Camping with Kids: What to Bring, What to Do and What to Eat

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Whether you grew up camping and you’re ready to pass it on to the next generation, or you and your family are all new to the idea of sleeping outdoors, it’s important to bring along the right equipment and gear to maximize your comfort, fun and safety. This is doubly true when you’re camping with kids, who might not be so amenable to the idea of “roughing it” or “making do” if you happen to forget some essentials. Here, you’ll find a list of everything you need to pack, as well as outdoor games and delicious campfire snacks good for anyone ages 1 to 101.

9 Backyard Camping Ideas for an Epic Outdoor Adventure, No Travel Required

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What To Bring

The Essentials

These are the basics—shelter, safety, clothing—you’ll need to bring no matter who is included in your adventuring party. And if you want more detail or information, we’ve put together a super comprehensive checklist with all the deets for you to peruse.

1. Tent
2. Sleeping bags

3. Sleeping pads and pillows
4. Lanterns, flashlights and headlamps
5. First Aid kit
6. Warm clothing
7. Sunscreen and bug spray
8. Toilet paper
9. Hand wipes and hand sanitizer
10. Duct tape (trust us on this one)
11. Lots of extra bags (for stowing garbage, wet clothes, etc.)
12. An extra cell phone of cell phone battery stowed in your car (just in case of an emergency)

Camping Gear for Kids

There are very few camping items specific to kids that don’t also apply to adults, but these are the things that are maybe more important to consider to make sure your little ones leave the experience feeling excited and not bored or, worse, scared.

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13. Lights

The great thing about leaving the ‘burbs behind and heading into the great outdoors is that an absence of light pollution will give you a stunning view of all the millions of gorgeous stars in the night sky. But your children might not be used to just how dark nighttime can be, especially if you’re from a big city. Be sure to bring along lots of lighting options (and lots of batteries to keep them charged) like flashlights, headlamps and lanterns. From a practical standpoint, they’ll make it much easier to find the bathroom in the middle of the night without tripping over yourself and help keep the fun going even after nightfall, but they’ll also provide some comfort for kids who aren’t too keen on total darkness.

Shop camping lights: Petzl headlamp ($20); Goal Zero lantern ($25); Eveready flashlights ($26 for set of four); Black Diamond headlamp ($40); Coleman lantern ($50)

14. A Toddler Potty or Other Portable Potty

If your kids are young, and even if they’re potty trained, it can be incredibly handy to have a portable potty on hand as a secondary bathroom option, especially at night. Set it up just outside your tent so your kids don’t need to wake you up multiple times for midnight treks to the campsite bathrooms. Plus, it’ll feel more familiar for those who are bathroom shy in new places.

Shop portable potties: Summer Infant Store ($20); Tinabless ($23); Augtarlion ($23)

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15. Extra Clothing

Kids just have a way of getting their clothes dirty or wet, no matter where they are, don’t they? Add to that all the tempting rocks, ponds and trails surrounding a campsite and you can pretty much guarantee everyone is going to end up covered in dirt. This is part of the fun of camping, for sure, but it’s also a smart plan to bring along some dry shirts, pants, socks and underwear just in case that dirt turns out to be mud or a stroll along the water turns into an unexpected swim. It’s also good to remember, even in peak summer, temperatures can drop drastically once the sun goes down and no one wants to call it a night and climb under the covers simply because they’re cold. Stow some fleece sweaters, jackets, hats and boots in the trunk of your car should you find yourself feeling chilly at night.

Shop warm clothing for kids: Lands’ End joggers ($21); Columbia jacket ($34); L.L.Bean leggings ($50; $35); L.L.Bean sweatpants ($40); The North Face jacket ($50); Marmot pants ($50); Patagonia jacket ($63)

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What To Eat

Before you go planning an epic campsite menu, double check what sort of cooking is allowed at your campsite. Some have grills available to use, others allow you to build your own fire or use a portable stove and some have a strict no flames policy. Once you’ve got that figured out, consider the cleanup process. You likely won’t have access to a sink with running water to really scrub down pots and pans, so stick with simple meals that don’t require a ton of cleaning. (Pro tip: Portable stoves tend to heat up much faster and more evenly than an old fashioned campfire, so if your kids are the type to get hangry if dinner isn’t promptly on time, think about bringing one along and saving the firewood for s’mores.)

