25 things to buy before camping with your kids
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Swimming, stargazing, s’mores-making! What's not to love? A camping trip is a relaxing respite from a hectic life and the perfect family getaway. Except when it's not.
We may idealize a weekend away from it all in the great outdoors, but—in all likelihood—your kids are probably idealizing a weekend playing on their tablets. While some may pine for the great outdoors, many others will need their parents—i.e. us—to do some advance planning to mitigate whines and to stave off cries of boredom.
My family has been camping with our child and his older cousins since he was 16 months old. During these past five years we have learned a few things about keeping kids happy and entertained. After some trials and many errors, we have it down. Here are some of my top tips for encouraging your upcoming family campout to be a success. Happy campers, guaranteed!
Camping is otherwise known as “roughing it” but kids can only tolerate so much “rough.” Comfort and ease are top priorities when camping with kids. Here's how to make for a setup that’s as cozy as it is simple.
1. A roomy and easy-to-assemble tent
Kids and complicated tents don’t mix. Hey, if you’ve got a village meeting you at the campsite, you can feel free to wrangle with poles and stakes, but this momma is all about popping it and forgetting it. This tent gets thousands of rave reviews for its simplicity, which allows you to drive up to your campsite and set up in seconds so your hands are free to enjoy hanging out with your kid, or getting those s’mores roasting.
Another bonus that we like, and that sets this tent apart from the pack, is there’s plenty of ventilation, which is key for summer camping and stuffy nights. Plus, the entire top pops off. That makes this a great choice for stargazing and allowing in cool air.
Pro tip: Keep in mind that a 4-person tent only allows for four sleeping bags to fit in together like sardines. If your family expands beyond three people, or if you need a place for a pack-n-play or toys, be sure to size up.
2. A super-soft sleep pad
A sleep-deprived kid is a cranky kid. Period. A sleep pad not only gives a soft surface and a protective layer against rocks and twigs, it also works as essential insulation against the cold. A lot of families go for the queen-sized air mattress, but we find that you can feel every toss and turn of the person next to you when sharing an inflatable bed.
Our favorite sleep pad is the ust Fillmatic self-inflating sleep mat. If your family is picky about their sleep situation, this is the most comfortable mattress you can buy. It's soft without being mushy, it offers excellent insulation against the cold ground and, for families, these mattresses comes with attachment clasps that allow you to join two mattresses together to make a sleep surface for cuddling but still separate so you don't shake each other awake.
Since the woods at night can sometimes feel scary to kids, the snap-together function keeps things comfortable when the kids want to crawl in next to you. It’s definitely an investment piece in your camping gear, but it’s a buy that we can’t live without.
If you’re just starting out or aren’t quite ready to purchase a glamping-level sleep mat, an affordable alternative is the Wellax UltraThick, which gets hyper-enthusiastic reviews for comfort, ease of use, and warmth.
- Get the ust Fillmatic sleep mat at REI for $164.95
- Get the Wellax ultra thick self-inflating foam mat at Amazon for $87.88
3. A cozy sleeping bag in cool colors
That Pokemon novelty sleeping bag may seem like a great gift for a kid, but it’s probably best used during living room campouts.
For outdoor camping, you’re going to want to invest in an insulated bag. This 3-season bag by Oaskys is a great starter bag for car-camping kids. It’s insulated enough for a good night’s sleep in spring, summer, and fall. It’s lightweight. It has a water resistant coating to guard against spills and rainstorms.
It also comes in the coolest variety of color combos and, at less than $30 a bag, each kid can pick their favorite. We also love the unexpected features, like the bottom zipper that allows for extra ventilation during the hot summer months and how the mummy-sack design can be turned inside out to convert into a flat blanket.
Pro tip: This sleeping bag turns inside out to be a flat blanket.
4. A cushiony pillow to cuddle with
Kids aren’t great at sleeping without a soft place to rest their heads, but their favorite pillow can get grubby at a campsite. Also, three to four (or more) pillows can take up precious space when you’re packing up a family.
