family camping trip: planning.

July 27, 2015

planning a family camping trip | reading my tea leavesWe’ve finally settled on a destination. Maine. It’s not a place we’ve never been, but it is a place that we like to return to, and besides, everything’s new with a Junebug along for the ride.

We’ve got a rental car squared away. A campsite booked. Hidden swimming holes and scenic overlooks to find. And a few nights left unplanned just to keep things interesting. We figure that as long as we’ve got the gear in place, we can handle a few last-minute arrangements.

Viewed one way, camping is the ultimate in minimalist vacations. Just you, the woods, and a few small things for maintaining safety and sanity in the wild. A trip into the woods means living with only the essentials. Nothing too fancy and nothing superfluous. Just a thin piece of waterproof fabric between you and the star-filled sky. A tiny camp stove, a skillet, and a bit of ingenuity will get you dinner. A cooler can stand in for a fridge.

But the rub comes with the fact that most of the time we don’t live in the woods. We live in an apartment. And though our needs are few, we have things like a refrigerator and a bed and stove to use on a daily basis. When you live out of the woods most of the time, a camping vacation can paradoxically feel like an exercise in needing more than usual, not less. Suddenly the very things that allow you to live with only the essentials for a week or two can make you feel like living with extras the rest of the time.
planning a family camping trip | reading my tea leaves It can feel like maybe camping vacations are better for people with things like garages and sheds and …closets. Places where a few boxes of supplies can take up a relatively small amount of space for much of the year and provide whole weeks of enjoyment once the weather warms and the itch for a change of scenery grows too powerful to ignore.

But the truth is that we’ve managed to keep a modest collection of camping supplies even in our tiniest apartment. A tiny tent, sleeping bags shoved into small spaces, and a small collection of essentials designed to be carried on our backs has meant that we haven’t gotten too overwhelmed by camping gear and that we’ve been able to take a few pared down trips in the meantime. Still, we began to wonder if camping with a child would mean needing to be a bit more prepared.

The planning began in earnest last week with a spreadsheet. And three columns: Have, Buy, Borrow.

James sent me an invitation to edit the spreadsheet. Normally this is the kind of thing that makes my heart swell. Opposites attract, sure, but sometimes it’s nice to have a husband cut from the same cloth.

But when I opened the spreadsheet, the columns that James created glared back at me. No: the rows. There were a lot of them. From plates and cups to coolers and tents and ground coverings. It looked like a lot of stuff. But at the same time that I felt like our packing list might have gotten a little out of hand, it was easy to think about camping with a baby and wonder if our tiny tent actually was too tiny. If our diminutive cooler was impractical, our backpacking camp stove inadequate.

It’s easy to get carried away, and really easy to start feeling like nice to have is the same as necessary to have. Looking over the list, it looked like we were going to have swap our rental car for a minivan just to fit all of the stuff.

But we reassessed. We got our tiny cooler down from the top of the closet and decided we could probably swing it. We set up the tent we’ve used for two and decided it would work for three. We decided our decade-old sleeping bags are still hanging in there just fine. And what’s a stroller muff if not a sleeping bag? We’ve gotten a few new things that will make the trip just a little more pleasant, but other things we’ve decided to just wing it without. Sure, it’d be awesome to have a rubber tub to bathe our bub, but it’s also possible to shower her monkey-style in the campground bathroom. Larger cooler? Amazing. Trying to store it after we get back? Not so much.
planning a family camping trip | reading my tea leaves Our trip will likely be a little scrappy. We’ll make a few meals over the campfire, but we’ll also be gentle with ourselves and rely on a few dinners out. Peanut butter and jelly and a loaf of bread will mean that no one will go hungry, regardless of available dining options. Anyway, this isn’t a post about having all the answers. It’s about not having all the answers but going for it anyway. I’ll report back, fear not.

Here’s to adventure.

For the curious:
A similar tent.
Our tiny stove.
Similar sleeping bags.
Similar air mattresses.
Our camping kettle.

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  • Reply lindsay July 27, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    i'm glad i'm not the only one who swoons when their husband sends an invite to edit a spreadsheet. our marriage runs on google docs!

  • Reply Kathleen July 27, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    I love using camping gear that has been around the block a few times. It reminds me of all the past adventures I've been on. We recently went on our first camping trip as a family of five (our oldest two have done lots of camping, it was our youngest's first trip). We set up our older two in my old backpacking tent that is probably 20 years old, but still works just fine. I loved seeing them in there. We also have done lots of "washcloth baths" with our kids while camping. Warm up some water, have them strip down, then scrub them with a warm wash cloth. Kids hair doesn't get greasy like adult hair so I usually find they can go much longer without washing their hair. Hope you have a fabulous trip! (And love, love your blog – it's one of my very favorites!)

    • Reply admin July 27, 2015 at 2:19 pm

      Yes! There will be washcloth baths a plenty! Thanks so much for your kind words, Kathleen!

  • Reply Jen July 27, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    My kids are grown (two in their own tiny Brooklyn apartments) but I love your posts. Have fun!

    • Reply admin July 27, 2015 at 3:34 pm

      Thank you so much!

