Camping was glorious and I’ve only by miracle and mild coercion managed to excavate the dirt from my children’s curling toenails. Camping was grueling and we woke up every morning to the call of loons and watched the fog lift off the lake as we sipped our cocoa and coffee. Glorious and grueling, a family vacation defined?
There are lots of reasons to camp. Maybe you already know them. At $22 a night, state-run campsites with access to plumbed toilets and running water are a budget vacationer’s dream. The opportunities to commune with nature, to shake up our routine, to bid the world that we know adieu and barrel into a new one, all unparalleled. On our trip there were lake swims and sunnies caught and released and cried after. There were row boat rides and waterfall hikes and tromps through the woods singing to keep a family of bears at bay. We made dinner while our kids threw rocks into lakes and sometimes at each other. We cleaned up breakfast while they built fairy houses and destroyed them. We climbed fire towers and chatted with fellow trailblazers and practiced our doggie paddles. Have you ever listened to your children singing softly in the dark night on their way to brush their teeth? The stuff of parenting dreams. Mine, anyway.
Still, camping is work and two weeks of camping with three little kids is a lot of work. There’s camp to be set up and broken down. There are meals to be made and cleaned up after. There’s weather to contend with and wildlife to keep at bay and toddlers who insist on running into the woods. Keeping things safe and comfortable requires a certain amount of vigilance and organization that isn’t always all that relaxing or restorative. Less the stuff of parenting dreams? Hissing at my children to stop treating the family’s patchwork of sleeping bags like a ball pit at a highway rest stop. Or, shrieking at my family when they’ve left the tent hanging open for the fiftieth time and all I want is to go to sleep without being menaced by the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes. Or, losing all cool and calm while crouching over a wash basin with a headlamp for a light and a toddler crying over a smoldering marshmallow at my back. I could go on. There are fireflies and star gazing and the tender trills of campfire songs, but there’s the other stuff too, let it be known.
I remain myself and so there’s a certain amount of consternation that comes with packing and reckoning with all the stuff that camping requires. We are a family of five and so the math doesn’t do us any favors in terms of keeping things light and minimal, though we did try. I’ve received so many requests to update my original list that I thought I’d oblige. For what it’s worth, here’s a look at what we took with us:
+ A six-person tent and its attending rain fly and ground cover
+ 1 double sleeping bag and queen-sized air mattress for the parents to share
+ 2 kid-sized sleeping bags plus 1 adult-sized lightweight single bag for kids
+ 3 assorted other sleeping pads of the self-inflating variety for kids to use
+ 2 camp pillows and 2 regular pillows for the adults
+ 1 quilt
+ 1 2-burner propane camp stove
+ 1 campfire-ready kettle
+ 1 skillet and 1 stainless steel sauce pan
+ 1 stainless steel mixing bowl
+ 1 metal spatula; 1 wooden spatula; 1 wooden spoon
+ 1 potholder
+ 1 cutting board
+ 5 forks, 5 spoons, and 2 knives from our everyday cutlery
+ 1 folding opinel knife plus corkscrew; 1 serrated knife
+ 4 enamelware plates and 5 enamelware bowls and 5 enamelware mugs
+ 1 2-cup measure
+ 5 dish towels
+ A few rolls of paper towels for messes. (And zero regrets.)
+ 1 tablecloth
+ 1 cotton clothesline and clothespins
+ 1 sponge and 1 scrubby pad
+ 1 bottle of Sals Suds
+ 1 stainless steel water dispenser
+ 1 old enamel wash basin
+ 1 borrowed cooler
+ 1 borrowed screened-in canopy
+ 2 camp chairs
+ 1 toddler backpack carrier
+ 2 adult headlamps and 3 kid headlamps
+ 2 kid-sized fishing poles (and a fishing license for their adult)
We have an old station wagon with lots of trunk space, but we still borrowed a collapsible car top carrier from my parents and it was hugely helpful. Not sure if I would invest in this same one, since it’s already sprouted one leak, but other similar options abound. We also borrowed a screened-in canopy shelter from my mom and dad (similar to the one linked), which was very helpful as a cover for our picnic table on rainy days. I’d consider investing in a simpler set-up without the screens for our next trip—something to keep the stove and table dry, but minus the walls which I found to be more cumbersome than helpful and absolutely no match for the bugs anyway.
We were short on chairs and that’s something I’ll probably also try to rectify before our next trip. Generally I find the options for camp chairs to be too heavy, too ugly, too uncertain, so if anyone has favorites, please share. James found a used toddler backpack carrier for sale locally before we left and while too heavy for me to comfortably use, it was perfect for James and made many hikes much, much more feasible for our family.
