Car Camping with Kids…

My first attempt camping with my son made me seriously doubt whether I even liked camping. He was barely three months old and we were novice, but enthusiastic, parents. We quickly discovered that our campground in Yosemite wasn’t the best choice for camping with a baby. Hot, dusty, noisy and crowded, it wasn’t exactly a serene mountain getaway. Furthermore, the air mattress ended up being flat and we were hours away from a REI. Think getting sleep with a newborn is impossible? Imagine how you’d feel in the morning when you’ve slept on the hard ground, been kept up by noisy campers, and done a few late night infant feedings.

Fast forward to a year later, long enough to have forgotten the trauma of Yosemite but still too soon to have gained much wisdom as parents. We packed up our kiddo and set off to Big Sur. As we set up camp we quickly discovered that the camp site was teeming with poison oak. Not only was it a solid hedge around our camp site, it was also sprouting up in the lawn. Basically if you exited the tent without shoes, you were walking on poison oak. Parent nightmare.

So having two failed attempts at car camping as a family, we took a four -year sabbatical from camping. When we mustered up the mojo for another try at camping with kids it was everything we had hoped for during our Yosemite and Big Sur trips. Having finally discovered how to car camp with kids we have been pitching tents all over California even since.

ocean view tent camping with kids in santa cruz ca
Camp by the beach for a fraction of what a beachfront hotel would cost

Things to Consider When Camping With Kids

Time of Year

There are a lot of things to consider when picking dates for your family camping trip. Aside from wanting good weather, there’s also the question of what time you want it to get dark. In California you can have some warm weekends in late fall, but it will be dark by 6′ o’clock. On the flip side, going in the middle of the summer might mean it stays light until 9 o’clock and that might make bedtime a challenge for young kids.

Bathrooms

How comfortable are you with going poop in a hole? A big factor in picking a campground when car camping with kids is the bathrooms. Pre-kids, staying in a campground with a vault toilet was no biggie. As a mom I want a clean, welcoming bathroom that doesn’t lead to bathroom avoidance and vacation constipation. Experienced camper kids can probably handle more rustic bathroom facilities but for your kids first camping trip I highly recommend picking a campground with a familiar flush toilet.

Water

Do your homework and make sure you know what the water situation is at your campground. When you’re camping with kids it’s tremendously easier to have potable (drinkable) water spigots in the campground. You won’t have to worry about packing water or deal with filtering your water. Some campgrounds have a map online that shows where the water spigots are. I usually try to book a campsite that’s relatively close to the water.

Other Amenities

What do you like to do while camping? If you’re the type of family that likes to spend a lot of time hanging out in the campground you might appreciate a campground that’s bike friendly or has a playground. Some campgrounds even have an on-site restaurant which is great for families that don’t want the hassle of having to cook every meal. Think about how you want to spend your time at the campground and decide what amenities you need.

Things to Do

It’s important to have a variety of things to do when camping with kids. While I love hiking, I realize that my kids don’t want to spend all day, every day hiking. Instead I try to find campgrounds that have plenty of hikes nearby but also other fun activities like a lake for swimming or a river for fishing. My rule of thumb is plan on having two activities a day when camping with kids. One that’s high energy, such as starting the day with a long hike or bike ride. Then I plan on having something a bit mellower for later in the day, perhaps a ranger led program, walking to get ice cream at the camp store, or paddling the SUP on the lake.

Other Families?

If you have outgoing elementary aged or older children you’ve probably noticed how much they love spending time with their friends. Camping with another family or two can be a lot of fun. The kids will be able to play together and the adults can take turns cooking meals.

Some common sense advice when camping with other families:

1) Try to get a large campsite or two adjacent campsites. A small site can feel cramped with two families. Not to mention it’s better to have some space between tents so that a late night crying baby doesn’t wake up the entire group.

2) Have a chat with whoever you’re camping with and make sure you’re on the same page. Are they ok with doing a grueling hike? Are they planning on feeding their kids a bag of marshmallows every night? Having clear expectations can help prevent any awkward vacation moments.

