We survived our first family camping trip with preschoolers in tow. Not that there was ever any doubt – my husband and I have both loved camping since we were in Scouts – but still, we’re pretty pleased overall with how smoothly the weekend went.

For the most part, our previous experience in planning camping trips and packing for family roadtrips came in useful. This was especially true when you consider that our packing time was extremely limited, due in part to the last-minute-surprise nature of our trip from the girls’ perspective. As I look back on the weekend, though, these are the must-haves for family camping that I was most grateful to have along for the trip:

backdoor pottyA potty

Even though both the girls are now toilet-trained, I quickly realized that middle-of-the-night bathroom trips were going to fall on the same-sex parent (i.e., me). I was thus relieved when my husband suggested that putting a potty outside the back vestibule of our tent might save everyone a lot of sleep.

emergency kitA Ziploc with toilet paper, sanitizer, and extra plastic bags inside

At night, these materials lived in the vestibule off the back of our tent for the girls to use. During the day, they lived in Kimmie’s backpack as our emergency-in-the-woods supplies.

packs and drinksBackpacks and water bottles for everyone

Granted, my girls were late walkers; but my attitude has always been that if they’re old enough to walk, then they’re old enough to hike.  And if they’re old enough to hike, then they’re old enough to carry their own gear.

drink containersWe’re not talking overload here; after all, a child’s pack should total no more than 15-20% of his or her body weight. But even within these limits, there’s no reason the girls can’t carry their own leak-proof sippy cups or water bottles, securely leashed to their packs. And for the first time on this hike, Essie was able to carry her own spare shorts and underwear instead of a diaper pouch.

bug braceletsBug bracelets

If I ever had any doubts that these work, our family camping trip erased them. These little citronella-doused pieces of plastic come in various formats, and last about a week, but work far better than the much-pricier electronic mosquito-repelling bracelet from a local home-improvement store that I tested before our trip. (Yes, it repels mosquitoes – but it doesn’t do anything for a vast range of other swarming and biting pests.)

bracelets out of reachGranted, the bug bracelets didn’t cover every pest we encountered; on our hike, there were still a few flying menaces that wouldn’t leave us alone until we used bug repellent. Still, though, wearing these bracelets definitely cut down on the amount of repellent we had to spray on ourselves and our clothing.

The only challenge with using them is that the girls can’t resist playing with them. So we attached them to the back of their hats or packs; problem solved.

At bedtime, the girls found their eyemasks waiting on their stuffed-animal friends.

At bedtime, the girls found their eyemasks waiting on their stuffed-animal friends.

Eyemasks for the girls

OK, so maybe not everyone’s kids are as light-sensitive as mine are. (They come by it rightly; I am extremely light-sensitive and awake with the sun, regardless of how early it is or how little sleep I’ve had.) But if yours are at all prone to rising at whatever hour the sun does, I urge you to give this serious consideration.

The masks don’t need to be fancy; my girls use freebie masks from different airlines, gathered over the years. But unless you want your children waking you up at 4am or 5am or whenever dawn breaks, consider bringing these along.

For what it’s worth, Helen Olsson (author of The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids) also recommends earplugs for everyone. We tried; alas, the girls’ ears are still too small.

Three sets of shoes for each girl

Specifically, a sturdy pair to hike in; a water-friendly pair to get wet (e.g., wear in the shower); and a comfy pair to wear the rest of the time.

pint-sized lawn chairKiddo-sized camping chairs

We don’t own pint-sized camp chairs for the girls yet. But since we always bring our own folding chairs with us when we go camping, at the last minute I had the bright idea to tuck their kiddo lawn chairs into our camping pile.

This was a very smart move. While we aren’t big fans of time-outs, it was useful to have a designated place to park the girls when we needed to keep them from playing with the fire pit. Plus, having their own chairs made them feel more a part of the family camping experience – and kept them from stealing our grownup-sized comfy seats.

Strategically-packed bags

This final item is more a matter of how you pack than what you pack for your trip. I’ve advocated strategic packing before, and camping is a perfect example of how a little advance planning can save you lots of hassle later on.

When it was time to get the girls bathed, dressed in their PJs, and teeth-brushed before bed on that first night at camp, boy oh boy was I glad that I had a separate bag, still tucked away in the backseat of the car, that contained everything we’d need to accomplish these tasks (including the girls’ flashlights and my headlamp) – and nothing else.

Perhaps you’re a seasoned camper who’s learned the hard way about how so-not-fun it is to hunt around in the dark, burning out your flashlight batteries, for something you’ve misplaced. Imagine having to do this times several, when you’ve got kids still loopy from the sugar in their after-dinner s’mores – all this at an hour that’s well past bedtime. See what I mean?

If you’ve camped with offspring in tow before, what items are on your list of must-haves for family camping?

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