In terms of clothing, I packed probably too many daytime shorts and t-shirts for the kids and not enough evening/camp long sleeves and pants, which is what tended to get dirtiest during the aforementioned marshmallow roasting and general campsite lounging. (We did laundry twice at local laundromats, thank goodness.) Rain gear proved essential and I was beyond grateful that my kids’ sets from Fairechild still mostly fit.
We packed clothes and supplies into duffle bags and travel packs and the rest of the gear we put into open wooden crates. If James had his druthers we’d invest in a few lidded containers to help contain things a bit better in the car. Maybe one day.
For the additionally curious:
Faye wore the red-checkered dress from Mabo pictured here on most days of our trip, usually tucked into her rain pants, from Fairechild.
The beautiful yellow birch bowl shown here is a souvenir from our travels, made by Chipman Woodworks.
Enamelware bowls and mugs were given to us by Crow Canyon to use on this trip and on future adventures.
Other questions, just ask, unless you have questions about how to get small children to chill around the campfire for extended periods of time, in which case, I have no answers.
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We’ve gone roadtripping cross-country with our two young daughters the last two summers. I have been able to minimize what we bring, especially kitchen necessities, because we had to travel for long distances over 2-3 weeks in a Prius. One thing I forego this summer because most campsites have picnic tables — camp chairs. I didn’t bring them this year and they were not missed. If you don’t already have some, invest in hammocks instead. Fun for the kids and when we get a chance, relaxing for the parents.
I am so glad you posted this!! I would love to hear what food you took/cooked because that stresses me out more than the stuff.
Food and meal prep is always the most stressful part of camping for me!
Delightful and stressful but filled with many core childhood memories!
It’s an investment, but they’ve already been paid off for years – the helinox chair zero is a backpacking chair we take everywhere – porch and backyard hangs, the beach, hiking, concerts… they’re lightweight and enjoyable to sit in! https://www.rei.com/product/158004/helinox-chair-zero
I second the helinox chairs! Pricey but incredibly light, sturdy and packable.
We bought a cheaper version of the helinox chair over five years ago from Amazon – there are a number of different brands with essentially the same concept. We’ve used them 100s of times and they have held up. They are compact and way more comfortable than typical camp chairs, easy to throw into a bike basket for the local park/beach, and perfect for holding babies because you can rock in them a little 🙂
We use the REI version of the helinox chair all the time! They are sturdy and comfortable. Crazy creek-style chairs are also a hit with kids we camp with. And a hammock. I never camp without a hammock anymore, as I always regreted it when I didn’t bring it!
Another vote for Helinox chairs! We are a family of five and we have ChairOnes for adults and the ChairZeros for kids. We keep them in a backpack at the front door and take them with us everywhere! 3rd year in and they have been the best investment ever!
No questions, just huge amounts of love and respect for two weeks of camping with three little ones! WOW. Your description of them singing in the dark gives me the warm fuzzies. It reminds me of everything I loved about Girl Scout camp and canoe camping with my dad and best friend.
Camp chairs: we have four from REI that are sturdy as heck and have been cradling us and our guests for nine years with no signs of wear. This appears to be the current iteration: https://www.rei.com/product/847136/rei-co-op-camp-x-chair
For those with shorter legs, a low chair is probably more sensible! https://www.rei.com/product/185780/rei-co-op-camp-low-chair
P.S. Not relevant to this particular post, but I just received a glorious package of four East Fork coupes, and am grateful every day that you introduced me to their gorgeous products!
As a new family of four, cannot wait and absolutely dreading future camping trips (likely next summer). Thank you for sharing this glimpse into what camping looked like for your family. Also, instantly clicked the Fairchild link!
You are inspiring!
This was a lovely post! We also just got back from camping with tiny kids and we were so relieved that ultimately the fun outweighed the slog. We were very worried. Also, I’m convinced my absolute insanity about detailed packing lists and procuring the necessary items ahead of time made me enjoy the trip a lot more. For the most part I had everything we needed and very little we didn’t! Also, girl– 2 weeks?! That’s commitment I am super impressed. I think my sleeping on the ground limit might be 3 nights.
I’m so impressed and envious! Thank you as well for the reminder that I need to get organized if I want to do some (much shorter) camping this summer.
We love our Kelty Camping Loveseat. We use it for the beach and yard as well. Also crazy creeks are great.
