If you are like most people, a family camping trip usually starts off without a family camping checklist. It comes with grand ambitions of leaving early in the morning, pitching the tent together, some sort of recreational activity, and then relaxing by the fire roasting marshmallows 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, 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! And you have landed here so we are making a few assumptions.
Fortunately, after three kids and countless adventures in the great outdoors, 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 the 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 expanded 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 couple of schools of thought on tents, but for our family of 5, 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 (you know like lighters and bear spray). One of the most exciting activities for a 4 and 6-year-old camping is crawling and wrestling in and out of the tent. Inevitably, they track a bunch of mud in the tent and whatever is inside is fair game for trampling.
In this regard, we have used two different tents that we love. For the adults, we like the REI Quarter Dome 3. For the kids, we like the Marmot Limelite 3P. Both are durable three-season tents that stand up to adverse weather conditions. The REI Quarter Dome 3 is a little smaller than the Marmot because it tapers at the feet, but it is still large enough for 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
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 New Yorkers who also like to backpack, our gear is optimized for space (or a lack thereof). I also like the Helinox because it swivels, our kids like it because flipped over its 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.
- 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 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.
While each of our kids were still at an age when instinct told them to put everything in their mouth, we brought our pack-n-play everywhere, including camping. 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 him 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 this year. The Ergo did a fine job, but I gotta say we were blown away by the Poco. It feels like the baby is half his 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, although low to the ground high chair for meals.
Camping kid gear checklist
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!
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 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: While a lot of stuff like cutting boards and chefs knives can be used from your home kitchen, store most of your cookware in a small bin or Tupperware that can also be used as a dish washing basin. We store all of our plates, forks, cups, etc in the bin and do not touch it except for 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.
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.
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 in NYC like us, 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.
Camp Kitchen Checklist
Glamping with fire pit checklist
- Dishwashing bin
- Aluminum foil
- Chefs knife
- Dutch oven
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.
- 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! We would love to hear your feedback or answer any questions about camping or any area of family travel!