Camping with kids is no easy feat at first; camping with a large family makes it even more complex. If your family is interested in camping and you’ve never done it before, I strongly suggest a dry run in a back yard or at a camp ground near to your house (under an hour away, tops). You’ll need this practice run to iron out all the bumps, catch what you didn’t remember on your packing list, and get a good idea of just how long it takes to set up camp. Now, I’m going to be totally honest here. While we are seasoned enough campers, we rarely ever camp in what’s called a primitive camp site. At a primitive camp area there are no showers or bath houses, no running water, and no electricity. We probably could but at this stage in our life it would add such an extra layer of stress to the experience that it just isn’t worth it. We always stay in a state park area. We are lucky to have many beautiful, award-winning options in our state, and all of these parks have tent sites that have access to electricity and running water, with a bath house nearby. Especially now that we are travelling with kids with chronic medical needs, having those ‘comforts of home’ are very necessary. If that’s how you choose to camp, too, you’ll find the amount of things you actually need is greatly reduced.
Our tent is actually not a tent- it’s a teepee that has an eighteen foot diameter at the bottom. It easily sleeps our entire family (even with mom and dad on an airbed) and could fit probably four or five more people if the need arises. It is much easier to set up than your typical modern tent with all the bendy poles. It is simply a matter of laying it out, extending the center pole, and tying it down. It goes up in about ten minutes, versus the half hour to forty-five minutes of your typical room tent. We’ve made people rather jealous as they’ve watched us pull in, set up camp, and get down to business while they are still wrestling with those cuss-making bendy pole tents. We get a lot of questions about it!
Everyone has their own sleeping bag, and yes, mom and dad get an airbed that blows up via the van’s cigarette lighter. It is so worth it. I’m all for roughing it, but when parents need to be on top of their game for everyone to have a great time, an airbed is a must for good sleep. No uncomfortable no-sleep nights rolling over and over again on top of rocky soil.
We carry a camp stove with us, plus the propane to run it. Three propane lanterns light the camp space. We usually bring our cast iron dutch oven and our cast iron skillet, plus a percolator for coffee. Don’t forget a large metal serving spoon and your kitchen knives (which we stick in a traveling block of foam). Depending on the trip we either take all paper products or use our camp dishes, which are metal enamelware. That is worth the investment- we’ve used ours for years and they are far more useful in many cases than paper products. Just remember that you have to wash them and bring a small bottle of dish washing soap.
Pretty much every camp site we’ve ever been to has a six to eight foot wooden picnic table. I can’t imagine a place that wouldn’t have a table, but obviously if you’re headed someplace that doesn’t, you’d have to prepare for that with a small folding table or the like. (Remember that hot propane stoves and plastic tables don’t mix, so make it metal!) Because of that, we only travel with two adult folding chairs versus chairs for the whole family. I set the camp stove at one end of the picnic table, tuck the cooler underneath, and this becomes the kitchen area. The kids have plenty of room to sit and spread out along the benches, and then James and I usually pull our camp chairs up to the non-kitchen end of the picnic table and we dig in to our meals.
Beyond on that, there’s not much else we take with us. We carry a toughneck tub that has lots of camping odds and ends (stuff to repair the tent, extra stakes, an extra tarp, paracord, and more). We use the lid of that for keeping dishes to be washed, and then walk down to the bath house to take care of that. Most bath houses have a sink outside just for this purpose.
As food goes, we’ve found it is far preferable to think through the meals prior to the trip and meal plan- some meals are pre-cooked and then frozen. Sometimes we take the easy way out (obviously kind of rare now) if we know that there is a pizza place like Little Caesars near the State Park. The less food we have to take with us and keep cold, the better. There are certain places we stay that we know have a grocery store nearby, and we don’t get the things we need for meals until we get there. We only keep what we absolutely have to in the cooler and keep it heavily iced. Most camp stores have milk and eggs, in our experience, for example, so we rarely carry those with us. We might be paying a premium price to purchase them there, but we find it well worth the extra cents not to have mess with the keeping them properly cold in the cooler.
When it comes to kids and camping, realize they absolutely are going to get dirty. If we are just camping and not traveling anywhere else, I only take one outfit and one set of long pajamas for each kid. The outfit and the pajamas get progressively dirtier, till the day we leave. I have them take a good bath the morning we leave, and then trundle them into a clean outfit that has stayed hidden in the van. (So really two outfits+pajamas.) Otherwise it’s just an exercise in maddness. I make sure the kids have their long pant pajamas and sweatshirts because the nights get cool. (Cool sunglasses not necessary, but awfully cute!)
The whole point of camping is to get outside and spend some good, fun time with your family. Whatever makes that easier and more enjoyable? Go for it! Don’t get locked into the idea that camping has to be done just so. If it’s difficult and hard you won’t want to do it again. Find what works for your family, and you might find you get a bit addicted to it!