Mom Goes Camping

Family Camping Checklist: Gear, To-Do Lists, and Advice

campground camping checklist for families

My family is about to go campground camping with friends who have never gone camping before.  They asked me to make a family camping checklist for them.  So, I figured I’d share the checklist with you all too. 🙂

Usually, I go wild camping or backpacking with my family. I personally find this much more enjoyable than staying at a campground.  But it means we need to carry everything we need in our backpacks.  It requires more specific gear and there’s no forgetting anything!  I would not recommend this for people just getting started. Campgrounds are a much better way to get into camping.

Most campgrounds have a lot of amenities.  You won’t have to worry about things like digging a hole when you go to the bathroom.  Since there are usually small stores at the campgrounds, you don’t even have to worry too much about forgetting something (though those campground stores are very overpriced!).

Campground camping can be as minimalist or luxury as you want.  I personally veer towards the minimalist approach.  Fewer things = less stress.   But there is no shame in bringing lots of extra items. It’s better to have something and not need it than need it and not have it.

This campground camping checklist includes all essentials.  The items with a * are optional but useful to have.  


Download this family camping checklist as a printable PDF


Sleeping Items:

  • Tent: Decide whether it makes sense to have one big tent or two small tents. My family does two small tents (my husband sleeps in a 2-person tent with the gear and I sleep with my two daughters in a 3-person tent). This is mostly because we already have these tents and I find large tents annoying to set up and carry. Read how to buy a tent here.
  • Sleeping Bags: These should be mummy style bags. For very small children, you will have a hard time finding sleeping bags.  Instead, you might choose to put them in layers plus a baby sleep sack.  More on that here.
  • Sleeping Pad: This is absolutely necessary! Otherwise you will lose lots of heat through the ground and be cold (no matter how warm your sleeping bag is). In general, avoid those giant inflatable mattresses. Instead, get a foam sleeping pad (cheapest option).  Or get a self-inflating sleeping pad. These are warmer and more comfortable but pricier.
  • Pillow: I just bunch up my sweatshirt to use as a pillow. However, it’s nice to have a real pillow.
sleep setup for camping

This is what my sleep setup looks like while camping. Notice the headlamps hanging from the top of the tent.

 

Cooking Items:

Before you go camping, think about what you will eat each day.  You might even want to make a spreadsheet of meals for each day.  This way you will make sure you have everything you need for those meals. For example, if you plan on eating canned soup for a few meals, you better make sure you bring a can opener.

  • Camp Stove and Fuel: A gas-powered stove is the way to go. These come in plenty of sizes. Read more about them here.
  • Cooking pots/pans: I have a cheap, lightweight aluminum cooking set. However, you can also bring whatever you have from home.  Just make sure it is sized for your stove.  For example, a giant pot will fall off of a small gas stove. Avoid Teflon because these are hard to clean while camping without scratching. See my recommendations here.
  • Non-Breakable Plates: Reusable plastic plates are great for this. Try to find deep ones that double as both plates and bowls. Do NOT go with disposable plates.  They are terrible for the environment and make a lot of annoying trash.
  • Utensils: This includes forks, spoons, and knives for eating as well as any utensils you’ll need for cooking (spatula, wooden spoons, etc.)
  • Cups: Again, non-breakable cups. Metal or plastic cups work.  Don’t use disposables. Aside from being terrible for the environment, it’s a pain to drink hot things from disposable plastic cups.
  • Cleaning Supplies: Sponge, dish soap, scrub brush
  • *Cutting Board: Especially if you plan on buying fresh foods like veggies from the store for making meals
  • *Plastic tub: This is good for holding all of your dirty dishes so you can carry them to the campground’s cleaning station.
  • *Large Bowls: For holding salad or other foods. I usually will just use one of my cook pots for this instead of bringing a separate bowl.
  • *Zip plastic bags and/or Tupperware containers: Very useful for putting snack foods into.
  • *Napkins/paper towels: I don’t bring these because they are bad for the environment. But they are useful for cleaning hands.
  • *Cooler: Useful if you are getting perishable foods from a nearby supermarket or want to keep foods you cooked fresh for longer.
  • *Pot holder: Depends on the type of pot your brought. You can just use a towel for this in a pinch.
  • *Can opener
camping cooking setup

Getting ready to make oatmeal and coffee for breakfast at camp!

