When I want time away from screens and busy schedules, I bring my kiddos car camping. My two little ones are 4 and 6 years old, but we’ve braved the great outdoors since the newborn phase; it’s an opportunity to bond over board games, debate the best way to roast a s’more and unwind without technology.
With the right packing list, outdoor stays can be the perfect recharge for the entire family (here are some tips for camping with kids). Below, you’ll find gear for kid-friendly overnights, from snuggle-ready sleeping bags to giggle-inducing games approved by my own little campers.
At camp, our two hammocks go up first. If your littles are like mine, they can use these slings to enjoy imaginary play as the grown-ups pitch tents. These hammocks from ENO become swaying pirate ships (or sometimes a race car), entertaining them for hours. At night, I’ve used them to rock babies to sleep. The breathable fabric dries fast, so it’s a smooth transition bringing these into the tent even after a shower. (Just make sure to wipe off the day’s dirt first.) With its easy setup, generous dimensions and comfort, the DoubleNest is also an REI Co-op Editors’ Choice Award winner. Pro tip: I highly recommend hanging one hammock above the other for the ultimate hammock bunk bed setup. $84.95
For your budding artist or just for weatherproof doodling on a rainy camp day, these outdoor journals from Rite in the Rain offer both a creative outlet and outdoor education opportunities. We love using these to draw what we see, make lists of critters we encounter and enjoy rounds of tic-tac-toe while cozied up in the tent. Use a pen or pencil without worrying about lead or ink bleeding on the page. A yellow cover makes this notebook easy to spot if your mini camper misplaces it on the trail. $10.95
As soon as the sun dips below the horizon, we inflate these MPOWERD Luci inflatable solar lanterns. Then, we have a dance party. These lanterns offer unbelievable entertainment and excitement—we use them to make shadow puppets on tent walls and to illuminate board games. Plus, these rechargeable lights are small and light enough (1-inch thick when collapsed; 4.4 ounces) that kids can carry their own. The high-efficiency solar panel is clutch because my kids routinely burn through batteries by forgetting to turn off their gadgets. Added perk: Attach the lantern strap on those tiny wrists to turn midnight trips to the campsite bathroom into a bona fide rave—no matter the hour. $29.95
Camping near a water source is more than just a fun opportunity to teach water-treatment skills (we love our Platypus GravityWorks filter). For us, water proximity is a campsite prerequisite. Splashing in the stream or going for an adult-supervised swim is childhood glory—and keeping those little feet covered is crucial. My kids also love to intertwine bark, twigs and leaves to make slipshod sailboats. They race them down streams, across ponds and even through murky puddles. The KEEN toe bumpers keep their piggies safe from pondside brush and jagged river rocks, and the secure fit and structure make hikes down to the water safer. When you return home, just pop these kicks in the washer for a quick clean. They’ll be ready for school on Monday. $59.95
The only screen time I allow on our camping trips is the Plant.id app. My kids use it to learn a thing or two about the flora in the places we explore. They love taking turns scanning each plant (even weeds) to identify them: The app has entries on more than 12,000 plant taxa, including trees and flowers. Sometimes we take turns guessing the plant’s name based on its physical features. Our favorite flower name so far: dotted blazing star (Liatris punctata). The app saves each plant search, so you can even review your campsite finds again at home. $30 annually
We like to get creative over the camp stove and try out fun recipes we’re too busy to take on at home (this cookbook is one of our favorites for meal inspiration.) We also love morning pancakes. This stove from Camp Chef provides the even heat and stability needed to make cooking them a breeze. Wilderness-shaped pancakes are always a hit for my kids. Our favorites: the evergreen tree, the cloud and the bear face. Throw in foraged berries for a little sweetness. Thanks to a three-sided windscreen, we can use the Camp Chef stove even on blustery days. $190
Although you may think “double sleeping bag” is code for wilderness romance, we actually use the double for co-sleeping. The Jazz 30 from NEMO provides enough snuggle space for a grown-up and one to two little kids. The quilted layer, built-in bedsheet and featherbed-style bottom offer that at-home familiarity, while the zipper pulls on each side help us customize our sleep temps. My clammy toddler can vent while my bigger kid insulates. I volunteer as the cuddler between the two, and my partner gets a great night of sleep in his own Big Agnes Torchlight 20 Sleeping Bag (Long). $349.95
For the older or independent child, having their own sleeping bag is crucial. The REI Co-op Kindercone 25 comes in vibrant colors, and the kids stay toasty all night thanks to the bag’s polyester shell and synthetic insulation. (That means well-rested, happy campers for me in the morning). My daughter’s little face doesn’t peep out of her bright coral bag until well after I’ve downed a cup or two of coffee in peace. $69.95
Our tent serves as a playground, a fort and, occasionally, a battlefield, so it’s important that our tent is spacious. The Wawona 8 by The North Face delivers. We (adults) can stand comfortably inside its dome and even fit a of couple chairs in the generous vestibule. It offers plenty of room for my husband, two kids and me. The ample space also adds to the imaginative possibilities. For instance, my daughter performs her full dance routine in our headlamp spotlights. We’ve even pulled off a few rounds of duck, duck, goose. Should the weather turn, you can anchor the tent with the external guylines (included) and use the vestibule for stripping muddy layers or drying gear. $699
Young ones like my daughter often fear the dark, but this headlamp from Black Diamond has removed that problem in our years of camping. I’d argue the darkness of her own bedroom is the bigger problem—maybe we should start using the headlamp at home too. Once night falls at our campsite, my daughter reads her latest fairytale storybook with the blue headlamp positioned in the center of her small forehead. Eventually, her eyelids drift closed and the book falls limp on her chest. If your little one drifts off reading like mine does, don’t worry—the headlamp powers off after two hours to avoid accidental battery drain. $29.95
The grand finale of a day outside: gooey, chocolaty s’mores and the age-old debate of whether charred, black marshmallows are better than soft, golden ones. These forks extend 42 inches, so your littles can roast their ’mallows while maintaining a good distance from the fire. A knob on the handle allows them to rotate the fork for even roasting (or charring). Also, pack toothbrushes. Gooey marshmallows late at night on summer camping trips can equal cavities. $17
Once it’s dark, it’s time to settle in for story time. The campfire lights flicker on chubby, chocolate-coated cheeks. We take turns drawing cards from the Mountaineers Books Campfire Stories Deck to inspire our wild, creative tales. Kids can select from different types of cards and prompts to create their stories. A “shy moose” card paired with the “goes fishing but catches something else” card puts my 4-year-old in a fit of laughter. The “naughty opossum” creature card is a crowd favorite (and cautionary tale) because this bad boy doesn’t pack The Ten Essentials, and he leaves litter at his campsite. Best thing about this game: no spooky-story nightmares. These cards keep our evenings fun and light. $14.95