Car Camping with Children

Car Camping

Photo credit Woodgas Stoves
Photo credit Woodgas Stoves

Overview

For many the idea of camping with children with all the bugs, dirt, challenges of cooking outside and sleeping on the ground just doesn't sound like fun. And they are right - it can be challenging but with the right attitude and techniques it can be extremely rewarding as a family.

I think being prepared and technique is 90% of the challenge. 10% is attitude and approach. This hub will focus on technique to ensure a great experience. With respect to attitude, a friend once told me that the only rule he had for his children when they go camping is that they have to have fun. If you start there, you are on the right track. Forget about getting dirty, don't worry and stress about all the routines of home.

I don't recommend camping when bad weather is likely. I realize that being in the mountains means often prepared for rain but avoid storm systems. Its just not worth it with kids in my opinion. Not that its dangerous, its just going to add a tremendous amount of complexity and reduce the potential activities.

There are 3 key areas to being prepared and having the right technique.

(1) Sleeping arrangements and the tent

(2) Campstove cooking

(3) Staying organized

My Coleman 6 person tent

6 man tent set up in the backyard
6 man tent set up in the backyard

Sleeping arrangements and the tent

Buy a car camping tent - not a backpacking tent.

There a many options on the market today from Coleman to Sierra Designs to REI but target a tent that is designed for car camping because while it will weigh 8lbs or more its going to be more rugged and offer the space you will want for the kids. Pick a tent with plenty of room to stand up so that getting the kids dressed is not a challenge in itself. Working in tight quarters yourself might be ok but with multiple kids it just doesn't make any sense. Also buy a tent that can work for at least 2 more people than you expect to have with you.

Set up the tent in your backyard or at the park as a dry run and understand how it is assembled before you get to your campsite.

Trust me that when you get to your campsite, the last thing you are going to want to do is to try and figure out the directions on how to put a tent together. While most car camping tents are fairly straightforward if you have been camping a long time, it requires some knowledge as each one is different. Pay special attention to color codes of the poles and sleeves etc.

Sleeping Bags

If you have young children and they occasionally have accidents, its not a bad idea to use a pullup at night. Accidents at home are relatively easy to deal with compared to camping. I also try to hydrate the kids in the morning and afternoon but stop drinking 2 hours before bedtime. Sleeping bags are typically rated based on temperature and come in both down and synthetic fill. The advantage of down is that is compressible, lighter weight and some think its more comfortable. The downside is that if it gets wet, it looses its insulating capability and generally more expensive. Because weight and compressibility are not required for car camping, I would suggest a synthetic choice that probably is rated for at least 10 degrees colder than you expect to encounter. Unzipping the bag will adjust the temperature as needed. 

I don't recommend blankets, zip together bags or anything else. Keep it simple. One bag per child. 

Sleeping pads

Recently there has been a lot of people who take air mattresses with them on car camping trips. I have found that while they are good in theory, for anyone who weighs more than 100lbs they are actually quite uncomfortable. Also, children do very well sleeping on sleeping pads of closed cell foam or thermarests if you want to invest more because they weigh so much less. For adults, like my wife, which want a more comfortable experience and who hate sleeping on the ground, I would recommend investing in a thermarest Dreamtime type pad. Its pricey at $200 but worth it if you want to make it a great experience for everyone. Its as comfortable as most bed mattresses and is much easier to deal with than an air mattress.

Bring pillows

Its bulky but will be a nice touch from home that will make everyone's night sleeping much better. Its hard to recreate a pillow from clothes and the air pillows that camp stores sell are junk. I recommend you also bringing pillow cases that are dark colors. Depending on how many days you will be out, they will get dust on them and white will look terrible within hours.



Dual burner campstove
Dual burner campstove

Campstove Cooking

Campstove cooking in my opinion is the most challenging part about camping with a family. You do not have all of the amenities of a modern kitchen and can consume a lot of time if not well planned and executed. For the experienced camper, its pretty easy and maybe you will learn something here but for the first time or more inexperienced camper, this is one area to devote more time to when planning the trip.

