If you are like most people, a family camping trip usually comes with grand ambitions of leaving early in the morning, pitching the tent together, and then relaxing by the fire roasting marshmallows. All this while the Instagram worthy meal heats up and the picnic table is set. What usually happens, however, is a mad scramble to pack the car that extends close to noon because you can’t find someone’s socks, you end up at McDonald’s for a late lunch, and you pitch the tent in the dark while the kids groan about being hungry. You then realize you brought hot dogs, but forgot condiments. Trust me, I’m not throwing shade, we’ve been there more often than we’d like to admit! Now that we are four kids deep, we’ve developed a car camping with kids checklist that acts as our guidepost and helps us avoid the fast food and ketchup-less hot dogs.
Fortunately, after four kids and countless outdoor adventures, we feel pretty good about the essentials of camping with toddlers and young kids. This break-down has been curated after years of fine-tuning for a minimalist list of car camping essentials and fun activities, leaving behind the camping gear you just don’t need!
Throughout this article, we have a number of links, many of which are affiliate links. Purchasing from Amazon after clicking one of our links does help fund our website, but please know that we only link to items that we own, use, and love to support our passion for the outdoors. Also know that what works for us may or may not work for you. The great thing about camping and your relationship with Mother Nature is the more you camp, the more the relationship (and your gear) will evolve.
If you have been camping before this is likely the gear you already have on-hand and many of these will work even for your expanding family unit! If you are new to camping, this is the essential gear to get you started setting up your outdoor accommodations.
Family camping tent
There are a few schools of thought on tents, but for our family of 6, we like to have multiple 3-person tents as opposed to one giant family tent. The primary reason is flexibility. We also like to keep some of the kid stuff separate from the grown-up stuff (think lighters and bear spray). We actually also had an incident last year where someone, we won’t say who, forgot to stake one of the tents and it got blown over and rained in during a storm. Having the second tent ended up being a life saver as we dried out the other and had Mr. Dad drive into town to dry our wet sleeping bags.
In this regard, we have used two different tents that we love. For the adults, we love our REI Quarter Dome 3, which they have discontinued (boo!) but the REI Half Dome 3 is nearly identical. For the kids, we like the Marmot Limelite 3P. Both are durable three-season tents that stand up to adverse weather conditions. Both tents will easily fit two adults, a baby, and some gear. The Limelite is lightweight and easy to set up, but pleasantly large for a 3 person tent. The Limelite also perfectly fits two of our 3.5-inch self-inflating sleeping pads that we highly recommend.
Family Camping Essentials Checklist
- Tent and footprint (or tarp)
- Mallet or hammer
- Waterproof matches / lighter
- Firewood (locally sourced!)
- Cell Phone Charger
- Portable Charger
- Camp Chair
- Headlamps and flashlights
- duct tape or repair kit
- Camera + Charger
- Sleeping bags
- Sleeping Pads or air mattress
- Air Pump
- Day pack
Camping Hack: Tie the rain fly anchor ropes to a tree as a make-shift clothesline for wet clothes
Personal Tip: I like the Helinox swivel chair, my expensive luxury item. As former New Yorkers who also liked to backpack, our gear began optimized for space (or a lack thereof). I also like the Helinox because it swivels, our kids like it because when flipped over they like to pretend it is a steering wheel, boat, and sometimes rocket ship. In any case, the price tag is steep, but there are much cheaper options.
Health and safety checklist
Families venturing into camping with toddlers often fear all of the what-ifs and everything that might go wrong. While you cannot plan for everything here are a few items on our family camping checklist to help keep everyone having fun and a few items for when less than fun camping ailments arise.
The best place to start is to just keep a first aid kit. Some kits can be a little bit overboard, but they will also have things that you are not going to think of like tweezers and different shaped bandages. You can cludge together various gauze and tape bandages at home, but when you’re in the woods and things get dirty, having the right shaped waterproof bandage for that elbow scrape comes in handy. Our family camping checklist for health and safety includes the following:
- Mosquito and tick repellent
- Soap / body wash
- Lip Balm
- Pain reliever/fever reducer*
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Toiletry kit
- Toilet paper
- Quick-dry towel
- Razor / Shaving cream
- Alcohol-free hand sanitizer
- Anti-itch cream
- First aid kit
Be sure to check with your pediatrician on appropriate dosage on pain reliever and usage of antihistamine.
Camping hack: Whether you buy the kit or not, keep your road trip and camping first aid kit together and separate from your daily items. Whether you keep it in a bag or a small Tupperware, save the maddening routine by having it stowed away, ready to go.
Camping hack: Ensure you are doing tick checks in regions where ticks are common. By August my kids are reminding me at the end of the day to check them for ticks.
It wouldn’t be an adventure with kids if there wasn’t a bit of additional gear on the family camping checklist just for them. We keep our gear pretty lean when it comes to kid-specific items, but there are a few must-haves especially when camping with a baby. In addition to what we have listed, don’t forget to pack some familiar activities as well. Our kids love to color so we always bring some crayons and their favorite coloring pages.
