Must haves for camping with toddlers

We are off on our camping trip and I am crossing my fingers I didn’t forget a thing. This is a real concern because once Alex and I took Eleanor camping when she was little and basically forgot everything except the baby. We arrived only to discover we had no sleeping bags or blankets, camp chairs, or pillows. It would have been a very uncomfortable night except we found a Kmart close by and grabbed the essentials. So to help you and me when packing for the next camping trip, here is our must haves list.


Before I dive right in, let me explain how we camp. It is called “car camping” around here, meaning we drive our car right up to the campsite and unload. We don’t camp where hiking-in is necessary because let’s be honest, with toddlers we need a ton of stuff.

We also need a quick getaway plan. We once packed up camp in the middle of the night, woke the camp host to unlock the gate, and drove home because Eleanor would not stop screaming. Camping with toddlers isn’t always easy, but as with most advice I give, lower your expectations, be prepared for anything and always willing to change plans at a moment’s notice.

We prefer to camp at state parks. Generally we can book in advance, check out the sites and campground online, and we are guaranteed usable bathrooms and showers.

Camping must haves


Kelty child carrier//pie iron//Kelty tent//towels//knives//bug spray//Pack n’ Play//foil//camp chairs//shampoo//sunscreen//food trays//air mattress//rain jacket//hiking shoes//kids camp chair

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The first thing we pack in the car is the tent. A small one works just fine for our family of four. We have had the same Kelty Tent (similar) since before Alex and I were married and have never felt the need to buy a larger one. While it can get cramped with a Pack n’ Play, we don’t spend much time in the tent apart from sleeping. Speaking of Pack n’ Plays, we just got a new-to-us one that is the Travel Lite version. It is so much smaller and we are hoping to have so much more room in the tent. Eleanor will sleep with Alex and me. We use an air mattress. I just couldn’t camp if I wasn’t guaranteed some sleep. Sleep is too precious as a parent and that makes the air mattress necessary. We also use real pillows and blankets, see previous statement if you need an explanation.


We used to love getting creative over the campfire. But just like in the kitchen at home, our camp meals are quick and easy now that we have toddlers. If it’s not cooked in foil or in the pie iron then it isn’t going to be made. Our favorites are grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly’s using the pie iron.

We also love Hobo Stew cooked in foil packets in the coals. Occasionally we will bring bagels and toast using s’more skewers. For dessert we stick to s’mores but banana boats have also been a favorite in the past but are just too messy with toddlers. We love our hanging high chair (similar) that makes outdoor eating a breeze for babies.


In addition to cooked food we also pack a ton of grab and go food. This is the one time that our kids get to snack as much as they want. Cereal, trail mix, plantain chips, baby carrots, apple slices, and grapes are all easy snacks to have ready. For meals we will eat sandwiches, cereal and almond milk or hard-boiled eggs packed from home. This time I also made coffee and chilled in the fridge for iced coffees in the morning.

We always pack reusable knives, silverware and plates. There is something about camping outdoors that makes you want to reduce, reuse and recycle. For plates we actually use old Panera trays (those black ones your food used to come on). We have these amazing and fun knives that come with a cover and just cheap forks and spoons. I pack a small container of dish soap, cloth napkins that we reuse and a few kitchen towels for clean up. Also important to mention here a fire starter and long lighter. And a corkscrew. No explanation needed.


This trip we will be camping close to town and planning to spend a ton of time at the beach so we aren’t packing as much food as usual. We plan to eat lunches out and maybe even one dinner.

Hiking Gear

What is a camping trip without hiking? Actually, this current camping trip probably won’t have a lot of hiking at all. Still I am packing my favorite Vasque Hiking Shoes, our trusty Kelty Pathfinder Child Carrier, and a CamelBak for water.


Clothes and Toiletries

This may be the one place I am not a minimalist. I pack for every possible scenario. I have running clothes, jeans, shorts, swim suits, jackets, rain jackets, hoodies, sweats, tank tops, flip flops, hats and more. This trip is a little different since we are hitting the beach as well. While showering is always optional while camping, I like being clean. We always pack shampoo and a towel and I always pack these cleansing cloths to wash my face instead of soap and bug spray and sunscreen are also essential. I also typically pack a roll of toilet paper and disinfecting wipes for all the “just in cases.”


Activities and Toys

We don’t pack a lot in this category. A book each and usually we let the girls pick out one or two toys like a baby or ball. We packed crayons and one coloring book this time because Eleanor colors so much right now and it entertains her for hours. We pull the Pack n’ Play out of the tent during the day and let the girls sit in there and play if they like.


We also just let them run around and get dirty and play with sticks. It’s really the one time in life when I try not to keep them from getting dirty.


This year we also bought the girls their own camp chairs and I think they are going to get a ton of use and I will already bet that Ruthie will fall out of her’s a dozen times. I’m sure they will be a hit though. And of course we are packing our own chairs too.

I can guarantee I’m leaving out at least one or two important items (like a first aid kit). Our car is always so full, packing for a weekend trip often looks like we are moving away. While I try to keep things simple, I also want to be prepared for everything.

Do you enjoy camping? What are your must haves?

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