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Camping with Kids: How to Plan Your First Family Camping Trip

My kids are seasoned campers now, but I can still remember the first time we went camping as a family.

There was so much we all had to learn, and while it took a few trips to work the kinks out, I’m so grateful it happened.

Now we can pick a spot, pack our gear like pros, and spend meaningful time in nature, disconnecting from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

If you’re thinking of taking your kids on their first family camping adventure, here’s what you should know.

Picking the Destination Should Be Unanimous (Or Close to It)

You have to answer a very important question before your camping trip gets off the ground.

Where will you take the family?

There’s a whole big, wide world out there, and while you might be eager to explore its untamed wilderness, maybe save that for a later camping trip.

You never know how the kids are going to like camping until you try it. Plus, even then, there’s always the chance that they won’t enjoy their first trip, even if they’ll come to love it later.

After all, your kids have spent their entire lives in the safety of their homes. They’ve explored outside, but always with their beds not too far away. They’ve also likely grown up connected to technology, and now you’re taking all that away.

Keeping it local ensures that if you hit any snags, you can turn around and get home quick.

Research a couple of good camping spots in your neck of the woods. Have a family meeting and mention all the potential camping destinations, then leave it to a vote. Whichever spot earns the most votes is where you go camping.

If you have a tie, you’ll have to settle it with a tiebreaker. A few kids might be disappointed that their preferred camping spot wasn’t selected, so promise to take them there next time.

The Right Gear Will Make Your Trip

You must be ready for rain, wind, or shine, so you’re going to have a long packing list for your camping trip.

Here are the essentials you won’t want to go without.


A tent is your shelter when camping. A standard tent can fit four, usually two adults and two kids. However, six-person tents are becoming increasingly popular for larger groups.

You might still consider a six-person tent even if your family isn’t that big. You can use the extra space for keeping your gear and having some room to stretch your legs.

What if your brood is bigger still? Eight-person tents, although more uncommon, are available.

Besides the size of the tent, what else should you keep in mind as you shop?

Here are some important factors to prioritize.

  • Seasonality: Camping tents are built for three or four seasons. Three-season tents can withstand all conditions except for the frigid cold, while four-season tents can handle winter with aplomb. These tents include fewer mesh panels but more poles, so they’re naturally warmer. 
  • Attached floor: Not every tent includes a tent floor. Even those with a floor might not have one long enough if several family members are six feet or taller. The standard tent floor is about 85 inches long, whereas tall folks need one that’s 90 inches.
  • Pockets and loops: Premium camping tents will include more pockets and loops. Guyout loops let you connect guy lines to secure your tent in bad weather, and lantern loops are for affixing a lantern. Your tent might also have interior pockets and loops for keeping items off the ground.
  • Ventilation: Ventilation in a camping tent is a series of mesh panels for breathability and releasing humidity. Remember that four-season tents will have less ventilation.  
  • Waterproofing: A good camping tent should be waterproof. There’s a difference between water resistance and waterproofing. The former usually has a coating that can wear away with time. A waterproof tent is woven or stitched that way and remains watertight for years.
  • Ease of installation: Teaching your kids how to pitch a tent is a great life lesson, but it will fall on deaf ears if you struggle with the tent yourself. Your tent must be simple to erect, even if it’s a bigger option for eight people.  

Sleeping bags

When it’s bedtime, you and the kids will hunker down in your sleeping bags and slumber peacefully until morning.

Sleeping bags are tested in specific conditions to withstand certain temperatures. Some can handle temps into the negatives (in Celsius, not Fahrenheit), and others are designed for all three seasons except winter.

However, not every sleeping bag receives a rating from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or European Norm (EN). Since they didn’t undergo specific testing, you can’t say for sure how warm they’ll be.


Perishable items will spoil quick without a cooler. I recommend packing at least two coolers and possibly a third, depending on the size of your family. You can also keep drinks handy in the coolers.

Remind the kids to close the coolers as soon as they’re done in there to prevent the ice from melting too fast.

