a peek inside the fishbowl

27 Jun, 2009

What to pack for a family car camping trip (warning: long and listy!)

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Easy ways to make kids happy|parenting|travel talk

Our car camping packing list.

I just just poking around some old camping files and found a photo of Emma that was taken in summer of 2004 at the *exact* moment she realized that I wasn’t actually trying to trick her and that her inflatable arm floaties ACTUALLY KEEP HER AFLOAT.

Imagine her saying: “Look mummy! I’m swimming!”

I love that photo. It’s just one of many excellent camping memories.

We booked our camping spot many months ago. This year we’re going to be staying in a yurt! (Which I’ll be writing about later.) It is a little annoying to have to book your site so far ahead of time (you have to book five months to the day if you want to snag your favourite spot), but it’s also oddly reassuring. It gives us something to look forward to, especially now school is out and everyone is talking about summer plans and looking ahead to the coming weeks.

Camping is a pretty special thing in our family. We’ve been going camping almost every summer (sometimes even twice a year) since Sarah was about two, so I’ve posted about it a lot. As a result I get lots of hits from people who are looking for information about:

“car camping” and “camping with kids”
“outdoor camping”  “family”
“what to pack” + “camping”
“food” +”camping”
and “am I crazy going camping with little kids?” ;)

Clearly there are a lot of questions about camping out there.

I once outlined some tips in an article for SavvyMom (some good stuff in there, go see!) but I thought it might be handy to compile a listy-type post with the nitty gritty details.

First, let’s talk about what you need to pack. You will need to bring …

… everything.

Ha ha. Just kidding. Don’t pack everything. It’s physically impossible to pack up your entire household and drive it to the closest campground. And if you overpack you will feel tired and overwhelmed even before you pull out of the driveway.

This is why I don’t like to go camping for any length of time under two days (or over five for that matter.)

Traditionalists will no doubt pooh-pooh my lists. i.e. why bring roasting forks when I can just pull a branch off a nearby tree? CLOTHES PINS?? Why not just drape wet bathing suits over a bush? etc etc. I can practically HEAR THE EYEBALLS ROLLING.

In provincial campgrounds you’re not allowed to strip branches off trees. What would the forest look like if everyone did that? And I’m perfectly aware that I can make do without BBQ utensils by just using a combination of rocks, sticks, and my bare fingers to turn my burgers over before they get burned, but I do like to make my life easier. This is car camping. It’s allowed. Besides, I wouldn’t take the same things if I was planning to portage.

So here’s my checklist (which I keep as an MS-Word file on my hard drive so I don’t have to do this every year). Feel free to cut and paste and use it as the basis of your own.

Kitchen supplies (we keep all of these things packed in a large lidded container which we just grab and go)

  • sharp cutting knife
  • basic BBQ utensils (spatula and tongs)
  • thin/flexible cutting board
  • cooking pot
  • flat cast-iron pan
  • kettle for boiling water
  • plates/cups/coffee mugs
  • knifes/forks/spoons (don’t bother buying ones made for camping, just buy some second-hand cutlery)
  • roasting forks for hot dogs and marshmallows (we have long ones, but they’re bulky. Retractable ones would be better.)
  • dish towel
  • paper towels (somehow we always manage to go through a whole roll)
  • liquid dish detergent (look for something environmentally-friendly)
  • lightweight plastic dish pan, dish scrubbing sponge
  • small condiment containers (so you don’t have to bring entire jars/bottles)
  • salt and pepper
  • collapsible water jug with handle for carrying
  • plastic tablecloth and table cloth clips (I used to shun the idea of bringing a table cloth but it’s actually pretty handy. And once it’s clipped onto the table it also shelters our chairs from rain in the evenings.)
  • BBQ lighter
  • can opener
  • small scissors
  • French press (for coffee)
  • shortening for frying

Other stuff

  • workgloves
  • tarps (one for under the tent, one for over the tent, a third for covering the wood)
  • nylon rope (to tie up the tarp and to hang our wet towels and clothing)
  • clothespins
  • toilet paper (you never know)
  • cooler, packed with freezer packs and food
  • matches (I recently read that tealights were good for firestarting. I might try that this year.)
  • bugspray
  • sunscreen
  • first aid kit + calamine lotion (oh god, the calamine has saved our skins. DO NOT LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT.)
  • lantern (we have this one, it’s lovely) and wind-up flashlights (perfect for kids)
  • portable Coleman stove (please don’t use a stove which uses disposable fuel canisters)
  • beer (better to bring cans, not glass bottles)
  • tent, sleeping bags, pillows, inflatable mattress (you can thank me later)
  • dustpan

And then there’s the food.

