If you’ve not been camping before and you want to dip your toes in – or leap in – I’ve put together this checklist of family camping essentials to take with you. Perhaps you have camped before and you didn’t have the right camping gear – well, this family camping checklist should supply you with the best camping essentials to make your trip a success.
So, are you going to be camping regularly and sleeping in a tent for your main summer holiday or are you more of a “camping lite” family – just doing the odd camping weekend here and there? If you’re the latter, it’s worth picking and choosing the main camping equipment required for a night or two away – I’ve compiled a camping essentials list of things you really shouldn’t leave home without. I’ve also put together a more extensive list of family camping equipment for those who plan to spend more time under canvas and there’s a list of camping essentials for families with babies too.
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The essentials for family camping
For many years, we survived with the following family camping essentials and managed without a whole load of other camping kit. It’s only now that we camp more regularly that we’ve started to gain more family camping equipment. Be warned though – it’s a bit of a slippery slope once you start buying things for a family camping holiday.
- Tent – don’t forget the poles, pegs and mallet
- Sleeping bags and pillows
- Sleeping mats
- Camping stove or portable BBQ, plus fuel and matches (often the campsite will sell you logs)
- Snacks and food (make sure you pack some breakfast!), water and alcohol
- Tea, coffee, sugar, salt, pepper, marshmallows, milk, oil
- Torch (and spare batteries or charger)
- First aid kit including paracetamol, sun cream and insect repellent
- Picnic blanket (instead of table and chairs if you’re economising)
- Toiletries (inc soap, toothbrushes and paste), towels and toilet roll – a hanging wash bag is handy when camping
- Clothes – inc. warm PJs, spare jumper and woolly hat for chilly nights (don’t underestimate the importance of the hat!)
- Flipflops and wellies / hiking boots
- Your child’s favourite bedtime teddy
Other useful equipment for family camping
If you’re camping for more than a night or two, this little lot should be pretty useful too:
- Cool bag
- Collapsible water container with tap
- Foldable table and camping chairs (an extra table for your stove is also useful)
- Kettle, pots and pans and oven gloves
- Chopping board, sharp knife and peeler
- Cooking utensils, bottle and tin openers
- Crockery and cutlery
- Mugs and plastic wine glasses
- Washing up bowl, dishcloth, tea towel and washing liquid
- Washing line
- Duct tape for emergency repairs
- Rubbish bags
- Dustpan and brush
- Gazebo or tent awning – really useful for cooking and eating under when it’s raining (using a stove or BBQ in a tent can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning)
- Portable charger battery pack for electronic devices
- Camping games
- Electric hook up
Camping essentials for families with babies and toddlers
If you’re camping with babies and toddlers, there’s a few extras to add to your family camping checklist:
- Travel potty / nappies, wipes and nappy bags
- Travel cot with mattress and bedding (the cot can double as a play pen when you’re unpacking / packing)
- Extra layers for bedtime
- If bottle feeding: bottles, milk, sterilising tablets
- Big bucket – for bathing baby and / or sterilising bottles (this is also useful for lugging your washing up to the wash block
- Baby carrier and / or pushchair
Things to bear in mind when you’re buying a family tent
There are tons of tents on the market so it’s a good idea to do a bit of research. Do you want to invest in a decent tent which is going to last weeks of camping year after year or do you think you’ll only be camping for a couple of nights here and there so you’d rather not splash out on a fancy piece of canvas?
We have a Vango 500 family tent which two or three other camping families we know also use – we’ve all had our tents for several years and they’ve lasted really well. Ours sleeps up to 5 comfortably and there’s lots of space for storage and day time use if the weather turns nasty. It’s easy to put up and take down and isn’t too bulky.
- Are you buying a tent for your main holiday or just for occasional use?
- Do you want a tent you can stand up in?
- Do you want to have some “living room space” or just a place to sleep?
- How many sleeping areas do you want? (teens might be more inclined to join you if they’re guaranteed some privacy). Some tents have the sleeping spaces side by side, others have them at opposite ends of the tent.
- Do you want a porch / covered outdoor space attached to your tent? (I wish we had this on our tent)
You can look for tents online through the following suppliers – there are lots of deals out there so it’s worth shopping around:
If you’re not ready to buy a tent, it’s worth finding a campsite which offers pre-pitched tents. There’s an increasing number of campsites offering this facility to save you the money and trouble of doing it yourself.
