Camping with Young Children (Gear+Activities)

Earlier in my life I wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me that one day I would count a box fan and electricity as necessary camping gear.  Our backpacking trips have trickled into our camping habits and we don’t like setting up a ton of stuff.  But one thing we’ve learned camping with littles  is that if the toddler isn’t comfortable, they aren’t going to sleep.  And if the toddler doesn’t sleep, nobody is going to be having any fun.  Thus, we’ve added a few luxuries to our list of essential camping gear to help make it easier on our kids.

The list and tips below are geared towards a family of 5, camping with kids under the age of 6. This was our packing list for taking our 5yr old, 3yr old, and 5month old camping for 3days/2nights.

Happy Camping!

To Do

1. Plan a light schedule.  You have to assume that the majority of your time camping with young children will be spent feeding them, getting them to sleep, and making bathroom dashes.  We will do hiking or exploring activities in the morning and then just swim or play games around the campsite later on.

2.  Along those lines, include meal prep in your list of family activities. Eating leisurely meals around the campfire is one reason why we love to go camping.  So we plan our schedule to allow in plenty of time to let the kids be involved. With supervision they can help fill the pot with water, collect fire wood, set out dishes, and cook food on roasting sticks. They love being involved and this keeps them busy while waiting on food.

3. Campground/camp site choices We like to pick a campground that is shady and has at least one fun thing to see or do: either sightseeing hikes or swimming.  The best hikes are ones with a shallow swimming hole at the end of it. We choose a campsite that is 2-3 sites away from a bathroom.  Close, but not too close.  We’ve found that the noise of people coming and going wakes our kids up and we’d rather run a bit further for the bathroom than deal with fussy/tired kids getting woke up!

4. Acclimate the kids to sleeping out doors before you go.  Try some back yard naps in the tent or take a couple of one-night trips. If you will be camping for more than one night, getting them over the newness of sleeping in a tent before you go might help everyone sleep better when it counts.

4. Make rainy day plans ahead of time.  Take things you can do in the tent or find something local it would be fun to see.  If it’s going to be hot, spending time in a tent during an afternoon rain isn’t always a great idea.  Especially since keeping your fan plugged in during a rain storm may not be feasible.  We look for a local indoor place it would be fun to explore, an indoor pool/YMCA, kids movies playing at the theater, or a sheltered pavilion we can take games and puzzles to.

5.  Plan nature activities for the afternoon/evenings around the campsite.  This is especially helpful for times when my husband and I are trying to set up/pack up camp. Here are my favorites I’ve done in the past:

  • Tongs and a bucket.  It’s amazing how much fun kids can have with these collecting rocks, twigs, and leaves around the campsite.
  • A magnifying glass and/or binoculars
  • A ream of paper with colored pencils or kids markers (for leaf rubbings, color leaves or sticks with markers, nature scavenger hunt lists, drawing, writing down fun memories to remember later, paper airplanes).
  • Paper can also be used to make targets for rock/stick/airplane throwing games.
  • Water guns (and a bucket for filling them up).
  • Twine or yarn.  Great for lashing sticks together to create things. Or you can string it between two trees and clip the kids artwork to it with clothes pins.
  • T-shirt and T-shirt paint.  You can use sticks and leaves as stamps by outlining them with paint and pressing onto the T-shirt.
  • Bubbles

To Take

Here are a few things we found essential for camping with young kids.  At the end is our camping checklist.  We keep most of these items in a bin in the back of our closet so we can just grab and go for quick overnight camping trips when a beautiful weekend pops up. These things are included on the checklist below.

1.  Camp beds or super comfy quilts/sleeping bag pads.  A well rested family is a happy family!  Since we go camping often, we invested in REI’s Camp Beds  and oh what a difference they make!  Well worth the price.  We only paid $25 each for ours but I’d pay full price in a heartbeat when ours wear out.

2.  Waterproof pads and extra blankets.  Our kids sleep on top of their sleeping bags and we take blankets for warmth.  We got some waterproof top-of-the-bed pads that they can sleep directly on to help prevent accidents on sleeping bags.  We also take extra blankets, just in case.  Even if they are wearing pull ups we use these because pull ups are not fail-safe.  The last thing you want is to have to wash out a sleeping bag while camping!

4. Box Fan (pick a campsite with electricity).  At one point, I would have scoffed at bringing a box fan camping.  But now I count it as helpful because a little breeze makes a world of difference in trying to get kids to sleep. It also acts as a great noise maker.

5. Buckets.  We use buckets for lots of things.  Washing dishes or mud out of clothes, sponge baths for dirty kids, and toting toiletries to the bathrooms.  We also use them for water fun to help the kids stay cool. They splash in them, wash rocks in them, fill water guns, all sorts of fun.

