Camping with our kids has been a goal for the past year. We wanted to unplug and make memories outdoors with our kids. At 5, 3, and 1, they are getting old enough that we hoped they would love the experience of camping together. Since we are newbies, we went camping as a couple this spring to try it out and find our feet. We gradually stockpiled our own gear over the summer, and we’ve just been waiting for a cold enough weekend to take the kids for their first time.
If you’re anything like me and have never camped with kids before, you’re googling to find advice about how to make it go more smoothly. That’s part of why I’m writing this post. It was a little tough to find a real family’s recap of camping. Plus, deciding what gear to purchase can require a lot of researching. I’d love to share what worked for us and what we’ll do differently next time.
On going primitive. Last month we went with some dear friends to a nearby state park, McCormick’s Creek. We stayed on a primitive site, which means there is no electricity available and the only toilets are pit toilets. The primitive sites at McCormick’s Creek are beautiful, especially if you can reserve one on the outer edge where you are surrounded by forest. The sites are pea gravel and have a fire ring and a picnic table to use. If you reserve them online you can see a preview of each campsite. The primitive campsite was quieter and a lot darker at night than our stay at Turkey Run’s electric campsite in the spring. The campground is also in the middle of the state park (unlike Turkey Run, which is adjacent to the state park and close to a state highway) so it was more peaceful overall.
On setting-up camp. We arrived later than we had planned to on a Friday night and thankfully got our tent pitched before it was dark. Luckily new tents are much easier to set up than the ones I remember my parents putting together when I was a kid. We were camping with friends, who are more experienced than we are at camping, and they handled the campfire. Our kids were stoked. They were loving the adventure and so curious about everything. Having kids around a fire made me a little anxious, so we always needed someone keeping an eye on the little ones. It made setting up camp equal parts crazy and fun.
On packing. Part of what took soooo long to get out the door is that packing took forever. I’m hoping to figure out how to pack more efficiently or have most of our gear packed in storage so it is easier to just fit it all in the car. Our jeep was full to the brim, so we definitely prefer the car camping route vs. backpacking.
On breakfast. If you’ve never camped, breakfast can be the best meal you’ve ever had. Something about waking up to the cold, crisp air makes food taste a million times better. We got the fire going, and I had bought donut holes for the kids because I knew they would be hungry immediately. While they munched away, we got out our Coleman cook stove and started heating water for coffee and frying up bacon. Bacon. It’s a must for a camping breakfast. Once the bacon was done, we cooked up eggs and hash browns in the same pan. Then we grab our french press coffee and sit by the fire to eat. We did the same thing both mornings. It’s my fave.
On hiking. Our kids love to hike local park trails in the city, so on Saturday after breakfast we picked an easier trail at McCormick’s Creek to tackle together. It went by Wolf Cave (which you can crawl all the way through – our kids bailed out halfway through) and by a stream. It was two miles long, so if I could do something differently, I would have packed lunch to have a picnic halfway through and a rest for their little legs. We carried Theo in our much loved Ergo and he fell asleep halfway through the hike. Once we got back to the campsite, the kids hung out in the hammocks and then we took them to the playground in the middle of the campground to get some energy out before dinner.
On gear. On our first trip, we borrowed everything from my parents. I highly recommend borrowing if you’re not sure if you will keep camping. You can also find great stuff on Craigslist as people clean out their gear.
Once we knew we were going to camp as a family, I started researching and making purchases. I asked my brothers a lot of questions, since they have camped a lot in college and after.
Tent – We went with an 8-person Coleman tent. It is HUGE. Generally with tents, you want to size up, because a 4-person can fit 2 people comfortably. We wanted a tent we could use for years to come, even as our kids get bigger. I love the size because it fits two queen air mattresses with about a 5 foot space between them to get the kids dressed or change diapers. It’s also tall enough to fully stand up. It’s just aesthetics, but I also love the colors of this black tent.
Sleeping Bags – I really wanted the flannel lined bags instead of slippery polyester bags. I probably spent way too long reading reviews and hemming and hawing over them. The bags we picked are great and can be zipped together to make a king size sleeping bag. We had Theo sleep between Zach and I, so that kept everyone warm. They did get a little damp overnight on the outside, and even rolled up they take up so much room in our car. I wish I had bought the kids these, because I think they would have slept better than trying to share a big bag.
Camp Stove – Our first camping trip we borrowed my parents’ vintage Coleman stove and we could not figure out how to light it. After several attempts, we just cooked everything over the campfire. While this is certainly a minimalist way to camp, it was not super efficient. Luckily the new Coleman stove was wildly easier to use and cooked our food and boiled water super fast. I was so glad not to have to wait 45 minutes for my first cup of coffee in the morning. While you can spend more on a JetBoil, for the average car camper this stove is such a great purchase.
Camp Chairs – We bought simple chairs, and we need to get kid-sized chairs for our next trip.
Hot Dog Sticks – I’d like to upgrade our sticks simply because of space. I like the ones my brother has because they can telescope down to a shorter length.
Lantern – We have a cheaper lantern for the kids to hold, and we still need to buy a brighter heavy duty lantern for on the picnic table at night. I’d also love to grab a checked table cloth too.
On what went wrong. Well, I’m not sure how to correct this, but our one-year old had a rough time sleeping and was wide awake at 5:30am. Also our air mattresses deflated. We were essentially sleeping on the ground. I think using a battery pump wasn’t as efficient as the electric pump we normally use. Those two things combined made staying two nights feel long.
On what went right. Overall, it was such a great trip and our kids’ memories of it are SO positive. They loved it and want to go again. That makes all the work to get there worth it for me. I’m so glad we went with our dear friends and that our kids could play together. Luckily, the site next to ours was empty, so the kids could be in our sight and have their own place to go run around and play.
On our kids’ favorite parts. While the kids have overall glowing memories of the trip, the surprise binoculars we packed for them were used constantly. They also loved the 3 hammocks that we set up right next to our site. We can’t wait to take them again soon!
If you camp with kids regularly, I’d love to hear any advice or tips you have to share! If you’re planning a trip and have questions, feel free to ask in the comments below.