Camping With Kids
Camping in Bear Country
Setting up camp
Kid Kit

Car Camping with Kids

We have been camping with the kids since the oldest was 4 months old.  When the youngest was four, he would watch as I folded up 'Blankie' and poked it in a Gallon-size Ziploc bag and added it to the growing pile of waterproof packages on the floor. Then he would grab it, run to the couch and proceed to try to gnaw it back open. He did not give a hoot about the elements, space restrictions or sanitation. These are all things that must be considered, though. In car camping-you have 2 things working against you-lack of convenient space and lack of space in general.

I have devised ways to deal with these and other limitations as well as other challenges over the last few years.

1. Plan to stay 2 nights minimum. Packing up, pitching a tent, setting up camp and taking down camp, repacking and all the driving can be more work than it is worth if you don't get the chance to hang around and enjoy it!

2. Pack for 5 days, no matter how long you are staying. Take enough clothes for everyone to change fully 5 times. If you are staying longer-plan a laundry break in town-staying less than 5 days, you will need dry/clean clothes by the end of the trip.

3. Pack one full outfit per child* per day into the same Ziploc baggie. Shirt, shorts, socks, underwear-all tucked into a big baggie and squeezed until there is no air left and toss it on the pile. Proceed until you have 5 full changes of clothes, one towel for swimming and one towel for bathing, one swim suit and an extra pair of socks and shoes each. If you plan to swim every day, bring an extra suit.
* Adults and teens will usually be able to keep from strewing their unused clothes and have less trouble picking what to wear, so bags for them are optional-you know your family.

4. Toiletries should be broken into Boy Stuff and Girl Stuff. Pack mom and sis's toothbrushes in the same baggie. Pack dad and brother's stuff together. For potential shared items such as toothpaste, contact juice, shampoo, shaving foo, just put all of THAT in a separate bag and take turns going to the bathhouse, you will probably have to anyway as the youngest will refuse to shower and run out of the bathhouse naked and screaming. With you following in much the same condition.
As your kids get older, they will probably want their own small shower kit and can go on their own.

5. If possible, buy a roof bag. If you have a roof rack, these are easy to find, but if you have no rack, try the Samsonite Rooftop Cargo Carriers. I looked for months before I found what I was looking for in roof bags and this one is perfect. And it works with or without a roof rack.

6. Pack sleeping bags in a rubbermaid bin. You can shove them in there and they actually take less space. Plus, you can always use the bin around the camp.

The hardest thing about car camping is getting everything to fit in the trunk-and not fall out every time you open it!

Clothing to Pack:

Plan for the weather-always bring at least one sweat suit or fleece no matter how hot it is supposed to get. Little ones like to swim late and get out of the cool water chilly-then there is no sun-it makes for a miserable evening. It can also get quite chilly after a sudden rain shower-very frequent in the summer months-and warm clothes are nice to have. In our area, there are many caves and warm clothes are great to have for those 57 degree hour-long tours!

For each person:

Warm Weather:

3-4 shorts, 3 T-shirts, 5 underwear changes, 5 socks, two jeans/long pants, one lightweight long sleeved shirt, one sweat suit and one poncho. Extra pair of shoes-these can be a simple as sandals or flip-flops.
Women may want an extra bra or two in the heat of summer, it gets sweaty!

Cool Weather:

NO COTTON for hiking clothing in cool weather!!!!

4 long pants, 4 long-sleeved shirts, 2 T-shirts, 5 pair of good (wool) socks, a vest, one soft fabric pants (fleece or yoga), one set of long underwear and one or two fleece shirts, one knit hat and an extra pair of shoes. Unless it is freezing, you will be able to layer easily with the various clothes and should be just fine. We have camped in Tennessee through the end of November and been very comfortable. If it's really cold add a down jacket, gloves and another layer. NO COTTON.


To wash little bitty ones, bring along an inflatable baby pool and heat water on the camp stove-or haul it from the bath house. Holding on to a squirmy, soapy toddler in the shower is going to become and Olympic event. Avoid the rigors of training by popping the tyke(s) into a little splash pool and pouring warm water over them. If there is no shower where you are camped, the whole family can participate in bath night! Go hop in the lake to get all wet, run back to camp and soap up (biodegradable soap and only a tiny amount and NOT NEAR THE LAKE), then hop in the pool to be rinsed off. Pour soapy water into a grey water hole* when you finish.

(* a hole dug for the sole purpose of disposing soapy/dirty water when there is no sewer system in place. Fill this back in before leaving camp)

On a recent trip, I found a wonderful alternative to the baby pool--the Rubbermaid sleeping bag bucket!

Fill your collapsible water container in the camp shower and pour into the bucket-ta-da! Small Fry has a lovely warm bath and the sleeping bag bucket gets a good rinsing out. All 3 kids were able to use the bucket-saving me lots of stress with the little girl who hates showers. I used the left-over soapy water to give the swimsuits a quick rinse.

