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Are you planning a camping trip with the kids? If so, then your family is in for an adventure! Camping is a great way to make lasting memories while also exposing your children to nature and all its beauty. But before you take off, we have 10 tips that can help ensure your camping vacation goes as smooth as possible – ultimately allowing everyone to relax and enjoy their time outdoors.
We’ve been camping with our 5 kids since our oldest was just an infant. Along the way we’ve had some fantastic adventures, some hilarious memories, and a few disasters. We’ve learned a lot in the last 16 years of camping with our own kids and our tips below are designed to help you simplify your camping experience so that everyone can enjoy camping together more. We’ve done our share of camping with babies, toddler camping, and now we’re into the phase of camping with teens and always seem to have an extra friend or two along on our campouts.
Make Camping with Kids FUN!
The most important thing to remember about camping with kids is that it’s supposed to be FUN! Kids need to know that camping is an adventure and will respond to it much better if mom and dad are excited about the experience. So, before you go, explain what you’ll be doing, where you’ll be going, and how much fun it can be. Take some time to get down on your kids level and join them for the fun. Build stick forts in the woods, create dams in a nearby stream, play games around the campfire, and tell plenty of silly stories. Laugh lots (at both the good and the hard) and focus on the good and exciting things happening all around you.
The Early Stages of Planning a Camping Trip with Kids
If you’re in the early stages of planning your first family camping trip, especially if it’s one of your first camping trips with kids, my biggest advice would be to start SMALL. While it’s tempting to plan an epic National Park camping road trip, you’ll have an easier time if you pick something simpler. We try to keep most of our camping trips with kids within 2-3 hours of home to simplify the logistics. Not only does it save money on gas, but it also gets our kids comfortable with exploring things that are right in our backyard.
Keep Things Simple
My biggest piece of advice when planning to camp with kids is to keep things simple. Take just what you need, don’t overpack, and don’t try to anticipate every situation. If you run into something unexpected, try and roll with it, and if you need to, run into the nearest town to grab what you need or for a quick break. While the idea of being prepared for every situation is nice, the reality of preparing for everything can be SO STRESSFUL! Don’t feel like you have to know everything or bring everything that you would have at home. Part of the joy of camping with kids is that it’s simple! Our printable camping checklist can make your campout much less stressful!
Do A Practice Campout
A child’s first camping trip (or an adult’s first family camping trips with kids) is an exciting, nervous and sometimes overwhelming thing. Don’t drive for hours to find just out that your little one has a hard time sleeping in a tent and is up all night. Do a few practice runs in the backyard (or a close KOA) so that your kids know a little of what to expect on your first family camping trips. Not only will this make them more comfortable, it will give you a heads up on what to expect while camping with kids.
Meal Prep in Advance
Feeding a family is hard enough at home, and it feels like the work doubles when we’re on family camping trips. While you could opt for just eating cold cereal and hot dogs, that probably won’t leave you feeling really great. To help simplify your kids camping trips, do as much meal prep as you can in advance. I try to precook as much of our meat as possible and freeze it before we leave so it stays nice and cool. I also try to chop up fruits and veggies before we leave since tehy take up much less room in the cooler when they’re already chopped. Stumped on what to cook? We’ve put together some awesome ideas that are easy and that the kids will love.
Fantastic Camping Meals Kids Will Love
30 Easy RV Camping Dinners
17 Simple Camping Breakfast Meals
20 Easy Camping Lunch Ideas
Invest In Good Family Camping Gear
There is SO MUCH GEAR involved when you’re camping with kids and getting all the gear you need can be VERY OVERWHELMING! Don’t feel like you need EVERYTHING, especially if you’re just getting into camping. Start with a few things and then work up from there. Truthfully, we save a lot of money by getting lots of our family camping gear at thrift stores or Walmart (read all about what camping gear to get at Walmart and what to get other places).
Here are the top pieces of kid camping gear that we recommend in order of importance.
A great kids sleeping bag – the one area we never skimp in.