Cooking items and utensils

Can you cook all your meals over a roaring fire? Sure, but camping has gotten a lot more sophisticated.

You can bring a portable grill or just the grill racks if you know the campsite has a fire pit or charcoal grill. A propane stove is another way to cook home-quality meals in the wilderness. Griddles and cast-iron skillets are also good to have.

You’ll also need utensils and dinnerware such as cups, bowls, and plates. Don’t bring disposable dinnerware and utensils to limit the waste you accumulate. Instead, pack reusable plastic so you don’t have to fret if something gets dinged or dropped.

Or my personal favorite is that lightweight metalware designed for rugged use.

Water filtration system

You can pack water bottles or jugs of water if you want, but they’re tremendously heavy and can take away from your enjoyment of the camping experience.

Check ahead of time if your campsite has potable water. If not, you can make water potable yourself by using iodine tablets or a water filtration system.

This is a great chance to show the young ones how it works and remind them never to drink water straight from a lake, stream, or river.

Flashlights and lanterns

You can’t rely on your smartphone flashlight when camping the same way you do at home, as you’ll kill the battery fast. Instead, pack a good, old-fashioned flashlight or several, and some lanterns too.

Battery-powered lights are best, as you can’t recharge a lantern with a cord when you’re camping.

Pack some spare batteries in case the ones in your flashlight die faster than expected, such as when the kids are playing flashlight games.

Trash bags

The unspoken rule at any campsite is to leave no trace. Packing trash bags will allow you to clean up any messes you might accumulate during your stay.

Here’s yet another convincing reason to always tidy up. Wild animals such as bears can smell food (including food waste, if there’s enough food residue on it) from miles away.


You’ll need a set of chairs when you feel like kicking back and taking it easy. I recommend folding, collapsible chairs that travel effortlessly, such as camping chairs. Alternatively, you and the kids can hang out in a hammock.

Toilet paper

Here’s a must. Your campsite might have toilet paper, but it’s not guaranteed. Even if there is toilet paper around, you don’t know how much is available, and you don’t want to run out, as that’s embarrassing.

Do yourself and your family a favor and pack a couple of extra rolls. You’ll be glad you did!

Paper towels

I’d also suggest having some paper towels in your gear bag. They come in handy for cleaning up all sorts of messes, and you don’t know if the campsite will have any.


Sunscreen is another major item to bring with you. The sun’s rays will shine through even on a cloudy day. It might take longer to get burnt, but it can still happen.

Although the sun isn’t as prevalent in autumn and winter, it can do just as much damage during those seasons as it can in the spring or summer.

Make sure you bring enough sunscreen so that you and the entire family can cover exposed skin.

Reapply every two hours or after sweating or getting wet.

First-aid kit

To say kids are accident-prone is a major understatement. You can’t camp without a first-aid kit in case they scrape, cut, burn, or otherwise injure themselves.

If traveling in a group of four, here are the items the Red Cross suggests adding to your first-aid kit. Increase the number of supplies for a larger group.

  • Tweezers
  • Two triangular bandages
  • Non-glass, non-mercury oral thermometer
  • Five 4×4 sterile gauze pads
  • Five 3×3 sterile gauze pads
  • One 4-inch roller bandage
  • One 3-inch gauze roller bandage
  • Two packets of hydrocortisone ointment
  • Two large pairs of medical gloves
  • One cold compress
  • One breathing barrier
  • One emergency blanket
  • Two aspirin packets
  • Five packets of antiseptic wipes
  • Five packets of antibiotic ointment
  • One 10-yard-by-1-inch adhesive cloth tape
  • 25 adhesive bandages in varying sizes
  • Two 5×9 absorbent compress dressings

Test Your Gear Before You Get There

You don’t want to find out once you arrive at the park or campsite that your flashlight batteries are defective or your water filtration system doesn’t work (especially the latter!).

These problems can wreck your trip, forcing you to go home earlier than expected.

It only takes about an hour to unbox all your equipment, put batteries in or add a bit of fuel, and test it to make sure it works.

