Hacks and Essentials to Make Family Camping More Comfortable:
Now that summer’s in full swing, have you been camping yet? Or are you still gearing up for your first family outdoor adventure? My hubby and I used to go camping several times each summer, until the girls entered our lives. While he wasn’t game for camping with kids still in diapers, we took our first family car-camping trip as soon as they were in preschool and both (mostly) toilet-trained. Since then, we’ve learned a lot of little tricks to make family tent camping easier.
True, several of them are more of a long-term investment, or may duplicate non-camping-specific items you already own. So it’s worth weighing the costs of adding extra “stuff” to your lives vs. the benefits of having this additional dedicated stuff in your camping pile. But having said that, we’ve gotten enough use out of these to make them worthwhile investments, both for camping and for other outdoor adventures.
Ready to learn more? Here you go!
Our Fave Ways to Make Family Tent Camping Easier
1. Family-Sized Tent
Ideally, one that will grow with your family. For our 4-person family, we got a 6-person tent that can divide into two rooms. If your family is/will ever be bigger than 4, I’d recommend getting a family tent for more than 6 people.
2. Screen Room, Garage, and/or Porch
When choosing a tent, look for one with an attached semi-enclosed space. Some come with a built-in front awning or screened “front porch.” Ours has a “garage” we can attach on front, and a “back porch” to zip on the back. Crucial for storing gear under, rainy days, etc. If these aren’t options for your tent, consider a portable stand-alone screened-in room.
3. Basic Tarp with Poles
You need something to go over your picnic table so you can have a dry, shaded space to eat. We love our Kelty Noah’s Tarp, and have a couple of extra poles for additional tying options (in case there aren’t enough trees).
4. Pop-Up Awning
But if you’re camping on a beach or in a field, you might be better off with the smaller footprint and self-contained framework of a pop-up awning. We bought our first one after broiling in the field at a summer music festival, and haven’t looked back.
Cooking and Eating
5. Igloo Ice Cube Cooler
THE BEST cooler at keeping stuff cold for long periods of time, both according to our experience and Consumer Reports. I’ve had one for years, but last summer Dear Hubby got the upgraded version, which comes on wheels for easier transport. Genius.
6. Two-Burner Camp Stove
Unless you plan to spend all day in camp tending your fire, you need a stove on which you can cook a whole meal in minimal time. Our two-burner Everest stove from Camp Chef is perfect. Lightweight to transport, easy to use, and gets the job done.
7. Camping cook pots
Sure, you can take your own pots and pans from home – esp. a good idea if you have older ones that are already a bit beat. But we also bring my husband’s old Solo 2-quart pot with lid with us, every time. It’s perfect for heating water, and the clamp-on handle/grabber is a lifesaver when cooking.
8. 5-gallon collapsible water container
You NEED this in camp, but you don’t need the extra space it takes up when not in use. We’ve had this one for several years, and it’s sturdy but lightweight. Perfect for hauling water back from the pump – or the next town over.
9. Durable/lightweight utensils for everyone
Again, you COULD just go with leftover plastic disposables you have lying around. But these break, as we’ve learned.
Instead, I got each of us a lightweight titanium spork with a hole in the end (so one could clip it onto a pack if hiking). As with the rest of our camping gear, we each have a different color, so it’s easy to tell whose is whose.
10-11. Durable/lightweight plates and Sierra cups
We each have a MSR plate. They’re useful for camping now, but also for future backpacking trips. We each also have a 16-oz Sierra cup. These can double as a mug or a bowl, which makes them more versatile than bringing a mug AND bowl.
At last summer’s music festival, Dear Hubs and I each also got a Klean Kanteen pint cup with hanging ring (I later bought a lid for mine, too). So we now take those instead of our heavier travel mugs that we’d use at home, for our morning beverages.
(Oh, and bring a few extra plates if you can, for serving food.)
12-13. Dish bins (or collapsible buckets) and dunk bags
The easiest and best way I know to clean dishes properly in camp is to wash, rinse, and then dunk in boiling water. This requires three separate water containers. We use regular nesting wash basins from the store; if space is more important to you than cost, consider collapsible buckets instead.
