How to Car Camp with Your Kids
Nine life-saving tips I learned the hard way
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Most Outside editors get after it. They can rack up 100 days on skis during the winter and log thousands of miles on their bikes during the summer. This is possible because they’re badasses, and also because many of them are twentysomethings without kids. I, on the other hand, am approaching 40 and have two small kids, so getting after it looks different for me. Fifteen days on skis and a couple hundred miles over the summer is a big deal. I usually suffer from FOMO (screw you, Instagram) but have recently come up with a decent solution: car camping.
Car camping, I’ve found, is the perfect way to get my entire family outside and still give me the sense of adventure I crave. The adventure sometimes comes from ensuring my kids don’t fall into a cactus, but it also comes from cheering on my five-year-old daughter as she smashes a steep, rocky trail or sitting by my three-year-old as he sinks into the zen act of watching the fire rage at night.
It’s taken our family lots of trial and error (and many, many parental arguments) to perfect the art of car camping, but we have it mostly down. To help you parents who are also coping with FOMO get out a bunch this summer, I wanted to share my top nine tips.
Make a Gear List, and Check It 75 Times
Parents know it takes tons of gear to go on a road trip with kids. Camping is five times worse, because you also have to bring all your own food, figure out how to wash your dishes, ensure your kids will sleep comfortably at night, and keep them entertained the whole time. My wife and I use the Wunderlist app and start adding items to our list weeks in advance so we can remember everything. We might also create several different Wunderlist lists under titles like food, kids’ clothing, and cooking gear, so one master list doesn’t get overwhelming.
Start Packing Early
And by early, I mean days in advance. We’ll sometimes pack the kids’ clothes a full week ahead of time so we can focus on the supplies that need to be packed the day of, like food. (Pro tip: check out Front Runner Wolf Packs, which are great car-camping suitcases and help us stay organized.) If you live in a neighborhood where it’s OK to leave camping gear in your car overnight, I also suggest you pack your car as much as possible at least a day in advance. With kids, there’s no such thing as getting out of the house on time (can you say “Safety pee!” and “Where are your shoes?”), but a prepacked car is a great time hack.
Consider a Truck
I see all you enviros rolling your eyes. Just so we’re clear: I, too, am conscious of my carbon footprint. But when it comes to car camping, I like the biggest truck possible. For the past year I’ve been driving a crew-cab Nissan Titan Pro-4X, and it has entirely changed our car-camping experience. Not only does the truck get better gas mileage than my old Toyota Tacoma, but it also comes with a giant rear bed that allows us to haul amenities like a camping refrigerator from Dometic, tons of campfire wood, camp tables, and more. We haven’t invested in a camp trailer (yet), but we do like to be comfortable when we’re out, and there’s nothing like a camp fridge that never runs out of ice or leaves you with soggy cheese.
Camp Within a Three-Hour Radius
This goes back to the fact that parents and kids never get out of the house on time. If you’re running late and you have five hours to drive, everyone in your family will be exhausted and cranky when you arrive. Plus, you run the risk of having to set up camp in the dark. I’ve done this ten too many times, and it always starts the camping trip off on the wrong foot. It’s also nice to have a relatively short drive on the way home, when camping is done and all your family wants to do is bathe and watch Netflix.
Divvy Up Duties to Set Up Camp
We’ve found that camp comes together more efficiently if we divide and conquer. I’m in charge of pitching tents and getting the fire started, while my wife assembles the camp table and makes sure our kids are either dressed warm enough or slathered in sunscreen.
Camp with Friends Who Have Kids
I have two kids, and they play together pretty well, but they always do better when one or both of them have friends along. There’s less fighting, move inventive games, and they’re more willing to trudge through a short hike or put up with the general discomforts that sometimes come with the outdoors. It can be hard to sync your camping schedule with the schedule of another family, but I’ve found that it’s always worth the effort. That, and it’s lots of fun to drink beer with other adults around a campfire.
Stay as Organized as Possible
It’s OK if the dishes pile up or the kids lose a pair of socks at home. Not so at camp. You have to stay on top of your gear and your organization, or you’ll spend your entire time frustrated and resentful. Trust me. Do the dishes after dinner. Teach your kids to put their socks in their shoes and then stick those shoes in the vestibule of your tent before bed. You might feel bossy, but when gear is organized, you have more time to do fun things like hike, ride bikes, and fish.
It’s hard to keep your kids clean at home. It’s impossible at camp. I learned early on to embrace the dirt and just worry about hygiene basics. Nowadays, our kids brush their teeth twice a day, wash their hands before meals, and we try to clean their faces before bed, but otherwise they’re set free to get as dirty as they want. We bring lots of extra clothes and pajamas, just in case.
Keep Camping, Even if There Are Hard Moments
My family has been on some wild camping trips. Last year we got our truck stuck on the beach in Baja, Mexico, while trying to find camp at night, just as the tide was coming in and threatening to wash the truck out to sea. This spring we tried to camp in a snow and ice storm, because we were so anxious to take a trip that we didn’t really care about the weather. Moments during both those trips absolutely sucked, but we pushed through and ended up enjoying ourselves. Odds are, a rough trip will become a favorite family tale in the years to come.