We are fans of Therm-a-rest's super-soft camp compression pillows. They are covered in a brushed polyester that feels like suede but is machine washable, and they pack up tiny when space is at a premium. The medium size is just right for kids.
Pro tip: These pillows take a bit of fluffing to get into shape, so make prepping them a game! Also, they pack up to be perfect lumbar support pillows, so keep them close to you on long rides when your seat gets uncomfortable.
5. A portable and sanitary potty option
Who wants to use public toilets these days if they don’t have to? Plus, letting a kid loose in a public bathroom stall or, even worse, a Port-a-Potty, is just gross.
It's a scientific fact (in a study conducted by me) that there is a 500% likelihood your child will touch every wall and the toilet seat in every public bathroom entered. There is also an 800% likelihood they will immediately bite their nails right after.
No one needs these added germs when you won’t be bathing for days. When nature calls, a collapsible commode is what your family needs. This one is sturdy and padded for comfort. All you need is 8-ounce biodegradable trash bags (definitely double bag it) and some disinfecting wipes to keep it super clean.
Pro tip: A cup of kitty litter at the bottom of the bags help things to clump up for easier disposal.
- Get the Triptrips portable camping toilet at Amazon for $39.99
- Get the Gigatent privacy tent at Amazon for $21.99
- Get the Okkeai biodegradable garbage bags at Amazon for $16.99
- Get the Lysol disinfecting wipes at Amazon for $3.99
You’re all set up! Now add these extras to make your camping trip a success.
6. A compact fan to keep the bugs away
A fan like this will save your sanity. Not only is it key for air circulation on nights when you have to keep the rainfly on, this serves as a white noise machine at bedtime, and it helps keep mosquitos and other bugs away from sleeping kiddos. This one can sit right by a dozing kid to help drown out the ambient noises of fellow campers, or it can hang inside a tent to make for a ceiling fan. It’s also rechargeable and functions as a LED lantern.
Pro tip: Don't be shy about bringing this little guy outside. It'll help keep bugs away while you're prepping food or when you're trying to relax at your picnic table.
7. A noise cancelling sleep app
A common misconception about camping is that you’re going to be getting some peace and quiet. Camping is more like a great big communal barbecue. Before you go, read reviews and find out if the campground you're visiting is good about observing “quiet times.” (Sometimes they are simply “suggested” and sometimes they are well-enforced.)
Since you can’t always be picky, be sure to arm your phone with a good sleep app to steal your kid’s focus when the campsite next door is going into late night confessionals. We have a slew of podcasts and apps to help kids drift to sleep, but our favorite is the Moshi sleep and mindfulness app, with its hypnotic storytelling and songs that somehow manage to lull even the most reluctant child into dreamland.
Pro tip: If you have a little night owl on your hands, get a set of noise cancelling headphones to help them focus on the app instead of the noise outside of the tent.
8. Cozy campside shoes
These fuzzy, furry, and super snuggly campside shoes may seem superfluous, but they are a major improvement to the camping experience. After a long day of hiking, super-soft and cozy slip-ons like these from Bearpaw will soothe your kiddo’s tired feet.
They are also perfect for warming up toes after a dunk in a frigid lake, or when temperatures drop late at night. And if you want to avoid late-night potty protests, these slip on quickly and are exactly the warm and cozy incentive required for a walk to the loo.
Pro tip: Size up on these. Kids won’t mind if they are roomy, and you’ll get another year of wear out of them.
- Get the Bearpaw kids’ Brady boots at Target for $54.99
- Get the Bearpaw womens’ Alyssa boots at Target for $64.99
9. A reliable headlamp
It may seem like a flashlight is fine, but a headlamp really is essential if you want to have a happy camper on your hands. A headlamp allows a hands-free hangout, making it so much easier for kids to engage in games after sunset and—once again—it's a life-saver for bathroom breaks in the dark, when holding a flashlight can be pretty inconvenient. We like this one because it's waterproof and has a tilting face that allows kids to point the light stream exactly where they need it.