But then you need a way to dunk them in hot water, without burning your fingers. Hence the dunk bags, which are also a great way to hang the dishes to dry, AND store each person’s set when not in use.
14. Camp cooking table
By the time we get our camp stove, cooking gear, and ingredients onto the picnic table, we barely have room left to eat!
Enter this awesome collapsible camping cook table my mama got us a few Christmases ago. Its multiple layers are perfect for holding all our gear. And while DH still likes keeping the stove on the picnic table, it’s ideal for putting your stove on top if you choose.
15-16. A few collapsible containers and lunch/snack containers
Because you’ll need serving vessels. And something reusable in which to pack picnic lunches.
We bring a series of nesting plastic rectangular boxes from a certain brand of cold cuts for our sandwich boxes. And several years ago, I found a couple of lightweight collapsible bowls/lids like these – perfect for camp bowls, and they fold up flat when not in use.
17-22. Basic camp cooking utensils, knife, lightweight cutting board, etc.
Again, you could take the ones you use every day at home. But those are often heavier, bulkier, and otherwise less-ideal for camp use than camping-specific models. I love this GSI camp utensil kit we got last Christmas, and DH just got a sharp knife with sheath from MSR for our camp kitchen. (Much easier than worrying about taking a knife from home and protecting the blade!).
Beyond that, think about what sorts of things you’ll need in camp for the food you plan to eat. Some of our must-haves include a couple of lightweight cutting boards, a vegetable peeler, and a can opener/bottle opener. Also, these little silicone scrapers are great for getting food off dishes before they go into the dishwater.
23-26. Other camp cooking essentials
Don’t forget to pack the basics like a small camp set of salt and pepper and a camp-sized bottle of olive oil. Ditto for matches/a lighter, and whatever other seasonings or condiments you can’t live without. And finally, throw in a basic roll of aluminum foil, to protect food, make extra pots/trays/cooking plates in a pinch, etc.
27-30. Zip-top plastic bags in assorted sizes
Assorted-sized zip-top bags (snack/sandwich/quart/gallon) are also super-handy to have in camp, for everything from wet clothes to hiking snacks. Take a handful of each size out of the box before you leave home, and rubber-band them together into a bundle; put a few extras in your hiking backpacks as well.
31. Lightweight collapsible crates or sturdy bags
I’m guessing you’ll be bringing food items from home? We like collapsible crates because they keep our food contained and uncrushed while we’re in transit, and stack neatly in the trunk or at the campsite. But once empty, they collapse flat for the return trip home. (Because everything seems to take up more space when you’re going back home.)
And ours get tons of use year-round; I also use them for transporting books to and from children’s consignment sales, and we use them for transporting Christmas gifts when we drive to far-flung family members’ homes.
32. Cooking sticks
Even though we mostly cook over the camp stove, the girls insist we have s’mores at least once during each camping trip. So we use reusable roasting sticks for our marshmallows, plus anything else the girls want to cook on a stick (hot dogs, anyone?). The telescoping design makes them safe for littles to use, while keeping them at a distance from the actual fire pit.
Precautions and protection
33. Sunday Afternoon hats
Hats are important both for sun protection and to keep things off your head, like ticks dropping from trees. For maximum kiddo protection against the sun, we love the lightweight durability and extra-long back flaps of Sunday Afternoon hats. Every time the girls outgrow theirs, I buy the next size up. They’re such a worthwhile investment!
34. Permethrin-treated clothing
According to the experts, permethrin-treated clothing is the best way to protect your family from tick-borne diseases, not to mention mosquito bites. If you’re a grownup who spends a lot of time outside in the summer, pre-treated clothing is a worthwhile investment. But for kids’ ever-changing sizes, a better bet is DIY-ing permethrin clothing treatment at home. It’s easier than you’d think, and my step-by-step guide walks you through the process.
If nothing else, at least get a ExOfficio Damselfly Jacket for yourself. Though it’s hard to tell by looking, it’s actually made of breathable mesh, so it’s cool even on hot days. And it’s got a hood. I have been known to wear it backwards, hood up, when being swarmed by gnats; problem solved. I got my mama one for Christmas, and she wears it all the time for her gardening now.