The Camping and Caravanning Club has several safari tent glamping experiences which is a step up from camping – both in facilities and cost but there are other sites such as Hill Farm in Hertfordshire where you can hire a normal tent at a sensible price.
How to get a good night’s sleep when you’re camping
If you’re going to enjoy camping as a family, it’s a good idea to get the basics right. Once you’ve got the tent sorted, you need to think about what you’re going to sleep on and in. This bit could make or break your family camping experience – sleep is important.
So this is the one area of camping where it’s a good idea to invest a bit of money. For an occasional camping trip, you don’t need a fancy stove or a folding table – you can improvise. But you do want to be warm and comfortable when you sleep. And don’t forget the kids – if they are cosy and warm, you’re more likely to have an uninterrupted night’s sleep.
How to stay warm in a tent at night
You’ll be pleased to discover (or disappointed to no longer have an excuse) that the ways to keep warm at night don’t require tons of money to rectify. Here are the main ways to ensure a warm (ish) night’s sleep:
- Wear layers: thermals plus a warm fleece jumper and a hat – much of your body heat is lost through your head.
- Place a blanket or mattress topper between you and your mattress.
- Use a self-inflating sleeping mattress or camp bed instead of a blow up air bed or roll mat.
- Ensure there is something more substantial than a thin sleeping mat between you and the cold ground – if you’re going basic and you’re sleeping on a roll mat, you could put an emergency foil blanket under the mat to reflect your body heat back towards you.
Sleeping mattress or camp bed – this is one of those items where you really get what you pay for. If you don’t think you’ll be camping regularly you could make do with a roll mat or an inflatable mattress. But if camping is going to be your main summer holiday, I’d seriously recommend investing in a decent self-inflating camping mattress – they really do make a huge difference to the quality of your sleep (and the quality of your body the next day).
After years of thin foam mats and inflatable mattresses (which deflated overnight), we went shopping for a self inflating mattress. We laid on every mattress in the Go Outdoors warehouse and decided the Outwell Dreamcatcher 10cm was the best option. I wish we’d bought them sooner. You can buy cheaper self inflating mattresses which are thinner – 3cm or 5cm – but having lain on all of them, I can confirm they are not as comfortable so it’s worth spending a bit more for that good night’s sleep.
Alternatively, I’ve also heard good things about camp beds but they do take up a bit more space in your car boot and they are a bit narrow – not great if you like to spread out. Camp beds do have the advantage of lifting you off the ground which can make you warmer on a cold night. If you’re camping with more than two children or you’re short on space in the tent, it’s worth considering a camping bunk bed – I know my kids would love this idea!
Sleeping bags – there are tons of these on the market. Look for one that packs down small to save on space but also offers a good level of warmth. In all my years of camping in the UK, I’ve rarely had a night when it’s been so mild that I’ve regretted having a really good quality 4 season sleeping bag. Don’t underestimate how chilly it can get in the UK – we spent a couple of nights at a very rural campsite in Norfolk one August when the temperature dropped to freezing.
Our children have Decathlon Quechua Forclaz 0/5 degrees sleeping bags – they’re actually asleep in these as I type this (Easter camping in the garden). The bags are very light and pack down extremely small which also makes them perfect for Beaver and Cub camp trips where the kids might need to carry their own kit. One of my boys carted his all round London on his back during his last Cub trip.
I have an ancient Coleman 4 season sleeping bag which I used during a trip to Tibet 20 years ago. It’s still going strong today – definitely a good investment. We also have a good quality Vango sleeping bag which keeps my other half happy. We did invest in a double sleeping bag – great idea in theory but in practice you wake each other up every time you roll over so I’d recommend sticking to separate bags!
Pillows – once upon a time, I used to just stuff some of my belongings into a pillowcase but now I much prefer a decent pillow for a good night’s sleep. If you have space in your car, bring your own proper pillows. Otherwise, try a self-inflating pillow such as the Vango Deep Sleep Thermo which packs down to be small and light. These pillows save on space in the car whilst still offering a comfortable place to rest your head.