10. A portable fire pit
Nothing says camping like hot dogs and s’mores on the campfire, but these days a lot of campsites prohibit you from building a fire. Embers from a wood fire are hazardous to areas that have a high fire danger. Also, wood fires can take forever to go out, which can be problematic if you need to put a tired kid to bed. A propane fire-pit gives you all of the ambiance of a campfire and ease of an off-button.
This one can be set up in minutes and comes with its own carry bag and roasting sticks!
Pro tip: A fire also helps keep mosquitos and noseeums away!
11. A roomy hammock
You have no idea how much free time you are going to buy yourself if you invest in a hammock. If there is one thing on this list you need to buy, it’s a hammock. We are telling you: Buy. The. Hammock.
A hammock is a portal to an imaginative wonderland. Kids will spend hours swinging on this, reading in it, pretending it’s a pirate ship, taking their “alone time”—the list goes on. Bonus: It’s great for all ages, and it never gets old. If you have more than one kid, get two.
This one from Kootek is lightweight and packs up easily. If you’re camping in an area with lots of bugs, you can buy one with mosquito netting. A hammock is a great buy and a smart purchase, just realize that you’re never going to actually get any time in it until your kid leaves for college. It’s a small price to pay for a well-entertained child.
Pro tip: Check your campsite before you arrive to make sure there are enough trees to hang your hammocks, otherwise you may have some disappointed kids on your hands.
- Get the Kootek portable lightweight hammock at Amazon for $24
- Get the Kootek portable lightweight hammock with mosquito netting at Amazon for $27.99
12. A smart first aid kit
Camping always comes with a scrape, a cut, or a brush with poison ivy. Venture out prepared.
We love this first aid kit by Welly because it's heavy duty, packs up easily, and because it's so well-organized. All of the components are easily marked to help you access them quickly, when crisis strikes.
Bandages are super strong and flexible, making them a good match for an adventurous camper, and they come in fun colors and designs to help take the sting out of any boo-boos. We also like the protective hard shell that stops the components from getting crushed.
13. A camp chair that's all their own
Sure, they can use your camp chairs, but when it comes time to pull up a seat by the fire, they will love having their own. We've had this one from Coleman for almost six years and can vouch that it's strong and sturdy. It comes with a functional cup holder and a locking frame that resists toppling, even with toddlers.
It's made from a durable fabric that will last, and it also comes with a carrying case that makes it easy to transport and keeps the chair clean and rip-free in storage.
Now for the fun! These activities will not only keep a kid occupied, they’ll keep them unplugged and will help foster an appreciation for the great outdoors.
14. A creative art station
A camping trip isn’t complete without some nature art. Come well-armed with outdoor-themed art projects. They’ll not only entertain kids, they’ll get them looking at nature in a new way.
We love art projects that employ a bit of STEAM learning, like rock painting, which gets kids looking at how different types of rocks are formed and how their look and texture differs, or sun prints, which show molecular interactions in reaction to ultraviolet light.
Both are easy to set up, won’t take up too much space, and are guaranteed to get some good discussions going.
You can also turn art time into a scavenger hunt by looking for themed pieces of nature that kids can glue to paper for an original collage-type work of art.
- Get the Kinderiffic rock painting kit at Amazon for $21.95
- Get the ToySmith Solar Print kit at Amazon for $12.99
15. A craft kit for kids who don't actually want to camp
Hey, the truth is, some kids aren't going to want to leave the tent (or the car, for that matter). This fun kit by KiwiCo may help convince them of all the fun they can have, if they just go outdoors. It comes complete with directions and everything they need to make their own cardboard and paper lantern. If the adorable DIY fire pit and s'mores can't convince them that there is fun to be had outside, nothing will.
16. Board games
If you want to stay on theme, the Appalachian Trail game tests players' knowledge about hiking, backpacking, wildlife, and the Appalachian Trail as they complete a thru hike on America’s famed 2,190-mile footpath. Players use gear in their packs to navigate through perilous situations, like a run-in with poison ivy, getting caught in a major storm, and losing their way on the trail.