35-36. SPF swim shirts (preferably long-sleeve) and button-down long-sleeve shirts
A long day of boating and swimming isn’t much fun with sunburn. And sunblock needs regular reapplication. Hence, we all have long-sleeve rash guards for swimming, and lightweight long-sleeve button-front sun shirts with roll-tab sleeves. (Columbia makes them in kids’ sizes.)
I wasn’t so careful about these things before I married DH. The girls inherited his fair complexion, and presumably his family history of skin cancer as well. So if I put something on them, I also put it on myself. That way, I can set a good example for them. (The same goes for wearing a hat!)
And don’t forget the sunscreen! We like Neutrogena products because they don’t irritate my and Essie’s sensitive skin. But if you’ll be swimming with fish, coral reefs, or other natural critters while camping, consider a reef-friendly sunblock like ThinkSport. (This is what we got for our trip to Hawaii last winter.)
38. Repellent containing DEET and/or picaridin
Even if you wear permethrin-treated clothing, any exposed skin is still fair game for biting insects. So you’ll need to protect that exposed skin somehow. Again, according to the experts who’ve tested different products, the most effective ones for long-term coverage are those containing DEET or (if you have kids under 3) picaridin.
39. Decent day packs, sized to wearer, for all
Everyone who’s walking needs their own day pack (backpack large enough to hold essential gear for the day/hike). Even the littlest hikers can use a tiny one for a small leakproof sippy cup and a few snacks. (I’m a firm believer in getting kiddos started on being responsible for their own stuff at an early age.)
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And unless your kiddos are school-age, it’s also a good idea to have a child-carrier hiking backpack for one grownup to wear. As long as your toddler or preschooler fits the weight limits, I’m willing to bet they won’t be able to take another step a lot faster than the rest of you tire, walking from your campsite to the nearby beach and back.
40. Hydration packs
It’s so easy to forget to drink on hot summer days, when you’re out on a hike or paddling about. Hydration packs have solved this problem for us. We’re a Camelbak family, just because that’s what my baby bro Evan first introduced me to years ago, but there are plenty of other brands out there.
And yes, there are even hydration packs for kids. While you can buy the pieces (bladder + a backpack to hold it) separately, I recommend getting a full hydration pack system if you’re going to use it a lot. Water is heavy. The girls’ CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E. hydration systems come with small backpacks just big enough to hold a few essentials besides the water, so they don’t overload them. And while my hubby and I use our M.U.L.E. packs as our backpacks for long biking trips, we just swap the bladder into hiking day packs the rest of the time.
41-42. Emergency sanitation kit + kids’ emergency supplies
Whenever you’re camping, at least one grownup should keep an “emergency sanitation kit” handy (e.g., in backpack on hikes or excursions) at all times. This is a small zip-top bag containing a small (i.e., almost-empty) roll of toilet paper, a small container of hand sanitizer, and a few small extra plastic bags for trash.
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A small diaper clutch is perfect for tucking in a backpack, if you have littles still in diapers. Otherwise, at least up until tweens, each child (especially each girl) should also bring a plastic bag in their backpack containing a spare pair of shorts and undies. Trust me on this.
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43-44. Clip-on sanitizers and SPF lip balms
Because it’s easier to just clip these on your backpack, too. And kids, especially, might need to clean their hands before stopping for a snack. Plus you don’t want anyone’s lips getting sunburned and blistered – trust me, it’s not pleasant. (These little gadgets will help you clip on your lip balm.)
45-46. Two pairs of closed-toe shoes per person (preferably one waterproof, one water)
You don’t want your kiddos in open-toed sandals in camp. Everyone should have a pair of sturdy shoes for walking/hiking, preferably waterproof hiking boots. And everyone should also have some sort of shoes that can get wet, with grippy rubber soles (water shoes, old sneakers, etc.), for things like exploring wet coastlines.
Again, learn from our experience: try on shoes shortly before you go camping so you know they fit. And if you only bring one pair of shoes for your kiddo, I can promise you they’ll get soaked the first day, and your child will be miserable.
47. Trekking poles
Collapsible/adjustable trekking poles are great for helping keep anyone with bad knees (me) upright on unsteady terrain while hiking. Kids who are less-experienced hikers can also find them helpful. I was skeptical until I tried them; now I’m a convert.
