The Dorton’s are currently prepping to go on our next camping adventure. We are excited that some of our favorite friends are joining us. Camping with other families can make a trip so much fun. I grew up camping with an extended camping family; there is a bond that forms in the woods with children, for me those relationships have lasted a lifetime. We took our oldest camping when she was about four months old, both our girls are used to the smell of a cold morning in a tent, the excitement of roasting marshmallows and the adventure that comes along with exploring nature. I can’t wait to help expose some new family campers to our journey.
A lot of parents that I talk to have a lot of nerves about getting out there. Everyone has a horror story about camping. The heat or the rain can test anyone, but the worst part universally is having to unpack a car after a long weekend. The best thing anyone can do is just keep it simple and plan for the weather. Below are my seven most essential items for a first-time family camper. Due to the limited space, car camping will force you to limit what you bring. This list below is a great start, and Pinterest has tons of camping checklists that can fill in the rest of the gaps, but these are the essential items that will get you started.
1) Tent – For new campers, my recommendation is to buy a tent that is within your budget and fits one or two more people than your family size. The fewer tents poles, the better! Don’t try to be a hero here, the more poles there are, the more likely you are to look like you have no idea what you are doing in front of your children. Before we purchased the travel trailer, we used our REI Kingdom 6 tent and loved it, but it was expensive. When you are ready to commit to multiple camping trips a year get a Kingdom tent, otherwise just get a good old fashion Coleman dome tent. They are pretty easy to put up and are pretty cost effective.
2) Air Mattress – Everyone is going to be in a better mood if you get a good night sleep so bring an air mattress. Unless you are sure, you are going to camp a lot don’t think about investing in an expensive air mattress. Here is the deal: when the temperatures drops at night, the mattress will lose air. THEY ALL LOSE AIR. There are all kinds of quality and comfort features, but all of them will lose air, you will probably need to reinflate the mattress every day and MAYBE even in the middle of the night. From what I have witnessed over the year, well-rested people are more likely to handle all the ups and downs of camping, so bring an air mattress and make it feel cozy like you were at home with some sheets, blankets, pillows and even your teddy bear.
3) Food – you are going to need to eat, and you are better than just hot dogs. You can cook anything while camping, for the most part, if you have the right tools. Camp stoves, dutch ovens, and griddles are all things that can open up so many possibilities. We have made everything from biscuits and gravy for breakfast to shrimp stir fry over quinoa for dinner. My three tips when it comes to food is 1) don’t bite off more than you can chew (pun intended), 2) prep at home, and 3) eat real food.
If I were just getting started with camping with the kids, I would keep breakfast simple. Cereal, granola bars, fruits, muffins or anything else that takes no prep. Scrambled eggs on a camp stove or a cast iron skillet on a campfire grate is another easy option. For Lunch, sandwiches are pretty straight forward. We tend to be on the go by Lunch time, so we usually go with anything we can toss in a backpack or small lunch cooler. Usually, it is a combo of Granola, nuts/seeds, fruits, and humus. If we are at the campsite, we make grilled cheeses over the fire with a cast iron pie iron. Dinner is the most painful, you’re tired from a great day and getting dinner going is probably the last thing on your mind. My suggestion is to cook it right on the campfire ring grill. Veggie foil packets are easy to prep ahead of time and almost fool proof when cooking. Kababs are another one I enjoy, prep it all before you go and skewer the kebabs once you are ready to cook. Finally, Taco Night is also a great option, prep the meat at home and get a skillet that can be used on a grill/fire and warm the meat up.
4) Cooler – My advice here is pretty simple, if you are going where there are bears and/or camping for seven days without access to ice then fine you justify to yourself that you need to buy a Yeti brand cooler, otherwise just get the cooler you probably already have in the garage. Bears aren’t an issue in most places and few people camp for long enough that justifies buying into the latest overpriced trend. If you don’t have a cooler, you can get a pretty reasonable one for well under $100. They don’t last forever so keep that in mind. Make sure you have room for the beer, trust me you will need a beer, we tried camping without them once, it wasn’t fun.
5) Bug Spray – Bugs are a bitch, wear bug spray. Ticks have replaced the Mosquitos paranoia here in Missouri, but West Nile and Zika continue to be a significant concern for many. I have heard people say it is all media hype, but I can tell you it is not; my great aunt became wheelchair bound after contracting West Nile, so it’s real. Wear bug spray. There are always new products coming out, and existing ones are always tweaking the formula, so I make sure to check out Consumerreports.org and Reviews.com for their latest reviews on sunscreen and bug spray. We have been using Swayer Insect Repellent for the last two years and have been happy with it.
6) Stuff for the kids – Entertained campers are happy campers. We always bring their favorite toys at the time. Something they can sit down in the tent and play with or on the campsite. Bubbles, Sidewalk chalk, coloring books and some ride-on toy are also must haves. There are tons of nature/outdoor activities to do, but I don’t expect anyone on their first adventure to start identifying trees and animal tracks. But you should always check with the park – they may have educational programs that can help fill the day. My final tip is one that Shannon thought of, go to a craft store or even Target and get package art kits. Our oldest loves when we bring out a project to sit work on at the picnic table. She has the freedom to get a little messier than she would at home and it is a great have a slower paced activity. Age appropriateness is a big thing here, and I think you just have to make sure to bring stuff they enjoy and mix in some new surprises that will hold their interest during down time. Finally, a cell phone with some games and movies is a great “emergency weapon,” no shame in our game.
7) Tarp – The single most used piece of camping equipment that I bring with me is a tarp. It can be put under a tent to protect the bottom (always do this). When the ground is wet, you can lay it on the ground and put a blanket over it for a place for the kids to play, nap, or eat lunch. Great to cover up items on the campsite if you think it is going to rain or have a lot of dew overnight. Nothing will save your nerves and the weekend more than tying a tarp up between some trees and making a shelter if a rain shower comes during the day. Along with making sure you get a good night sleep, keeping dry. Everyone will be happier if they have a place to stay dry. BRING A TARP!
Bonus Item – Patience – Camping can unlock so much for a child, but it can also teach an adult a lot, mainly the art of patience. I challenge you to go and take whatever Mother Nature throws at you with a grain of salt. You can usually quickly solve any problem thrown at you with a beer, a tarp or some patience. If those things don’t help, then drive to the nearest Walmart (it won’t be far) and buy whatever you need OR sit in the A/C for a bit.
For Shannon and I personally, we have both grown so much from our journey through the parks. We continue to learn so much about how to be patient with each other. Things don’t always go as planned and it is better to take a deep breath and tackle challenges together. Learning some patience has allowed us to stay in the moment with our family and not check out when things don’t go as planned.