Your Child’s Age

Camping becomes a lot more relaxing as your kids get more independent. Once they turn four or five years old they begin to understand the basic fundamentals of camp safety and are even able to help out a little. Taking toddlers camping is great because you’re laying the foundation for a nature loving child, just don’t expect it to feel like a vacation for you.

With some good planning, a family camping trip is the perfect opportunity to unwind
As your kids get older they will love the freedom of exploring the campground
Preparing to take a “lake bath” at Mammoth Lakes, CA

Gear for Car Camping With Kids

A Tent

If you don’t have a trailer or a camper you’re going to need a good tent. With how many options, there are, it can be overwhelming deciding on a tent. First figure out how many people will be sleeping in the tent, then get a tent that’s sized for at least one person more than that. For example, a family of three should get a tent that’s rated for four or five people. I’ve discovered that a tent that is described as sleeping four people is assuming everyone is sleeping on the ground with a small sleeping pad and no luggage. Make things easier for yourself and get a tent with extra space.

While I recommend getting a larger tent for a family camping trip, I don’t recommend getting a tent with multiple rooms. The multi- room tents always seems to be more complicated to set up. Instead look for a decent sized tent that’s fairly simple to set up.

Also, I recommend getting a tarp that’s bigger than the footprint of your tent to set your tent on. Having a tarp will help prevent rocks and sticks from poking holes in your tent floor. Additionally, it creates a dirt free area at the entrance of the tent for putting on/taking off shoes.

Cots or Air Mattresses?

You’ll want to have something between your back and the hard ground at night. Most people either do some type of air mattress, sleeping pad or cot. There are pros and cons to both. Air mattresses need to be pumped up and can unexpectedly go flat or pop. A cot is sturdy and reliable but does take up more space in the tent. However, since a cot is raised off the ground you can store your luggage and other items under the cot.

Our current sleep set-up is two cots for the kids and two large Thermarest sleeping pads for us. By being on the cots the kids stay more contained and are less apt to roll off around the tent in the night. We’ve discovered that we can put our sleeping pads together and keep them together with a snug queen size sheet. Then we pile on the blankets, flannel sheets, and Pendleton blanket for a cozy nights sleep.

Bedding/Sleeping Bags

The most space efficient bedding for camping is a down sleeping bag. Get something that’s rated for colder than the climate that you will be camping in. We’ve switched back to using a comforter and a blanket for us because my husband doesn’t like the restrictive feel of being in a sleeping bag, but for the kids we always zip them into a cozy sleeping bag.

A Big Quality Cooler or Two

We finally caved in and invested in a Yeti. Yes it was more money than I ever thought I’d spend on a cooler, but it has been worth every penny. The ice doesn’t melt as fast and the food stays cold. Having to constantly buy ice is a hassle. Invest in a good cooler and make camping easier.

For large families or camping trips longer than three nights you may want to even consider bringing two coolers. One cooler for drinks, fruit and other things that you might want throughout the day and the other cooler for storing meal items.

Chairs

Bringing chairs for sitting around the campfire is a must! Also, if you’re camping with a child over the age of four, don’t forget to bring a chair for them. When the boys were little we would set up cute little camping chairs for them, and they would sit in them for thirty seconds before hoping into my lap. In fact at seven and nine they still like to sit in my lap, which is great for short stints of time. When my legs have gone numb and my pants have a nice coating of sticky marshmallow on them it’s nice to send them over to their own chair.

Create a Camp Kitchen

One of the great things about being outside is it always makes whatever you’re eating taste better. Cooking when you’re camping doesn’t need to be elaborate, it just needs to taste decent, fill your belly, and not lead to food poisoning. A good camp kitchen can help with all those things.

