Family camping tips? Send ‘em in!

Camping and kids go together like peanut butter and chocolate, but, for the uninitiated, one's first family camping trip can be rather intimidating. Melissa Summers of Suburban Bliss and Mighty Junior fame had a great suggestion: how about we share our best family camping tips? Campsite setup ideas? Gear recommendations? Meal planning? Must-have items one should pack?

I'll round 'em up and post them in a "Family camping hacks" series. Email me your tips (include the word "camping" in the subject line), or include them in the comments here.

Some past camping-relevant hacks:


  1. says

    Probably the most important tip: get a big enough tent. Don’t go by the manufacturer’s claims for the number of people it holds. Check out a floor model and crawl around in there if you can. Don’t worry too much about weight. This is family camping, not survivalism.

  2. says

    Probably the most important tip: get a big enough tent. Don’t go by the manufacturer’s claims for the number of people it holds. Check out a floor model and crawl around in there if you can. Don’t worry too much about weight. This is family camping, not survivalism.

  3. Katie says

    Being from a family of 6 camping was the way we went because of the cost. When I was a kid we all camped from Ohio to Florida for a Disney vacation. My Mom made meals in advance (like spaghetti) so we could eat faster by warming up food on the Coleman cooking stove rather than the longer cook time needed when camping. She had everything in zip lock bags and so our load was lighter as we traveled.

  4. says

    we camp out of the trunk of our sedan so my primary advice is pack lightly. we carry a folding cooler and buy most consumables (often from roadside vendors) near our destination so they don’t get squished.

    paradoxically, we counter the the tendency the kids have to run in & out of the tent by carrying a 2nd, smaller tent along. they play in it all day, and we toss all the loose gear into it at night.

  5. Katie says

    Recently we went camping with our 4 month old and found out those big baby winter coat/sacks are great baby sleeping bags. I didn’t have to worry about kicking her blankets off, and when she needed to eat in the middle of the night I could pick her up while still in her “sleeping bag” and feed her without letting all the heat escape. In the morning she was toasty warm, even her little hands and feet which are particularly difficult to keep warm. (Just FYI, it was pretty warm to start with, I wouldn’t use this as a way to justify camping when it’s way too cold.)

  6. Annette says

    If you have a non-walker, be sure and bring a pack-n-play for a clean and safe surface for baby to crawl around on. Otherwise someone has to be holding Jr. at all times, which is no fun for anyone! Bonus if you happen to have a bug net that attaches to it. And I second Katie’s bunting bag idea – my son stayed much warmer than we did!

  7. Carmen says

    “Tent Inside a Tent”. We always bring our kids’ small play tent to set up inside our large family tent. It gives them a great place to play and they take turns sleeping in there. It is quite a novelty. It is also something they can help set up and take down.

  8. Carmen says

    This one is totally from the Girl Scouts, but we use it on family camping trips as well – a Hand Wash Station. What you do is cur off the leg of a nylon and put a bar of soap inside. Tie the nylon onto the handle of an empty milk carton (the milk carton must be the type with the screw-on cap). Put several small wholes in the cap. When you get to the campsite, fill the milk carton with water and attach to a tree with twine. Now the family can wash their hands right at the campsite whenever needed (which is very often with my kids!)

  9. mel says

    Two things:

    1) I’ll echo Katie’s assertion that Ziploc bags are GREAT for camping.

    2) Not meal planning exactly, but 5-Can Chili is a big hit with our family at the campsite… just dump one can of each of the following in the pot:
    – kidney beans
    – diced tomatoes
    – corn
    – chili
    – another kind of bean (we like black beans)
    1/4 cup of BBQ sauce and 1 Tbsp. of chili powder finishes it off.

    3) Walkie-talkies are a great way for adults to be able to enjoy a campfire after dark and the kids still feel secure about being in the tent alone.

  10. Carmen says

    I forgot about this one… My boys (3, 3, and 5) all have yoga mats. We brought our Yoga Mats to put underneath their sleeping bag as a sleeping bag pad. It kept them a little warmer and more comfortable. It also has the bonus of keeping their sleeping bags in place so they don’t slide all over each other!

  11. CJ says

    A word about tent sizes. The number of people a tent holds is without gear. A 4 Person tent holds 4 adults without gear. We choose a 6 person tent for 2 adults, 1 three year old and a dog so that we would have enough room for gear and have room to play if the weather gets soggy.

  12. says

    Try to arrive at the campsite early enough in the day that you can take your kids for a big hike or something to wear them out. If your kids have been strapped into their carseats for hours, and then you plan to set up camp, eat dinner and go to bed, it’s likely to be a rough night.

    And for kids who tend to be afraid of the dark, a little flashlight of their own can make a big difference.

  13. jeff says

    Toilet paper tip:

    Take a 1/2 roll of toilet paper, remove the cardboard tube, pull out a bit from the *center* of the roll and put the roll into a ziploc bag. Then when you need some, you pull from the center while leaving the rest of the roll in the bag. Stays clean in use (think 2am as you stumble/fumble around in the dark) and you zip it up when done. Plus its well kept when stowed with the rest of your gear. Maybe keep one in the glove box year-round?

  14. says

    Bring flip flops for around the campsite. That way they are easy to take on and off when getting in and out of the tent. No dirt tracked in the tent.

  15. Annette says

    Corina: no dirt tracked into the tent? Camping is supposed to be dirty – that’s half the fun of it, especially for kids!

  16. Mommy Prof says

    You can heat cans of ravioli and spaghetti 0’s right in the camp fire (take the label off first).

    When we took our 7-month old last year, we brought her car seat carrier right into the tent and let her sleep in that. She was used to being asleep in it and it kept her warmer because she was off the ground.

