Because we’re a family on a budget, our summer vacations include a few camping trips because they’re incredibly inexpensive. Over the years, we’ve developed a system that works for us and we know precisely what to bring, what to leave at home, and what we shouldn’t even bother with.
What we pack for camping trips:
A tent. Unlike campers, trailers, or RVs, tents are cheap, easy to transport, and relatively dry during a rainstorm if you purchase a quality one and set it up properly.
A tarp. Put this under your tent to provide a barrier between you and the wet ground at night.
Good tent stakes and a hammer.
Air Mattresses. Also bring an air pump or hair dryer to quickly inflate them.
An extension cord. This is handy for running fans (or we use a sound machine) in your tent at night, or for plugging in a hair dryer to inflate your mattresses. But don’t use your hair dryer for drying your hair because who needs to fuss with that while camping?
Inflatable pillows. We bought ours at Aldi, and they take up much less space in our vehicle than traditional pillows, and space is always at a premium when you’re camping. It usually takes me a night to adjust to an inflatable pillow because, to be honest, it is inferior to a traditional pillow, but after that I’m so tired from hiking and other camp activities that I could sleep on just about anything. If you can manage, these truly free up a good amount of packing space.
One set of sheets, a lightweight blanket, and a heavier blanket or comforter per person. We’ve found this setup to be less bulky to pack in our vehicle than sleeping bags, and on hot summer nights you don’t want a heavy sleeping bag anyway. Layers that you can add and remove as needed rule when you’re camping.
Coolers filled with frozen, pre-cooked meals. Visit my post here to get some meal ideas for your camping trip. I’ve got recipes and suggestions for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and desserts.
A picnic basket, box, or bag filled with nonperishable/non-refrigerated food. This includes bread and peanut butter for sandwiches, potato chips (we like Pringles because the cans ensure they won’t crush easily), trail mix, doughnuts (part of a healthy breakfast, right?), apples, etc.
A roll of heavy duty aluminum foil. This is useful for making certain meals, or if the foil rips on any of your pre-made foil packet meals before or during the cooking process.
A plastic tablecloth and metal tablecloth clips. A tablecloth makes your picnic table more homey, covers any pre-existing stains or bird poop, and is easy to wipe clean after meals. Don’t waste your money on easily breakable plastic tablecloth clips; buy the metal ones.
Paper plates and plastic silverware. We don’t use real dishes while camping, because those would involve washing, which I refuse to do while camping. I pack a variety of plastic silverware in a gallon Ziploc bag so it’s at the ready.
Roasting stick(s) for marshmallows and hot dogs. No explanation needed.
A roll of paper towels. For cleaning up messes and using as napkins.
Baby wipes. For wiping down tables, wiping off marshmallow roasting sticks, cleaning sticky hands after eating s’mores, and more. Even if you don’t have kids in diapers, bring wipes.
A portable propane grill with extra propane canisters. We prefer to do most of our cooking over the campfire, but in some places the wood we purchase doesn’t burn well. I’m looking at you, Missouri state parks. In that case, we bring a grill for backup.
Lanterns and/or flashlights.
A clothesline and clothespins. The dollar store is a great place to buy these. String your clothesline between two trees so you have a spot to hang wet towels and swim suits. As things dry, they blow off the line easily. You can simply pick up your clothes and towels and brush the dried grass and dust off, or bring clothespins to fasten your items onto the clothesline.
A couple of large trash bags. For collecting your trash.
A good supply of plastic shopping bags. These are handy for times when you only have a small amount of trash. They’re also good for wet bathing suits or other small items you need to tote.
A shower caddy, large cosmetic case, or other container for hauling toiletries to and from the shower houses. I pack a plastic caddy with shampoo, conditioner, body wash, a razor, deodorant, facial cleanser or moisturizer, and the kids’ three-in-one body wash/shampoo/conditioner. I pack toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss in a separate bag from the showering supplies and can easily toss those into the caddy as well, so we have everything we need and only have to walk to the shower house once. I prefer the plastic caddy because it can get a little wet.
One towel and washcloth per person for showering. Bring extra towels for swimming if desired.
Flip flops or water shoes to wear in the showers. Because communicable fungal foot diseases are gross.
Reusable shopping bags with handles or straps. These have many uses. I specifically use one of these when I take a shower in the shower house while camping. It gives me a place to put my clothes because not every shower has a bench to put your belongings on, or the bench may be dirty. Most showers do have a few hooks on the wall, so I can easily hang my bag of clothes up. A plastic shopping bag would work, too, but my reusable bags are larger and prettier.
A small first aid kit. You can buy these at any big box store, pharmacy, or grocery store, or make one yourself. The most important items to include are Band-Aids of various sizes, antibiotic wipes, antibiotic ointment, and Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen. Don’t forget children’s Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen, too.
Sunscreen. Because, you know.
Lawn chairs. Preferably the kind with handy cup holders.
A picnic blanket. Sometimes we picnic on this, but often I spread it out at our campsite and set the kids’ toys on it to make a little play area.