Things You Need For a Camp Kitchen

  • Camping Stove (Our Coleman Stove has lasted for years)
  • Extra canister of gas for the stove
  • Camping dish set +cutlery
  • All purpose knife for food prep
  • A dish towel
  • A plastic bin or basin for washing dishes
  • A roll of paper towels
  • A wash cloth/sponge + small dish soap
  • A few pots and a skillet
  • A cutting board
If you need something a little more comfortable than a tent, consider investing in a small trailer

Other Gear For Camping With Kids

  • Clothesline
  • Hammocks
  • Roasting sticks
  • Wet Wipes
  • A large container of water for in-campsite teeth brushing, dishes etc.
  • Shade Canopy (hot campgrounds) or screened eating tent (places with wasps/mosquitos )
  • Head lamps and lanterns. (You can never have too many lighting options with kids!)
  • Bikes or scooters. Kids love the freedom of cruising around the campground.
  • Tecnu for rinsing off poison oak
  • A basic first-aid kit
  • Shower shoes
kids camping in mammoth lakes
Extendable roasting sticks are a must-have for camping with kids

Getting Sleep On Your Camping Trip

One of the biggest challenges of traveling with kids is ensuring that everyone gets a good nights sleep. The two most common saboteurs of sleep for kids while camping are being cold and being scared. With some planning ahead and the right gear you can have some well rested happy campers.

Sleep With Layers

Nothings worse than being cold while your trying to sleep. I have my boys sleep in warm two piece pajamas. (Two-piece is easier to get off for bathroom breaks). If we are staying someplace exceptionally cold I will have them sleep in long underwear with a pair of sweatpants on top. I also always bring along a beanie just in case their heads get cold at night.

Bring Along a Blanket

The slippery fabric of a sleeping bag isn’t a familiar feel for young children. This doesn’t seem like a big deal but it can be another reason the tent feels scary at bedtime. Bring a cozy familiar blanket for them to snuggle up with.

Consider Socks

A warm pair of socks can add just a touch of extra comfort on a chilly night.

A Night Light

Again, you’re trying to basically recreate some of the bedtime necessities that you’re child is accustomed to. If your child falls asleep with a nightlight at home, bring along a small lantern to add a little light, at least while they’re falling asleep. The key is finding something that isn’t lighting up your tent like Las Vegas but adds some subtle glow.

Bedtime Timing

It’s really hard to put a child to bed in a tent when it’s still light outside. On the flip side it’s hard to have a child fall asleep in a dark, cold tent. Try to hit that sweet spot of getting them into the tent and starting your stories as it’s getting dark.* Also, keeping with the same routines that you would do at home helps them wind down. Read a book, rinse off some of the camping dirt or at least take a “baby wipe bath”, and change into pj’s.

*If you’re camping during a time of year when it’s dark by 5 or 6 o’clock you won’t be able to do the sweet spot trick.. unless you want your kid waking up at 3am!

Set Your Tent Up Under a Tree

A little shade can make a big difference. A strategically placed tent can block out the morning sun just a little longer. If you’re a parent you know there’s a big difference between being woken up at 6am and 7am! But use common sense. If the tree looks unhealthy or it’s windy you might want to set your tent up elsewhere. You don’t want any large limbs crashing down on you in the middle of the night!

tent cabin is kid friendly camping in yosemite
Bedtime reading in a tent cabin in Yosemite

Bringing a Baby Camping

Unfortuantley , bringing a baby camping is a lot of work. For infants it’s keeping them from getting sun-baked during the day or too cold at night. Not to mention needing to remember all the paraphernalia that goes along with them. Crawling babes will get a nice coating of camping dust on their bodies. You’ll also have to stay on your toes keeping them away from the road and the campfire. Still want to bring a baby camping? Read on.

Pack a Portable Crib

If you and your baby are used to sleeping separately at home then you’ll probably be happiest sleeping in your own respective beds camping. Bringing along a portable crib lets your baby have a cozy place to sleep and it also doubles as a safe place to put them down while you’re building a campfire. Obviously the portable crib plan means that you need a big tent so plan accordingly…

Sleep Sack+Easy Pajamas

You can’t expect a baby to use a sleeping bag and nowadays it’s taboo to place blankets in the crib. This creates a camping conundrum since you need to find a way to keep junior warm at night. Depending on how cold it is at night you have several options. If it’s moderately cold try warm fleece pajamas, a pair of sweatpants, jacket (no hood), and a sleep sack (wearable blanket). Little hands can get cold at night and mittens probably won’t stay on. Roomy PJ’s or a jacket that extend past their hand can help keep their hands from freezing. For hard-core parents taking their baby someplace with exceptionally chilly nights you may want to consider a one-piece snowsuit type thing with a sleep sack. I also bring along a fitted fleece hat with a snap under the chin to keep it in place.

