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Camping as a family, especially with more than two or three kids, takes some real planning, forethought, and a few good camping hacks. We have been camping with our family since 2002 when we had six kids seven and under! Over the years I have learned a few things that have helped simplify our family camping.
Large Family Camping Hacks
Create a Packing List as Soon as You Begin Planning Your Trip
Outdoor Union has an amazing camping checklist. You can use the interactive checklist to generate your personalized list, then print it out or you can simply print out their premade list. This will help you with your planning from the very start.
Planning ahead means you won’t be frantically scrambling at the last minute and you are less likely to forget important items.
Pack lightly…but Strategically
Make sure you pack light when camping. You don’t need much more than what you absolutely need. If you’re going to bring along extra items, make sure they’re things you won’t mind losing.
Consider Renting a Trailer
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when planning a large family camping trip. We drive a 15-passenger van which means there is virtually no storage space unless we removed the back seat. In 2015 we were only taking nine kids camping, so we had the luxury of removing the seat, but it still wasn’t enough room. Chuck rented a small Uhaul trailer which we filled with camping gear and eleven bikes. It was small enough that it was easy to pull and large enough to haul our gear.
Organize and Label Everything
A few years ago, Chuck bought these bins with flip-top lids to store our camp kitchen supplies. As we packed, I wrote each item on the outside of the bin. This not only helped us quickly identify what was in the bin, but it has helped with every single camping trip since then. The bins are now prelabeled which means the older kids can pack these with minimal help.
Take Along a Sharpie to Add Any Forgotten Items to Your List
I took a sharpie along and labeled the bins on our trip. As I unpacked and rearranged things I listed everything in the bin along with any items that we wished we had. This way I knew exactly what we needed (the items we remembered and the ones we forgot).
Be Prepared for Emergencies
Make sure you have enough food and water for everyone in your family. You should also pack extra clothes, sunscreen, insect repellent, first aid supplies, and other necessities.
I recommend keeping a first aid kit in your kitchen bin or in your vehicle and making sure everyone knows its location. I like to create my own DIY first aid kits. It includes essentials such as burn cream with lidocaine and our favorite precision sliver pickers.
You can also order pre-made first aid kits and supplement them with items you consider necessary. Make sure your first aid kit includes burn cream with lidocaine.
If you are hiking and camping with pets, you will want to read this post about 10 Common Dog Injuries.
Setting up a Camp Kitchen for Family Camping
5-gallon Igloo Water Cooler We always take this cooler filled with fresh water from home. We each bring our water bottles and this is what we use to drink out of all weekend.
Coleman Gas Stove This is what we use to do any cooking not done over the fire and to heat water for hot chocolate, tea, and coffee.
We take along one large pot and lid for boiling water, one large frying pan with a lid for cooking, a spatula, metal flipper, utensils, paper plates and bowls, water bottles, and cups with lids for early morning coffee and hot chocolate.
We always set up a plastic table to give us extra space for cooking and preparing. We cover both the campsite picnic table and our plastic table with a disposable table cloth that is easy to wipe down.
We use a five-gallon bucket and garbage bags to keep our campsite tidy.
We take two dishpans and soap, a scrubby, and several dishtowels for dishes.
Always hang up a close line. This is great for drying dishtowels, washcloths, and any wet clothing.
Be smart about how you pack your coolers.
Chuck had the brilliant idea to get a bar mat and cut it to fit in the bottom of our coolers. This way as the ice began to melt, we didn’t have food floating around in the water. This worked out so well. Once we were set up in our campsite, he opened the drain on the side, the water drained out as the ice melted and our food stayed cool and dry for days.
Bring Plenty of Water
It’s easy to forget how precious water is when you’re out in nature. Don’t waste any of it by drinking it straight from the tap. Instead, carry plenty of bottled water or better yet, bring a five-gallow cooler of fresh, potable water.
[For more ideas: here is a great post on packing for camping and this is a cool Rolled Camp Kitchen.]
Shop on Location
Unless you are camping in the wilderness, you may be better off shopping at your destination than home. For the past two years, we have driven from northwest Washington (we are only 20 minutes from the Canadian border) all the way to the Oregon Coast. That is a long way to haul meat and loaves of bread. Our campground was only about 10 minutes from Costco and Fred Meyer. Next year we’ll be buying our perishables in Oregon.
Camping Hacks for Making Mealtimes Easier
Plan, plan, plan.
Do I even need to say this? Of course, you need to plan your meals and plan well. This year we have a variety of options for breakfast every morning (granola, yogurt, instant oatmeal, muffins, and fruit). I laid these out each morning and everyone chose what they wanted. Eggs in a bag have been a huge hit in the past.
Lunches consisted of sandwiches, chips, fruits, and veggies. Dinner is where I spent most of my time planning and prepping.
Campfire Cheesesteaks were a huge hit again. This has become a favorite camping tradition.
Other favorite camping meals include fajitas (have everything prepped ahead and just reheat), chili dogs, yogurt parfait, nachos (cooked over the fire in an aluminum pan), and meals wrapped in foil and cooked in the fire.
Here is a simple premade camping menu if you’d rather not have to do any thinking or planning.
Click on my Large Family Camping Meals Pinterest board for more great camping meal ideas.
Purchase Your Tents Strategically
Tents the size of the Taj Mahal seem like a great idea…until you try to set them up and cram your entire family into it. We have found a little space can work wonders for family unity! Chuck, Apollo and I sleep in this Hooligan 4-man tent and we own several of these 3-man tents for the kids. They are inexpensive but do the job well. Also, the best thing we have ever done is to give our children with sensory needs a tent of their own. There is no one to fight with and they get their space at night which helps them keep regulated so much better during the day.