    If you are car camping, it is SO worth it to bring your pillows!

    We go to the Army-Navy and get MREs. They are self heating now and have a ton of food in them and it is kind of fun, too.

    Look for marshmallow sticks first, BEFORE it gets dark.

  17. says


    Tip: Bring a screen-house
    I recommend buying a $50 Screen-house tent to set up for eating. It’s great to put up over the picnic table and keeps the bugs off the food.

    Tip: Check your packing list twice
    What else? Check your packing list, there are always things you’ll leave off the first time.

    Tip: Set up Tents in Daylight.
    I second the get to the camp site in daylight. It’s much easier to set up tents.

    Tip: Camp in open area first time.
    I think camping in a relatively open area is nice for the first time, because you can see your kids rather than a wooded area where they could easily get lost or scared.

    Tip: Go with Friends, the more the merrier. This way the kids are all experiencing it together.

    Tip: I recommend a coleman stove. It’s easier to cook.

    tip: Make Pancakes.
    I like to bring the pre-made, just add water pancakes. It’s easy, Just make sure you have pam or spray for the pans. We tried bacon grease, and that didn’t work out.

    tip: First Time Running Water Toilet
    First Time Camping with young ones, I recommend having a running water toilet. It makes life easier with little kids rather than the smelly outhouse where they are afraid of falling in.

    Tip: Big enough tent.
    I second the tip about tents being big enough.

    Tip: Glow Sticks and little kids are super fun to watch. It’s like having a parade of fun.

    Tip: Check out the State Parks for camping and make a reservation a head of time.

    Tip: Tents with the rain tarp on get hot during the summer sun. If there is no forecasted rain, take the rain tarp off your tent to keep the tent cool.

  18. says

    We camp and travel in our small van sized RV for 7 months of the year around Europe, so have become expert campers! ;)

    We love our GPS and microfiber towels that make our life much easier. We also do a lot of summer suppers with mixed bean salads. Super cheap, super healthy and super easy to make and great if it is too hot to cook.

  19. says

    I’m the troop camper for my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, and one of the best tips I can share is to allow each kid to only bring a banker’s box filled with their stuff. We tape the list of what’s needed for a weekend camping trip inside the box (email me and I can send you the file if you are interested) and the girls can only bring what they can fit in the box, plus their coat, sleeping bag and boots. This prevents overpacking.

    Also, we use a dutch oven for camp cookery – it really makes campfire cooking easiy and delicious.

  20. says

    We park our pop up camper right up near the camp road, and face it inward. It makes the campsite seem more secluded.

    Also, Crocs style shoes are great for camping because they don’t get soggy if left out in the rain and they float if you are playing in water and they are easy to slip on and off. We have a “no shoes allowed in the camper” rule.

    Check out my blog for some of my favorite camp recipes!

  21. Tammy says

    Break a dozen eggs into a washed out plastic milk jug. You can use them for eggs or pancakes or… and not worry about the eggs breaking in the carton.

  22. says

    I wnet camping a lot in Europe when I was growing up – my DH says it wasn’t real camping as our tent had a bedroom, kitchen and dining room!

    He took us camping as a family for the first time last summer and I was horrified when he said we weren’t taking a tent! (I packed one anyway!) We went to a state park in Vermont and stayed in a lean-to. I was amazed. It was really very nice and we didn’t need the tent I’d packed! So – if you rent a lean-to in a Vermont state park you can get away with no tent! Less to buy, less to pack!

  23. theklotz says

    we camp a lot with our family – and since my daughter was reeeally little – so three tips

    1. bring a deck of cards. easy to carry entertainment if it starts raining.

    2. if you have dogs too (and we do) get a small separate cheap tent for them. that way they don’t walk all over you all night and you know they are safe.

    3. those little bags of powdered soup are wonderful meals. just bring a junk stock pot for cooking and all you need is water. there is no need to refrigerate.

  24. Jen says

    It seems like lots of people wonder where to have their baby or toddler sleep when camping. When we took our daughter camping for the first time, she was about17 months old. She has never been a good cosleeper, so we brought our Peapod Travel Bed and set that up in the tent. She had slept in the Peapod before and liked it, and it was perfect for camping! Folds up small so it fit easily in the car, sits close to the ground so it fits easily in the tent. A plus was that it kept her warmer, which was helpful since it got cold at night. The Peapod is a great product for travel in general, but it worked really well for camping too.

  25. Amy says

    We just took our 2 year old son camping and did not want to lug any more stuff than we already had (which was a lot!). We have one of those 3/4 body length camping mats, which I topped with a small quilt and then a crib sheet. The crib sheet fit it perfectly, the quilt gave a little more padding than the mat itself and he slept on it all night next to us covered with a light blanket. He also loved the camping pillow – he does not use a pillow at home but the camping pillow was just his size.

  26. Amy says

    Forgot about this one til recently: if you plan to have hot dogs or hamburgers or any other item requiring condiments (salt, pepper, mustard, mayo, ketchup, relish, BBQ sauce, dipping sauce, taco sauce, salad dressing etc.) check your pantry for leftovers from your local fast food/take out restaurant. We always have extras and I can’t bear to throw them out and they are perfect for camping. Most don’t require refrigeration, they are small, so don’t take up much space, and you don’t have to lug them back home as you would a regular bottle of dressing, ketchup, etc.

  27. says

    Make your own fire starters! Collect lint from the dryer in empty egg cartons. Once an “egg” is full, seal it with melted wax. When it’s time to start the fire, break-off 3 or 4 “eggs” and they will have the kindling popping in no time!