While of our kids were at the age when put everything in their mouth, we brought our pack-n-play everywhere, including camping. For a camping with a baby checklist, we love the Lotus Travel Crib. It’s lightweight and can be worn as a backpack, and is still sturdy enough to handle some older-brother climbing. It’s possible to just let the baby sleep in the tent, but we don’t always want to be glued to our campsite so we will occasionally bring the pack-n-play on a short hike or to the beach and let them take a nap while we play.
We went years using our Ergo 360, which we still own and really like, but we recently upgraded to an Osprey Poco because we planned on taking some more serious hikes a few years back. The Ergo did a fine job, but I have to say we were blown away by the Poco. It feels like the baby is half her weight and we’re able to pack additional gear in the pack itself. The other nice thing is the baby is able to see forward from the back, which was much to our little one’s delight. It can also serve as a make-shift high chair for meals if you’re sitting on a rock or tree stump.
Camping kid gear checklist
- Diapers + Wipes
- Diaper Bag
- Small favorite toys
- Comfort Items
- Paper and crayons for scavenger hunts
- Glow sticks
- Kid carrier
Cooking for a family of three or more at your campsite will require quite a bit of cooking gear. Many items from your kitchen will work just fine, but you may need to buy or rent a few additional tools as well. Additionally, we have been working hard to reduce our single-use plastic and paper products as well as embracing leave no trace principles, we hope you will join us in this effort! And be sure to check out our Car Camping Menu for easy and delicious camp meals.
Camp Kitchen Options
Depending on the type of camping we are doing, we have two variations of our camp kitchen section on our family camping checklist. If we are on a road trip relatively close to home and/or are car camping somewhere with a picnic table and facilities, we pack a lot differently than if we’re flying into Utah or doing a backpacking adventure.
Camping Hack: When not camping. store your cookware like camp knives and cutting boards in a small bin or Tupperware that can also be used as a bin for washing dishes. We store all of our plates, forks, cups, etc in the bin and do not touch except for long day hikes and camping trips.
Personal Tip: One exception to this hack is the grill pan. We bought a grill grate specifically for camping, but with 3 kids, I use it at least 3 days / week at home on things like eggs, pancakes, French toast, grilled cheese, etc. I’m not sure when cast iron went out of style.
Cooking with a fire pit
When we have a fire pit and a picnic table, we will bring cast iron cookware, a camping grill grate, and a camp stove. You can obviously cook much more elaborate meals with this configuration, but the weight and space really play a factor. Clearly, this gets you into “glamping” territory, which we occasionally embrace.
We admittedly also have one of those large Coleman two burner grills with legs, but I have a hard time making space when camping with the entire family.
When we are a little more off the grid doing disbursed camping, or if we are backpacking, we use a backpacking stove system. This is also our go-to option if we fly first and then rent a car to drive to a campsite. If you’re an east coaster like we were for a long while, you cannot simply drive to somewhere like Utah or Wyoming. The Adirondacks are nice, but Zion and the Grand Tetons are places worth the airfare to see more than once. We said it.
Camp Kitchen Checklist
- Biodegradable soap
- Sponge + Dish Towel
- Eating utensils
- Cutting board
- A good mug
- Plates and Bowls
- Food storage containers
- Cooking Utensils (spoon, spatula, tongs)
- Can opener
- Lighter / Matches
- Trash and recycling bags
Glamping with fire pit checklist
- Dishwashing bin
- Aluminum foil
- Chefs knife
- Dutch oven
- Folding campfire grill
- Camp stove
- Grill pan
- Portable coffee maker
Dispersed camping checklist
Clothing and personal items checklist
Depending on your location, the overnight temperatures may be drastically colder from daytime highs. As long as we have the car, we tend to overpack on the kids gear and include a few extra just-in-case outfits. You just don’t know when you might run into rain, leaking water bottles, or ‘I was too busy playing with sticks in the dirt to listen to my recently potty-trained body … for the second time today’ situations. I am not naming names here, but it happens. If you are leveling up with hiking boots for the kids, check out our complete guide on kids boots.
- Wool socks
- Moisture wicking shirts
- Athletic shorts
- Quick drying pants
- Swimsuits (+ Swim Diaper)
- Water sandals (useful for rivers and camp showers)
- Rain gear
- Fleece hats / gloves
- Long sleeve shirts
- Light jackets
- Insulated jacket
Camping Hack: Avoid cotton whenever you can. In summer cotton holds onto sweat moisture leaving clothes wet long after a synthetic fabric would have dried. And in winter “cotton is rotten” and “cotton kills” are popular outdoor phrases for good reason. Two pairs of cotton socks that are holding onto moisture and compressing circulation will leave little feet much, much colder than one pair of warm wool socks. Our kid’s drawers are full of cotton shirts, pants, and leggings, but when we camp we try to minimize their cotton layers with lightweight merino wool and lightweight fleece.
Printable Family Camping Checklist
Check out the printable image of our Family Camping Checklist with all the essentials for camping with kids. Hit us up in the comments if you think we’ve missed anything on this family camping list! We would love to hear your feedback or answer any questions about camping or any area of family travel!