- Get the Appalachian Trail game at TheATGame.com for $19.95
- Get the Yahtzee National Parks edition at Amazon for $29.99
- Get Bananagrams at Target for $14.99
- Get Uno Pixar edition game at Amazon for $9.99
- Get Connect 4 at Amazon for $11.99
17. A critter exploring kit
Bugs may seem creepy and crawly when they're in your living room, but they are pretty cool when they’re found outdoors. This fun kit will inspire their inner entomologist. It's filled with everything needed for careful catching and thoughtful observation, and it all packs up in an adorable backpack—for any important expeditions it may inspire.
18. A cool plant identifying app
This free app is—hands down—our absolute favorite for immediate plant identification. If you don’t currently have a future botanist on your hands, this may just inspire them. It’s simple to use and gives instantaneous rundowns of plants, including common names, nicknames, and Latin names and detailed descriptions—often with interesting anecdotes including medicinal and culinary usage, and how they may have been used by indigenous people.
19. A telescope and book about the stars
Children love looking up at the stars and imagining distant galaxies. Camping brings dark skies perfect for stargazing.
A kids’ telescope can stimulate both their imagination and STEM skills as they explore stars and planets in the night sky. The Celestron isn’t made for kids, per se, but it’s super compact, portable, easy to use, and gives super clear views of both the stars and wildlife.
- Get the Celestron 70mm travel scope at Amazon for $89.95
- Get 50 Things To See With A Telescope at Amazon for $15.26
20. A tough set of binoculars
Every serious explorer needs a good pair of binoculars to enjoy the view and to view wildlife. This tiny pair can fit in a fanny pack, but they're still strong enough to bring views 100 yards away into sharp focus. They are also waterproof and shockproof, so they’ll stand up to accidental dips in a lake and falls from boulder climbs.
Pro tip: A good set of binoculars can be used to view nearby stars and to make out constellations in a pinch!
21. A field journal for keeping notes
Once they’ve made their bug and plant discoveries, they are going to need to log those findings. These little notebooks are perfectly pocket-sized and are spiral bound for easy use on the trail.
We also like that they are made with 100% post-consumer-waste recycled paper and are printed with soy ink, so when we take our kids out to commune with nature, this takes care of it as well.
22. Outdoor games to tire them out
When you’re hanging at camp, come prepared with some outdoor games in your arsenal. They don’t have to be complicated: scavenger hunts are always a blast, hide-and-seek is a no-brainer, bocce and cornhole are basically made for campsites, and pool noodles and a beach balls are perfect components for a whole host of creative campsite diversions.
- Get the Franklin Sports all-weather bocce set at Amazon for $21.37
- Get the EastPoint Sports Go! Gater cornhole outdoor game at Amazon for $34.95
- Get the beach ball 3-pack at Amazon for $6.95
- Get a 5-pack of pool noodles at Amazon for $15.49
23. A Bluetooth speaker to get the party started
The peace and quiet of a campsite will only be appreciated by kids for so long. Kids love an outdoor dance party, and a Bluetooth speaker is a necessity to get the tunes going.
Our favorite Bluetooth speaker is compact, affordable, and—best of all—waterproof, which is a major plus when small children are involved. It also holds a long charge, so get ready to listen to your kid’s favorite song on repeat all weekend long!
24. A knife set so they can help with prep
Get the kids involved in prepping dinner! Since most camp dinners tend to only have a few ingredients and are typically one-pot (or tinfoil pouch) meals that require easy prep, they are perfect meals to get kids cooking. Let your kid be your camp-side sous chef with this kid-friendly knife and cutting board kid that’s just as good for your campsite as it is for the kitchen.
25. A sweet s’mores kit
No camping trip is complete without some fireside s’mores. The iconic graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow treats are the highlight of any camping adventure. Once you’ve opened one of the components, they’re apt to get stale or sticky fast. This caddy holds everything you need to keep the components of your sweet sandos fresh so you can enjoy them all weekend long.
Grab a set of roasting sticks and you're ready to go!
Pro tip: If any of that fruit you packed got a little mushy, add them to the s'mores to make them more dynamic. We also like to add a little sea salt to ours.
- Get the Hershey’s s’mores caddy with tray at Camping World for $14.99
- Get the set of five roasting sticks at Amazon for $9.99
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.