As every parent knows, taking kids with you seems to involve an inordinate amount of things. Camping is no exception. But it doesn't have to be overwhelming.
With a 3 year old and a 6 year old Here are my tips on how to minimize the bulk, pack smart, and make sure your family has everything they need.
Know your location
One of the biggest causes of overpack is the "what if" game: what if it's cold? What if there is no shadow Many of these questions are asked to maximize the potential fun factor, and some are intended to ensure comfort (and safety to some extent). However, simple research will help answer these questions.
I do two types of research. I read a lot, which I do a lot if I choose a destination at all. Developed and established campsites have more written information, while remote and dispersed camping will require more research on your part. Then I call up satellite images from Google Maps and look from above for playgrounds, streams, campsites or local parks in the area.
This is all to say that you should minimize the unknowns to avoid packing extra things "just in case". One way is to craft a stack of unnecessary gear while you get ready. When all the essentials are packed and there is still room, add the items from this stack in order of priority or whichever suits you. However, knowing where you are going will greatly reduce the chances of doing additional things.
Know your gear, take the time to pack it
Another way to avoid overpacking is to give yourself the time it takes to pack. (The alternative is to wait until the last minute.) This can leave you feeling rushed and tempted to just toss everything in and clear it up at camp. The other risk is that you can and will forget important elements.
A truckload of family gear
The kitchen & food
We like to pack in phases, starting up to a week before our departure. One thing we think about so far out is our meals. We consider what we will have in camp and how our meal plan for the week before our trip at home can support our menu in camp.
For example, we make a double batch of spaghetti sauce – half for the week before and half for the trip. Now we no longer have to make sauce in the camp, we just warm up what we brought with us. This way we were able to minimize the kitchen equipment we bring with us.
We love to cook so we started with a pile of pots and pans, measuring cups, and an army of utensils. As we went on more trips, we realized that we had never used this massive pot, or we found out that instead of bringing food in bulk, we need to pre-measure ingredients for meals at home. Note: Ziplock bags are your friend.
You don't need an outfit per day
The other category of equipment that is often overpacked is clothing. While some people like a clean and fresh item of clothing every day, I've found that it is easier to put on what I was wearing the day before.
Sure, after a few days it's nice to get changed, but for the typical weekend I usually return in what I was wearing to get there. That said, I pack at least an extra of each or a variation to account for changes in the weather.
Overpack the kids
Clothing for the kids is the only area where we allow ourselves to overpack. Children (at least ours) always manage to find the mud. You have to change clothes several times to be comfortable. Pack lots of clothes, toys, and games for the children. As fun as sticks and leaves can be, just a toy bucket and shovel can keep them busy for a while.
If you go to a warmer climate, most of the time you pack shorts instead of pants for the kids. (You can always use a portable shower or bath wipes if the kids get dirty themselves. This is easier than washing clothes at camp.)
Everything becomes easier with practice. Be patient with yourself. If frustration builds up with excess equipment, take a deep breath and make a note of it. Just being out there will dictate what gear is used regularly, what gear was useful but might not be necessary, and what gear was a total burden.
Practicing can be on a favorite campsite, but also in the backyard. Don't feel bad starting near home. Knowing when to quit because things are going bad can help your family keep camping from being associated with negativity. If it rains, don't assume the trip is over – the kids will likely have fun. If it storms or floods, it is probably time to pack.
Improve your adventure skills
To embark on new types of adventures like bikepacking or rafting with your family, consider how your packing list might evolve. For example, when we're camping by car and spending a couple of nights in one place, I love having a nice big tent – at least six people for the four of us to hold all of our gear and serve as a comfortable storm cover.
However, when we were on a 6-day rafting trip, we opted for our ultra-light MSR Front Range 4-person tarpaulin protection with insect protection and groundsheet. It was much easier to set up and take down which was especially useful as we were at a different campsite every night.
We also had to customize our kit based on the vehicle we were using (I also review trucks and SUVs). We can fit a lot more in a large truck, but we have to adapt to fit in a smaller SUV. Camping chairs are a good example. Although I love the YETI Trailhead and Strongback chairs, they are quite large. In a smaller vehicle, I can fit four compact chairs (like the REI Flexlite) into the nooks and crannies.
Making such a gear selection can really maximize your space in your vehicle, which is especially important for longer journeys.
Packaging for family camping: the wrap-up
Every family is different and should choose what works for them and even adapt the tips to their circumstances and needs. It's also worth noting that getting kids to camp is not easy. There will be many difficult moments.
But with all of the logistics in place, it can be extremely fun and rewarding for the kids – and for you.
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