Camping with the family is a time-honoured tradition. Getting away from the city recharges batteries, bonds the family together and creates memories that simply can’t be recreated elsewhere.
The key to any successful camping trip is preparation. Knowing what lies ahead is central to having the right equipment. Proper equipment makes camping fun and easy. There are three overriding principles to make a camping trip a success: Dry, Fed, and Warm. Each of these principles needs to apply to each aspect of the trip. Every camping trip has a basic structure: Site, Shelter, Food, Water, Heat, and Fun. Once these get sorted, the packing becomes self-evident.
Getting to know your campsite
Know as much as you can about the site before you go. In a campground, find out where the washrooms are as well as the amenities. Many campgrounds have a family-oriented section intended to keep the partiers and the kids who want to sleep separate. Knowing how far away the water source is will determine how many jugs you’ll take. the farther it is, the more you want to bring back with you to avoid trips. Firewood is another important amenity. Most campgrounds won’t allow removal of trees. Again the distance from the woodpile to the fire pit is important. When packing the car, Put the firewood in last. It comes out first and gets out of the way. Next the tents and tarps. Dealing with those critical elements first will ensure that no matter what happens, everyone will have a warm, dry place to sleep and there will be a fire to sit around and roast hot dogs.
Shelter from the elements
Shelter is the most important part of a camp. A good tent (what makes a good tent? Find out here) with the right tarp rig (there are tarp rigs? Sure, here they are) will withstand whatever weather comes at you and keep the inside dry. When the kids think they’re ready to sleep alone, their tent should be close so if they change their minds, parents aren’t too far away.
Sleeping bags and pads are the next item. Season-appropriate is a must. Pack a liner just in case the nights get cooler than expected. Lots of ropes and pegs (don’t forget the mallet) will give you lots of choices for rigging your tarp(s) properly. Tarps also make for great shade. A tarp angled over the dining table will help keep the table clean as well as provide respite from the sun.
When weather allows, hang sleeping bags on a line, inside out and unzipped for the day. This will refresh the bag and get rid of any oils/sweat/condensation from the night before.
Keep it simple. Lots of snacks tend to be best, but a big breakfast and dinner are a must. When planning meals, be specific. Find the recipes you want (our favourite camp recipes are here) and bring that amount. By grouping meals together in bags (ditch the cans and boxes, but keep instructions if needed) and labeling them, mealtime becomes quick and easy. Even pre-cracking eggs will make for a faster meal time.
Cooking can be done on the fire, on a camp stove, or both. If planning to cook solely on the fire, make sure the fire pit is deep enough for a good bed of coals. Bring a grill to keep pots and pans out of the fire. Camp stoves are another great heat source for cooking (more about camp stoves here), provided they don’t run out of fuel.
All fuels have a shelf-life. Check them before heading out. Bring a basin for washing dishes. Wooden utensils do the least amount of damage to cookware, and if damaged can simply be disposed of in the fire. An old scout-trick was to carve spatulas at camp. That can be a fun activity if the mood strikes.
Another note on fires: Leave the axe at home. Family time usually involves kids, and axes are inherently dangerous. A folding saw will make quick work of most dry wood. A fixed-blade knife and good baton technique (tools and techniques here) will split wood down to usable sizes. With kids around, keep it safe.
Water is important for everything. Drinking enough water avoids dehydration, which means more play time. Water douses the fire as needed, it washes dishes and hands, it rinses feet before turning in. If the local water source is clean to drink, enjoy. If not, plan on boiling water for 10 minutes before drinking. Covered vessels boil faster than uncovered. Keep clean containers and untreated containers separate to avoid contamination. Follow the local rules for gray-water dumping.
Staying warm in the cooler weather (early spring and late fall camps are fun, but require different preparations) isn’t hard. Prepare with extra layers (thermal undergarments are great for keeping the body warm. See here for more). More firewood is a must, as is a heavier sleeping bag. Proper layers are essential (rain gear on top, insulating layers next, moisture-wicking base layers against the skin and at the bottom of the pack) as well as lots of activities to stay warm.
Pro-tip: Just below boiling water in a couple of water bottles, tossed into a sleeping bag 20-30 minutes before bedtime will warm the bag nicely. Remove them before crawling in or they’ll suck heat through the night.
Sitting around the campsite isn’t much fun. Any campground will have lots of things to do. Hiking, fishing, activities etc. Find out what’s there before packing and plan for it. Fishing gear, hiking boots (always break in your footwear before heading out) and other games/activities will help make a trip more fun. If the terrain is right, a volleyball and net are great. as are badminton, soccer, baseball and football. Never camp without a frisbee (bring one for each family member to use a paper plate holder around the fire). Books and travel-size games are good for down-time activities or tent time if it rains. Decks of cards will always pass an hour or two, whether it’s playing a favourite game, learning a new one or trying to build a house.
What to pack for the camping adventure
The list below is not inclusive. Each family, after a few trips, will realize exactly how little they need to be comfortable and have fun. Be sure to make your own list, and have two check boxes- one for when it’s packed at home, and the other for when it’s packed away at camp. Nothing left behind.
- Tarps: two per tent, one per dining shelter, one spare
- Tents: one for adults, one for kids, or one for boys one for girls
- ropes and pegs for each tarp
- mallet for pegs (get a plastic one that’s small and light)
- sleeping bag and ground pad for each camper
- sleeping bag liner
- Cooler and ice
- meal packs/food stores (An extra few days’ worth just in case)
- camp stove and fuel
- grill and roasting sticks for the fire
- large pot
- large pan
- two wooden spatulas
- wash basin
- dish soap
- dish cloths
- cutting board
- kitchen knife with sheath
- water jugs
- weather appropriate clothing (one extra change for every camper)
- rain gear
- extra hats and warm items (scarves gloves etc)
- two extra pairs of socks for each camper
- games and books for campsite time
- activities for daytime
- hiking packs (see hiking pack essentials here)
- fire starting materials
Try this packing order for the car when getting ready for the off:
- Clothes, games and toys in first.
- Food second
- Kitchen third
- Tents and sleeping gear last
This makes the removal order: Tents and sleeping gear, kitchen, food, things for the next day. Spend the first day travelling, arriving and getting set up and unpacked. Then deal with the rest. When breaking camp, packing order is less important.