The Stove

A campstove is pretty straightforward - they come either as white gas/ Kerosene or propane. You will get different opinions on this topic depending on who you ask. I would tell you that kerosene is a mistake unless you are traveling internationally. It burns at a lower temperature and generates a lot more carbon and as a result is very dirty. Propane is great but requires either a tank or disposable bottle. Its very convenient because there is no priming of the stove required since propane is a gas once its not under pressure. My preference is white gas sometimes just called camping fuel. Its readily available at hardware stores and burns hot. The downside is that it requires some priming (subject of another hub perhaps) to get the fuel to ignite as a gas. Its also more dangerous as a result so requires more careful handling.

I recommend 2 burners and if you need more get another stove instead of a larger one. It will give you more flexibility with your needs.

Pots

I recommend cast iron. They are very sturdy but more importantly they distribute heat well. One of the challenges with campstoves is that the heat is quite intense and is far more difficult to control than in a kitchen so having a pan or pot that can distribute the heat evenly will enable you to cook more easily and avoid unnecessary burning. You can get away with basically a 12" skillet and a griddle and a tea kettle for hot water. I would not recommend any fancy or specialty cookware as it will add to an already large inventory of items required. You could also bring a larger pot for pasta etc. and may want to consider something other than cast iron as those size pots can get heavy - though they also can serve as dutch ovens which is an entire cook skill itself. 

Cleaning

This is all about technique. Get two plastic dishpans. Fill one with hot water and a small amount of biodegradable soap. Fill the other with water from your source and add a drop or two of bleach. Its required if your source needs to be treated and I would recommend it in general as it keep everything clean - but only a few drops. Bleach goes a long way.

First you want to completely scrape all food material into your garbage bag. Since this hub assumes you are car camping, I am going to assume you have access to a camp garbage. You don't have a garbage disposal in the woods do put everything in the trash bag. This will keep your wash bin with hot water cleaner for longer. I recommend doing dishes first and pots last. Wash the dishes and pots with a scrubber, dip them in the cool water rinse with bleach and leave them on the table to dry. I don't worry about dish towels or anything like that as it will just drip onto the ground. Some people like dishtowels - if you bring them make sure they are darker in color.

Planning the meals

Dinners should be somewhat planned since you will have to carry everything with you. Breakfast can be a selection of things each morning depending on who you are catering to but dinners will need to be more organized. Planning the meals and bringing snacks etc. will help keep things organized and make preparing the meals easier. Avoid complex meals as outside, it is about keeping it simple. One pot meals work well or something on the griddle etc.

Cooler

Bring the biggest cooler you have. It will give you flexibility in terms of what you can bring and you will be thankful for the space. You will need to use ice to keep things cool if you are out for more than a couple of days so plan to have things in bags or containers so that they don't get wet or ruined. Preparing things ahead of time and putting them in the cooler can save time at the campsite.


Storage Bin
Storage Bin

Staying organized

Staying organized I have found is a key to success when camping. You need to bring enough gear to do what you need to do but at the same time minimize lots of extras so that you can keep it simple. I have found the sort of storage bins at home depot to work really well. You can store dishes and untensils in one, dry goods in another, etc.

As far as clothes are concerned, this is very much a personal decision but keeping it simple means reducing the amount of stuff that you bring with you and will make for a more enjoyable trip. If its a weekend trip for example, I bring one set of extra clothes for my children in case they get wet (I am less concerned about dirt) and a set of pajamas. I also bring warm jackets since it can get much colder at night outside and in the early morning than most people realize. Its important to stay warm because once you are cold its harder to warm up and more importantly, it is incredibly important to everyone being comfortable and happy. If a child is cold, there is nothing you will be able to do to make them happy. Keep them warm. 

I hope these tips and suggestions are helpful. Please leave comments and suggestions and we can build around this hub for everyone to enjoy. 

Remember - above all else Have Fun!


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Brendon Floyd profile image

Brendon Floyd 6 years ago from Oklahoma City, OK

Really enjoyed your hub, if only i had kids!

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