Car Camping for the Whole Family [Part 1 of 2]

Fun for the Whole Family (Including YOU!)

Why Car Camp with Kids?

Car camping is a lot simpler than backpacking. Anyone can do it. You can pack everything you might possibly need (including the kitchen sink), and if you forget something like marshmallows (or god forbid coffee!), you can zip off to the store. There are usually bathrooms. And toilet paper. If it pours down rain, you can sleep inside your dry car. Car camping is a wonderful way to get you and your kids out in nature without having to be an outdoor wilderness expert.

Car Camping Basics

Choosing Your Tent

If you’re looking for a tent, get a 3-season. You’ll stay warmer in non-summer months.

  • Make sure the rainfly covers the entire tent down to the ground (no tent beanies, please!).
  • Get a tent big enough for your whole family. At the store, lay down inside it. Is it roomy enough? Can you stand up? You don’t need to, but you might want to. Some tents even have separate “rooms” for privacy.
  • Think about when your kids will be ready for a smaller “kid tent” and plan for that, too.

You don’t have to break the bank when buying a family tent. This tent is a good brand, big enough for a family of four and not too expensive. Our family has used this one for 15 years and it’s still going strong!

Siting Your Tent

  • Choose a tent site that’s flat, safe, and dry. Don’t set up under hazards like dead tree limbs or near wasp nests. Don’t set up in low spots where rainwater might run through or pool in your tent. We once camped with a family who woke up floating in 2 inches of water!
  • Clear the tent site of rocks, sticks, and pinecones before you lay down your ground tarp. Lumps are not fun to sleep on.

Living in Your Tent

  • As soon as you set up your tent, go in, and set up your sleeping pads and bags. Do it early, while it’s still light out, so everything’s ready to go when it gets dark. It’s hard to set up your bed in the dark when you’re tired and ready to sleep.
  • Bring a small tarp, towel, or blanket to put in front of your tent door, in the vestibule, to create a “mudroom.” Take all shoes off there, so no one brings dirty shoes into the tent. Tuck shoes under the rainfly to keep them dry.
  • Use tent pockets to store headlamps, lanterns, books—anything you need to find easily.
  • Each person keeps their clothes in a soft bag and the bags go in the tent so you can get dressed. I use my clothes bag as a second pillow so I’m not lying head flat on the ground.
  • Bring pillows. If you’re tight on space, bring empty pillowcases to stuff with clothes.
  • Keep a tidy tent! No “scrappy junk” (like sticks or rocks) inside. That’s how your tent gets ripped.
  • Have your kids practice zipping and unzipping the tent and rainfly—3 times each. Make a rule: always zip the door closed whenever you enter or exit the tent. Every. Single. Time. Rain-soaked sleeping bags or a tent full of bugs is the worst!

Caring for Your Tent

  • Before taking down your tent, unzip the door, turn it upside down, and shake all the crap out. It’s much easier to do this while the tent is still set up.
  • Don’t pack your tent up wet. If it’s wet and you have to leave, drape it over stuff in the back of the car. If you absolutely must pack it up wet, then hang it up to dry as soon as you get home. Your tent must be 100% dry before you pack it up for good.
  • Before you pack the tent in the tent bag, count all the poles and stakes. Make sure nothing’s missing.

Your Sleeping Bag & Pad

  • Don’t skimp on your sleeping bag. Nothing is worse than being cold while camping. Read the reviews and get a respected brand. Make sure the cold rating is accurate and go with colder than you think you’ll need. A 30-degree mummy-bag should keep you warm in most situations. If you’re camping at elevation or in the winter, go with 10-20 degrees.
  • Don’t sleep on an air mattress. Self-inflating foam-core sleeping pads are more comfortable, insulated to keep you warmer, and won’t pop as easily.

Your Kitchen

  • An inexpensive 2-burner camp stove works just fine for most family camp meals. Many people use disposable propane canisters, but they’re terrible for the environment. If you want something you can refill at your hardware store, here’s the 5-lb refillable tank we use, and the hose to attach it to your stove. It’s a bit spendier upfront, but you’ll make back your money quickly and won’t be piling empty canisters in the landfill.
  • We keep our stove, gas, and kitchen gear in one plastic storage tub for easy packing and organization. In addition to pots and pans, dishes, and silverware, you should also bring a small tub or two for doing dishes, along with dish soap and a sponge.
  • Always store your propane tanks standing up, not on their sides.

