Family camping trips always seem blissful in hindsight, but when you’re piling the station wagon full of coolers, tents, first aid kits, life jackets, and extra water bottles, it feels like the very opposite of relaxing.
The dread of packing and unpacking all the gear can leave many a parent wary of the family campout. I have a goal this year to sleep under the stars significantly more than last year.
And so, I’ve decided to make it easier by planning “bare essentials camping trips,” trips that make camping out even easier than staying at home.
Here are a few tips to streamline your own family adventures and encourage you to have a few more.
1. Camp close to home.
You don’t have to drive miles and miles away to feel a million miles away. Find out which campgrounds are closest to your home and make a point to check off a few. You’ll be more inclined toward spur-of-the-moment trips if it’s only a 15 to 30-minute drive away.
2. Keep it short.
Longer trips require more planning and packing. You’ll make plenty of memories and the kids will still have a blast even camping for one night. And when you a pick a campground close to home, it’s easier to hop in the car and sneak away for the night with minimal planning.
3. Pack light.
Part of the beauty of camping is doing without and living simply, if only for a night or two. And if you forget something important, well, it’s only for one night and there’s a probably a great life lesson to learn by going without it. See below for our family’s one-night camping pack list.
Pack simple, one-dish meals: foil dinners and corn on the cob, pork-and-beans, pancake batter (pour it into a recycled soda bottle for easy transport and pouring, then toss it into the closest recycling bin on your way out). But don’t skip the s’mores.
4. Take advantage of gear-less activities.
Leave all the paraphernalia at home and skip the canoeing and rock climbing for this trip. Instead, take advantage of the beautiful trails, local swimming holes, or try spotting local wildlife.
5. Keep a well-stocked first aid kit in the trunk of your car.
When you take your last-minute, mini camping trip, there’s no need to worry about packing extra emergency supplies.
5. Give car camping a try.
Sure, it seems a bit less “authentic,” but there’s something novel about setting up your sleeping bag in the back of a pick-up or station wagon. Your kids will think it’s great. And you can leave the tent and its tangled mess of poles at home.
6. Set up a camping co-op.
Find another family interested in camping and take turns doing the planning. Every other trip, one family picks the spot and brings the food, leaving the other family to simply bring themselves and the sleeping bags (and a tent if you’re feeling fancy).
Give each child a short list of what they need to bring (water bottle, warm hat, sleeping bag etc.) and a backpack and let them loose. You may end up with a child without a sleeping bag or shoes or some such crucial thing, but that will likely be the first and last time.
You can pat yourself on the back for teaching them valuable life skills and lightening your own load.
8. Be ruthless when deciding what not to pack.
Pajamas? A t-shirt and undies are just fine once the kids hop in their sleeping bag. Eggs and bacon for breakfast? What is this, a five-star hotel? Head lamps, walking sticks and inflatable air mattresses for everyone? Leave it all at home—your goal is simplicity, relaxation, and a little family togetherness.
If you’re going for only one night, you can even leave the change of clothes at home. Part of the beauty of camping is the chance to be grubby and carefree. Wear the same clothes and shower when you get home the next morning or afternoon.
A stress-free camping checklist
Here’s our family’s minimalist camping list. Use this to generate your own list of camping bare essentials—you might even want to pre-stock a backpack for each person with all the non-perishable essentials (sunscreen, lighter, toothbrush) to keep with the tent and sleeping bags for a truly easy, last-minute, grab-and-go trip.
- And easy-to-assemble tent
- Sleeping bags and ground pads (these are stored with the tent, so it’s easy to grab them all and just toss them into the car)
- A lighter (bring wood if you won’t be able to forage it)
- Foil dinners—I chop up some potatoes, onions, carrots, and sausage and wrap it all in tinfoil with a little butter and a sprinkling of Italian seasoning, then keep it in the fridge until we head out.
- A liter bottle of pancake batter, frying pan and spatula
- A box of granola bars, a dozen fruit leathers, and s’mores ingredients
- A water bottle, plate, and silverware for each person
- A backpack for each person with whatever they deem necessary: extra socks, a sweatshirt, a book, and the like.
- Toothbrushes, paste, and sunscreen
…and that’s it!
Sure, there are things that might be nice to add, but once you start adding to the very short list, it’s hard to stop. A few extras that might be seen on our list, depending on the campsite, are swimsuits, bird and flower guidebooks, and binoculars.
You may have your own list of “acceptable extras”—a guitar, constellation guidebook, a GoPro. But however you plan it, keep it simple. The easier it is to get out the door, the more likely you are to go.
Family camping trips are some of my fondest childhood memories; I want to create the same for my own kids.