6.  Travel Bed and a Fleece sleep sack for infants.  We were given a Eddie Bower Travel Bed at a baby shower and we’ve found it perfect for camping with a baby (found at Target and on Ebay)!  It doubles as a changing station during the day.  We fold up a thick blanket into fourths and put the bed on top.  We also love the Halo Fleece Sleep Sacks for infants and toddlers too small to use a sleeping bag.

7.  Soft music on our phones.  Our kids can’t resist falling asleep to music.  If they are really struggling to settle down we’ll put on some music and they will be asleep within a few minutes.

8.  Quick Drying camp towels and washcloths.  We invested in these because we are constantly in need of towels and washcloths.  Regular towels take too long to dry and too much room to take extras.

9. Swim suits. Even if the campsite doesn’t have swimming (or it’s too cold) take swim suits to use in the shower.  Our kids are terrified of the camp showers.  So we put on swim suits and go into the shower with them.

10.  Wool or Fleece sweatshirt/hats for warmth if it will be chilly.  Cotton is pretty worthless to keep you warm while camping.  Unless you have 4+ layers of it.  Fleece is our favorite.


General Gear:

  • ___Tent
  • ___Footprint or Tarp for under tent
  • ___Camp Beds and sheets
  • ___Waterproof Pads
  • ___Blankets plus 2 extra ones
  • ___Pillows and favorite sleep items for kids
  • ___Infant Travel Bed
  • ___Infant Fleece Sleep Sack
  • ___Box Fan and outdoor extension cord
  • ___2 camp hand towels
  • ___bio-degradable dish soap
  • ___bio-degradable hand soap
  • ___pocket knife
  • ___hatchet
  • ___a 2-gallon size bucket or plastic bin for dish/laundry washing
  • ___nylon rope for a clothes line
  • ___20 clothes pins
  • ___Check or cash for campsite, wood, etc.
  • ___Headlamps with extra batteries
  • ___small dust pan and broom for tent
  • ___camera
  • ___phone and phone charger
  • ___nature activities and some books for the kids
  • ___camp chairs
  • ___portable booster for toddlers/bumbo for infants (we put these on a picnic blanket on the ground – picnic table seats are not stable enough)
  • ___picnic blanket
  • ___Food and cooking gear list
  • Water purifier pump or bottled water (if you are concerned about campsite water – always good to check with the Ranger first before giving to kids!).

Clothes & Personal Care:

Update 6.24.13 (after a 5 day/4 night trip):  The camping ground we went to had lake swimming.  We spend so much time changing in and out of swimsuits it was annoying.  And we also only used 1/2 our clothes.  Thus, next time I’m raiding the thrift stores and taking 3 swimsuits for each child (2 pieces so they can go to the bathroom easily), several comfortable covers, and laundry soap to wash them out with.  Maybe take 2 clean outfits each for going into town and the ride home but that is all.  Really, we spent 3/4ths of the trip in swimsuits! They pack so much lighter and are cooler to wear in warm weather than regular clothes.

We pack one swimming bag that has everyones stuff in it and then 1 backpack per person.  It helps to have the kids things separated individually!

  • ___ Life vests for swimming in lake/boating.
  • ___swim suits
  • ___5 camp washcloths and bath towels (1 set per person)
  • ___5 Beach towels for swimming (1 per person)
  • ___first aid kit w/ allergy meds, thermometer, and fever reducers (for both adults and kids). You really don’t want to be caught behind a locked gate trying to figure out how sick a child is.
  • ___Poison Ivy Soap/Calamine lotion
  • ___sunscreen
  • ___sun hats/glasses
  • ___bug spray
  • ___ Toiletries (including bar of soap/bath wash)
  • ___Rain gear for everyone
  • ___Fleece jacket and hat for everyone
  • ___1 outfit per day+few extra for everyone (see update above)
  • ___Sleepwear
  • ___water shoes for the shower/lake swimming
  • ___large canvas bag for laundry (something breathable so your laundry doesn’t mold/smell awful).
  • ___laundry soap (I put some in a small, empty hand soap pump bottle). In case of accidents since you don’t want a pee smell to haunt your campsite!
  • ___diapers/Pull-ups + wipes


We don’t take these items but if you wanted a bit more comfort or a nice looking campsite you could add them to your list.

  • Port-a-crip for a safe play zone for busy toddlers
  • Picnic table cover and clips
  • doormat for outside of tent
  • lantern
  • picnic table screen tent
  • screen food covers to keep bugs off
  • outdoor sting lights for making the campsite pretty at night
  • bug candles to keep bugs away

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