A camping sleeping pad
Flashlight or Headlamp
Kids camp chairs or a baby camp chair
Great outdoor sandals or hiking shoes (depending on where you’re going)
Pocket Knife or multi tool
Backpacking backpack for overnight camping/hiking trips
Keep Your Camping Gear Organized
Having your family camping gear organiszed can take a huge amount of stress out of the trip. Not only does it make packing and unpacking super easy, but it also helps you keep track of all your stuff. We like to keep a large plastic bin that has all of our camping kitchen supplies in it so that we always have everything we need. It’s always packed and ready to go whenever we have a trip planned and that makes things so much easier. We also have another smaller bag with other camping essentials that we always keep packed and we replenish anything we used after each trip. It takes a little more work upfront, but simplifies everything once we’re out on a family camping vacation and for every family campout after that.
We also do our best to keep all of our clothing and personal gear organized. On smaller trips, we give everyone their own color-coded packing cubes and throw them all in a large duffle bag, but on bigger trips, everyone takes their own backpack with their personal things inside.
Take Our Camping Activity Book With You
My kids always seem to want some structure right when I want a break. So after years of creating things for them to do, I created a Camping Activity Book for kids that you can take with you on your trips. It’s easy to pack and has a variety of activities that are perfect to keep kids occupied and also connecting with nature on your family camping vacation.
Embrace The Mess
Camping adventures with kids involves lots of dirt, and there’s really no way around it. But it’s important to remember that a little dirt never hurt anyone and the mess can be part of the fun. Instead of feeling stressed about your kids tracking in mud or getting their clothes dirty, embrace it as part of the adventure. That doesn’t mean you should let them run wild, but don’t forget that being outdoors means there’s usually a little mess involved. So don’t let it stress you out and just enjoy the experience with your kids.
While you can’t completely avoid the dirt, we have put together a list of ways to help kids stay a little cleaner when camping.
Find The Right Campsite
Picking the right campsite is one of the most important things when going camping with kids. The wrong campsite can turn an amazing camping adventure into a stressful one. So make sure to look for a site that has plenty of space and facilities so that your kids have room to explore and play. Look for sites with lots of trees, open fields, and fire rings. Make sure it’s close enough to the bathrooms but far enough away that it’s still private and secluded. If you need certain amenities like showers, RV hookups, or lake access, that will also help you narrow down and choose the best campsite.
Need ideas? Check out some of our top recommendations:
Best Family Campgrounds in Colorado
Utah’s Most Incredible Campgrounds
Northern California Family Campgrounds
Washington Campgrounds with Kids
Best Montana Campgrounds with Kids
Oregon’s Best Family Campgrounds
Incredible Idaho Campgrounds for Families
Make It Special
Do a few extra things to make your camping trip with kids extra special. Maybe that’s bringing a new card game to play around the table, or surprising them with a new piece of camping gear when you get there. We have some of these little lights and the kids love to string them in the trees over the hammocks, and inside of the tent.
Our kids also LOVE fun foods when we camp. While we try to avoid a junk food fest throughout the day, we do love to let the kids make a fun camping dessert after dinner. Check out our full list of camping desserts that kids can make on their own for inspiration!
Teach Kids With Nature
Camping is one of the best opportunities to use nature to teach your kids. It’s a great way to show them how to be responsible and respect nature. You can teach them about different plants, animals, and ecosystems that they experience while camping. Make sure they understand the importance of leaving no trace and the effects of human behavior on the environment.
Slow down and take time to show them the details in insects and flowers. Find some little footprints and follow where they go. Take some time to smell the fresh air and take a sniff of the bark of a ponderosa pine! We love these little flip cards for teaching our kids how to identify different plants and animals and we always have at least one set stored in with our camping gear.
Be Flexible + Consistent
Being flexible when camping with kids can make everything much less stressful for everyone. Not everything is going to go as planned and you need to be prepared to roll with it. On flip side, consistency is also important when camping with kids. Routines are key and keeping to a basic schedule will help things run smoothly. Having specific times for meals, bedtimes, and activities will give your kids something to look forward to and make it easier on you too. We always try to keep a consistent bedtime routine at home and when getting kids to sleep while camping, especially with younger kids, since it makes it so much easier for them to wind down at the end of the day.