 

Camping Food:

Most campgrounds will have a small store where they sell (overpriced) food items.  They may also have a restaurant.  Even if you plan on eating in restaurants a lot, I’d still recommend bring some of your own food.

  • Snacks: LOTS and LOTS of snacks. Granola bars, cookies, dried fruit, and make great camping snacks. Of course, SMOR’S ingredients too!
  • Instant Coffee + Powdered Milk + Sugar: There are also these ways to make coffee while camping
  • Tea: If you drink this instead of coffee.
  • Salt, spices, herbs, condiments: Essential! Lots of the food you can buy at campgrounds is bland.
  • Instant or Quick-Cooking Meals: I dehydrate meals for camping. Then I just have to add water and have a tasty, healthy meal.  You can also get things like ramen packs, couscous mixes, instant soups, and other quick-cooking meals.  See this post for meal ideas.
  • Lots of baggies: For keeping your meals organized
campground store

This is what a typical campground store looks like

 

Other Camping Essentials:

  • Backpack: For carrying stuff on day trips.
  • Flashlight, headlamp, and/or Lantern: Most campgrounds have well-lit paths. So, you *might* not need a flashlight at all.  However, they are useful for finding your way in the dark (especially when you have to go to the bathroom at night).  Kids also love to play flashlight tag and other games with them.  I prefer headlamps because they allow you to have both hands free.  I also wear one while reading at night in the tent.
  • Extra batteries: For your flashlights or other gear
  • Lots of plastic shopping bags: These are for trash, dirty laundry, wet stuff… You’ll need LOTS of them.
  • Carabiners: These are incredibly useful for things like hanging your flashlight inside the tent, attaching stuff to your backpack, making a clothesline…
  • *Rope: This is also very useful, especially for making a clothesline.
  • Lighters/Matches
  • Map, Compass and/or GPS: Great for exploring the area and also teaching kids navigation
  • Whistle: In case you get lost. Make sure each kid has one and you’ve talked about what to do if you get lost.
  • Big water bottles/water jugs: Campgrounds will have a place where you can get water. But you don’t want to have to walk there every time you need water for something.  So get a few big bottles that can be filled and kept at your campsite.
  • Smaller water bottles: These are the bottles you’ll actually be drinking from and taking on day trips.
  • *Water filter: Lots of campgrounds have water but it isn’t potable (drinkable). You can use a water filter to make it safe to drink.  I use a Sawyer Mini.  It’s also great for day hikes because it allows you to drink water from streams, lakes, etc.
  • *Camping knife/survival knife: You won’t actually need this at a campground, but it can be useful for things like shaving a marshmallow stick or other “bushcraft” tasks.
  • *Firewood: If your campground allows fires at all, you may want to bring your own firewood. Otherwise you’ll probably have to buy it from them (and it won’t be cheap!)
  • *Giant Tarp: This is great if you want to make a covered area to block sun or stay dry if it rains.
  • *Dust pan and broom: If you are messy, this is useful. You can clean your campsite so you don’t end up with a zillion ants.
camping headlamp

Kids love playing with headlamps while camping

 

camping tarp setup

This tarp setup is great for rainy days. Tarps are also great for blocking sun.

 

Hygiene Items

  • Bag for holding all of your hygiene items: Makes it easier to carry all of the stuff to the campground bathroom. Preferably a waterproof bag.
  • Toilet Paper: Lots of campgrounds don’t have TP in the bathroom!
  • Wet Wipes: Good for cleaning your hands and body when you don’t feel like walking to the camp bathroom.
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste
  • Period stuff: I use a menstrual cup.
  • Hair brush, comb, hair bands, headbands
  • Shampoo
  • Hand soap
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Shower sandals: Campground showers are nasty. You’ll want some flip flops or other waterproof sandals to wear in the showers.
  • Towels: Preferably the quick-dry camping towels.
  • Washcloths
  • Scent-free Deodorant: Nothing with perfumes or you will attract insects!
  • *Razor: I just don’t shave for the time I’m camping. 😉
  • *Small mirror: In case you care what you look like while camping.
  • *Nail clippers 
campground bathroom

Here’s what a typical campground bathroom looks like.