This looks like a fun time. Confession, I have never been camping. We did not camp when I was a kid (we were solid beach house vacation people) and I have never taken my kids camping. They are 20 and 18 now…. Have I missed my window?
Camping is always an adventure! 😉
The foldable chairs linked above are super lightweight and easy to store when not in use. If you’re looking for something easier to assemble, but not a comfortable for lounging, I have one of these stools that has come in handy and quite small/easy to store.
Never too late!
We just got back from our second camping trip with our freshly minted one-year-old and our 1970’s era pop-up camper, and it was GREAT. If anyone on here is a tent camper but has been think of trying out a small pop-up or tow-behind camper, let this be your sign! It’s so fun! Our kid is obsessed!
Erin, you might like chairs from Lawn Chairs USA as a camp chair option: https://www.lawnchairusa.com/
They aren’t as collapsible as an umbrella-style chair but they weigh almost nothing and fold pretty flat, so you can tuck them into the trunk of a bigger car easily. Plus they are v cute and can be used at home, too 🙂
We have used and loved our Byer of Maine folding camp chairs for years—they are sturdy, fold up small, and are surprisingly comfortable. They’ve been everywhere with us, from NYC parks to campgrounds and sandy beaches:
I second these great little chairs. I’ve used one for years now. Surprisingly comfortable to recline down low.
You are a brave soul! I’m trying to convince my husband to also camp with little children. Thank you for sharing the list and your expertise. As with other readers, I would also be interested in learning about food – how did you store (assuming the cooler but did you just refresh the ice?) and what did you eat?
Oh, will see if I can pull some thoughts together!
It’s what childhood memories are made of isn’t it. It sounds like you had a magical time away, even if it was hard work for the grown ups. The only way I know to get children to sit quietly round a campfire is to tell scary stories … but then they don’t sleep so any advantage is quickly lost!!
I so appreciate the realness of this post. We have only camped overnight but my 8 year old and I have wanted to venture out. The thing that overwhelms me the most–other than not sleeping for a week–is the STUFF. We do have a house, albeit small, but we’re relatively minimal and the thought of tracking everything down that we’d need…oof. Going to try and reframe my brain a bit on this and consider it for next year. Hope you made some incredible memories!
One thing to look into might be gear rental, which could really be worth it if you only camp every year or two and for just a shorter jaunt each time. REI of course is one option, but in Minnesota at least the U of MN has awesomely cheap gear rentals! You could outfit a couple folks for a weekend for $100 or less – and what a great way to be able to invest in a few key things and then rent what you need (like a tent, for example, which you might want to size up as your kiddo gets bigger). Worth searching around wherever you are, especially universities!
I have a big family and a small house, so this is one of my struggles, too. But there are ways to minimize extra stuff. As much as possible, we use our everyday stuff: dishes, cook ware; with the exception of a camp stove (we have had a tiny single burner for years, and it’s been perfect) we don’t have camping-only food gear. The tent is definitely the biggest item, and we fit ours under a bed, but that’s often an easy thing to borrow, too. Camping chairs aren’t necessary if you go somewhere with a picnic table or logs. We do a mix of sleeping bags and just regular bedding/blankets for those who don’t have a sleeping bag, so those aren’t required either. We have camped for years without camping mattresses, but usually 2 nights is our max for that! Ha! 🙂
The stuff is nice, but there are usually work arounds, especially if you just want to try it out without the investment!
Really love your writing, Erin. I identify with your sentiments on camping with children so completely. Its wonderful and grueling all at the same time. My older brother (who also camps with children) said something recently that made a lot of sense: the grueling bits are like investments for the future, especially when kids are small. Its like training for the whole family on the ordeal that is family camping. My kids are a bit older, and although still annoying in their own ways, are good campers now. So I guess the training did work out (probably mostly for me!), but boy some of those early trips were hellish.
Re: chairs – I slide my 20 yo crazy creek in the bottom of the trunk every trip and someone sits on it several times a day. Best camping investment to date! Agreed on screened tents around the table – not worth it for bug control.
This post was lovely and brought back a flood of camping memories from my childhood- both the good (wild blueberries in oatmeal!) and the less fun (poison ivy behind the ears!). What I struggle with as an adult in the city is the clean up and the supply storage. Did you pack up camp to the standards of being able to put everything away when you got back, or was the tent resurrected inside your home to be aired out/vacuumed/spot cleaned? Where do you keep your camping stuff so that it’s well stored but not in the way of non-camping life? Is your car trunk also pulling double duty as a garage? Thanks Erin!