Hiking sticks. These are not a necessity, but they are fun and useful if you hike any trails, and you’ll feel like Gandolf.
Clothing and shoes that are appropriate for the weather and your activities. Include any necessary hoodies or jeans for cooler nights, swim suits, hiking shoes, etc.
A Roof Bag or other car top carrier, or a carrier that installs on your hitch. Even if you have a large vehicle, you may need this extra space.
A good book or two and some games. Books are ideal to read on lazy afternoons. If you feel like being active, it’s nice to have the necessities you need to play cornhole.
On the other hand, here’s what we DON’T pack for camping trips:
A camper, trailer, or RV. For your family, owning a camper may be worthwhile, but we’ve considered the pros and cons of purchasing and owning a camper, and the math just doesn’t make economic sense to us. We have relatives and friends who own campers, and they depreciate, break down, leak, require a lot of maintenance, have to be winterized each year, require large vehicles to tow them, and require a lot of gasoline. They also can be difficult to drive or tow, and it’s not always easy to back them onto narrow campsite parking pads bordered closely by trees on multiple sides. At the very least, there is a learning curve involved in driving trailers or campers. We’d rather camp in a (cheaper) tent or, if we really feel like glamping, we rent a cabin that gives us a place to get in from the weather but still gives us the opportunity to sit around a campfire and enjoy the outdoors. We can spend a lot of nights in a cabin for the amount of money it costs to purchase and maintain a camper. That’s our family’s view, but your family may consider a camper to be a great investment.
A shade tent or screen tent. This is a big item we can’t easily find space for in our Subaru. We compensate by selecting campsites with some natural shade, and if it rains we wait it out in the car (the only time while camping when we might play a movie on our phones for the kids) or find someplace indoors to hang out. Many of Indiana’s state parks have inns with nice lounges stocked with games, books, and other simple entertainment that are open to all park guests.
A folding table. Some people like these for additional food prep space or storage space. Again, we have no room, and for just our family of four the standard picnic table that comes with our campsite usually suffices.
Lots of baby dolls and cars. Once more, these take a lot of room in the vehicle. Our daughters are entertained by whatever they can find in nature, or by a small bag of toys we pack that includes sidewalk chalk, a jump rope, Polly Pocket dolls, a bug bottle, and coloring and drawing supplies, or we send them off to the campground playground.
A fan. Some campers like to use these in tents and while sitting outdoors during the day, but I don’t like a fan blowing on me all the time, and I don’t like how fans drown out the sounds of birds and other wildlife during the day. If it’s hot we sit in the shade and deal with it.
A mini refrigerator. Some people do bring these while tent camping, and they usually secure them shut tightly with bungee cords to keep out raccoons and other animals. We simply store our food in two ice-packed coolers.
Kitschy campsite decorations. We don’t have a sign with our family name on it, an LED palm tree, or pink lawn flamingos. We don’t have room for them, and some are just too silly.
A bike rack and bicycles, or other ride-on toys. We haven’t invested in a bike rack, although we’ve talked about it and might buy one in the future. However, while campgrounds are perceived as safe places for kids to bike all over, there still is a fair amount of traffic if you camp during a busy time or on weekends. Granted, the speed limit is 10 miles per hour in most campgrounds, but I’m still uneasy turning my young elementary schoolers loose around other drivers.
Dishes or a bucket for dish washing. I don’t do dishes when I camp. Period. Our meals are almost entirely cooked in throwaway foil packets or foil pans and served directly out of that foil or on paper plates with plastic utensils. At most, I might use a baby wipe to clean some tongs, or I might wash our reusable water bottles after a few days’ use.
A camp stove. I don’t do dishes while camping, as mentioned above. Since cooking on a camp stove usually calls for a pot or skillet, these are things we don’t bring.
Pie irons. These contraptions are fun to use and make delicious sandwiches and desserts in hot campfire coals, and I used them a lot during my college years when I worked as a summer camp counselor, but it’s not fun to clean all that burned cheese and gunk off afterward. I own a pie iron, but it is exclusively for use in a home fire pit where we have easy access to the kitchen sink, where it can soak clean.
Electronics. Other than our phones, which may or may not work due to spotty coverage in areas where we camp, we bring no electronics. No DVD players. No TVs. No radios. No video games. We go camping to enjoy the outdoors, and also, the noise from playing music or movies can bother your camping neighbors. One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone at a nearby campsite plays his favorite music for hours for all to hear. Even with young kids, we rarely use video games or movies as an entertainment crutch when camping (only when it rains). We bring a few small, simple toys and let the kids make and find their own fun.
To wrap things up, yes, our family leans toward simple when it comes to camping. We try not to over pack. We want to fit everything in one vehicle. We don’t want to haul our entire house along. We like easy setup and easy take down. After our most recent camping trip this summer, our daughters proclaimed they love camping and want to continue to go on camping trips, so we must be doing something right.
What about your family? What are your camping must-haves and what do you leave at home?
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