Head torch – for those wee midnight trips to the toilet block, a head torch is incredibly useful – your hands are free to deal with small children, toilet paper, etc…. I’ve read really good reviews of the Biolite head torch – really light, bright and rechargeable. However, it is rather pricey – not something you’d want your seven year old to disappear to Beaver camp with. A cheaper option which is also rechargeable is the Lifesystems head torch. And of course, there are plenty of decent options which can be used in conjunction with rechargeable batteries.
Just remember to charge your headtorches before your trip – and if you’re going down the rechargeable route (as opposed to battery powered headtorches), ensure you bring a portable charger.
Outdoor cooking equipment
Camping stove or portable BBQ – if you’re going to be camping for more than a few days, you’ll need a two-hob stove. Campingaz has pretty much cornered the market for UK camping stoves – there’s the cheap and cheerful Campingaz Chef Double Burner and Grill (with fairly unanimous reports of the grill being rubbish) which is fine for hob cooking. Otherwise, if you’re happy to invest a bit more dosh – and you’re after a grill that works – the next step up is the Campingaz 400 SG Double Burner and Grill. This stove has removable metal plates so you can grill or toast as well as using the burners as hobs.
If we’re just camping for a night or two we find our single burner Campingaz Camp Bistro works pretty well in conjunction with our portable BBQ. We tend to just use the stove for boiling water for tea and coffee and then do most of our cooking on the BBQ – sausages, burgers, kebabs, and warming up pre-cooked jacket potatoes.
When you’re shopping for a single burner gas stove it’s important to buy a reputable brand. There are lots of horror stories about cheap gas stoves exploding so ensure you buy a recognised brand.
It’s a good idea to invest in a windshield, otherwise it will take you ages to cook anything and you’ll end up running out of gas quicker. And if you’re camping for more than a night or two, you’ll need a table to stand the stove on. We have a foldable picnic table which comes with four little seats. I always think it feels a bit rickety and I’m not sure it will survive many more trips as my children become bigger and heavier. I wouldn’t recommend our version but Decathlon has a slightly more robust option.
Cool box or bag – We’ve tried a few different cool boxes and cool bags over the years. We started with a rigid cool box years ago but discovered they take up too much space. We now have a cool bag which can be manipulated into small spaces more easily and it keeps stuff free of food poisoning level temperatures for up to 14 hours. The one we have is no longer on the market but the Hi-Gear self inflating cool bag looks pretty similar.
How to save space in the car on a family camping trip
Is it possible to go on a family camping trip without needing a giant truck or at the very least a roof box to carry all the crazy stuff you’ve convinced yourself you need? Unfortunately the essential camping equipment – namely the tent, the camping mats and sleeping bags – are the most space-filling items on your family camping checklist so unless you’re only camping for a night or two, you’ll probably need a roof box for all the other camping paraphernalia.
If you’re only camping for a few nights, you can definitely manage without camping chairs – these take up loads of space in the car. We used to survive with a waterproof picnic blanket and then upgraded to our rickety but surprisingly still surviving foldable picnic table which has seats.
I used to think packing cubes were a really silly and expensive fad – why pack your clothes into a bag to then squash them into another bag? However, they’re actually one of the most useful travelling purchases I’ve ever made. Each family member can have one or two cubes (they’re actually rectangles) each for their clothes. You can buy them in lots of different colours so each person’s gear is easy to identify. By packing clothes into packing cubes, you can save loads of space in the boot of your car by squashing the cubes into small spaces around the car once all the bulky items are packed.
Unless you’re camping in an extremely remote spot, chances are in this day and age you won’t be too far from a local grocery shop or supermarket. With this in mind, you can save on space by packing all the essential kitchen items (crockery, cutlery, oil, condiments, tea, coffee, etc) into your cool bag and then heading to the shop for the food you’ll need once you’ve unpacked the cool bag at the campsite.
Pillows and towels can take up a lot of space in the car so you can replace your lovely comfy pillows from home with self inflating camping pillows. Travel towels have come quite a long way since my backpacking days several centuries ago. I remember having something the size of a tea towel which took about half an hour to dry me. Nowadays, you can buy giant towels which pack down well and do actually dry you.
So, have I missed any family camping essentials from my checklist? What do YOU like to take away on a family camping holiday? Let me know in the comments below!
I’ve written a whole separate post about camping toys – click here if you need some ideas!
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