There’s quite a range out there when it comes to what families consider to be “essential” camping gear for kids, and each end of the spectrum has its pros and cons. I have friends who love to set up a site with all the comforts of home. While this can be impressive, I tend to look for ways to cut back on the amount of stuff we bring with us.
Before we had kids, John and I would throw a tent and sleeping bags in the car and pick up s’mores ingredients and some beers on the way to the campground. We now have to put much more thought into our packing choices, but my priorities are still pretty simple. I aim to keep the kids comfortable, warm, and occupied enough that we can still have some time to relax by the campfire. We leave most of their everyday toys and gadgets at home in favor of items that encourage nature connections and exploration. I want them to be engaged in what their doing, while somehow not distracting them away from the level of boredom that kindles the magic of childhood creativity.
Read on for our kids’ camping gear essentials: campsite toys to bring, what to pack for family day hikes, tips for creating a kid-friendly campsite, and our favorite books to read around the campfire. I also share the camping toys we love but leave home when it’s time for the real deal.
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CAMPING GEAR FOR KIDS: THE BEST TOYS AND GAMES
We are thoughtful about what we bring for the boys to play with when camping. Other than a few favorite stuffies, we leave most everyday favorites at home because, to us, camping should feel different. I focus on toys and activities that enhance their curiosity and encourage the outdoor play that we don’t have room for in our small backyard. Having something different to play with also works wonders when it comes to engagement levels.
Tip: try to keep some “camping only” toys with your camp gear so that breaking them out with each trip is a part of the excitement.
Here are some of our tried and true favorites:
BUG CATCHING TOOLS
Get a closer look at your wild neighbors with these fun creature observation tools. Bugnoculars have built-in magnifying lenses and air holes allowing for a safe release. The Nature Bound Bug Catcher Vacuum is one of the most unique critter observation tools I’ve seen. It came highly recommended by a friend who is trying to be supportive of the interests of her outdoorsy kids, but prefers to catch bugs from a distance!
SCAVENGER HUNT GAMES
These simple scavenger hunt cards are great to bring along anytime your travels bring you outdoors. Mix and match the cards for endless fun around the campsite or to entertain young hikers on a family trek.
NATURE JOURNALS AND ART SUPPLIES
If your kids enjoy drawing at home, give nature journaling a try. This is a wonderful way to build nature connections and have them practice their observational skills. John Muir Laws, a leader in the Nature Journaling field, put together this lay-flat journal with thick pages that can hold pen and light watercolor. It also has some tips and tricks to help you get started. Don’t forget to leave some room for travel-friendly art supplies.
For kids who want to document every observation and adventure, bring along an action camera. This one is waterproof, can attach to helmets and bikes, and has both photo and video settings.
Kids love playing with walkie-talkies. Plus they are helpful for parents to have when older kids want to explore a bit beyond the campsite on their own.
Have you tried playing with a slackline yet? Simply add a couple of trees to this beginner kit and keep the challenge going for days.
ACTIVE FAMILY-FRIENDLY GAMES
BUCKETS, SHOVELS, AND DUMP TRUCKS
CLASSIC BOARD GAMES
A PACK OF CARDS
It’s never a bad idea to bring along a pack of cards or two for a boredom buster. I’m a fan of this Great Outdoors-themed deck. Younger kids, like 5-year-old Bug, love this set of cards with instructions for classic games like Go Fish, Memory, Crazy 8’s, and more.
ICE CREAM BALL MAKER
Part toy, part addition to your camp kitchen, the play and freeze ice cream maker will keep them entertained rolling the ball back and forth for about 30 minutes. And at the end, you have a delicious ice cream snack!
Don’t leave the water toys at home when you’re camping near lakes or rivers on hot summer days. Cool off near your campsite with water blaster pumps or water blaster balls. I love that the balls are as fun as water balloons without the mess left all over your campsite.
If you’re camping near a lake or river, bring along a fishing pole or fishing net for the kids. My boys love to cast theirs into the water, even though they’ve still never come close to catching a fish!
If you’re city-dwellers like us, camping can offer exciting views of the night sky without the light pollution that we’ve become used to. Bring along a telescope for a closer look. Beginner telescopes can be a challenge to use, but still offer fun looks at the night sky and visible planets.
CAMPING GEAR FOR KIDS: MAKING KID-FRIENDLY CAMPSITES
Of course, there’s more to camping gear for kids than toys. The following are our must-have items for making the campsite comfortable for the whole family.
KIDS CAMPING CHAIRS
Our favorite part of camping is sitting around the campfire, eating roasted marshmallows at the end of the day, or sipping hot cocoa (and coffee) in the morning. For our kids, camp is not ready to go until they see the kids camping chairs set up by the fire pit.
MARSHMALLOW ROASTING STICKS
Marshmallows and campfires go hand in hand. I like the clean and extendable design of these Roasting Sticks.