Ah, totally! We have relied heavily on pitstop to my parents’ backyard for the airing out/laundry element of camping slash borrowing of some of the larger items like cooler and canopy! For storage at home, we’ve managed to shove things into closets etc. Our landlord recently gave us permission to store our out-of-season a/c unit in the basement, so I think that’s what James is eyeing for storage of things like camp chairs, etc.
City dweller here, too, and if we can’t get the tent/gear completely dry in the sun as we pack up, we try again at a local park once back in the city. We just plan to spend a couple hours at the park having a picnic as we wait. And if that fails, or isn’t perfectly dry, we do then resurrect inside our home for a dry-out and possible vacuum. We typically do it at night as we have a very small home and the tent takes up the entire living room. Occasionally we have left it up for the day to win the “cool parents” points that having a tent indoors will win you. I am the type of person that unpacks and stows away immediately upon returning home but I make an exception with camping gear. Here in the PNW, it’s a constant battle against moisture but it is worth the hassle of an elongated put-away to keep gear from molding. (Also, re: storage, we have one trunk in our one storage closet for all gear. Before kids, we did a lot of backcountry backpacking so our gear is highly packable, which makes it all possible. It’s expensive, to be sure, so if you have to pick only one item to start, start with a techy sleeping bag. Low quality sleeping bags are ginormous.)
Oh just to clarify: we don’t have a yard, hence the use of a public park.
Love this post! We’ve done a ton of camping with our kids and my main recommendation for a more relaxing trip for parents is to find another family to go with – my kids are at least 75% less likely to complain and/or attempt siblicide when there’s other kids around 🙂 Also for slightly older kids (6+), a basic deck of cards (to play group games like Spoons and Liar) is a camping essential.
A few years ago, we were gifted two of these camping chairs from Trekology: https://trekology.com/collections/out-door-living-camping-furniture/products/yizi-go-plus-compact-portable-camping-chair-with-adjustable-height
They’re compact enough to fit in a backpack or carry-on suitcase, easy to set up, durable, and quite comfortable. The adjustable height legs are useful in that you can adjust the front and back legs independently, which makes finding a comfortable position much easier on sloping ground. The colors offered are not the most beautiful, but the practicality wins out for me – we’ve taken them camping, to music festivals, on international road trips, and to picnics.
Ah this is my husband’s dream. Curious, where did you camp?
We camped at Rollins Pond and 8th Lake campsites in Adirondack Park. Rollins Pond was the real winner. So beautiful!
I love camping, and with just one kid it’s pretty easy for us. Also, every summer for many years now, I join my cousins and some friends (between 4 and 7 women) with all our kids (between 9 and I don’t know, 16 kids?!) for a few days of camping on a group site where we can pitch as many as 12 tents (we find them in national parks in the province of Québec). During these few crazy days, I find it more grueling than glorious for the quiet person that I am, but when it ends, I only keep glorious memories of it.
Also wishing to find light and confortable chairs… but for a pretty heavy person who is afraind of breaking chairs (it happened, and felt humiliating : (
It is definitely difficult to find chairs that accommodate larger people. I’ve checked the weight limits on all of the recs here, because my BFF (third member of our family, practically) needs a much sturdier chair than I do, and I would like some better options for her to hang out in our backyard. Every rec listed so far has a 250lb limit, and the trekology has a 300lb limit, and I don’t think any of those would work for us.
I was looking to see if I could find the camp chair of my friend’s that she keeps stashed in our garage, and I’m not sure exactly which one it is. However, a quick google brought up this camp chair, which has a 600lb capacity. The chair itself weighs 14lbs, so not sure that’s really a light option to pack. https://www.sportsmansguide.com/product/index/guide-gear-oversized-xxl-camp-chair-600-lb-capacity-green-black?a=2195350
The most comfortable chairs (camping or otherwise) are the REI Co-op Camp X chair someone else linked above. Not cute but so comfortable and the armrests make a difference to me so the sleeker Helinox style chairs aren’t as good and aren’t worth the price (to me) for car camping. In my last pregnancy in search of comfy but pretty backyard seating I did find vintage wood+canvas butterfly style chairs that you’d prob like better for natural materials and aesthetics but mine at least are too bulky for camping. In river rafting days when we needed to be really minimal we packed Therm-a-rest sleeves that turn a sleeping pad into a chair. My old knees prefer a real chair now but we fought over these as kids! https://www.amazon.com/Therm-Rest-Trekker-Chair-Tomato/dp/B078NGRBSF/ref=asc_df_B078NGRBSF/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=289607338726&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=15770442513160649087&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9032434&hvtargid=pla-570705687770&th=1&psc=1
What a coincidence – just a few weeks ago I finally sold that very toddler hiking carrier! It went to a nearby family who, just like when I bought it myself, was trying to figure out how to keep being the intentional and outdoorsy parents they want to be, to two very different kids of very different ages and abilities. I was so sad to part with it and so happy to see it go to a good home. It makes me feel good to hear about you being on the “other side” of that same equation!