 

First Aid

  • Bug spray
  • Sunblock
  • Lip balm with UV protection: I always forget this and end up with sunburn on my lips.
  • Personal medications/vitamins
  • First aid kit
    • Bandaids
    • Sterile gauze and roller bandages: In case someone has a serious wound
    • Medical tape
    • Antiseptic gel for cuts
    • Balm for burns and cuts: Great for fire burns and sunburn
    • Pain meds (ibuprofen, aspirin, etc.)
    • Fever medicine: Nothing worse than your kid getting a high temperature at 3am when you are in the middle of nowhere with no open pharmacy nearby!
    • Electrolyte packets – ESSENTIAL for treating dehydration!
    • Diarrhea medicines and/or probiotics
    • Tubes of saline solution: These are used for cleaning wounds and flushing crap out of kids’ eyes
    • Wad of cotton and q-tips: For cleaning wounds
    • Bite/itch cream
    • Tweezers: Absolutely necessary. They are used for removing splinters, ticks, and debris from wounds.
    • Safety pins: Also good for removing splinters and a zillion other things.

*See a complete travel first aid kit checklist plus explanation of items here.

camping first aid kit

 

Camping Clothing:

The key to camping clothing is to dress in layers. This allows you to get more out of the same clothing. Here’s what I bring (adjust depending on temperature of where you are going; take into consideration that it may get very cold at night).

  • Rain jacket
  • *Rain pants: Probably essential if you are going camping in spring or late fall. Also great for little kids.
  • Jacket
  • Insulating layer: Worn under the jacket for warmth, such as a fleece jacket or hoodie
  • Long johns
  • Pants and/or shorts
  • T-shirts, tank tops, long-sleeve shirts
  • Sports bra and underwear
  • Socks: I always bring extras of these
  • Camp sandals
  • Sneakers
  • *Boots: If you are going hiking and/or somewhere with tough terrain. If I bring boots, then I don’t bother bringing sneakers.
  • Hat with a brim: Keeps rain and sun out of your eyes
  • Pajamas
  • *Swimsuit and swim towel
  • *Sunglasses

*Below is a graphic checklist of clothes plus how to wear them.  It is the same for backpacking and camping.

camping clothes checklist

 

Other Camping Items:

  • Camera
  • Glasses case: If you wear glasses
  • *Entertainment: Books, deck of cards, games, etc.
  • *Notebook and pens:
  • *Field guides
  • Device chargers: Most campgrounds have electric hookups for an additional cost.
  • Copies of reservations/permits
  • Backups of important documents: Like health insurance info, drivers’ licenses or passports. These can be kept on the cloud or on a secure USB.
  • Small hip pack (fanny pack): Great for holding your wallet and important documents while hiking or at camp. You don’t want to leave these in your tent.  Some campgrounds do have safes where you can leave these things.
  • *Camp chairs and table: In case you don’t like sitting or eating on the ground. Check to see if the campground has picnic tables.
  • *Picnic blanket
  • *Bear canister: Some campgrounds in bear territory require these.

 

Items for Very Young Children:

  • Portable Potty: This way your kid doesn’t have to sit on the gross campground toilets. It is also good for little kids who might not make it to the campground bathroom on time.
  • Stroller: Helpful as a place for your kid to take naps as well as getting around.
  • Child carrier: Great for day trips, especially if you plan on doing any hiking.
  • Portable high-chair: This will make feeding your child much easier. I just feed my baby in her stroller though.
  • Pack-n-play or other portable play pen: This is great for toddlers. They can play inside it while you do camp tasks without you having to worry about them running/crawling off.
  • Mosquito net: Because there really aren’t any other good ways to keep mosquitoes off of a baby.
  • Toys: You’ll realize that you don’t need that many toys when you have nature to play with. Some shovels and buckets are nice at the beach.

