I became a convert to camping “later” in my life — around my late-20s, actually. Yes, for most of my adult life, the prospect of sleeping outside, without ready access to a good shower, food, or comfy bed struck me as, frankly, preposterous. Plus — the bugs. I HATE bugs. Ick.
Camping, I thought, was something other people did.
But then I lost a bet, went car camping for a weekend with my husband, and… loved it. It turns out that I think sleeping outdoors in a tent is unbelievably refreshing — not to mention the campfire and the delicious food and adult beverages we brought with us to top off the whole experience.
But I think what actually made all the difference for me was that my husband came PREPARED. He, to his credit, anticipated my every complaint and neutralized them by having all the right “stuff” — we had a top-notch tent, sleeping bags warm enough for the Arctic, pads and extra blankets, camp chairs, lighting, even “camp slippers” with treading on the bottom (yes, they were just Uggs knock-offs).
Point being: the right camping gear can make or break it, for real. (Also, weather.)
With kids, this is all the more true.
Much like a beach day with kids, family camping trips with kids are altogether different than adults-only camping.
When our team debated covering family camping gear, we joked that the world is divided into “campers” and “no-effing-way”-ers (we’re guessing that since you’re here, chances are you’re the former). We also agreed that trying to talk anyone in the latter group into going camping with kids would be a lost cause.
That said — think about it! Once you’ve made the upfront investment in gear, camping is such an affordable way to travel, and with most travel plans for this summer out the window (thanks to the pandemic), it’s a great alternative to whatever-vacation-you-had-planned-that-you-had-to-cancel-because-of-COVID.
If you’re overwhelmed at the thought of jumping into a full camping trip with kids, think about starting small. Pitch a tent in the backyard and see how it goes. We promise, you won’t need to talk your kids into it — toddlers and little kids LOVE camping, people. They just do.
Ready to give it a whirl? Know that every little thing will take FOR-EH-VER, and that meltdowns still happen (as does DIRT). But so do stars and s’mores and big smiles and snuggles.
OK, parents — time to gear up, family camping style.
1. Get a (Big) Tent
What’s the Best Family Camping Tent?
Obviously, first things first, you’re going to need a tent. We recommend up-sizing, as most “4-person” tents are really best for 2, and most “6-person” tents are realistically comfortable for 4 (even kids). The “number” simply represents how many bodies can be crammed in there. Yes, a family camping tent is one place where bigger really is better (unless you are backpacking). You’ll appreciate the extra breathing room.
Here are your best bets:
Coleman Cabin Tent with Instant Set-Up (6-person) ~$146 — Editor’s Choice
You can’t go wrong with this tent — it’s insanely easy to set up, breathable, and is actually pretty affordable in the tent camp (get it?!).
You can also upgrade to the 10-person version (~$399/$199 on sale), which is roomier and comes fully-equipped with a nice little curtain/divider for separate rooms. Or, you may want to consider the dark room technology variation (~$179), which blocks light (a nice feature for naptime and summer nights/early AM). Both of these spin-offs are awesome for kids!
*Note — The Coleman cabin tent design is “weatherproof,” and it comes equipped with an “integrated rainfly,” but we 100% recommend getting an actual rainfly accessory to defend against the elements, as the “built-in” version is, well, chincy. There’s nothing worse than a wet tent — and though this really is a great one, it’s prone to leaking without a dedicated rainfly.
Acadia Cabin Tent (8-person) ~$399 — Upgrade Pick
This roomy tent has a self-closing magnetic door, which is WAY easier for little kids to use than zipper-doors. (Although, note that if it’s super-buggy, you probably want to zip it up for the best seal.) One person can set this up, but it’s a bit more involved of a process compared to the Coleman tent (above).
If you’re a frequent camper, you’ll like the size and durability of this thing. Also: the pet vestibule! It’s actually bigger than you’d think… kids love to crawl in there, too 🙂
Although it’s not strictly necessary, a screen shelter “house” can also be a very welcome addition to a family campsite. Well worth it on its own, it’s especially nice to have a dedicated bug-free, shaded space when you’re camping with kids (snacks/meals, diaper changes, getting-into-pajamas, playtime, etc.). Think of it as a portable screened-in porch.