Bless your soul Mama Bear! There are sure to be fond memories!
Did you really go camping for two weeks?
We really did! Technically 13 days!
What an adventure! We went on our first camping trip with the kids this summer in CA, and it was everything you described. SO much work, but ultimately very worth it. I think the next time will be easier. Here are our favorite camp chairs: https://www.kelty.com/deluxe-lounge-chair/?sku=61510219DPL&gclid=EAIaIQobChMInqyCveSa-QIV6xatBh2rKAtcEAQYASABEgKnmPD_BwE
We’ve used them a ton at the beach, by the campfire, at outdoor school performances, etc. A friend also gifted us the matching loveseat, which I see another reader mentioned above. Highly recommend the set!
The thing that both amuses me and annoys me is that you end up having to pack the same amount of things whether you’re camping for 2 days or 2 weeks… minus the food of course! But I loooove car camping and I’m eating up these chair recommendations because on our most recent trip my husband and I were ready to dispose of our current ones – cheap set I got at REI; the more I camp, the more I understand and appreciate spending money on higher quality items 😉
Ha, this is very true! It makes it so tempting to extend that trip…
Loving all the camp chair recommendations. We are partial to the Snow Peak low beach chairs which are extremely comfortable and beautifully designed.
This camp chair is not lightweight or small. But is the most comfortable chair I’ve ever sat in camping. It looks like the regular kind of chair but it’s really good support. No saggy back. It also seems really sturdy. I’ve had mine for 3 years and it’s still in great condition. https://www.kijaro.com/product-page/dual-lock-chair
Forgive me if someone has already mentioned it, but for folks who are new to camping or those who are thinking about a new gear and want to try it first, REI allows you to rent camping equipment for reasonable prices. They rent various sized tents, sleeping pads and rolls, camp chairs, car camping packages and also bikes and snow gear. We did this when we first started to camp w our girls before committing to buy and also to see what tent configuration worked best for us. It’s a great way to camp if you are low on storage or new to camping.
Childfree and not the camping kind of vacationer – but I just wanted to say that I very much enjoyed reading this post and I loooove the pictures you took! As well as the souvenir post <3 Also: happy to have you back, missed your posts, here and on Instagram!
You’ve gotten so many great suggestions for chairs but I’ll throw another one in! We’ve had the oder version of this REI chair since we went camping (not in a tent; you’re so much braver) along the coast of Maine in 2019. We use it all the time now for soccer games, pond side, at the park and it’s held up beautifully
Thanks, as always, for your beautiful writing.
They are expensive, but having tried many similar chairs over the years, I can confirm that the Helinox One camp chair is the WAY. Loved this post as an avid camper myself (and full of admiration for the ambitious two-week itinerary with three little kiddos!).
Can I ask about the little drawing pad that Faye is using in the top photo? Is that Origami Folder project from a while back? Or something else perhaps not from your blog.
it’s the origami folder with watercolors tucked inside! will try to get around to sharing the how-to!
Hi Erin, We have chairs similar to the Helinox. They are called REI Co-Op Flexlite Camp Boss Chair. We have them in asphalt. They are so comfortable. Also, when closed up, they are about half the length of a regular camping chair.
And, we also own a set of vintage wood slat lawn chairs and matching folding side table (you can find them on Etsy pretty often) that we use when we have space. Honestly, they are less comfortable but very cute.
Great article! One of the best camping chairs I’ve had over the years was Eureka Tagalong Comfort, it was only like 3.5 lbs and pretty compact. Got it from https://gritroutdoors.com/ few years ago, sadly it got lost( I think we forgot it while kayaking at one of the stops). Didn’t had a chance to get new chair yet(since won’t need it during Fall-winter) but a lot of great suggestions in this section, so far looks like REI is most people’s Go-to!
Where did you guys go camping! Looks like a wonderful mix of nature and car camping which can be hard to find.
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