*Camping with a baby? Read:

Pack n Play for camping

Pack-n-plays make a safe play area for baby while camping

 

To-Do Before You Go Camping

  • Double check campground rules: Like whether they allow fires, require a bear canister, have a noise curfew…
  • Research nearby wildlife: You want to be prepared in case you see a snake, bear, or other dangerous wildlife.
  • Make reservations: Lots of campgrounds get booked well in advance.
  • Plan activities: Like biking, boating, hiking, etc. Get any gear required for these.
  • Get any gear you need: Remember to always plan for the worst! For example, bring rain gear even if you think it will be sunny.
  • Make a meal plan: I use a spreadsheet for this. See how here.
  • Put up your tent: Always set up your tent at home first. You don’t want to arrive at the campground and realize that you have no idea how to set it up.  Or, worse, realize that the tent is defective or missing a pole.
  • Test other gear: Make sure everything – like flashlights and stoves – are working. And that you know how to use them!
  • Charge batteries and devices
  • Check reservations: I’ll generally do this 3-7 days before leaving.
  • Buy food items: I’ll generally do this at least 1 week beforehand.
  • Prepare food for trip and first day: Especially if you will be eating out of your cooler or sandwiches the first day.
  • Download/print maps: Plan your route too.
  • Get cash: Some campgrounds and backcountry stores might not take credit cards.
  • Let someone know your plans: And when you expect to be back, in case anything bad happens!
  • Pack everything: Make sure you use a checklist so you don’t forget anything!
  • Do any other things you’d do before a trip: Like making arrangements for pets, stopping your mail, etc.

 

Tip for Buying Camping Gear

There’s no need to invest a lot of money in special camping gear, especially when you first get started.  For your first trip, I’d just buy the essentials (like a decent tent, sleeping bag, and pad).  As for other gear, you can usually get by with stuff you have at home (like using your normal pots and pans instead of buying ones specifically for camping).

Once you get a feel for camping, you’ll know which gear makes sense to spend money on.  Everybody does camping differently and gear which one person finds essential might not get used on your trip at all.

Your First Tent

Having the right tent can make or break a camping trip.  There are a lot of options when it comes to styles and sizes.  However, make sure that your tent is:

  • NOT a pop up tent: These might be okay for camping in perfect weather, but you won’t be able to use them in the cold. Get a tent which you will be able to use on all future trips!  My first tent only cost $50 and served me fine on camping trips to the beach, mountains, and serious backpacking trips too.
  • Double Wall: This means that there is an inner tent (usually mesh with a durable floor) and an outer tent which protects from rain. Double-wall is important.  Single-wall tents are prone to condensation, which means your tent will drip water on you at night!
  • Clips for the poles: Tents are set up with poles. Sometimes you have to slide the poles through sleeves.  This is incredibly annoying to set up.  Instead, get a tent which uses clips to attach to the poles.

TEST IT AT HOME FIRST!!!!

Always set up your tent at home first.  You don’t want to arrive at the campground and realize that you have no idea how to set it up.  Or, worse, realize that the tent is defective or missing a pole.

Other Advice for First-Time Campers


Image credits:
 “D0422 Grand Canyon_Campsite at Mather Ca” (CC BY 2.0) by Grand Canyon NPS
Striking Camping Trip #1” (CC BY 2.0) by Graham and Sheila

myself” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by tinisanto
Grand Canyon North Rim Camper Store 0046” (CC BY 2.0) by Grand Canyon NPS
Rainy Campsite” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Martin Cathrae
We arrive at Seneca rocks campground, an” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by dionhinchcliffe

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About the author /


Diane Vukovic is an avid traveler, outdoor enthusiast and couchsurfer. She loves finding ways to explain complex topics to her 9-year old daughter and hunting beetles with her 1-year old. Follow MomGoesCamping on Facebook and Twitter @MomGoesCamping to stay in touch!

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