The LL Bean Woodlands Screen House (~$349) is a classic can’t-go-wrong pick. For a more wallet-friendly option, the Coleman Instant Screenhouse (~$153) will do the trick, although it’s more prone to the elements (i.e, it’s more flimsy… but it still works well enough for leisure campers).
2. Gear Up for Bedtime
When camping (or traveling, really) with a child, SLEEP is always at the forefront of my mind. The best advice we have: do what you can to keep some continuity and familiarity, but know that things will probably pan out a little bit differently. There’s no getting around the fact that sleeping in a tent is different than sleeping at home, and that’s okay!
My kids do best overall when we stick to our regular routine as much as possible (and young children broadly thrive when they have a sense of predictability). Naptime is a bit shorter, but it still happens; bedtime is a bit later, though we follow the rhythm that we have at home (complete with pacis, lovey, and whatnot). Oh! And we also use an app for white noise, which I think is helpful.
Here’s what to pack to make sleep happen while you’re family camping:
Kids’ Sleeping Bags
Kelty Big Dipper Sleeping Bag ~$69 — Best “Mummy” Sleeping Bag for Kids
Mummy-style sleeping bags (with hoods) are great for littles who don’t yet understand how to snuggle up in a sleeping bag on their own. Kids LOVE them, and this version from Kelty keeps kids safe and warm even in temps as low as 30 degrees (may be too hot for warm nights).
This cozy bag^^ is super soft and the length is adjustable. (Note — if you’re looking for a more economical pick, Coleman makes a similar kids mummy bag for ~$20 less.)
LL Bean Flannel-Lined Kids Sleeping Bag (40 degrees) ~$79 — Best Block Sleeping Bag for Kids
The LL Bean kids sleeping bag is a classic pick suitable for temps down to 40 degrees. (Now we’re talkin’.) You can’t go wrong with this classic pick. (Note — LL Bean also makes a fleece-lined version with protection down to 30 degrees, which sales for ~$89.)
For babes: If you’re planning an adventure with a little one who’s still too young for a sleeping bag or blanket (in cool or cold weather), a warm down bunting will do the trick. We like the Patagonia down bunting, which is super warm but still light and breathable. One other very cool (though less versatile) option is the Morrison Outdoors Kids’ Sleeping Bag — it’s like a sleeping bag and a snowsuit had a baby.
*If your child sleeps in a bed/toddler bed, proceed onward… if you have a baby/toddler in a bassinet or crib, skip ahead to baby sleeping options.
Kids’ Sleeping Pads
Next up, a kid-friendly sleeping pad: let us preface this section by saying do not skimp on a sleeping surface! Chances are that if you’re the type who’s interested in taking your little kiddo camping, you’re already a seasoned camper and know that sleeping directly on the ground is a no-go, but just in case we’ve hooked any newbies: don’t sleep in your bag directly on the ground. I don’t care what the temperature is, you’ll be cold, or uncomfortable, or both.
You could opt for a classic inflatable camp sleeping pad, but kids easily fall off those suckers. Think of it like trying to sleep on a slip ‘n slide. Plus, some kids putz around with the inflation valve, which can result in a) them constantly waking you up to fix the pad, or b) them sleeping directly on the ground… either of which would be enough to drive you batty, which we don’t want. The fewer “things that can pop” the better…
Thus, might we suggest some alternatives:
Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Foam Mattress (small) ~$25 — Editor’s Choice
This tried and true foam mattress folds/unfolds super quickly (like an accordion), is incredibly comfortable, equally durable and has a textured/rippled surface that helps kids stay in place while they’re asleep. Plus, since it’s not inflatable, you don’t need to worry about the air level. Downside: it takes up a little more space when packed.
Regalo My Cot Portable Toddler Bed ~$34 — Upgrade Pick
Toddlers and preschoolers love these insanely-popular travel beds, and they’re perfect for camping — they keep kids off the cold ground without any fuss.
