Taking your kids camping for the first time can feel like a daunting task. But with a little preparation, you can create a fun family adventure that your kids will be begging you to do again, and again, and again!
If you’re an experienced camper, you’re probably used to choosing a campground for privacy or challenging hiking trails that lead to incredible views and photo ops. When camping with young children, those factors go out the window and instead you look for sandy beaches, playgrounds, nature trails, and campsites with close proximity to the comfort station (washrooms and showers).
You don’t need to drive countless hours for your first camping experience! In fact, we recommend that for your first time you stay within an hour of your home — or even closer if you can. Some people recommend having a trial night in your backyard first, but why not go to a local campground instead? You’ll feel like you’re hours away the second you get that campfire going, but you’ll be close enough to home, should you have to quickly evacuate in the night!
Let’s be honest, camping isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Buying all of the gear without knowing if it’s going to be a dream vacation or a nightmare can be a very expensive prospect. We recommend that you borrow gear from friends or family and treat it like a trial run. If your family loves it, you can start buying camping essentials. If they don’t, you’re not stuck with a closet full of gear that you won’t use again.
Aside from the obvious tent and sleeping bags, there are many other items we recommend packing for your first camping trip:
Sometimes you don’t have a couple of hours waiting for the campfire to be the perfect temperature to cook a meal. Always have a small propane burner or stove when you want to cook a quick meal or boil some water.
Whether you have camping dishes or plan on taking paper plates, there will always be dishes to be cleaned. Keep it simple by repurposing a bucket or a rubbermaid tub that transported some of your gear to the site. Make sure you bring travel-sized dish soap, a sponge, and some tea towels!
Having enough lighting, especially when you’re trying to find shoes to walk your 3-year-old kid to the comfort station in the middle of the night, is very important. We recommend bringing 1 larger lantern for your picnic table, a small lantern for inside the tent, and an LED headlamp for every camper.
You will never run out of items to hang dry when camping with kids, trust us.
Your first camping trip with kids is not the time to test out a new gourmet recipe. Keep it simple, especially on the first night. Here are some quick and easy ideas for meals. You can do the prep at home and spend more time enjoying the great outdoors:
Crack your eggs at home and put them in a water bottle in your cooler. Just shake and pour when you’re ready to cook!
Portion out your pancake mix in a water bottle, add water, shake, and pour without the mess.
A loaf of bread and your favourite nut butter is simple and travels well. Since your kids can’t take PB & J sandwiches to school, this will seem like a real treat!
Again, we’re going for easy, portable, and dish-free. Grate your cheese at home, or just buy the pre-grated bags for ease.
Whether it's a hot dog, burger, or any piece of meat really — throw it on a bun and bam! You have dinner. Putting dinner on a bun allows you to eat with your hands (again, reducing the dishes) and to eat in front of the campfire instead of at a table.
Prep veggies and pre-make any salads at home. Throw a scoop of potato, macaroni, or greek salad on your plate, and you have a perfect side.
Special camping snacks can turn a good camping trip into a great one. Have your kids create their own trail mix at home before your trip from a variety of healthy foods (nuts, seeds, raisins) and not so healthy foods (M&Ms, chocolate chips, reese’s pieces). Now they have a personalized treat for the beach, hikes, or when they are a bit hangry waiting for dinner to be ready. A kid's camping experience wouldn’t be complete without s’mores, but consider upping your game on this one. Go to a dollar store and buy a variety of different, meltable chocolate candies instead of plain chocolate bars. We recommend trying Peanut Butter Cups, Caramilk, or Cookies & Creme. Set up a buffet of chocolate options for your kids to choose from for an ultimate s’mores experience. Don’t forget the wipes!
You don’t have to overdo it with the beach toys. An umbrella or sunshade is a must, especially if your little ones need a nap in the afternoon or simply a break from the sun. A sand bucket or two with a couple shovels can keep kids occupied for hours, and inflatable water floats are fun for everyone, including the grown ups! They are lightweight and don’t take up too much room in your beach bag. Investing in microfibre lightweight towels for the family can extend your time at the beach. They are compact, dry fast, and sand doesn’t stick to them like cotton towels. Read our 14 essentials for a perfect beach day with kids article for a complete checklist.
Set up a tarp over a picnic table, bring a pop-up canopy, or even an extra tent to create a dry "fun zone" if the weather is being uncooperative. Once you have your dry zone, have some playing card games (UNO, Skip Bo, Go Fish), word games (hangman, bananagrams, alphabet soup), or if your kids are a bit older, board games (PayDay, Monopoly, or Risk). These games will keep everyone engaged while you wait out the rain. Read our Top tips for camping in the rain article to enjoy a fun and safe camping trip with your kids.