Every parent is slightly terrified of their kids getting bored because that’s when the nagging and whining starts. Hence the reason so many parents feel inclined to bring a zillion toys on family camping trips. Or they guiltily bring an iPad with a few TV shows downloaded on it “just in case” the kids get really bored or annoying.
I completely understand the worry about how you’ll entertain your kids outdoors. And, yes, some camping toys can really improve your trip. But bringing too many toys might actually ruin your camping trip.
To ensure you and your kids have a good time, here are the best toys to bring camping — all of which will help them connect with nature — and why you might not want to bring any toys at all.
Why I Don’t Bring (Many) Toys for My Kids When Camping
Of course I bring some toys for my kids camping. My daughters wouldn’t be able to sleep without their favorite stuffed animals. But it’s really important to just bring a few toys.
As I talk about in this post about camping activities for kids, boredom is good for kids and stimulates creativity. If you allow kids to get bored, they will come up with their own games. Sticks become building blocks. Leaves are turned into arts and crafts projects. Rocks sticking out of the ground become nature’s hopscotch.
By contrast, if you bring a lot of toys, your kids will want to play with those toys. They will revert to what they know instead of interacting with nature and coming up with ways to play with what’s around them.
Other reasons not to bring toys camping
In addition to stimulating creativity and encouraging interaction with nature, some other reasons not to bring toys camping are:
- More stuff = more stress. You will end up spending all your time organizing toys, putting things away, and looking for lost Lego pieces on the ground.
- Kids will like their toys more once they’ve had a break from them. My daughters get bored of their at-home toys quickly. When we come back from a camping trip, the toys are new and exciting again. They play for hours with the toys – which means I get to relax.
- No begging for screen time. If screens are available, my kids want nothing else. But, if screens aren’t possible (because I didn’t bring them or there simply is no electricity where we are camping), they don’t whine for screen time at all. It’s kind of miraculous really.
- Have a set of toys which is only used for camping. It will help keep those toys exciting, almost like your kid got brand-new toys for each camping trip.
- Bring rain gear! Then your kids can play outside regardless of how bad the weather is. Here are my picks for best rain pants.
Best Toys to Take Camping
The best camping toys are open-ended, meaning they can be used in multiple ways. Good camping toys will also help your kids interact with nature. Further, you might want to choose toys which your kids can’t use at home for practicality reasons (like an archery set when you live in the city and don’t have a yard). Below are some of the best camping toys for kids which meet these requirements.
1. Buckets and Shovels
These are the toys which my kids use most when camping. Both young and older kids will find ways to use them. Such as:
- Gathering cool rocks, acorns, etc.
- Making sandcastles or dirt towers
- Catching tadpoles
- Home for snails and worms
- Scooping water from one bucket to another
2. Specimen Collection Cups
Here’s another favorite of my kids. My daughters love to collect various nature things. Give them the specimen collection cups, send them outside, and see what cool things they come back with. My 10-year old still has a dead stag beetle she found in display! You can also get cups that have air holes on the lids so they can collect live insects and other tiny creatures.
3. Outdoor-Themed Board Games
Board games are a good backup in case the weather is really terrible. There are some cool outdoor-themed games that will go along with the camping experience, such as Photosynthesis or Shadows in the Forest, which is actually played in the dark. Check out the best camping-themed board games here.
Rope is one of the most useful multi-purpose items to bring camping. My kids use it all the time when coming up with games, tying random things together, making teepee shelters, or even arts and crafts projects.
When you get tired of having half the kids from the campground inside your tent (letting the bugs in and getting dirty feet all over!), send them off to make their own tent. They will need to tie some rope (see #4) between two trees and suspend the tarp over it.
Make sure your kids have their own flashlights to play with. Flashlight tag is an old classic game that kids still love. Kids will also have fun making shadow puppets or simply putting the flashlight in their mouth and watching their cheeks glow. Expect your kids to drop the flashlights, so choose a sturdy one!
7. Bug Net
It also doubles as a fish-catching net when you are near a pond or lake. Make sure you talk to your kids about not harming animals before you give them the net. I like ones with telescoping handles because they are easier to pack, especially on backpacking trips or day hikes.