  • Reply Anna Ladas July 27, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    I love your blog and this post. I am a rabid list-maker and enjoy the planning for camping trips. Don't forget mosquito repellent. Friends just returned from Maine and said they were out in force. Thanks for sharing meaningful content, your trepidations, and have a great time! Just started following you on IG and love the longboard pics.

    • Reply admin July 27, 2015 at 3:33 pm

      Got it! Bagder Anti Bug Shake!

    • Reply admin July 27, 2015 at 3:33 pm

      PS. Thanks for the skating encouragement! It's been so fun to learn!

  • Reply Christina July 27, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Your upcoming trip sounds like it will be so much fun! My husband and 1 year old (born a week after Faye!) are planning our first camping trip as a family of three- I'm trying to figure out where our son will sleep as our tent is too small to fit a pack n' play (and I agree, why bring more than you might need). What makeshift style bed do are you planning for her?

    • Reply admin July 27, 2015 at 3:32 pm

      We're just going to have her sleep between us!

      • Reply Sarah Peck August 3, 2017 at 9:15 pm

        We’ve put a swaddle blanket / muslin blanket down on top of a half-folded yoga mat inside of tent, between us, and it works perfectly (from 10 weeks through 14 months it’s been great).

  • Reply welliewalks July 27, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Hope you have an amazing trip! We just came back from a minimalist camping trip as well…and I wrote about packing and the results as well. We camped pretty much the same way with one babe and then another, definitely good times to remember! πŸ™‚

    • Reply admin July 27, 2015 at 3:44 pm

      Thank you! So glad to get a peek into yours!

  • Reply missris July 27, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    We also love to camp but do not love to store a bunch of superfluous camping gear in our own tiny apartment. We make do with what we have, store what we can under the bed, and leave the rest in the trunk of our tiny car. Makes for laughs when we give folks rides to the airport–oh don't mind the tent and portable grill!

  • Reply Emily C July 27, 2015 at 4:17 pm

    Camping is so fun, especially with a little one – but oh man, all of the stuff! We're embracing car camping for the next few years (we have a one-and-a-half-year-old), and it's definitely worth the craziness. We've accepted that there will be a lot of things brought along (and have learned the hard way to be sure to gather the essentials – bring a headlamp or flashlight! and the tent poles… that was a bummer).

    One thing to keep in mind – the sun and nearby roosters woke my daughter up at 4:30 when we went camping in a campground this summer, and that was a rough start to the day, in large part because there were all the campers around us who we didn't want to wake up! We took turns tip-toeing around the campground with her until a more reasonable hour. We're camping in Baxter in a few weeks, and are hoping we can rig a tarp over the lean-to door to try to get a few more hours of sleep in, for all of our sakes!

    Have so much fun! Maine is pretty beautiful right now. Keep in mind the magic of an early morning rural diner breakfast too, we've ended many a camping trip that way, and it's always such a treat.

  • Reply Arp822 July 27, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    Do you know of a great place to camp with young children in Maine? My husband and I are going to Maine for two weeks with our two children, and our kids have been begging us to go camping for a couple of days. I have been searching online for a good spot, but have been feeling overwhelmed.

    • Reply admin July 28, 2015 at 3:34 pm

      We're going to Acadia National Park!

  • Reply Anna July 27, 2015 at 5:02 pm

    Our biggest challenge camping with our now two year old has been getting him to fall asleep in the tent. Hopefully your daughter has better skills in that area, but even so, I'm sure you will have a great time. Last summer we camped in South Dakota and Yellowstone and despite the sleep challenges it was totally worth it. So far this summer we have camped for only one night but summer in Maine (where we live) makes me want to have more adventures, camping included. Hope you have a great trip!

  • Reply Sarah Struthers July 27, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    My husband and I are moving from AZ to CT and camped the whole way across the nation with our 6 month old. It was terrific!! For baby safe bug spray we used Terra Shield Doterra and he doesn't have a single bite! (now ask me how many bites I have after using conventional bug spray) When we packed we used the same blue rubbermaid bin we store everything in at the top of our closet, so to bathe our baby we emptied it, wiped it out and then dried it and replaced all the items. Our baby slept between us, we zipped two large sleeping bags together on top of each other so it was quite a large "bed" to share. A plastic shower curtain under our bags kept them dry from the dewy ground. I wouldn't change the experiences at all!

  • Reply Bloggity Bloo July 27, 2015 at 10:31 pm

    Can you rent gear anywhere? I live near a college campus and they have a rec department that rents camping gear to the general public. It's awesome to have access to the goods and not have to store them year round! -Sarah

  • Reply Monica July 27, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    So timely! We are going tent camping in Yosemite at Tuolumne Meadows in a few weeks, and I'm both excited and frightened to be taking my almost 2-year-old for the first time. Luckily, we're going with a close friend and my little ones aunties and uncle so there will be lots of support for keeping my adventure girl entertained and safe. I do feel like I have to learn to pack all over again, as when it used to be just me I could be very streamlined, now I have to make sure I have a variety of foods for whatever she is in the mood for and lots more gear! I still think it will be fun, and we're timing it with the Perseids meteor shower which was just amazing in Yosemite the last time I was there (giant green blazing balls of light right over your head!!). While she won't remember this trip in the long run, I hope it will be our first of many adventures in the woods together.