Dry non-perishables are kept in bags and bins, and we use two coolers. One is reserved for food, the other for drinks (which is accessed more often). We freeze some of our food ahead of time to help keep the other stuff cold. So for example, the juice boxes and carton of orange juice are frozen solid as rocks to help keep the hamburger patties and butter from warming up.

We also use reuasble ice packs. When these melt we replace them with bags of ice we buy at the camp store. (Before you go camping you should find out if there is a place to buy food/ice/bugspray nearby.)

I have a menu and shopping list document I pull out every year. Some people go all gourmet when they’re camping  – i.e. roasting peppers on the fire and breaking out the artisan cheeses. This is not exactly our camping style (as you will see).


Our camping menu

Arrival day
Arrival snack – Foil-wrapped English muffins with ham and cheese, with butter smeared on the OUTSIDE of the english muffins which I make ahead of time. Mark toasts them on the Coleman stove. This has saved us from starving on many occasions.
Dinner – Hot dogs/sausages/buns, veggies and dip (bring ketchup, mustard, S&P), green mixed salad
Dessert – Roasted marshmallows/Rice Krispie Squares

Day 1
Breakfast – Bacon, pancakes and syrup, orange juice/coffee
Snack – pita/hummus/cucumber slices
Lunch – Toasted bagels/cream cheese/ham and swiss, potato chips
Dinner – Hamburgers, carrot sticks, cucumber salad
Dessert – Banana boats

Day 2
Breakfast – Mini cereal boxes, orange juice/coffee
Snack – Fruit & yogurt
Lunch – Campfire pizzas
Dinner – ham/pineapple kebabs, green salad

Day 3
Breakfast – cereal/toast, orange juice/coffee
Snack – fruit & granola
Lunch – hot dogs
Snack – melon
Dinner – linguine with pesto, garlic bread

Day 4
Breakfast – Toast and Jam/PB
Snacks – Fruit/cookies
Lunch – individual chicken noodle cup soups and toast
Dinner – whatever’s left!

Day 5
– whatever’s left!

Re: clothing
I’m not going to make a list of clothing, but I will say that (a) it pays to be prepared for all weather (b) you need to accept that sand and dirt will be a major part of your life for the duration of your stay. Footwear is important. Comfortable shoes are a must for hiking/exploring/scampering around the campsite.

We don’t bring any toys with us. When the girls were very small (between 2 and 6) we brought a few things to keep them busy in the car but otherwise we made a point of bringing very few toys with us to our camping site. We always bring buckets and shovels, one year we brought marbles, we always bring UNO and a stack of books in case of rain, but that’s pretty much it! Everything else stays at home. Camping isn’t about toys, it’s about rock and bug collecting, swimming, picking berries, catching fireflies, and building sand castles with moats. There is more than enough for children to do at a campsite.

Anyway, I bet I’ve forgotten something. I will add to the list if I think of it.

If you have any questions now is the time to ask!

Camping has been a wonderful part of our summers, one we look forward to every year. It’s funny how it gets easier and more fun every year.

I would love to hear about your camping experiences. Is it something you enjoy, or shy away from?

29 Responses to "What to pack for a family car camping trip (warning: long and listy!)"

1 | porter

June 27th, 2009 at 9:54 am


we haven’t camped with the girls yet…we will, they want to and we want to except we haven’t got any of the basic camping items like tents, sleeping bags etc. any suggestions what we should do?

also, you didn’t mention any toiletries…we are cottagers. we are accustomed to a fully equipped bathroom, toilet, running water, sink, shower or bath…what about camping? obviously i wouldn’t expect to take a bubble bath but…

how do you do your dishes?

the other question i have is about your ham and pineapple kebobs…they are awesome (i’ve made them before) but when i make them in advance, the acid in the pineapple ‘cooks’ the ham and it becomes very mushy. does this happen to you?

have a great trip…hope the weather is nice.

2 | ian

June 27th, 2009 at 12:51 pm


one word – gravol.
helps for the longer trips where someone inevitably doesn’t ‘feel good’ in the car…

love those miniboxes of cereal – you’d swear they were made for campers.