Pick a Campsite With Some Background Noise

Even with a comfy crib and cozy pajamas chances are your baby will wake up crying at some point during your camping trip. A wailing baby at 1am becomes even more stressful when you have to worry about upsetting your camping neighbors. If you’re able to nab a campsite near a creek or ocean, the ambient background noise can help minimize how much your baby’s late night wake-ups are heard. At they very least try to get a campsite with ample space around it.

Be Hands Free

Probably the most important gear item to bring when camping with a baby is some type of carrier. You’ll want it for hiking but you’ll also want it for those times that you need to use your hands (tent set-up, dishes, meal prep).

camping with baby
My favorite hat for camping with babies

Tips for Camping with Kids

Have them help

Lets be honest, camping is a lot of work. Enlist the help of your children to lighten your workload. Frequently kids are more excited to help out with chores when camping because it’s exciting and novel. Once mine turned five I expected them to help clean up after each camping meal. One child will rinse dishes and the other will dry.

Don’t Bring Too Many Toys

Camping is a great opportunity for kids to explore their own creativity and resourcefulness. Just bring a few simple toys (a few action figures, a soccer ball, a couple stuffed animals) and see what they can come up with utilizing their surroundings. Besides, you probably won’t have the space in your car to bring a bunch of kid toys!

Stash Your Device

Camping is so much better when you really allow yourself to disconnect from technology. Have your family put away their phones and unwind old-school style with art, reading, or a deck of cards.

Plan Ahead

Many of the popular family friendly campgrounds fill up quick. These days it’s not uncommon to have to make a reservation six-months to a year in advance! If you’re not the plan ahead type consider going to a campground that is “first come, first serve”. If you arrive mid-week you should be able to snag a site.

Camp Near Water

The kids and I love camping so much more when there is a fresh body of water to splash around in. Not only does it feel amazing on a hot summer day, it also washes off some of the camp grime. While a “river bath” is not quite the same as an actual bath, it’s better than nothing!

Your Bear Box is Like Your Fridge

Just like you wouldn’t leave your refrigerator door open, teach your kids to always keep the bear box closed. Bears aren’t the only woodland creatures that will seize any opportunity to raid your food. Once we left for a short hike and returned to find that the chipmunks had gotten into the bear box. They destroyed an entire loaf of bread, chewed through both boxes of cereal and helped themselves to the s’more fixings. Needless to say we were bummed. On the bright side, there’s nothing like having s’more fixings ruined to teach kids a valuable lesson in keeping the bear box closed!

Try Glamping

If you’re short on time and don’t want the hassle of packing up all the camping gear, try glamping! Glam-camping is growing in popularity and is a great way to get your nature/camping fix without needing to set up a tent. With glamping you stay in a simple tent cabin, yurt, or even a renovated airstream trailer. You’ll pay more but the convenience and comfort is worth the extra money!

staying in an airstream in joshua tree. taking kids camping in joshua tree
Sometimes it’s easier to leave the tent behind and glamp!

Resources for Finding a Campground

Recreation.gov (National Forest and National Park camping)

Hipcamp (kind of like Airbnb but for camping)

Reservecalifornia.com (California State Campgrounds)

Reserveamerica.com (Campgrounds all over the United States)

Further Reading on Family-Friendly Camping

Escape the Crowds at Lakes Basin, CA

Camping in Mammoth Lakes, CA

A Weekend of Nostalgia at Bar SZ Ranch

The Bottom Line: Car camping with kids can be a lot of fun. It’s a lot of prepping, packing, and planning ahead but spending time together outdoors is always worth it.

hanging in a hammock in lassen national park

The Bottom Line: Be prepared for a lot of prep, packing, and planning when camping with kids. But the hours spent packing and planning are worth the lifetime of memories.

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