Things to bring:

Use your shampoo as a body wash-saves room and time! Just bring kid shampoo if you are co-showering. Pack toothbrushes and toothpaste, shaving equipment (Aloe Vera gel will tame wild hair, can be used as a shave gel and will soothe burns of any kind and can be used as lotion for dry skin.), hair brushes/combs/hair bands, unscented deodorant and always toss in a roll of TP. Bring waterless hand sanitizer, wipes-even if the youngest is potty trained. Anything else you need like contact juice and extra lenses or tampons/pads.

What you do not need:

Make-up, hair spray, perfume, smelly gunk for your hair, face cream, scented lotions.
These will attract insects-especially mosquitoes and yellow jackets and you will get dirtier out walking around with a layer of goo for the dust to adhere to.


What you do need:

Band-Aids, moleskin, waterproof matches, Benedryl, NSAID pain/inflamation meds in adult and child form, antibiotic ointment, sunscreen and in warm months, bug spray.

Optional but great to have:

Anti-itch cream, burn cream (or just use aloe vera gel!) Sting-eze, needle and tweezers (for splinters or ticks), eye drops, oak and ivy cleanser, muscle patches (the stick on kind that warm upon application), ACE bandage or sports wrap, gauze and tape

Kitchen Kit:

You need:

A stove-be sure you make certain it works before every trip. It is a good idea to check your rechargeable batteries and car fluids at this time. Fuel-always have an extra canister even if you have barely used the first canister. Matches-I don't like to rely on those wand clicky things, but they are good when they work. A mess kit per person-plate, bowl, spoon, fork, cup- a flashlight, 2 pots and one frying pan. You can substitute a wok for one pot and the pan. Pot holder, table cloth, dish pan, collapsible water bag, dish soap, wash cloth, dish towels. One cutting board and knife, a couple of steel wool pads and a set of toaster sticks-the more expensive ones with the wooden or plastic handles, not the all-wire deals. Get a big Rubbermaid bin with a lid and keep your camping kitchen items packed and ready to go. When you get in from a trip-wash everything and dry it well-then pack it all back up. Don't store your fuel in the sealed bin-keep it in a high cabinet.

Plan your menu. Stick with easy things and cook ahead as much as you can. Brown your ground beef or turkey and season it and then pack it in the cooler to make taco salad the next night. Just re-heat the meat and you are done. Kids love Ramen noodles and they are done in only 3 minutes! Instant rice tossed in a can of veggie soup served with a sandwich-mm mm. Don't overlook hot dogs over the campfire and of course one of those disposable frying pans of Jiffy-pop to cook over the camp stove is always a hit! There are dozens of sites for camp food. Just type 'Camping Recipes' into your favorite search engine and start printing! Be sure to bring along salt and pepper (they make camping shakers for under $1) and a spray oil or small bottle of cooking oil. Spray is the better choice-less chance of leakage.

If the campsite is more than 3 hours away, we always plan to eat the first meal at a restaurant or pick up pizza or BBQ on the way through town to picnic when you arrive. This just makes life easier.

Trail Mix:

Many grocery stores offer premade mixes, they are usually in the snack aisle.

S'more's on the Go!

1/2 cup Golden Graham cereal, 1/4 cup mini marshmallows, 1/4 cup chocolate chips. Toss into a baggie and hit the trail!

Uncle Herb's Trail mix:

1 part corn chips, 1 part M&M's, 1 part raisins, 1 part peanuts, 1 part shredded coconut. Toss and go!


Sleeping arrangements:

Until your kids are 8-9+, they will be just fine sleeping together in a sleeping bag-despite their assurances that their sibling has cooties. Zip 2 lightweight bags together and poke 2-3 kids in there. They are warmer and less likely to become afraid if they wake in the dark. My husband and I share 2 sleeping bags, usually with a kid who has deserted the 'kid side' of the tent (until they outgrew the need to cuddle, *sob*).

Child-sized bags are wonderful things-as soon as your kids are accomplished campers and ready for their own space, buy them a sleeping bag. Look in the camping department and not the kid department to find a decent (40+ degree bag). The character bags in the toy or bedding department are bulkier and cost way too much. Buy some inexpensive soft fabric and make a liner for the bag-this serves 3 purposes: first the liner is easier to wash and dry than the whole bag and secondly, if it is warm at night, they can sleep in just the liner with their bag as extra padding and if it is cold, it adds some extra insulation to be snugged in a bag in a bag.

We finally bought cots for each child. After a week of camping in the pouring rain and having to deal with water running across the tent floor and they kept rolling off their pads and getting wet or just chilled from being on the floor, I decided getting them off the ground was the best option all the way around. Now there are no worries about the terrain, each child is high and dry and they stay warmer in the shoulder seasons when the ground can be cold. Also, they are hamocked in the fabric, there's enough of a dip where they lay that they don't roll off. My husband and I use inflatable air mattresses.

Update: Now that they are in their teens, the kids often sleep in hammocks.


You need a tent that sleeps twice as many people as what you are camping with. This gives room for storing clothes and shoes, wet gear, food (if that is safe) and having room to lounge and move around. A 4 man tent for 4 people is SNUG. Don't do it. A 10-man for 4 people is not overkill, space is divine!

