Essential Camping Gear for Small Kids (and What Can Wait 'til They're Older)
(Words and Photos: Michelle Gigger)
Ever since our son was a baby he’s been drawn to the outdoors. He longs for the water, begs for days spent digging in the dirt, sleeping under the stars, and running barefoot in nature. He follows our lead and mostly wants to do what we do – so when it came to camping, we knew he’d love it. After spending the last couple years getting outdoors with our son and testing out a bunch of camping gear for kids. We’ve figured out what gear works, what doesn’t, what he prefers and what we can leave at home or ditch all together.
Below is our short and simple list of must-have camping gear for young children.
Good Quality Day Pack
Make sure your kid’s pack is lightweight, adjustable, and small enough to fit their frame with some room to grow into (our son is five years old and his pack should fit him until he’s seven). Every brand will claim great features, but double check their claims against the actual product specs. The pack our son uses has been in our family for the last 10 years! It’s the one piece of gear that we leave our son completely in charge of. He knows that he’s responsible for carrying it, so when it comes to packing he’s aware of the weight and fills it accordingly. You can usually find books, colored pencils, snacks, and toys in his pack. Even if we aren’t planning on hiking during our camping trip this helps Noah get used to managing his own gear. (This specific pack is no longer available, but a similar one can be found here)
Kid-sized Sleeping Bag
Finding an appropriately sized sleeping bag was a game changer for us. For a while our son used an adult sized sleeping bag, but we found that he would wake up cold in the middle of the night. Now, we use a sleeping bag that extends an additional 12” so that he won’t grow out of it too quickly and will be able to use it for years to come. Plus, we’ve found that when he has gear that feels like his own it makes camping more exciting. Take my word for it: ditch the idea of an adult sized sleeping bag and go for one that fits your kid.
We’ve tried flashlights and headlamps, but the light we keep coming back to is the lantern. The lantern our son uses has multiple settings, is easy to use, easy to carry, big enough they won’t lose it, and best of all (in my opinion) your kids can’t shine it in your eyes like they can with a flashlight or headlamp. Save your vision and get a lantern -- the headlamps and flashlights will work better when the kids are older.
While any water bottle will work, we specifically choose to take along a couple Nalgene bottles when camping. They hold a decent amount of water, are lightweight, and double as a hot water bottle to stick in sleeping bags on cold nights. Plus, your kid can add stickers to their bottle, making it their own.
Sun burns can ruin a camping trip in a hurry! Always pack sunscreen, SPF chapstick, and a comfortable hat. We typically keep these things in the car for spontaneous day trips and are sure to pack them whenever we know we’ll be staying somewhere overnight.
We’re big advocates for leaving devices behind when venturing into the outdoors, especially when overnight camping with children. Keeping your kids entertained outdoors can be as easy as handing them a pair of binoculars, bringing books about animals, bugs, or rocks, joining Junior Ranger programs at national parks, stopping at a location they may be interested in, packing a couple of their favorite toys, or even just sending them on scavenger hunts. Leave the tablets and phones at home and watch their imagination bloom while they adventure outside. (Here are some of our favorite kids books to take camping.)
We don’t always swim, but we always pack swimsuits, just in case. You never know when the urge to jump in the nearby river, lake, or hotspring will strike – or even just a visit to campsite showers. Throw a swimsuit in your bag for those just-in-case moments.
Comfort Animal or Blanket
Lastly, we never leave for a camping trip without making sure our son has his comfort objects that help him feel a little normalcy while in an unfamiliar place. Whether it’s a lovey, blankie, stuffed toy, etc. packing this along can make bed time a more comforting experience.
Camping with kids is like doing anything with kids: chaotic, unpredictable, hilarious and deeply satisfying when you see the look of discovery in their eyes. For parents who want to pass on their love of the outdoors to their kids, that’s the look that puts everything in context. Part of enabling those moments of discovery is just parenting instincts, part of it is having the right gear.
We’ve covered the gear. We’ll leave the instincts to you. ;)
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