Car Camping Fun

If you want your kids to enjoy camping and be excited to go next time (and if YOU want to enjoy your trip), focus on the fun. Especially the first few times—first impressions last a lifetime. If your kids were cold and miserable the first time they went camping, you may never get them to go again.

Pick a kid-friendly spot. An easy way to get your kids excited about camping is to choose destinations they will have fun at. Lakes or streams are great kid destinations because they provide hours of shoreline entertainment. Short, easy hikes you can do from camp are also fun. Especially if there are huckleberries en route. Remember, whenever you’re near water, put life jackets on kids, stay close, and always keep them in view.

Pack the fun. When we car camp, I pack a whole big bag of fun. My kids make fun of me, it’s so big. I like games or toys that will get the kids interacting with each other (and us) and/or with nature. Here are some things to try:

  • Card games your kids can play alone or with you, like a deck of cards (some fun, easy kid card games: King in a Corner, Slap Jack, Golf, Bologna, Spoons, and Egyptian Rat Screw), Uno, and Quiddler.
  • Critter collecting gear, like a net, bug container, and magnifying glass
  • A ball of twine or string. A string is a miracle toy. Kids can keep themselves happily busy for hours in nature with a little ball of string.
  • Blank notebook, pens, or pencils. Inspire your young naturalist with a way to record the amazing plants and critters they see while out in nature.
  • Guidebooks. Give them a way to ID the cool things they’re seeing out in nature. 

Let kids bring a few toys. Kids will interact with their toys in a whole new way while outdoors. My daughter used to bring her sweet little Polly Pocket dolls, who turned into badass underwater divers and mountain climbers when outside their city digs.

Make campfire treats. Nothing gets kids excited like making a special camp dessert together. S’mores are great, but try to expand your palette. Try making campfire pies using a grilled sandwich maker, white bread, and canned cherry or apple pie filling (you can find them at any grocery store). Your kids will be dying to camp again, just to make those pies! Jiffy Pop popcorn also works great on a campfire grate. We went car camping with our European cousins once and that’s all the kids wanted to do—stare at the Jiffy Pop. It was the camp version of TV.

Don’t forget the bug juice. Getting eaten alive by mosquitos can turn a great trip into a nightmare. Deet does the job, but if you’re worried about putting it on yourself or your kids, try this Deet-free repellent instead. If you do get bit (and you will), Tiger Balm is a miracle cure for itching.

Chill out. Remember, this is your vacation too! Don’t worry too much about what the kids are doing. Relax and have some wine. Read a book. Ignore them until they get bored enough to go dig in the dirt. One of my favorite camp memories is when I ignored my 5-year-old daughter for a few hours and she returned to camp with our dishwashing bin chock full of crawdads! She created a little aquarium for them, watched them do their thing for a few hours, and then we set them free. These were invasive crawdads, so we were actually helping the environment. When catching any water creatures, make sure you have any necessary permits.

Kids Helping & Doing

You should teach your kids how to do every camping task. Start with the easy stuff, like setting up their own bed, or helping you take down the tent. Then work up to the harder stuff, like setting up the tent on their own, doing dishes, and even cooking dinner. Show them how then let them do the task on their own. Check their work after and give praise and pointers. Letting kids help and do gives them ownership of the adventure and builds life skills. Eventually, they will be able to camp all on their own and teach their own kids. But only if you let them. 

Create a Trackers Camp at Home!

You can also teach and practice these camping skills at home. Set up a Trackers Camp in your backyard—a spot where your kids can go to explore and contemplate nature on their own. Use your Trackers Camp as a place to test out your tent, sleeping bags, kitchen, etc. with your kids. You can help them spot and deal with problems before you head out into the wilderness. Be aware—your kids may demand to sleep outside after all that fun work. Let them! 

With the right gear and kid-fun focus, car camping can be a blast. It’s a relatively easy way to get your family out in nature without too much stress. You can go with other friends or family and make it a big outdoor party. And you can return to the same spot year after year, creating an outdoor family tradition your kids will remember forever.

Part 2 of this Car Camping blog (coming soon) will cover more critical issues like cooking, walkie-talkies, and how to go to the bathroom!