3 | andrea

June 27th, 2009 at 1:01 pm


Good questions Porter!
re: tents
Go big, but not too big. Ignore the official ratings that are given to each tent from the tent manufacturers. So if there’s four of you, go for a six-person tent. You won’t regret it. You need room for suitcases etc. (DON’T keep food in your tent. EVER!)
You don’t want to go *too* big with the tent.. If it happens to be cool at night the larger tents don’t warm up. (Body heat is an amazing thing!)

re: sleeping bags. Look at the temperature rating. Don’t go for the gold -15C ones if you’re only going to be camping in the summer. Make sure they pack small and are easy to roll up. (Ours are killer. It takes Mark 15 minutes to roll up ONE sleeping bag. It’s nearly impossible.
re: toiletries.
Check if your campground has a comfort station with showers. Bring flip flops, small bottles of shampoo etc. We don’t shower much because of all the swimming we do. ;)
Each campground should will also probably have outhouses scattered around the campsite.
This is also a good time to teach your kids how to pee in the woods (a lifelong skill if you ask me!)
We do our dishes in a plastic wash basin. I keep clean water in there with a bit of suds for handwashing. When it’s time to do the dishes we scrape the food bits into the fire before adding them into the “sink.” I boil water and pour it over the dishes and then do them by hand. I keep a bit of rinse water in a portable water container nearby, propped up on a small stool.
re: the ham and pineapple kebabs.
I dice the ham ahead of time but don’t skewer them with the pineapple (and brush with the marinade) until we’re just about to make them.

4 | Scattered Mom

June 27th, 2009 at 1:41 pm


Can I go camping with you? Seriously? :P

As a child, I camped a lot and I loved it. As an adult, I admit I don’t enjoy it nearly as much because it’s just so much work!

Hubs and I prefer to hotel it and do the extended road trip thing instead, which is in some ways, kinda similar. As we’ve done it more, the easier it’s become.

We also don’t do much in the way of toys or technology. There’s always stuff to do outside!

5 | Lala

June 27th, 2009 at 4:03 pm


where do they rent yurts?

6 | Bob

June 27th, 2009 at 4:31 pm


I have a small portable wood burning camp stove that I use when the grandchildren say over.

We all wrap up warm and sit around the fire cooking good things to eat.

They take it in turns to light the Fire-Spout the idea is they must light it with only one match

It’s great fun

7 | mrsgryphon

June 27th, 2009 at 5:09 pm


With a tiny newborn, I don’t think we’re going to be adventurous enough to go tent-camping this summer… I’m sad about it, though. It won’t really feel like a ‘real’ summer without it. Good thing Alberta lets us have campfires in our backyard, so at least we can get that smoky smell and eat some marshmallows!

I do have to say that I miss Ontario’s provincial parks and the great lakes… the Rockies are gorgeous, but there’s nothing like waking up in your tent to the heat of an Ontario summer day and wandering down to the beach.

8 | andrea

June 27th, 2009 at 7:46 pm


Lala: A list of Yurts at Ontario Parks.

9 | Alison in Ottawa

June 28th, 2009 at 8:02 am


I tolerate camping because my husband loves to go and the kids have fun. Now that I no longer use a thermarest but a blow-up air matress, I am slightly more enthused. However, last year we started canoeing to the campsite (45-90 min paddling from parking lot) so we have to be more careful about what we bring… and as the kids get bigger there will be less and less room in the canoe! Maybe we will have to buy something else to help with transportation.

10 | meghan

June 28th, 2009 at 8:34 pm


Alison-we are in the same boat! I am considering a kayak for our ten year old. Leaves more room for the rest of the family and all our stuff. Canoe camping is pretty amazing. I have seen other families add on an extra boat or two. Makes sense for canoe camping.

I have stayed in a yurt and do like the convenience-only thing is the price-starts to seem like a hotel bill after too many nights.

11 | susan

June 29th, 2009 at 4:49 am


Great list! We just got back from a camping weekend, which was planned rather hastily, and decided we needed a list for our next outings later in the summer. You’ve done most of the work for us! Thanks!

12 | andrea

June 29th, 2009 at 9:14 am


I would love to try canoe camping some day. Problem is a lot of our gear is not suitable. We’d have to re-purchase smaller and lighter gear for transporting i.e. smaller sleeping bags, tent, smaller stove etc.

To those of you who canoe camp, do you own your own canoe or do you rent?

Meghan: renting a yurt is on the pricey side for sure. It’s much cheaper to tent! But we wanted to try it at least once. :)

13 | meghan

June 29th, 2009 at 6:17 pm


We bought a canoe last summer. Great purchase! There are tons of spots around Ottawa perfect for day tripping. This summer we are checking out the crown land spots in Quebec for weekend overnights. Canoe camping is definetly not about having the rights stuff-more about making due with what you have.

Thankfully there is no need to book 6 months in advance and it’s FREE. I am still upset about spending a week last summer at a spot that was booked in the dead of winter only to be beside an outhouse. YUCK. I wish the Ontario park system was better and cheaper.

