One of our favorite things to do as a family is camping! We love everything about it — getting away from it all, spending time under the stars, eating s’mores to our hearts’ content, and just exploring together. It’s so great to unplug, and spend some quality time together. It’s something we love so much, we pretty much constantly have a trip planned so we always have something to look forward to. And when you have young kids like we do, car camping is where it’s at!
Car camping basically means that you have your car with you at your campsite — you’re not hiking or paddling to a spot, carrying all your gear with you. Car camping is the perfect type of camping for those with young children, or those who just like having some conveniences within reach. Parking your car, and then walking a few feet to set up your camp makes things so much easier!
Our children are now seven and five years old, but we’ve been camping with them for years. As a car camping family, I’m excited to share some tips we’ve learned along the way!
CHOOSING YOUR CAMPSITE
The first thing you have to do is choose your campsite! Some car campsites allow you to choose your specific site when making your reservation, but some do not. Whether or not you’re picking your site in advance or not, here are a couple of things we consider when choosing ours:
1. Make Reservations. The most important thing you can do is to reserve your spot, especially if you’re wanting to camp during a popular time of year. In north Georgia, that would be fall. If you have your heart set on seeing the changing leaves, make your reservation as early as possible! In other times of year, you’ll have more choices — but I would always recommend making a reservation when you have kids. The last thing you want to do is disappoint your kids if a campsite isn’t available.
2. Bathroom Proximity. In our experience, being close to the bathroom is the best option for us right now. Our kids just generally need to use the restroom more, so being nearby is helpful here.
3. Creek/lake/pond nearby. My kids are old enough now that having a creek running behind our site is something we would definitely want. But I know that parents of younger children may not want this added stress. So keep that in mind when searching.
4. Playground. A lot of the places we go for camping have playgrounds in the campground area. Whenever possible, we try to pick sites that are close to it! First, most of the other people choosing these sites have kids too, so meeting friends is easy. And second, a playground is like a magnet for my kids — it’s what they’re going to want to do, so why not make it easily accessible?
5. Understand the Amenities. Are you hoping to have water and electricity at your site? Check on that information before you count on it. Since we have kids, we usually try to stay at sites that have both — because having water nearby for emergency hand washing, is so helpful!
6. Your Fur Baby. Do you want to bring your dog? Make sure that’s allowed! Most campsites we’ve experienced allowed dogs, as long as they were kept on a leash.
7. Check the Fire Rules. My kids love campfires! It is their most favorite part of camping. Every campsite we’ve been to had a fire ring and has allowed campfires, so promising my kids that we’d be making s’mores has always been easy. But, although rare, there are campsites out there that don’t allow campfires ever (like, Disney World’s campsites).
A more common issue here in Georgia though, is a fire ban due to dry or windy conditions. Check on this before you head out, to make sure you’re not disappointing the kids.
8. Understand the Wildlife. The great thing is — you’re car camping! So no matter what wildlife you’ll be dealing with wherever you go, you can keep your food and drinks inside your vehicle when you’re not using them. And I would highly recommend it. There’s no better place to keep food than your vehicle!
We also like to give our kids a heads up if we’ll be somewhere where they might see raccoons, snakes, or even bears. Telling them about seeing these animals allows for a great learning opportunity, and helps them feel more aware.
WHAT TO PACK
Now, we’re ready to pack up our car and head out! The absolute best thing about car camping with kids is — you can pack whatever can fit into your vehicle. There is no trying to fit everything you’ll need into a backpack to carry with you on a trail. If you can fit it in or on your vehicle, you can take it! (the following contains affiliate links)
9. Food. We like to put all of our dry food in a large plastic bin. I also pack a smaller plastic bin with snacks for the kids. This just makes it so much easier for us, since our kids seem to be constantly hungry when we’re outside all day! I can just send them to the snack bin when they’re inevitably hungry. And as mentioned previously, I leave the bins in our car, except when we’re using them.
10. Cooler. Our cooler is full of drinks and all of our cold foods! Plastic bags are my friend when it comes to the cooler. We have a basic cooler, so after the first day, we’re dealing with a lot of melted ice. Putting my foods and condiments in plastic baggies is the best way I’ve found to keep everything from getting mushy or filled with water. We leave our cooler in our vehicle almost all the time, as it just seems easier overall.