You need a tarp that is slightly smaller than the tent bottom. This will protect the tent and if it is larger than the tent bottom, rain will accumulate on it and run under you-not pleasant. If your tarp pokes out anywhere, just tuck it under the sides. You need a small kitchen rug to go outside the tent door. Teach your kids early to take off their shoes before going in and not to roughhouse in the tent. If possible-keep them out of the tent until time to go in for the night. There is nothing worse than finding your sleeping bag full of gravel and/or sand or discovering someone stood on your air mattress in clunky dirty shoes and now there's a leak.

At night, smack the bottoms of the shoes together to knock of dirt and either bring them in the tent or push them under the tent at the door to keep them dry and bug free. If you have a few used dryer sheets you can bring along or left over from camp laundry, shove one in each shoe overnight. Unused sheets-cut into 4ths first.

You need a seam sealer and a water repelling spray to seal the tent-this should be done days or even weeks before the first camp-out because the stuff smells horrible. You can find less-scented brands if you look around and the stink seems to be less each year. I don't know if it is better product research or that fact that my nose is aging. Do this every year if you camp often, every other year if you are a weekend warrior who favors Memorial, July 4th and Labor Day as 'the camping season'.

You need a rubber mallet and go ahead and buy a few extra tent stakes-sometimes you hammer into a rock and severely bend the stake in your hand and then the tent is limp on one side. And even when you get the bright idea to use a rock to weigh down the strap it may not go as well as you hoped...



Rechargeable batteries and a re-charger. The initial investment will pay for itself over and over. Just be sure to plug the batteries in each night! If you primitive camp, invest in an inverter, a simple little device that will plug directly into your cigarette lighter and creates one or two plugs for plugging in stuff. Use it to recharge batteries, cell phones, or recharge the lantern as you drive around all day.

Lantern. You can get one that runs off propane or a rechargable type. You can plug that in to the car lighter or into a socket. They cost about $20-use no fuel and run 4-8 hours depending on if you use one or two tubes for light. WARNING: these lanterns can take up to 24 hours to charge the first time, so don't buy one en route to the campsite!
These are getting better and better. We have one from Luminaid that is solar charged and runs 16 hours!

Flashlight per person. One for each tent pocket, one for the day pack, one for the kitchen kits, one for the car glove box and one to keep in the trunk. The worst thing to have happen is to wake up at 2 a.m.-needing to go to the bathroom (or the kids need to go) and not being able to see a darn thing-and not remembering where that hole was or which side of the tent the bathhouse even was on. 2 flashlights each is not overkill.

Toys-give each child a gallon-sized Ziploc and allow them to take all they can fit in there with it zipped shut. Make certain they have their 'lovey' for cuddling at night and toss in a plastic baseball set, sand toys, water guns, a butterfly net and insect box or a ball for them to play with outside at the campsite. Be sure you have swim floaties and swim diapers if you need them! Take along a new coloring book, or print off some coloring sheets from the Internet (type in 'camping coloring sheets' and you will get some nice results) and a fresh pack of crayons.

Here are a few of our favorite kid camping activity sites:

Smoky Bear's site

Great American Landmarks Adventure

Coloring Pages


Cameras: bring along a disposable waterproof camera to take to the pool/beach/wading area or along rafting or boating or to use in the rain and at waterfalls.
Be sure you photograph your child at work around the campsite and get plenty of them at play as well as scenery.

Chairs: Camping chairs are great! They have come in handy many times, so I don't begrudge the extra space they require. I bought small stools for the kids as they almost never sit down unless it's to eat at the picnic table and 3 folding stools take up as much room as 1 kid-sized chair.

Picnic supplies: A small cooler and a plastic bag with a dozen disposable plates, cups, napkins and a sheet or plastic tablecloth is a great idea to take along anywhere you go! A 6-pack sized cooler can hold a pack of sandwich meat, sliced cheese, a few packs of mustard and ketchup and a couple of baggies of ice to plunk in cups is all you need for a nice afternoon away. You can pick up a gallon of spring water and bag of chips at any gas station for a couple dollars.

Extra extras: Retractable Clothes Line, tablecloth clamps, books about the area, local maps, local emergency numbers, list of places you want to visit, local brochures (stop at any visitor center on the way) and be sure you have the full name, address and contact number of the campground you will be staying at as well at the local ranger station or state park headquarters. Keep a list of your emergency contacts on you and in your car. Audiobooks have always been a real help on longer drives, or when it is dark or raining out.

A binder with plastic top-load pocket sheets: Check the web and print out any local trivia, history bits or unusual sights you may want to see while camping. These are lots of fun to have around-and really useful on those in-between days when there is a lull. You can also print out directions to your campground or various local attractions from Mapquest and put those in there. Print out coloring pages about the terrain and animals you will be seeing for your kids to color. Keep a copy of your emergency information and your campground information-including the contact number and full address of the campground, any reservation information and add to the binder as you go. Postcards, leaves, brochures, quick notes about a place visited, something funny the kids said or did, a list of the food you ate-a menu from a road-side diner, receipts for purchases and anything else relevant to the trip-when you get home, you have an instant scrapbook-all you have to do is add photos!