  • Reply Kaitlyn S July 27, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    Everyone is getting the camping bug – my husband and I (no babe) have just started planning our own trip, also up to Maine πŸ™‚ Something about being in NYC makes me crave the exact opposite, despite my hatred for a lack of indoor plumbing.

  • Reply Heather O'Donnell Cox July 28, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    I would love to know what you guys take on a camping trip— we try to pack lightly, but somehow wind up with a car full!


  • Reply SuperWoman July 28, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    My husband and I went for a camping trip to Vermont. It was my first camping experience, we also started off with list shared between us as the camping checklist. Our trip was for 2 day and 3 nights . I would say if you are planing to cook and grill , please ensure you carry enough lanterns (minimum 2) and a torch .Because once its gets dark you would want to have enough light to cut, marinate or for other prep for cooking. Try carrying those one burner propane stove (light and affordable) ,this ensured that we start our day with hot cup of chocolate or tea (you can use to heat milk or food for baby too) and also you will be able to have eggs with your peanut butter sandwich (No one will go hungry and you will also have a full meal :D) . We also did not have all the answers but we decided to go for it and he had a wonderful time. So I am eagerly looking for your updates and pics. Have nice time and hoping to see more post on it.

  • Reply Miss Reichl July 28, 2015 at 9:40 pm

    We're heading up to Maine this Friday for a week of camping, hiking, & kayaking. There's even talk of heading out to New Hampshire & Vermont to hike Mt. Washington & eat Ben & Jerry's. πŸ™‚
    Cheers for late nights under the stars & around the campfire! ~Devs

  • Reply Rachel July 29, 2015 at 5:08 am

    Stumbled upon your blog and thoroughly enjoying it. I completely understand what you meant when you wrote, "a camping vacation can paradoxically feel like… needing more, not less." When our family went camping last summer, I challenged myself to limit all our gear to one tote box. Other than the cooler for food, our clothing, toiletries, and sleeping bags (though many times we simply opt for single sized down blankets which pack down to nearly nothing) we managed to fit everything into this tote and it doubles as a bath tub for our three kiddos after grubby, woodland adventures. It makes packing for a trip simple and limiting our necessities easy. I hope you enjoy your trip!

  • Reply kris July 29, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    Here's a great guide to family camping from Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home. She, her husband, two sons, and one small dog managed to go "car camping" for a week with their not-so-big Prius. She has a no-nonsense packing list that's especially useful.

    • Reply admin July 29, 2015 at 2:23 pm

      Terrific! Looks a lot like ours!

    • Reply SamJ August 1, 2015 at 5:45 pm

      Except please bite the bottled water bullet and take MORE water than you need. I've seen that minimal camping post from Zero Waste Home shared before and all I can focus on is the comment that they left Joshua Tree thirsty (!) and completely out of water. We are frequent campers/backpackers/road trippers and I'm all for being mindful but with water you don't mess around.

    • Reply admin August 1, 2015 at 6:25 pm

      No worries! We're not wilderness camping! Running water at the campsite and plenty of bottles to refill!

    • Reply SamJ August 2, 2015 at 4:45 pm

      I figured you guys would! Enjoy Acadia, it looks stunning!

  • Reply cindyleed July 29, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    I've been camping ever since I can remember. My husband and I camped in our first years together and registered for camp gear for our wedding, since we were already living together. We've been married nearly 14 years now and I did just mention to him that we should probably get some new sleeping bags. We have definitely accumulated more camp gear since our first days camping. Now we have a larger tent and two young boys. Camping is definitely an exercise in refining your must haves and seeing what you can do without. We did invest in a larger tent. You don't need it much with a baby, but when they are toddler age it is nice to have a tent that can fit a pack n play. It's certainly always a lot of work to put together our lists, pack and unpack everything. Yet we still love camping and getting to watch our boys love it too is so worth it. Enjoy your trip!

  • Reply Nancy Cavillones July 29, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    I miss the days of camping minimally! Unfortunately, with three kids, we have totally devolved into the bring all the crap we can fit in the car-type of family. We went camping for a week in Maine, when my son was about a year old, so we had the pack'n'play, two queen size air mattress for our big family tent, pillows, blankets, and all that jazz. I'm going camping with my sister in a few weeks and looking forward to just packing a sleeping bag and a bottle of wine. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Rose September 2, 2015 at 10:56 am

    Thank's for review! I love this post, really enjoy when people understand how important outdoor family time is. I totally agree with you that it teaches children hard work equals good results. Lovely post.

  • Reply Lisa September 23, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    It might look like a lot of stuff. But at the same time that I felt like our back list might have gotten a little out of hand, it was easy to think about camping with a baby and wonder if our tiny tent actually was too tiny. If our diminutive cooler was impractical, our backpacking camp stove inadequate.

  • Reply rubbishclearancekennington October 5, 2015 at 11:18 am

    Proper planning is the key thing when going for camping! It will not only reduce the your waste, but also make your experience a smooth one!

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