11. Camper Bin. We have a large plastic bin that always has the same things in it all the time, so it’s always ready for a camping trip. A permanently packed camping bin, if you will. Our bin currently has: kids lanterns, dish towels, dish soap, hand soap, glow sticks, pots and pans, our camping hammock, s’more roasting sticks, a roll of paper towels, plates, cups, plastic cutlery, a Swiss Army knife, a doormat, trash bags, a string of white twinkle lights, a pack of crayons, and a bug box. These are our permanent necessities right now, and we can’t go camping without them!
12. Camp Stove. Hands down, our favorite camping item is the camp stove. We seriously love it. It is not a necessity by any means, but having a camp stove when you’re camping with kids is the best! Why? Well, have you ever really tried to have your kids cook their own hot dogs over a fire? It takes A MILLION YEARS.
You know what doesn’t? Cooking them on the camp stove. You know what makes early mornings so much better? Coffee from the camp stove. The camp stove is the best! We definitely still use the fire, but the camp stove is just the best convenience.
13. Clothes. Bring ALL THE EXTRA CLOTHES. Our kids are dirty at home. As you can imagine, they’re even dirtier when they’re outside non-stop for days! Bring extra clothes. For every kid. For every day. For every possible scenario. EXTRA. CLOTHES. And extra, extra socks! They are the first to go.
14. Plan for Changing Temps. You also may need to pack warm pajamas, but shorts and t-shirts for the daytime. Temperatures change a lot, and when you’re outside all day and night, you get to experience all of them. Sweatshirts, jackets, and hats are your friend. You may have noticed, but kids can get kind of whiny when they’re uncomfortable? Be prepared!
14. Rain Jackets. I know there’s no chance of rain for your trip, and that is so great! Bring the rain jackets anyway.
15. Extra Shoes. The most important thing you can pack for your kids is a pair of extra shoes. Our kids love Crocs, so we always bring those since they’re easy to slip on for a walk to the bathroom, and they can get wet. But we also bring their sneakers for our hikes. It’s really helpful to have an easily-slipped on pair for hanging around the campsite.
16. First Aid Kit. Always, always, always! Our basic first aid kit has pain reliever, band-aids, neosporin, an anti-sting stick, gauze, nail clippers, and tweezers.
Also known as one of our kids’ favorite place to play on a camping trip, here is my advice about all things tent-related!
17. The Correct Tent. Make sure your tent will work for the climate you’ll be in. They make every kind of tent, for every kind weather. Will you be in a desert with high winds? They have a tent for that! We almost exclusively camp in the southeast, so our tent is very basic, but it would be something to check if you’re headed somewhere else. If you’re going to camp, tents are important!
18. Rain Flap. Bring the rain flap, and put it on your tent! There is nothing worse than a flooded tent. And, speaking from experience, might I suggest testing your rain flap before camping? I would set up your tent in the backyard with the rain flap, and spray it with a hose to see how it holds up. Because sometimes even the best campers use their rain flap, put it on their tent, and then get completely flooded overnight due to a non-functioning rain flap. ASK ME HOW I KNOW! Also, it never hurts to bring along a can of Scotchgard to give your rain flap a boost.
19. Enough Space. Make sure you have a tent that has enough space for everyone. Our kids are young, so we all stay together in the same tent — which means our tent is pretty large. Thank goodness we’re car camping, because I would not want to lug this thing into the woods on my back! It’s not one of those that has five bedrooms or anything, but it does have a little screened porch in front of it, which we love. Why? Because that’s where we keep all the dirty shoes!
20. Dirt. Kids are dirty, and honestly, so am I. So bring a small broom/dustpan so you can sweep out the mounds of dirt that end up in your tent. Even though we make the kids take off their shoes before coming in, it still turns into a sand pit. We also have a small doormat that we bring on every camping trip to try to help keep the dirt out of our living space.
21. Rules. So here’s the thing: You may not want your kids to use your sleeping tent as a play area. I get not letting them, because it’s basically like letting really dirty people play crazy on your bed. I would establish these rules ahead of time, so your kids know that it’s a sleeping space and not a play space.
Although we do allow it, we’ve cut down on it significantly since buying them each their own tent. (We got the small, kid-sized tents in the camping section of Wal-Mart for $10 each.) We set up their kid tents, and that’s what we point them to for playing, which they think is great, and so do we! Win-win.
22. Clothes Bins. I used to pack the kids’ clothes in individual duffle bags, but now I use a large, clear, plastic bin for this too. For me, it’s easier to keep the tent organized when their clothes are all in this one see-through spot.
