The Essential Family Camping Checklist

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As anyone who’s done it can tell you, few activities can deepen and enrich bonds like family camping.

Even if you’re barely roughing it, there’s something about the routine of setting up a campsite, building a campfire, cooking outdoors, and listening to the night sounds from the cozy sanctum of a tent that awakens something deep-rooted and invigorating in all ages.

Kids you have to push and prod to do their chores back home often become surprisingly helpful and competent around the campsite: maybe something to do with that primal stimulus of camping, or maybe—as with food—any task is simply more enjoyable when done out of doors.

Pulling off a family camping trip, though, can also be intimidating for first-timers: all those supplies to gather, that many more moving parts to orchestrate.

To help you get started (and get inspired), we’ve put together the following essential family camping checklist. We’ll touch only lightly on the most basic camping gear in the interest of spotlighting more kid-specific stuff, some of which may not spring immediately to mind during the planning stage.

Without further ado, let’s dive into our Mountain House family camping trip checklist so you can start scheming up your next vacation!

Tent

How many and what size tents you pack depends, naturally, on the number, ages, and preferences of your crew. Smaller families or those with young children might opt to bunk together in one of those huge family-size tents. Older kids often prefer their own space: An individual or two-person tent offers a little privacy and a fun hangout for siblings.

Be sure to determine the size and layout of your campsite(s) ahead of time, and find out whether there’s a limit to the number of campers or tents in a single site.

Clothes

Nothing can spoil a family camping trip quicker than an inadequate wardrobe. Part of the camping experience is dealing with fickle and sometimes unseasonable weather. Pack enough layers for each person in the family, including sweaters, shells, winter hats, and gloves for chilly evenings and mornings.

Bring along hiking boots or shoes for trail time as well as lighter casual footwear for the campsite: tennis shoes, sandals, or the like.

And if swimming’s on the agenda—whether at the campground pool or a postcard-worthy mountain lake—don’t forget those bathing suits (and towels).

Food

Camping inspires hearty appetites, and outdoor cooking and eating are reliable highlights of any trip. So an adequate supply of campsite and trail-friendly foods is most certainly among your foremost family camping essentials. (We’re assuredly not telling you anything you don’t know in this regard.)

Mountain House meals (ahem) are quick, easy, and always crowd-pleasing choices for the great outdoors, and the sheer variety we offer makes it simple to vary up the daily cuisine and keep all those mouths happy.

How much and what you pack for the camp larder depends (of course) on the size of your family, and also whether provisions can be purchased in the vicinity: at a campground store, for instance, or a grocery in a nearby town.

As you may be having a midday meal down a hiking trail or while auto-touring some scenic landscape, be sure to bring along easily portable lunch makings.

Don’t forget plenty of snacks for day hikes and drives: dried fruit, salami, nuts, raisins, chocolate, cheese, granola, and the like. And of course you’ll probably want to have s’more ingredients on hand, and maybe a few other foods ready to be cooked over the campfire.

Before the camping trip, ask each family member what they’d most like to eat during the trip: Meal-planning can be more fun than it sounds.

Hiking Gear

Your family camping equipment should include gear for hikes (or maybe even backpacking overnighters). Maybe you’ll want daypacks for everyone—it’s always nice to have the kids tote their own snacks and water, at least—or perhaps the grownups will gamely haul everything.

Besides grub and water bottles, bring first-aid kits, emergency signaling supplies (such as whistles), trekking poles or walking sticks, and a pair or two of binoculars. As on any hike, make sure you have a detailed map and a compass along (in addition to a GPS, if you have one). A day hike happens to be a great opportunity to introduce the younger crowd to both electronic and (most importantly) map-and-compass navigation—lifesaving skills, and much more fun to learn out in the field than back at home.

You can use a family hike to show kids the ropes of other outdoor skills, too: filtering/purifying a backcountry water source, for instance, or tracking wildlife. And speaking of…

Field Guides

Include a few regionally appropriate field guides (or field-guide apps) on your camping gear list for family vacations. Kids usually love trying to I.D. plants and animals they come across, and you can also try classifying clouds, rocks, fossils, constellations, planets, and any number of other natural phenomena together. These are wonderful exercises for engaging children directly with the natural world around them, an endlessly rewarding interest that may inspire them for the rest of their lives.

Books

There’s nothing like a family camping trip for taking a break from the gadgetry that dominates so much of our daily lives. Getting kids to spend some time away from social media, video games, and other digital distractions is easier when you have the inherently interesting great outdoors—plus the novelty of the camping routine—to occupy them. For some old-school entertainment, pack a few books to share with everyone: campfire reading, for sure, but also brain food for the drive.

Besides some fiction (don’t forget those ghost stories), consider tracking down a good guidebook or two to the area you’re exploring—something that covers human and natural history, ideally.

Games

As long as we’re on the subject of going old-school, it’s also a good idea to pack some “manual” games for those rainy tent-bound days. Sure, maybe you and the kids will resort sometimes to smartphone downtime, but a deck of cards, a board game, or a puzzle (how quaint!) still have plenty of timeless appeal.

Other Family Camping Essentials

Again, we’re not exhaustively covering the gear you should bring along on any camping adventure, but just for good measure: Don’t forget the sunscreen, your preferred form of insect repellent, and (as we mentioned in the hiking section) a thoroughly stocked first-aid kit. Really, the main challenge is remembering to bring enough for everybody.

There are exceptions, of course, but more often than not your first family camping trip is probably not going to be your last—not by a long shot.

And hey, we know we’ve got plenty of camping-obsessed families among our Mountain House customers. What are some of the absolute essentials you rely on to make these communal outdoor adventures that much easier or more fun? We’d love to hear about ’em, and it’s sure to be useful info for your fellow campers.