48. Packable picnic blanket/ground cover
A lightweight something to put on the ground for impromptu picnics is a great thing to have. There are so many compact, packable lightweight versions out there, you can find one for pretty much any budget. But if you’re not yet convinced, just roll up a heavy-duty (oversized/contractor-style, if you have them) trash bag and stuff it in your day pack. (A small knife or pair of scissors is helpful for cutting it open along the seams.)
49. Lightweight multi-use rain ponchos
At some point, everyone will hike and/or camp in the rain. And for just a couple bucks more than a disposable single-use poncho, you can get a slightly sturdier rain poncho that you can reuse over and over. (Ponchos without sleeves are also nice in that they’re big enough to cover you AND your day pack.) We all carry our own in our backpacks, so we’re ready to wear them on short notice.
50-51. Dry sacks (for clothes + phones)
If there’s any chance you’ll have wet stuff you want to keep from soaking everything else (e.g., swimsuits) – or dry stuff you want to keep dry (e.g., your clean clothes for post-swimming), you need a few basic dry sacks. The kind made for boating will also get your gear safely through a day of raining hiking, boating, swimming, or what have you. While you could also use 2-gallon zip top bags, dedicated dry sacks are much more durable, and some will also compress the contents so they take up less space.
And now that I’ve discovered phone-sized dry-sack neck wallets, I keep one with my swim gear at all times. On camping trips, I keep an extra one in my day pack, just in case we get caught in the rain.
52-53. Paper towels (properly hung) and cleaning wipes
Your camp kitchen gear should include a roll of paper towel (we like the choose-a-size types) and a canister of your favorite cleaning wipes. We take a lightweight dry-cleaner’s hanger (the white ones are easiest), un-twist the top, slide the paper towel through, and then re-twist the top together. This makes a camp-friendly paper towel dispenser that hangs from a corner of your camp table, so they don’t roll away from you.
54. Plastic shopping bags (for trash)
And unless you live in a state that bans plastic shopping bags, bring a bunch of extra grocery-store bags to use for trash bags. (Check for holes first.) Otherwise, bring some plastic trash bags with you.
55-58. Camp Suds 2-oz AND 16-oz, plus sponges/scrubber for dishes
We like Camp Suds as a general-purpose camp soap because it’s biodegradable, concentrated, versatile, and works in hot or cold water (even in salt water!). We use it for dishes and hand-washing clothes; Dear Husband also uses it for his bathing soap. (Thanks to our sensitive skin, the girls and I use moisturizing sensitive-skin body wash instead.)
We have several 2-oz bottles that we refill after each trip from the 16-oz bottles. When we’re camping, I keep the soap, a small sponge, and a small scrubber in a mesh clip-on bag; that’s our “dishwashing” kit. I have another small bottle that stays in another clip-on mesh bag along with my travel hand-laundry items. Makes life so much easier to have these bags always ready to go!
59. Flip-flops or slides for everyone
So you don’t have to
- walk around barefoot in the shower house (eeeew!), or
- fuss with getting shoes back on for middle-of-the-night toilet trips.
My pair are plastic Madrid-style Birkenstocks, which are so much more comfy for me than regular flip-flops.
60-62. Hanging toiletry kits, mesh shower caddies, and a small separate pouch with toothbrushes/toothpaste
Just as I’ve yet to see a shower house I’d like to walk around in barefoot, I’ve yet to see one with oodles of clean counter space for all your “stuff.” A couple of toiletry kits with hanging hooks (one for the girls/Mama, one for the boys/Dad) make it much easier to access your stuff without your things getting gross, wet, and/or landing on the floor in the process.
Likewise, each of us has a mesh shower caddy to stash our clean clothes/dry towels in when we shower (or go to swim), and carry the wet/dirty things back to the site when we’re done. And finally, because it’s easier to have just a few things (toothbrushes/toothpaste, bedtime pills, contact solution/glasses case, whatever) before bed and first thing, we just use one of the Vaultz pouches for these things, so we don’t have to take the whole larger kit each time.