23. Air mattresses. One of the great advantages to car camping is the ability to use the car to blow up your air mattresses! Our air pump just plugs into the car, and it inflates it within minutes.
24. Sleeping Bags. We tend to only camp in mild and moderate climates, but if you’ll be camping in a cold-weather place, make sure your sleeping bags are made for cold temperatures. The best way to get a good nights sleep, is to be in the right kind of bag.
25. Pillows. You’re in your car, so you can pack for maximum comfort! Bring everyone’s favorite pillow, so it’ll feel more like home.
Camping by itself is most exciting activity out there, but it never hurts to bring a little something extra! Car camping with kids means you can bring some extra entertainment along with you! Here are some of our favorites:
26. Movies. Yes, we bring movies in our car — but let me explain! It’s happened to us several times that we’ve camped during a rainstorm. And every time that’s happened, the movie in our car has been a lifesaver! Our last camping trip, it was raining the morning we were packing up, so putting the kids in the car with their breakfast and a movie going was the most awesome way to get it all packed up.
So, don’t worry about breaking that unwritten rule that says you can’t have your electronics with you. Unplugging is nice, but sometimes plugging back in can be nice too.
27. Books. Bring all the books!
28. Bikes or Scooters. If it looks like we’re going to a place where bikes may be useful, bring them! You’re in your car, and you can just bring those awesome things along. We’ve brought them when camping near a place with a lot of bike trails, and we’ve brought them just when we’ve knows we’d be camping someplace that had flat roads around the campsite for the kids. Don’t forget the helmets!
29. Games. A deck of cards, a family board game, a ball, checkers. All really fun to have around the campsite.
30. Glow Sticks. We always, always bring these for the kids. They love to use them for their purpose, but we also use them to play games (like glow-in-the-dark hopscotch,) or we put them on our tent strings so we can see them when walking around in the dark.
31. A Guitar. Bring your guitar along for singing songs around the campfire!
32. Flashlights and Lanterns. I know these don’t seem entertaining, but to kids, they totally are! My kids’ favorite toy on a camping trip is a flashlight, lantern, or headlamp. They are fascinated! And you can use them to play all sorts of games (like flashlight tag,) or to perform shadow puppet shows.
33. Hammock and/or Slackline. If you have one of those easy-to-put-up camping hammocks, now is the time to bring it! The kids love having it, and it’s a great place for a mom to hide away for a minute. A slackline is another fun activity you can bring along for the kids. Super easy to pack, and tons of trees to choose from, this is always a hit.
34. Hiking Sticks. My kids have their own hiking sticks, and nothing makes them feel more grown up than having those things! If you don’t want do buy them, just finding a suitable stick in the forest will also work. Or make and decorate your own hiking stick using a thick dowel rod from a craft store.
35. Their Favorite Toy. Our son loves dinosaurs so much, that we never really leave home without them, so bringing them to our campsite is a no-brainer. He could play with them all day and night out there! And our daughter is a big fan of putting her baby dolls in her backpack so they can enjoy hikes with us. It’s just a little something extra, but can make the trip even more fun for the kids.
CAR CAMPING ADVANTAGES
Car camping means having your car at your disposal, and this is awesome for many reasons. Here are a few of the reasons we love it!
36. Forgotten Items. The best thing about having your car is not having to stress about any major forgotten items. Forgot coffee? Forgot undies? No worries! Your car can take you to the nearest town for those forgotten necessities.
37. Emergency Use. Unfortunately, sometimes accidents or sickness happen while on a camping trip. And if it does, it’s a great relief to parents to know that they can easily get help for their child if something like that happens on your trip. Whether it be a visit to a doctor, or a quick trip for medicine, it’s just so nice to know that it’s an easy option.
38. Hiding From Storms. Of course, you’re hoping you don’t get caught in a massive storm, but if you do you can literally camp in your car. Tents are overrated! Just pile in there and snuggle up. I’m sure it’ll be great, and I know the stories will be!
39. Early Escape. Or if the storm is super bad and your tent and sleeping bags are wet, soggy messes from which there is no recovering — hit the road home! I won’t tell.
41. Exploring. Our favorite reason for having our car on these family camping trips, is that it makes it so easy for us to explore the area around us! Checking out nearby hikes, shops, towns, and attractions is the main reason we choose the campgrounds we do, and having our car makes that doable.
Now, pack as much as you want, hop in the car, and set up camp! Car camping memories are awaiting you!
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