These raised cots (suitable for kids up to 75 pounds) fold up nice and easy, like a canvas camp chair (the soccer-mom kind), and are frankly nice to have around for general car travel (hotel rooms, your sister’s house, etc.), sleepovers, house guests, and the like. It comes with a fitted sheet (and apparently people use them as dog beds, too…)
Baby Sleeping Spots
For babies/toddlers still in a bassinet or crib…
If you have a baby/toddler who is still in a bassinet or a crib, a baby box could offer a very nice travel solution for camping (especially given it’s small footprint):
If you’re not into baby boxes, you can take a peek at our favorite travel cribs (at all different price-points) — any of which would be fine for camping trips. If you want a bed-sharing “bassinet,” we have some recommendations that are super portable as well. One reader also suggested the KidCo Peapod (~$69), which is genius — it’s like a tent for inside the tent!
And of course, a classic play yard (aka playpen/Pack N Play) would totally fit the bill — in fact… all things considered,we might recommend a play yard, since it also gives you somewhere to put your kiddo to play/hang out, on a surface that isn’t… the ground. Our budget pick for a play yard is the Graco Pack ‘n Play, and our upgrade pick is the 4moms breeze.
Miscellaneous Sleep Aids
Lastly, in line with the goal of keeping things as familiar as possible for The Bedtime Routine, you may want to think about bringing along a travel sound machine (or, there’s an app for that). If your child sleeps with a lovey or special blanket, don’t forget it!
3. Gear up for Mealtime
Camping is about spending time in nature, appreciating the great outdoors, etc., etc., yes, yes — but camping with kids is also about… food.
Yes — family camping revolves around the picnic table. Literally.
Translation: your kiddos may spend precisely 94% of your camping experience eating. So plan ahead and prep as much as you can. Bring tons of EASY snacks (we love fruit, cheese, and those applesauce pouches that kids everywhere are obsessed with) and do as much meal prep as possible in advance. Trust me, it’s waaaay easier to dole out pre-made PB&Js or heat up frozen meatballs on the camp stove than make them on the spot from scratch.
That said, camp cooking is part of the experience! We suggest trying something quick and simple to start (eggs in the morning, grilled cheese for dinner, beans/chili, etc.). So get yourself a stove. We love this one in particular:
This is the quintessential camp stove. With 2 burners and a compact fold, this stove is a must for camping families. Bring extra propane so you don’t run out.
You’re going to need somewhere to store all of your food, drinks and ice:
Coleman Xtreme Cooler (~$46) — Economy Pick
This affordable cooler has a loyal fan base and will serve you well. It’s great for weekend camping trips, as it works wonderfully for a couple of days before “The Melt” will hit you (usually around Day 2). Note: the seal can be finicky (you have to really push it to close it and yank it to open it up), this is actually ideal when you have little children around… built-in childproofing!
(Psst — we prefer hard coolers to soft coolers for car camping with kids because they help prevent smushing.)
Pro Tip: We prefer to use frozen water bottles (vs. ice) so your cooler doesn’t turn into an aquarium. To do this, just freeze several water bottles (deep freeze is better) several days in advance and voila!
YETI Tundra Haul Cooler (~$399) — Upgrade Pick
Whoa, I know: pricey.
YETIs have a reputation for being the Cadillac of coolers, and they really are top notch. Our YETI has literally kept ice for DAYS on our porch in the summer. Yes, YETI insulation is no joke. Plus, these things are literally indestructible — they’re like little ice tanks. Since they are heavy as sh*t when full, we recommend this newer wheeled version so you can tow it around easily at your campsite. It’s an investment, but if you spend a lot of time outdoors, this cooler is an MVP that should last a lifetime.
If you like the idea of a YETI but not the price tag, RTIC’s block cooler is similar in design and quality, but often retails for ~$100 less. Definitely worth checking out.
For actual mealtime, there are a ton of kid-specific travel items that will make your weekend much more enjoyable by simply streamlining things. We suggest:
- A travel high chair: the Summer Infant Pop and Sit Portable Booster (~$34) is perfect for camping. Use it on its own or attach it safely to a chair. To get kids up higher, we also love the camp-chair style Ciao Baby Portable High Chair.
- Kids utensils: the stakes are always low with Take & Toss. At only around $8, the complete set is economical, lightweight, and easy to clean. (See also: Baby Feeding Gear)
- Bottle paraphernalia & baby food: *when camping, go for convenience, folks. Always. If you’re formula feeding, splurge on premade formula so you’re not driving yourself crazy with mixing and whatnot at your campsite. If you’ve already started solids, same kind of thing: pack store-bought baby food to keep things easier.