Check the first aid kit especially, and confirm it has everything you need in there.

Snacks Make the Trip

You might have noticed I didn’t mention one important item on your packing list: food! I saved that for this section.

I recommend planning your camping menu ahead of time. You can keep it a surprise from the kids if you want to make it more fun, but you should know what you’re making for meals the entire time you’ll be away from home.

Stick to simple family favorites, from burgers to hot dogs and skillet meals for lunches and dinners. Breakfasts are easy, as you can pack granola bars or breakfast bars for a quick, nourishing, nutritious meal on the go.

Make sure you have plenty of snacks. You want to keep the kids’ diets balanced, so pack some portable fruit like apples or bananas, fruit snacks and chips, and all the ingredients you need to make s’mores around a roaring campfire.

Skillet desserts like warm chocolate chip cookies or pancakes will surely make the kids’ night!

You’ll probably need to prep more food than your family eats on an average day. It’s not unheard of for campers to need between 2,500 and 4,000 calories (for adults, at least) due to the additional physical activity required.

Here are some tips to make packing snacks easier:

  • Bring plenty of plastic snack clips to secure packages after opening
  • If camping in warm weather, pack snacks like chocolate and fruit snacks in a cooler so they don’t melt
  • Use resealable plastic bags to pack snack-sized portions of cereal, crackers, and other portable snacks

Bring Ample Bug Protection

One of the more unpleasant aspects of exploring the great outdoors is the likelihood of meeting bugs. You’re in the domain of spiders, chiggers, wasps, ants, gnats, fleas, mosquitoes, and other insects.

Insect bites and stings can be serious. Some insect species spread diseases, and being bitten can have disastrous, possibly life-threatening consequences if your kids are allergic. Even if none of your children have insect allergies, a sting or bite is painful and will derail your day’s itinerary.

Fortunately, you have no shortage of options for safeguarding your family from insects. Here are some tips and strategies.

Watch where you camp

Certain campground areas will have more insects than others, such as standing, stagnant water (from deep puddles to ponds), tall grass, and thick woods. The further you can pitch a tent from these areas, the better.

Wear long sleeves and pants

Insects can fly or jump out at you and your family when hiking, biking, walking, or otherwise enjoying nature. Long pants and sleeves minimize the amount of exposed skin so insects can’t bite or sting you easily.

Long clothes aren’t the most comfortable in the summer, so continue reading the rest of the bug protection solutions so you don’t overheat.

Use citronella

From citronella oils to candles and everything in between, have you ever wondered why that scent specifically is used to send bugs away? The scent covers your natural aroma, which bugs find quite tantalizing.

So it’s not necessarily that insects hate citronella (although some do). Rather, the scent masks your true odor so an insect can’t find you to bite you. Mosquitoes especially detest citronella.

Rosemary, thyme, peppermint, and clove are other scents that can prevent insects from flying too close to your tent.

Spray or wear bug repellent

Bug repellant used to only come in a spray that smelled strong and left a sticky residue on your skin for hours. These days, you can wear repelling bracelets, creams, or lotions if you don’t like the spray-on stuff.

Close your tent

This last tip is one of the simplest but very effective. Keep your tent closed whether you’re in it or outside of it. Make sure you close any openings, even mesh. Smaller insects might be able to work their way through the mesh.

Have Activities Planned (Day and Night!)

The last thing you want to hear when camping with the kids is an exclamation of how bored they are. Foregoing the luxuries at home, such as Internet access, video games, Netflix, and social media can be tough for kids, especially during their first camping trip.

Don’t give them time to miss all their tech gadgets back home. Plan days and nights together with fun activities like bird or animal watching, fishing, swimming, hiking, boating, and cycling.

Make sure to account for the downtime. Bring board or card games, art supplies, washable chalk, bubbles, jump ropes, frisbees, and sports balls.

At night, gather around the fireplace, and tell spooky stories or just look out at the stars.

» MORE: 20 Ideas to Entertain a 3 Year Old While Camping