Shop portable stoves: Esbit ($60); Coleman ($79); Gasone ($83); Eureka ($110)

16. Camping Snacks

It may be cliché, but trail mix and granola are always good options. So are sticks of cheese or jerky, and fruits like apples, oranges and bananas. Try to avoid too many prepackaged snacks, to limit the amount of garbage you need to carry out with you, and remember to stick those orange peels and apple cores in with your trash. You can’t just leave them scattered on the ground. (We suggest you brush up on the rules of Leave No Trace before you head out.)

Try these recipes: Homemade granola bars; Energy boosting trail mix; S’mores trail mix; Campfire parmesan popcorn

17. Lunch and Dinner

Yes, you can always pack some PB&J or turkey and cheese sandwiches before you leave the house, but with so many fun campfire recipes, we say why not branch out and have a little fun? Tinfoil wrapped treats make cleanup a breeze and can largely be done ahead of time so you can really sit back and enjoy the great outdoors rather than spend an hour prepping your meals (you’re on vacation too, after all). We suggest bringing along more than you think you might want—running around all afternoon will leave everyone feeling hungry as a bear, and better to have left overs than to have everyone whining about still being hungry late into the night.

Try these recipes: BBQ chicken foil packs; Tin foil sausage and veggies dinner; Buttermilk skillet cornbread with tomatoes and scallions; Campfire pizza; Grilled corn on the cob

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18. Dessert

Classic s’mores with marshmallows roasted over a campfire are never a bad idea, but they’re not your only option. For those who don’t have a way to heat things up, mix up a bag of Puppy Chow or dessert trail mix for passing around as you tell scary stories (or decidedly un-scary ones, depending on the crowd you’re working with). And if you do plan on making s’mores or other melted goodies, just be sure to pack a few extra wipes for all the ooey, gooey marshmallows and chocolate that’s sure to get all over eager little hands and faces.

Try these recipes: Campfire Banana Boats, 9 Ways; Pound Cake and Berry Campfire Skillet Dessert

19. Breakfast

Don’t forget to think about the following morning. You may or may not feel up to cooking a whole eggs and bacon feast, so consider prepacking some ham and cheese sandwiches (on croissants if you’re feeling fancy) or French toast to munch on while you break down the tent.

Try these recipes: Breakfast Burritos Campfire-Style; Banana Bread Pancakes; Camping Breakfast Sandwich; Campfire Bacon

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What To Do

OK, so you’ve got the tent set up and it won’t be time for dinner for a few hours—what now?

20. Hiking and Exploring

Check out the surrounding hiking trails for beautiful vistas or hidden lakes. Be sure everyone has proper footwear for the terrain—this means actual hiking boots or sneakers with good traction and not open-toe sandals—as well as cameras to capture all the fun.

21. Campsite Games

If you’d rather hang out on the campgrounds, there’s still plenty to do. Bring along a set for playing cornhole, horseshoes, croquet or a ring toss. You can also pack a prop-up badminton set or volleyball (though be aware of any neighboring campers who may not want a stray ball flying into their tent).

22. Plan a Scavenger Hunt

Build an explorer’s kit complete with binoculars, magnifying glass and a notebook for each child and set off on a quest to track down easy treasures, like the biggest leaf on the ground or the tallest tree, or rarer finds, like native birds, animal tracks or a perfect four-leaf clover.

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23. Draw a Map

Imitate the great explorers of old by setting out to map the uncharted territory that is your campground. Using a compass, pen and paper, you and your kids can craft your very own map of the surrounding area, naming landmarks and discovering new plants as you go.

24. Card Games

Once everyone’s a bit tuckered out, break out a deck of cards for a few rounds of Go Fish or Old Maid with the fam. Pro tip: This is also a good activity to plan while you get dinner together so you can still keep an eye on the kids without them running wild all over the campground.

One thing not to pack: Electronics

The point of camping is to enjoy the great outdoors, so leave the tablets, iPads and other tech toys at home. They’ll be no way to recharge them once the battery dies anyway. And this goes for the adults, as well. Leave your Kindle at home and limit any phone usage to set a good example and to make sure you’re really immersed in your outdoor adventure, too.