Another important consideration is the climate where you live. We are in the Pacific Northwest and it can get chilly at night in the summer, particularly if we are in the woods or on a mountain. Larger tents are much harder to keep warm. For camping in cooler areas, we have found a few small tents that will keep us warmer at night than one big tent. If you live in a hot climate, you might opt for bigger tents to keep you cool.
Taking an idea from Teen Missions, I inspected tents each day and handed out licorice to anyone with a clean tent. Let me tell you, those tents were darn near perfect! It was well worth the sugar and artificial colors.
Other Camping Gear You Need
Sleeping Pads- Sleeping pads are necessary because even in hot climates the ground tends to be cold and has a way of leaching the warmth right out of your body. Chuck and I both use these TETON Sports Outfitter Camp Pads. We have used them twice on weeklong camping trips as well as for shorter trips.
Sleeping Bags- Because we do so much camping as a family, and our boys do even more with Boy Scouts, we have a huge variety of sleeping bags. I suggest you purchase good quality for the climate you live in.
Hammock- Our teens love sleeping in hammocks while we camp. We have a few different brands including this great HONEST OUTFITTERS hammock set that comes with everything you need to set up your hammock while camping.
Have Fun Together While Camping as a Family
It’s important to make camping fun for your children so they will enjoy it more often. Try playing games together, such as scavenger hunts, hide-and-seek, and tag. If you’re planning an overnight trip, try making a list of things you need to do before you leave home. This will help you stay organized and ensure you don’t forget anything.
These giant bubbles were a huge hit at our church campout. We were attracting every kid under the age of ten…and many older kids (and adults) as well.
For me, a huge part of the appeal of camping is to spend a few days outdoors enjoying nature and the simple things in life. Because of this, I have never been one to pack a huge bucket of toys for a camping trip. I am a firm believer that kids benefit from boredom and free play.
I have, however, found a few simple activities to keep the kids calm and creative during our camping trips.
You can find my giant bubble recipe here.
Playdough (preferably homemade)
A printable Nature Journal will keep your kids occupied for hours.
Plastic Animals- We prefer the Schleich brand. Not only are these realistic and detailed but they are durable. Apollo is still playing with the ones we bought for his only siblings back in 2001!
Other than this, our younger kids occupied themselves by digging in the dirt (we just let them use cups and containers from our camping), collecting leaves, acorns, bugs, and whatever else they can find.
Other Resources for Camping with Kids
My Open Country has a very AMAZING informative post The Comprehensive Guide to Camping with Kids.
Doulas of Bellingham has a great post about camping with babies.
Follow my Large Family Camping Pinterest board for more large family camping hacks.
Nature Sport Central has some amazing resources as well as reviews of campgrounds.
KOA campgrounds can be fun and usually have lots of activities for kids if you are looking for more of a glamping experience.
Overland Meals– Lists for packing your camp kitchen and recipes.
What are your favorite large family camping hacks?
If you have a smallish child or baby, take along a large plastic box to use for bathing or water play, it’s fine and good for big people to skip baths or use the showers but your babies are going to get filthy and it’s hard to wash an infant or toddler in a shower. Bring Ziplock bags, lots of them. They’re great for dirty clothes or keeping things clean and dry, and they’re good to have for all the little souvenirs your kids are going to pick up. Take a couple of plastic tarps, they’re good for covering a leaking roof, a really muddy spot or a wet or dirty table and we often use ours to create a changing spot for swimming by draping it over the clothesline. Don’t forget a clothes line.
Check your campsite rules, and then check them again. Lots of sites close the gates at a certain time and you don’t want one parent to be locked out when they run to the store, and many sites have rules about how many tents you can pitch or how many people are allowed per site. I never really minded renting a second site for our large family but many times I took the kids on my own while my husband worked and it just wasn’t possible to put half the tents on the second site when we only had one adult.
Hello! I was wondering if I could ask you some questions about your long camping trip? We are a family of 7 planning on taking a trip from the Atlanta, GA area all the way to Yellowstone (about 30 hours drive away). The trip will be about 18 days long. I am not nervous about the sleeping part-in tents, I think we will buy cots for everyone to simplify not needing to bring pads or air mattresses…but what I am trying to wrap my brain around is the food part…anyway, if you get this reply and have a chance to email me back I sure would appreciate any advice! Thanks so much! firstname.lastname@example.org
The food part is definitely hard with a large family. I suggest NOT buying everything ahead of time. Have a meal plan (there are some great camping meal ideas in my Pinterest board linked in this post). Buy milk, bread, meat, etc closer to Yellowstone rather than hauling it 30 hours. Have a few premade meals in a cooler, and a few cans of chili or something similar that can be used if you don’t have the time or energy to cook a “real” meal.
first aid kit is a must-have especially when camping with kids!! Very helpful article.
You are totally right!How could I have forgotten that?
Thank you we found many of your tips are the things we do too! I love your uhaul tip, never would have thought of that!!! We have been taking our utility trailer, but this summer we plan on travelling on gravel roads, which will be awfully messy in a utility trailer!!! My husband likes to cook, and pack a million and one “toys” for things to do. I prefer 1 activity (biking or fishing, or???) for the sake of sanity so the gear is my #1 issue. Also, I never thought about keeping warm in a smaller tent at night. We are not a super large family but the way my husband travels, you might as well think we were!! Great tips! Thank!
I am so glad this was helpful to you. I hate hauling “everything” to go camping…to me, that kind of defeats the purpose. My husband, he wants to bring EVERYTHING just in case…
We are planning several small camping trips with our family of 8 this summer. The kids are ages 2-12. What age do your kids like to start sleeping in their own tents?
Avi was 10 when she first slept in her own tent. I was a bit nervous about the idea, but it was the best thing ever.