Read our best tips for getting kids to sleep while camping and helping babies sleep better on a camping trip.
Involve Your Kids in the Planning Process
To get your kids excited about the camping trip, involve them in the planning process. Let them help choose the campsite, plan the menu, and plan some activities. This will help them feel more invested in the trip and give them a sense of ownership over the experience. It will also help them to be more engaged once you arrive.
Plan A Few Things But Don’t Overschedule
When camping with kids, it can be tempting to plan a lot of activities and outings. While these activities may give you an opportunity to explore the area, try and keep your itinerary simple. You don’t want to overschedule or plan too much so that everyone feels like they have no time for rest or relaxation. Before you leave home, look for nearby hikes for kids, lakes and rivers to explore, or bike paths you can ride together. If you’re in a more developed campground, see if they offer nature programs or fireside activities.
Let the kids have the opportunity to explore and see what the area has to offer. You might be surprised by some of the things they find! A lot of the best things near your campground could be things that you had no idea about and that you’d never find doing research online.
Have Downtime in your Camping Trip
Remember that this is a camping adventure after all. Plan lots of downtime in your day so that your kids can just enjoy being outside. We find that when we’re camping our kids require very few things to make them happy. Usually rocks, sticks and dirt suffice and if there’s water, they’d be happy for days! A few great toys in camping trips arsenal are buckets, shovels, Frisbees, and balls. Let them explore, get dirty, and be creative!
For older kids we usually bring a few card games, hammocks for them to relax in, and often a slackline or yard game to keep them entertained. Let the kids set the pace and don’t be in a rush.
Keep Everyone Warm While Camping
Camping can get COLD, especially at night. Make sure that you have enough warm layers and blankets to keep everyone warm while camping. Having a good sleeping bag makes the most difference while sleeping at night, followed closely by an insulating camping pad (so much cold comes from BELOW you). Most of all, we layer everyone with really good base layers. A base layer is critical to keeping kids warm while also making sure that they don’t overheat and start to sweat.
On cold nights, we always have the kids sleep with wool socks on and a winter hat to keep them warm. Rain is one of the biggest culprits to cold kids on a camping trip, so we always try to keep the kids and our gear as dry as possible – a waterproof tent is a life saver.
READ: 17 Tips For Keeping Kids Warm While Camping
Check the Weather
Where we live, the weather can change at the drop of a hat, so unless I check the forecast, I don’t quite know what to expect. If it’s going to be really hot, plan to bring some extra shade and find a place where everyone can go swimming. If it will be rainy, bring a tarp to keep things dry and consider looking at nearby indoor nature centers and activities if the weather gets really bad.
READ: Tips for Camping In The Rain and How to Stay Cool Camping in the Heat
Bring some friends
Camping is one activity that’s I think is always more fun with friends. Invite another family or two to join in the fun or if your kids are older, let them invite a friend on the family campout. The more the merrier is usually our motto when we camp. It’s a great way to simplify things because you can split up meal responsibilities, share supplies, and the kids will have built in playmates. Most of the time the kids just end up entertaining each other with their friends around, taking the stress off of you.
Pack in Advance
Planning a camping trip with children can be the fun part, but packing is always so pard for me. To simplify packing for a family camping trip, I look at our camping packing list about 10 days before our trip so I can see if there’s any gear that we’re missing that I need to go an get. 2-3 days before the trip, I’ll start packing, and the night before we leave, I’ll do any necessary meal prep. Whenever possible, we try to pack the car the night before, so we don’t have so much stress trying to get out the door.
Don’t Give Up
Like most things, getting the hang of camping with kids takes time. You couldn’t just pick up a basketball for the first time and expect to join the NBA, so don’t expect similar results from camping. Your first few trips with your kids may be a little rocky, but each time you go, you learn something that will make your next trip better. It’s worth it…TRUST US!