t want to come back.

I really liked some of your tips. I will be getting a french press for our next camping trip.

This is the perfect camping post- thank you! How many days/nights do you typically camp? My sons are 3.5 and 20 months, so I’m wondering what we should expect their capacity to be- one night only or could we stay the entire weeekwnd? Obviously al kids are different, but it would be great to get a baseline!

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So you cosleep with the baby in a sleeping bag? We have a five month old and are trying to figure out a safe sleeping arrangement for him in our tent…

Nice work! My kids are 5, 3, and 11 months so camping this summer has felt intimidating – but this is inspiring me! My parents have a mountain cabin in the WA cascades so it’s hard to leave the comfort of that, but a real overnight tent camping trip is such a great experience!

I second Laura’s question above? I’ve heard its illegal in many places to park anywhere and backpack in. I’m in California too and their are so many laws about camping, needing permits, fires, no dogs on trails, etc. I’ve also heard its dangerous to park on the side of the road overnight, especially in remote areas. I’m very curious how this works for you. I would love to do it more if I wasn’t chicken about a cop/ranger ticketing or towing my car or thinking we were up to no good.

It’s totally legal is multi-use wilderness areas and nationals forests- that’s what the multi-use means. Obviously you can’t just pull over and camp anywhere. You just have to know the laws, and yes be aware of restrictions for fires and trash removal.

There are hundreds/thousands of miles of dirt roads in any given national forest / blm area; you can almost certainly find spots remote enough that you don’t see other people the entire time.
idk where you are in california, but there are massive areas all throughout the Sierra-Nevada range, as well as most anywhere north of a couple hours above SF all the way to Oregon.

Oh, this is my dream post! We love camping! Before we had our son, we went camping almost every week end when we were not gone for longer periods….After the baby….we loved it even more, because our kid is mad about tents!!!! he loves to sleep in the tent, he loves to go in and come out a thousand times a day, he loves to be free and wild like only a child can be! This summer we’re planning camping trips by the seaside two or three times and two times in the mountains! We also love to bring our air matress and our pillows with us, two!

I’ve noticed you do more backcountry camping and it would be interesting to read how you figure out the logistics of doing it and what some of the typical regulations are that you need to work around. I thought backcountry camping was only allowed in designated backcountry camping areas in parks and conservation areas? And do you need to get a permit ahead of time? And how do you manage bathroom needs?!

Public lands are public (with exceptions). There are maps and apps online that show the areas. This one is good: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/us-public-lands/id723185418?mt=8
Permits are not required unless you have a fire/stove (the permits cover fire usage not sleeping).
Bathroom: there are basics to going to the bathroom outdoors. It’s a little inconvenient but not enough to be a deterrant. Alternatively, grabbing lunch at a little restaurant 30 mins away is a good opportunity to take care of business in a more civilized location; doesn’t work further out but if that’s a concern you can find spots that work.

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