14 | Alison from Ottawa

June 29th, 2009 at 8:03 pm


Before we had kids my husband spent a summer building us a cedar strip. He had talked about building a kayak too, but now that we have kids (4 and 6), he would rather spend time with them so I think buying a kayak would be perfect for when we need more room.

15 | Carla

June 29th, 2009 at 9:53 pm


We went car camping at the beginning of June with a 3y old and a 11 month old. We planned for 3 nights but stayed 2 because it was raining constantly on the last day we were there. Apart from that, the girls had a fabulous time. Our youngest took her first steps there, the oldest hiked for about 3.5km of the 5.5km hike we did (yeah and I carried her for the other 2 km, ouch!), and looking for pinecones and jumping around was entertainment enough. I thought it would be crazy, but actually it was great fun, and less work than being at home. There was still all the child wrangling to be done yes. But, no phone, computer or decisions about what to do (options: play outside or play outside, or… read books in tent), or even about what to eat as I had packed everything in portions ready to just prepare and it.

We did a lot of camping BK (before kids), and are mostly all equipped (canoe was a wedding present! though we skipped it this time – how to canoe with a 3yo and 11mo??), though we did borrow sleeping bags and mats for the kids. We did mostly canoe camping so our equipment is smaller and lightweight, which makes it easier for fitting the bags of food and cloth diapers into the car (yes, we cloth diaper when camping, not extra work, just same old).

As for packing. We always take a swiss army knife, which stays in my pocket for random needs; for dinner the first night I brought something already cooked this time (stew and bread), so we don’t have to stress about it as we get settled; we put a tarp under the tent as the tent has a fly, and the tarp under helps keeps moisture coming up from the ground; we brought a potty to not have to take kids to toilet every time; for breakfast we usually have granola, or oatmeal or pancakes (I bring mix made and measured in a baggie). We also love doing corn and potatoes wrapped in foil in the campfire for the days when you are hanging about the fire for a while, as they take time this way. As for dishes, I recommend CampSuds (can buy at MEC in Ottawa), totally biodegradable and a little goes a long way. We also bring a bag of rags to wipe up stuff. Ah, and a trusty 5GL container with spout that functions as our ‘tap’. For cups we took our travelmugs, keeps tea nice and hot for a while, camping cups aren’t great for keeping things warm.

I’m hoping to go camping with the family another couple times this summer, it is a great vacation and you don’t need a long long time to disconnect and really relax.

16 | Tali

June 30th, 2009 at 11:48 am


For canoe camping, for the first time, I recommend Lac La Peche in the gatineau. You can rent a canoe there, and there’s firewood at the sites. The canoeing is easy, and there are no portages. If you want to save room, you can leave the stove at home. We bought one for the first time last year, and personally I prefer just making a fire.

17 | Woodsy

June 30th, 2009 at 1:41 pm


Ah camping….truly the all-time best family activity. We used to do lots of canoe-camping before our girls were born. Algonquin (heaven) Park mostly. At least one long (12 day) trip per summer which was absolutely fantastic. All the busy complexity of life is stripped away when it all has to fit in one big portage bag. The mind and soul are free to ponder the big life questions – as you propel yourself to the next site. Warm days, great swims, big appetites, cool nights, big starry skies, quiet daybreaks, the elements, long silent pauses and conversations you’ll never forget.

After kids (AK), we got more into car camping and even one canoe-camping trip. Two years ago, we bought some land and built a cottage which is somewhat rustic (no electricity, outhouse, no running water). I like to think of it as really comfy camping. ;-) You did a great job on the detailed list. It’s the best I’ve ever seen. The only thing I’d add would be a hammock (we use a MEC parachute hammock) which is a blast – especially with kids. And I would drop the candle lantern for car camping and instead add a few LED flashlights. I would also add a new solar lamp that IKEA released this year ($25). It’s what we use at our no-hydro cottage and it would be fantastic for car camping because 1) it recharges by day and 2) it has a stable base and long flexible neck which make it perfect for reading with kids in the tent – and anywhere for that matter.

I find the best car camping mattresses are thermarest-like mattresses we got at Costco (about $50). Self-inflating like the Thermarest but half the price and much much thicker/comfier. Better than the inflatable kind that always seem to have a slow leak.

About fireflies. They are truly magic but don’t forget to keep an eye out for them. We all fell asleep one night in the tent – around 8:30 (zonked) and I woke up at around 10:30 and just happened to notice one just outside the tent. My daughter woke up and saw it at the exact same moment. We opened the tent fly and watched them (lots!) in the bushes a few yards away. We were both fascinated.