KIDS SLEEPING BAGS AND SLEEPING PADS
Keeping the kids warm and comfortable at night is a top priority for us. Sleeping is always bit of a challenge when you’re camping, but if they are cold … forget it! I’ll never forget our first time camping at Lassen. We all froze and Bug basically slept-walked to the Cinder Cone volcano the next day (and had to be carried for over half the hike).
The REI Kindercone Bag is consistently rated among the best sleeping bags for kids. It has a temperature rating of 25 degrees and has an attached stuff sack so you can cinch down the length to keep them snug and warm at the right height as they grow.
Don’t forget to keep the bottom of your tent warm too. Some people are partial to cots or inflatable mattresses. If you have the room in your car, a tri-folding mattress will do the trick as well.
John and I got a camping hammock as a wedding gift, and we always hope for a campsite with trees that are spaced for it. There’s nothing like relaxing in the hammock for a late afternoon rest or reading after a long day of exploring. These Wise Owl Hammocks are a great option for kids when quiet time is needed. A swinging tree pod tent is also fun and hammock-like, plus it offers the extra adventure of a swinging fort!
A tried and true family camping trick, kids love to wear glow stick bracelets or necklaces at twilight, and parents can keep an easy eye on their kids as they are making friends and exploring the campground nearby.
My boys love flashlights, but they inevitably get put down somewhere and then can’t be found again when we need them. So while our campsite always has lanterns and flashlights in the mix, we also give each of our boys a headlamp. Make sure to get one with red light functionality, or you will be sure to be blinded by your kiddos!
CAMPING GEAR FOR KIDS: HIKING AND ENJOYING THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Our camping trips usually involve at least one good family hike. We bring some gear along to keep them comfortable and engaged along the way.
When the boys carry their packs, they feel more independent and excited about our adventures. Deuter Schmusebar packs got us through two years of forest preschool. They are perfectly sized for young kids, with just enough room to hold snacks and a pair of binoculars. We now need to graduate into the Deuter Junior, designed for kids aged 5 and up!
Sunday Morning hats, another forest school favorite, offer great full coverage sun protection. They also have breathable mesh panels to keep kids cool, wicking bands to keep them comfortable, and they fold up easily to fit in any bag.
Buggy Bands provide added mosquito protection for active families. Wear them on your wrists, ankles, and even in ponytails to keep pesky insects at bay. Made with Geraniol Oil, Lemongrass Oil, and Citronella Oil, they are 100% Natural & Deet-Free.
My boys love to bring binoculars along on our camping and hiking adventures. We have a whole article with our top recommendations and some key things to know when shopping. Our top pick: Living Squad Kids 8×21 High-Resolution Binoculars.
Help them be less GPS dependent with some local maps and an easy-to-use compass.
Shoes are one of those items that I’m a bit of a stickler on when it comes to camping and hiking. When we first started hiking with the boys, we let them wear running shoes. Within no time, they were slipping and sliding all over the trails. After that, I wrote a round-up of some of our favorite hiking shoes for young kids. Which reminds me, it’s time to buy some new Merrells!
CAMPING GEAR FOR KIDS: BOOKS TO READ AROUND THE CAMPFIRE
I fully admit that I’m passing my book addiction on to the boys. We read books before heading to every destination and new ones are usually unwrapped during our journeys as well. Whether at home or on the road, we always have a handful of books nearby.
A series that I always recommend, and have purchased as gifts several times, is On the Nature Trail. Loaded with activities, checklists, and stickers, it’ll have kids looking closely for everything from birds to flowers to worms. Additional editions that focus on Birds, Beaches, Bugs, and Trees. We’ve been collecting them all!
This list has 20 more of our favorites that are great for reading around the campfire.
CAMPING GEAR FOR KIDS: TOYS TO REMIND THEM OF CAMPING FROM HOME
You may have seen some of the cute camping toy sets on the market that didn’t make this list. We aim to bring along toys and activities that extend the kids’ interests in exploring the outdoors and each unique campsite environment. A big part of the fun is getting outside and doing what we can’t do every day.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t love cute stuffed campfires and play grills. We just save them for home and bring them out before and after camping trips when interest is especially high.
Bug just asked for half of the following toys for his latest birthday:
MELISSA & DOUG’S LET”S EXPLORE TOYS
We love Melissa & Doug toys. Their campsite grill, fishing set, and even BBQ set always remind Bug of his favorite things about camping. Let’s just say I get asked what I’d like for a campfire breakfast more times than I can count.
WOOD LOG PILLOWS
I can’t say enough about these wood log pillows from Hyseas. We bring them out to the garden for projects and journaling, and the boys love having them around for playing or reading. The cover is machine washable, so you don’t have to worry about getting these pretend slices of wood dirty.
STUFFED CAMPFIRE SETS
These stuffed campfire sets are a sweet way to help kids re-create a campfire setting at home. Perfect for storytelling or roasting imaginary s’mores, they’ll have your kids counting down to your next campout all year round.
DRESS UP SETS
If your kiddos like chatting with park rangers, they’ll love playing make-believe with this National Geographic Backyard Safari dress-up kit. Sized for the average 6, this will be a great addition to your costume bin and a fun way to store your junior ranger badges.