4. Light Your Path
One of my favorite things about camping is just how DARK it gets at night. I love it.
Little kids? They love headlamps. And lanterns. Flashlights. Think about giving your kiddo her very own to love and use for the weekend (note: kids seem to be professional at losing these babies — keep an eye out!).
Make sure you have lights to sufficiently light up your campsite, as well as plenty of individual options for walking around the campground at night, sitting at the table for a meal in the dark, and/or getting to and from the facilities.
There are tons of headlamps out there; and if you’re just out for casual car camping weekends, probably even the cheap ones will suffice. Though, I’ll say that the Black Diamond and the Petzl Actik headlamps are the all-around favorites among serious campers. For toddlers and little children who can have their own, the Black Diamond Wiz Headlamp (~$19) is a solid bet, although it’s not quite as high quality as the company’s adult products.
5. Dress for the Weather
If you’re heading out during a heat wave in the middle of July, bring along some items to help keep everyone cool (and sane). *Make sure your kiddo has a sunhat — even if it’s not sunny, it will help protect against ticks and whatnot.
Reader tip: pack a battery-operated fan for especially humid afternoons.
Alternatively, if it’s shoulder season (or tends to run cool, depending on where you are), you’re going to want to make sure you pack plenty of warm clothes and extra layers (see below for some itemized recs). On the west coast, you can count on cool nights. You could also bring along an extra camp blanket for good measure.
- Wee Woolies merino wool pajamas (~$57)
- A winter sleep sack
- Lots of warm layers
- A hat (see our favorite winter hats) and/or mittens for nighttime
6. Don’t Forget: Odds & Ends
Lastly, there are a handful of miscellaneous things to consider packing up:
- A travel diaper changing pad (either a reusable one or disposables), and make sure your diaper bag is well-stocked! Pack some doggie poop bags for dirties.
- *Bug spray: a MUST
- *Sunscreen: YES
- Hand sanitizer, duh
- Kids shoes that are easy to take on and off (either rain boots or summer slip-ons)
- S’mores supplies! (And Fatwood to light your campfire in a jiffy)
- Your favorite hiking carrier or infant carrier (and an infant carrier cover to keep warm)
- Baby bath (readers prefer the Stokke Flexi Bath Portable Tub) — or, a plain old Rubbermaid tub (pro tip: use it for easier handwashing at the campsite)
- Bluetooth Speaker – we recommend the VTIN, a personal fave
For those of you planning a trip, remember to keep things low stakes. And don’t beat yourself if it’s not insanely amazing — the first two times we went camping (with our first-born at 6- and 9-months), we reserved a site for the whole weekend and ended up cashing in early. We all slept like sh*t, it was WAY colder than we expected, and in the end, I just wanted to go home, shower, and have a nice night.
And you know what, we did have a nice night!
However difficult (did I say difficult? I meant “different,” I swear) camping with kids is compared to camping adults-only, camping with babies is serious work! But remember: every year, things get easier, though — little kiddos are “better” campers than toddlers, and toddlers are “better” campers than babies. And as always, the more of a script littles have, the better they do. So camp it up, friends. What else are you doing this summer?
And for those of you who’ve been-there-done-that and rocked a family camping trip, please, please share your tips and tricks in the comments below — we’d all love to hear your suggestions.
The best family tent for quick and pain-free set up is the Coleman Instant Setup Series.
There’s a quick list here, but make sure you bring: a tent, sleeping bags and a sleeping pad/cot, pillows, a pack ‘n’ play or travel bassinet if you have a baby (or a toddler who’s still in a crib), a camp stove, a good cooler, a travel high chair or booster seat, kids’ plates and utensils, sippy cups or kids’ water bottles, something to make coffee, headlamps, lanterns, extra layers, diaper supplies, bug spray, sunscreen, hats, hand sanitizer, water, slip-on shoes, a hiking backpack or infant carrier, fatwood, matches and s’mores supplies for your campfire, a tub, and a speaker. Oh, and snacks. All the snacks. Read More.
The best sleeping bag for kids is the Kelty Big Dipper Sleeping Bag.
The best headlamp for kids is the Black Diamond Kids Wiz Headlamp.
If Coronavirus is a concern, camping is very safe. Just stay apart from others and use masks when entering common areas.