We use a kevlar canoe purchased (used) 15 years ago. It’s now at the cottage and gets regular use. We’ll do one canoe-camping trip from the cottage this summer. Our first real canoe-camping with the girls (age 4 and 7). Can’t wait. If you want to borrow our smaller canoe-tripping gear, let me know. Seriously.

18 | Amy @ Muddy Boots

June 30th, 2009 at 2:15 pm


What camp sites do you recommend? This is our first full summer here and we didn’t get out last year, so I’m not even sure where to start looking. Although by the sounds of it, we may be out of luck if sites book up that quickly.

We have a 6 year old, 2 1/2 year old and a 6 month old… all boys. We’d love to go someplace where we’d be steps away from some water to swim in. And throw rocks in. Little boys never tire of throwing rocks.

19 | SC

June 30th, 2009 at 8:14 pm


Loved your menus…. (and your lists too!) Your girls are very lucky to have such an organized Mom …. planning ahead to make their camping experiences that much more memorable.

I hope you have a great trip this year!

20 | andrea

June 30th, 2009 at 8:34 pm


Amy, you should look into Charleston lake. It’s the one place we’ve been to the most often. It’s in the 1000 Islands area … not too far and very kid-friendly AND there are many many cool rocks, great for collecting or tossing into the lake.:)

21 | andrea

June 30th, 2009 at 8:41 pm


Now I know this old blog post doesn’t – um – make Charleston Lake seem very fun, but it does describe one of our trips pretty well :)


22 | Shan

July 1st, 2009 at 8:53 pm


Great list! It reminds me of when my Mom would get us ready to go camping in the summer.

23 | Becky

November 16th, 2009 at 9:45 pm


There are other things we include on our list but I think the most important one is the list itself. If you have it with you, you can add to it when you realize what you’ve forgotten!

24 | Raquel

August 26th, 2010 at 1:17 pm


You are right Becky the list is the most important thing of all. With your list, you can’t go wrong. It took me much time in preparing my own list and detail by detail because I don’t want to miss something. By the way, you have a great list. Enjoy camping!

25 | Suzy

September 6th, 2010 at 9:43 am


Well prepared list is very important before packing. This is to make sure that everything important is included. I learned a lot from this blog and I will definitely apply some tips on my next trip. Thanks for sharing!

26 | Tripquipment

September 16th, 2010 at 11:46 am


Another can’t live without item for WOMEN / GIRLS when camping… It’s a Female Urination Device (FUD), which comes in either pink or camouflage/ khaki brown stored in a re-usable tube. It is so easy to use; you’re going to wonder why someone didn’t think of this earlier. I don’t want to be a Man but have always envied their ability to pee almost anywhere without having to expose their entire lower half. I have seen similar products and they don’t even compare and some are even selling for DOUBLE the price. When traveling I’ve seen too many icky, dirty toilets, sometimes with no seat, to crouch over while I get legs cramp or even worse. I hate squatting when I’m outside doing activities like camping, hiking, skiing or whatever and there are no washrooms around or even worse when there and they are NASTY! But no more… because life’s greatest adventure shouldn’t be finding a bathroom says GoGirl, and I agree!
This handy little GoGirl beauty is made from flexible medical grade silicone and is rinseable and reusable… therefore it is considered a ‘Green’ product as well. This handy little FUD will be going to be with me everywhere I go especially on vacation to far away places… cause when you gotta go you might as well use a GOGIRL.

27 | alana

May 17th, 2011 at 7:28 pm


Hey there, your list is pretty good. Each time I am sure that you think of something else.
I wanted to give you a pointer…the tarps you mentioned…the one that you are putting under your tent would be so much better in your tent, under your airmattress. When it’s under the tent water can puddle in between your tent floor and the tarp, but if it’s inside, it just keeps the water out!!! Enjoy several more years of camping :)

28 | Denise from Toronto

July 26th, 2011 at 12:17 pm


God Bless You! My husband just told me he has booked 3 nights in Bon Echo. I have only camped out at the Marriot. I hate planning and was dreading the trip because of all the “figuring out” I was just about to do. Like planning meals – I hadn’t even got that far yet and it surprised me – Like – Oh! Yeah – I guess that’s going to be my job as well. Dang. Well, thank you for the list (I love lists!) You have made my day.

29 | Packing for a camping trip (and a little help from Ford!) >> a peek inside the fishbowl

September 4th, 2013 at 4:30 pm


[…] part of camping prep extremely stressful, even though I have been doing it for years and work with lists that I’ve developed over the past decade. It sounds ridiculous, but I am afraid of forgetting […]

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (23) and Sarah (21). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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