We first camped as a family when our youngest was five months old. We borrowed a tent and I think I slept 10 minutes the entire night. The next morning we packed up and left because we were so miserable. Since then we’ve added three more kids to the mix and through lots of trial and error, we’ve come to love camping with our kids. We mostly camp in a pop-up camper, but we’ll tent camp if the opportunity arises. The items below are not necessities, but we don’t leave home without them when camping with kids.
Camping with Kids Must-Haves + Bonus Tips
Something to Contain a Toddler
Camping with a toddler is not relaxing. Toddlers. Don’t. Stop. Moving. There are times when I need to know that my toddler is secure so I can use both hands to make a meal, get things set up at camp, or just have a second to think straight! We always pack one or more of the following: a stroller, a high chair, a baby swing, or a travel booster. Usually we pack everything else and then see how much space we have left, and then determine what we can bring.
There are lots of times when we’ve brought a jogging stroller, but sometimes we just don’t have the space, so I shove an inexpensive umbrella stroller under a seat and that works just as well. We’ve also found the stroller can be helpful to put kids to sleep if they’re struggling with all the new surroundings and can easily double as a high chair if there’s a tray attached. We’ve taken this IKEA high chair a few times because the legs come off and it doesn’t take up much space. BOTTOM LINE: If I could only pick one, I will pick a stroller every time.
My kids are not great sleepers and our first night anywhere new typically doesn’t go well. A friend introduced us to these melatonin gummies a couple of years ago and they’ve been a game changer for family trips. Kids three years and older can take them so we make sure our oldest three take them about fifteen minutes before bed on the first night. Once we get through the first night they usually don’t need them again.
Nap Mats and “Lovies”
Again, my kids are not great sleepers so we try to bring familiar things to help with routine. They each have a nap mat they used when they were in preschool and we bring them for each kid to sleep on. (They’re similar to this, but I think my kids’ nap mats were effective because they slept on them at school for nap every day for four years.)
When we’re in the pop up camper we make up the queen bed with a fitted sheet only and then ask them to lay their nap mats out next to each other so they each have their own space. They put their favorite stuffed animal on top and it’s home away from home. We also used this baby sleeper for our youngest two and it helped until they were each about a year old and outgrew it. I don’t think this is an absolutely necessary purchase, but it was particularly helpful for our third child to stay asleep as everyone else was going to bed.
One of our first trips camping, my father-in-law made a swing for our kids out of some rope and a tree branch. It was a huge hit! Our kids enjoyed it so much that when I saw these disk swings on Amazon I ordered two and we made it part of our camping gear. Our kids have spent hours playing on these disc swings and we even put them up in our yard when we’re not camping because the kids enjoy them so much.
“Camping Cookies” (M&M Cookies)
Okay, it doesn’t have to be M&M cookies, but a special camping snack is fun. On our first trip in the pop-up camper, I brought M&M cookies and our youngest daughter referred to them as “camping cookies,” and the name stuck. I usually reserve M&M cookies for camping and it’s something special the kids look forward to when we eat our first meal at the campsite.
Creating a special family tradition that includes a snack, treat, or game that you only do while camping can help memories stick. This could be s’mores, or gummy bears, the license plate game, or anything else that makes sense for your family.
*My Husband’s Bonus Pick: Hammock
This is my husband’s pick, but I think the kids spend more time in it than he does. Hammocks take up minimal space and everyone in our family enjoys them. We started with a single hammock and we added a double hammock pretty quickly because they get so much use.
*My Kids’ Bonus Pick: Chairs and Scooters
When I asked my kids what they wouldn’t leave home without when camping, they couldn’t decide between camp chairs or scooters so I included them both. My kids really enjoy sitting around the camp fire, but the adult chairs were sometimes too difficult for them to get into comfortably. For Christmas last year, their grandparents gave them each their own kid-sized camp chair and they look forward to bringing their very own chair to the circle when we all sit together. They also really like to take their bikes, but we rarely have room for bicycles after packing for a family of six, so scooters like these have been a great compromise.
Our first camping trip was a disaster and we’ve had quite a few other trips that didn’t go according to plan, but we keep camping because it’s been an incredible way to spend time with our children and introduce them to life beyond a screen.
State parks in Texas tend to offer amazing educational opportunities. On one of our last trips my oldest daughters were able to look through a telescope and learn about stars from a park ranger, they’ve explored animal tracks and learned about different types of animals from experts, we’ve visited historical monuments and learned history together, and we’re continuing to develop an appreciation for beauty all around us. It’s not always relaxing, but it’s always memorable.
*This is why we end up taking way too much stuff. Everyone has an opinion about what to pack and we end up packing all the stuff. All. The. Stuff.