63-64. Quick-dry towels and facecloths
If you’ve never tried quick-dry microfiber towels and camp facecloths, trust me: you NEED these. They pack up smaller than your regular towels. and line-dry so much faster. And the facecloths are genius – perfect for scrubbing off trail grime, but so quick-drying that they never get “funky” smelling. We each have our own set now, color-coded so we can tell whose are whose.
When choosing towels, make sure you pick bath towels that are large enough to cover bodies, and read reviews to find ones that won’t shrink or bleed. Also look for ones with an integrated hang loop.
65. Extra quick-dry towels for pots and pans
I also got a few extra sets, in black and gray, of these two-packs of 16″x32″ microfiber hand towels. We use one gray towel for a hand towel in camp, and the other three as dish-drying towels.
66. CGEAR desert-gear door mats
These seemed extravagant, until we tried them (thanks to my in-laws gifting them to us for Christmas). Best. Gift. EVER.
Before, the girls routinely tracked all sorts of crud into our tent (usually all over my/DH’s sleeping spaces, on their way back to their own spots). But these mats keep 90% of the crud outside, in our “garage” and “back porch” (see above). They also provide a clean-ish, dry-ish space for stripping off wet and muddy gear before entering our tent, by keeping us separate from wet and muddy ground space. But they rinse off with a garden hose, and dry super-fast!
67. Camp-sized whisk broom and dust pan
So, that 10% of crud that still slips into our tent, even after our new CGear mats? These clean it up, quickly and efficiently, when we’re packing up camp – so it’s not all waiting for us the next time we set up the tent.
68. Clothesline OR folding clothes rack
We always used to bring a long length of sturdy yellow rope with us for a camp clothesline. It was durable, and the color kept it visible.
This worked great until the time we camped out in an open field, with nothing to tie the rope to. (Oh, and it poured most of that trip.) Hence, if there’s any chance of either rain or no trees, I now toss in one of our lightweight fold-flat clothes drying racks. During last summer’s week of more rain than not, our laundry, towels, and swim wear would never have dried if we hadn’t brought the rack and set up in our tent’s garage.
Leisure and Rest
69-70. Headlamps + extra batteries
Everyone old enough to walk for themselves should have their own headlamp. These hands-free flashlights are essential for getting around safely at night. Plus they now come in sizes and patterns targeted toward kids, too. (And don’t forget the extra batteries!)
71. Folding camp chairs for all
Because if your littles don’t have their own little chairs, they’ll crawl up into yours. We have basic adult-sized ones; if you’ll be going to music festivals or outdoor sporting events with yours, splurge on one with a sun canopy. We just upgraded the girls from ones sized for little kids to ones sized for bigger kids.
You could also bring the folding lawn chairs you may already own – but camping chairs fold up smaller, into carry bags you can sling over your shoulder when needed.
72. A small hanging light or lantern
Having a small light that can hang is ideal for the roof inside your tent when putting little ones to bed, or when putting yourself to bed without disturbing them. Also useful for having out on the picnic table during adult time after they’ve gone to sleep.
73-75. Fleece sleep sacks, sleeping-bag liners, and travel pillows
If you’re going to be somewhere that gets chilly at night, then yes, by all means, bring the regular (bulky) sleeping bags. But if you’re camping during the summer heat, when even the nighttime lows are still pretty hot and humid, you’ll all be much more comfortable with a lightweight fleece sleep sack and a sheet or sheet-weight sleeping bag liner. (I strongly recommend ones that can open up flat and are easy to wash.)
76. Cots or sleeping pads (for kids)
Little ones will sleep more comfortably if they have their own sleeping pad or small cot. (Cots are a good bet if they’re useful for other travel, too. Essie sleeps on a Regalo cot when we visit friends with cats, to keep her off the floor and away from allergens.)
If you have several kids and will use them enough (camping and otherwise) to justify the cost, get your kids their own bunk-bed-style cots, which people who’ve tried them swear by. (Alas, we didn’t discover them until our kids were too big to justify the cost.)
77-78. Air mattress + electric inflation pump (for grownups)
Dear Husband and I have slept on the floor of the Grand Canyon, with only minimal padding from our self-inflating mattress pads.
We’re older and achier now.
79-80. Stand-alone potty seat + “toilet kit”
Even if your littles are potty-trained. We brought one with us unti