The bug net above has a telescoping handle which extends from 7″ to 34 inches. Get it here.
Depending on their age, you might want to give them a bird-watching field guide to go with the binoculars.
9. Jenga or Dominos
These games are particularly good for camping because the pieces also serve as building blocks for making mini forts, cages, huts, etc.
10. Slack Line
Strap the slack line between two trees and start working on your balance. This is also a good way for your kids to make friends; other kids from the campground will come over to try out the slack line! On the flip side, if you don’t want to be swarmed by other people’s kids, you might not want to bring this. 🙂
11. Archery Set
This falls into the category of “camping toys you can’t normally use at home.” At least my kids can’t because of our tiny yard. Just be sure to set up the archery practice somewhere FAR away from other campers!
Some campgrounds have large, open areas for recreation. Likewise, there might be a big open field nearby if you are camping in the lowlands. These are perfect for flying kites.
13. Bowling Set
My daughter invented her own version of bowling by lining up stacks of rocks and knocking them over with another rock. But you can also buy bowling sets to play. As an added bonus, all the running back and forth to set up the pins will tire out your kids. They might even fall asleep early so you get some alone time!
14. Water Toys
If there will be water – a lake, pond, creek, stream…- near the campground, make sure you bring some water toys. Young kids have fun with buckets in the water. Older kids will have a blast with an inflatable paddleboard or raft.
15. Field Guides
Choose a field guide which is appropriate for your kid’s age. Some have activities in them so your kids can keep track of their sightings.
Nature on the Trail book is an interactive field guide for kids 4-8 with activities, checklists, and stickers. Get it here.
16. Notebook and Arts & Crafts Supplies
My family never goes camping without a notebook for each person. We also bring some basic arts and crafts supplies like tiny scissors (in my multi-tool) and tape. We use the supplies for drawing things we find in nature, pressing flowers, doing leaf rubbings, making “dolls” from leaves, and more.
17. Dump Trucks
My girls never played with dump trucks but lots of parents say that dump trucks are by far the best camping toys.
18. Walkie Talkies
I played with these as a kid and it’s fun to watch my daughters play with them now.
19. Deck of Cards
For really rainy days when we don’t feel like playing outside, a deck of cards is great. There are a zillion different games you can play with one deck of cards. Very young kids can play easy games like Go Fish and older kids can play Crazy 8’s, Rummy, etc. You can also make up games like stacking the cards into towers.
20. Magnifying Glass or Pocket Microscope
A magnifying glass just doesn’t cut it for my nerdy daughter. We love looking at bits of flowers, leaves or dead bug legs under the microscope. The brand Carson makes good ones that are really cheap (under $15!).
This is especially great when camping during a full moon. It’s also a good way to become friends with the neighbors because they are sure to ask for a view if they see you using the telescope at camp.
Tweens and teens aren’t as creative as little kids, so they can easily get bored when camping (especially if there aren’t any kids their age around). Give them a camera and they will have fun taking photos. Just try not to cringe when half of their photos end up being selfies.
23. Your Real Camping Gear
Some articles recommend buying fake versions of real camping gear for your kids to play with – like a fake camping stove or fake flashlight. I personally think this is a bit ridiculous. Why would you spend $30 on a fake lantern when you can buy a real one for $15?
Just let them play with the real camping gear.
For example, one our first camping trip, my daughter played for HOURS with our camp cook set. Yes, I had to clean all the “food” (leaves and sticks) out before putting real food in them, but it was worth it.
If you really don’t want to give your kids your camping gear, then some fake camping gear might be worth buying – like a fake campfire so they don’t want to play with the real one. But you’ll probably want to keep these toys at home; then you kids can play camping when they get back from the trip.
24. Sports Toys and Outdoor Games
Finally, there are dozens of different sports games your kids can play while camping. You don’t even need equipment if you are creative – like using a stick as a baseball bat to whack a ball made of rope. Or, bring some equipment or games like:
- Jump rope
- Hacky sack
What toys or games do you bring camping for your kids? Let us know in the comments.