Camping Essentials

by: Erin Dower

Camping can be a fun and cheap family activity or vacation. But you do need quite a few supplies to manage life in the great outdoors. Find out what you'll need to pack for your next camping adventure, and remember to check with your campground to see if they supply items like picnic tables and firewood, and whether fully functional restrooms are available. Consider doing a test-run in your backyard if your family is new to camping. Also, check out the best camping foods and recipes!

And check out our travel videos for other great family vacations!

This seems like a no-brainer. Unless you're sleeping under the stars or you have a camper or RV, don't forget the obvious: a tent! If you haven't camped since last year, open up your tent to air it out, make sure it's not musty or moldy, and check that you have all the poles, stakes, and the fly, or the extra fabric or tarp that goes over the top to help keep rain out. Sometimes tents don't fit as many people as they advertise, so check the measurements and user reviews when you're buying one.
Sleeping Bag and Pillow
Even if the weather forecast looks hot for your camping trip, bring a sleeping bag for every camper. Woodsy or mountainous areas can have temperature drops of 20 degrees or more at night, especially when there are clear summer skies.

Without a pillow, you could be facing a rocky night's sleep. Kids also like having a pillow for the long car ride and as a little piece of home to sleep with if camping is a new experience. Your pillows may smell like a campfire for a few days after your trip, so consider getting a different set of pillows for camping.

Air Mattress, Cot, or Sleeping Mat
Even if you're a tough, experienced camper who opts not to have the comfort of an air mattress, cot, or sleeping mat, bring something comfortable for your children to sleep on. It may save you from having to return home early with kids who aren't fans of roughing it on the ground.

Do your family a favor and test your air mattresses and blow-up sleeping mats for holes and leaks before your trip. Remember to bring a battery-operated air pump for your mattresses unless there's one built in. Avoid setting up camp on rocky areas that could puncture your mattress.

Flashlights and Lanterns
Flashlights are another camping staple. Bring multiple flashlights and extra batteries, and also consider buying a camping lantern. Lanterns are great because they shed more light in all directions, and they stand on their own so that you can play cards or board games at night.

Get ready for pesky moths and bugs to be attracted to the light, though. Try to turn off your flashlight before you enter your tent and zip the tent closed before turning the light back on to keep out bugs.

Bug Repellent and Citronella Candles
Keep away mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies, and other notorious biters. Don't forget the anti-itch cream to apply after insect bites or run-ins with poison ivy. Just keep in mind that many bug sprays contain high levels of the chemical DEET, which may not be best for small children. Talk to your child's pediatrician about which products to use.
Campfire Supplies
Matches (stored in a plastic baggie or wrapped in foil to keep out moisture), dry firewood, and dry newspaper are all you need for a campfire. Most campgrounds, grocery stores, and convenience stores sell firewood throughout the summer. You and your kids can do a quick hunt for kindling wood for your fire. Each campsite should have its own cement or stone campfire spot and many also provide a cast-iron grate for cooking on.
Here's what you'll need to have a functional outdoor kitchen for camping: bowls, plates, eating utensils, a cast iron or other high-heat-safe pot and pan; a large, heat-safe spoon and spatula; a long scewer for heating food over the fire (unless you want to use sticks); heat-safe oven mitts; a cooler with ice; a can opener; and dish soap and a small plastic tub for cleaning and reusing your plates and utensils. A camping stove can make meal prep easier than cooking over a campfire.
Nonperishable Food and Bottled Water
While you can buy filtration systems to purify water found in nature, families will find it easiest to bring gallons of bottled water for cooking, cleaning, and brushing their teeth, if the campground does not have running water.

Also bring plenty of nonperishable food that will stay cool and safe in cans and jars until you're ready to cook and eat it. Canned chili and soups and dried soup mixes, individual mini cereal boxes, and individually packaged crackers and peanut butter or pretzels will stay fresh. Try to store your food in the car at all times when you're not eating it because animals will scavenge at all hours of the day.

Get some ideas for kid-friendly camping foods.

Toiletries and Toilet Paper
Most campgrounds have fully functional bathrooms with running water, flushing toilets, and shower stalls (sometimes coin-operated). It's smart to bring your own supply of toilet paper in case it runs out in the bathroom. Also remember your toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, shampoo, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, eye care supplies, razor, and other toiletries you think you'll need. Pack sunscreen with your toiletries or beach gear. Even if your campsite is shady, being outside all day means a lot of sun exposure.
Camping Clothes
Bring clothes for all types of weather, from hot or rainy days, to chilly nights. If there's a body of water nearby, bring swimsuits and beach gear.

Even if the weather forecast calls for pleasant climate, be prepared for cold, buggy nights. Bring jeans or other long pants (capri pants won't cut it), a long-sleeved shirt, a sweatshirt, socks, and close-toed shoes to help keep your family warm and protected against bugs. Pack older clothes that you don't care about getting dirty or ripped.

First-Aid Kit
If your camping trip includes hiking, biking, fishing, and other outdoor romps, be prepared for bumps and cuts with a first-aid kit. Use the clean water you brought to rinse cuts and scrapes. Find a first-aid kit for outdoor adventures.
Books and Games
Camping is a way to unplug from computers and electronic forms of entertainment. Encourage your kids to read, enjoy the quiet time, and put away their handheld videogames during your trip. For younger kids, bring their favorite books and bedtime stories to help make them feel at home.

Bring playing cards and simple board games without a lot of pieces to lose. Telling ghost stories, reading, or playing games by the campfire or inside the tent will make more lasting memories than playing videogames. There's something special about living and playing outdoors for a few days!