How to pack light for a family camping trip

Mother and toddler walking to campsite

If you have a toddler then you’ll know that even a quick trip to the shops can entail carrying snacks, a drink, a spare change of clothes, nappies, wipes and so much more. So where on earth do you start when it comes to camping? We only have a small car so with two toddlers, we’ve had to get packing light down to a fine art. Here’s what we’ve learned!

Let’s start with what you don’t need!

8 things NOT to pack when camping with toddlers

1. Excessive amounts of bedding

If you invest in decent sleeping bags for your toddlers and for your family, you won’t need to worry about bringing lots of spare duvets and blankets with you. If you’re new to camping and deciding if you like it or not, then it’s obviously not a good idea to spend hundreds of pounds of fancy sleeping bags if you’re never going to go again. But if you’ve had a few successful trips and are ready to take the plunge, a decent sleeping bag will save lots of room on packing extra layers to keep warm at night.

If your toddler isn’t old enough to sleep in a proper sleeping bag then instead of taking a toddler duvet with you, just use a regular baby sleeping bag with a high tog rating of 3.5. Not only will you save room, but you’ll also save money on buying a new sleeping bag just for camping.

Another tip is to pack for the seasons – if you’re camping in summer then ditch the bulky four-season sleeping bag for a comfy two-season sleeping bag which will take up much less space.

Inflatable pillows are another great way to save valuable space.

retro yellow car with excessive camping luggage on top

2. A cool box and lots of food

Even small cool boxes take up a tonne of room, so if you’re short on space, leave yours at home and buy fresh every day instead. Unless you’re going wild camping, you should be able to get food for daily meals from the local camp shop, farm or even a nearby supermarket if you’re not roughing it too much.

Staying on a farm is a great way to get fresh produce at a really great price – eggs, tomatoes, asparagus, and strawberries are often farm camping staples that can make a delicious meal.

If you need your home comforts when it comes to food, and you’re not staying too far away from civilization, then pop on over to a local supermarket every couple of days and buy just what you need. This is a great way to save on food waste too.

3. Bulky towels for the whole family

Towels take up a huge amount of room, especially if you’re a fan of luxurious cotton bath sheets! Although microfibre towels are a popular alternative, we prefer not to use those because they’re made of plastic and can shed micro plastics in the water system when you wash them.

A great alternative, that folds up almost as small as microfibre towels, are bamboo towels. These lightweight, absorbent, quick drying and bath sheet sized towels can fold up as small as a paperback book. They’re available in pretty colours so can double up as a sarong if you want to save further space on packing!

We also save space on towels by just packing one for the kids (unless you have a big family!). We keep washing to a minimum when camping so one hand towel (for trips to the river or washing up) and a couple of larger towels for showers is all we need for a few days away.

4. Anything that doesn’t fold down

Times have changed since I first went on family camping trips in the early 1990s when we seemed to pack the majority of our kitchen (including the sink, well, the washing up bowl at least) in the back of our tiny car.

Now, most essential camping items have a foldable version that will take up a fraction of the room. Buying foldable items is an investment, as many of these are stand-ins for items you may already have at home, but if you’re keen to go camping regularly, then the below will help reduce stress and space when you’re packing up your car.

  • Camping tables – a must-have for food preparation and eating on a family camping trip. Long gone are the days of plastic foldable camping tables. Now you can buy easy, to clean, durable and lightweight camping tables that fold up to about the length of an adult’s forearm. The Trekology camping table is available in three different sizes and comes with it’s own carry bag.
  • Cups – you’ll probably want to bring your toddler’s usual covered cups with you to avoid spillages, but for the adults, cups that fold down to fit in your palm are a clever way to save space.
  • Torch and lantern – light in an evening helps toddlers feel secure but torches and lanterns can be bulky to pack. Now you can buy foldable lanterns, that double-up as torches when folded, for as little as £7. Word of warning though, your kids will no doubt want to play with these and fold them and unfold them. Show them how they work and let them get this out of their system before you go camping so you can avoid a light show in your tent at bedtime!
  • Washing up bowl – a foldable washing up bowl can double up as a wash basin. Perhaps not one of the most essential foldable items as you can store kitchen items in your regular washing up bowl, but foldable versions are useful if you have the budget.
  • Kettle – no sensible parent would go camping without packing a kettle. Whether it’s for hot chocolate for the kids in an evening or for a strong coffee at the break of dawn, a camping kettle is an essential piece of kit. But metal kettles take up a lot of room and you can’t store anything in them to make the most of the hollow space. Foldable kettles are a genius way to ensure you can always get a hot drink. They cost around £30-£40 so are expensive, but well worth it due to the room they save when compared to a regular kettle.
  • Water carrier – a water dispenser with a tap at the bottom is one of the most useful items you can take camping. It can be used for toddlers to have a wash, when cooking, drinking and for carrying fresh water to your tent. Rigid water carriers obviously take up a lot of room, so it’s well worth buying a foldable water carrier to have all the benefits of ‘running water’ by your tent but none of the bulk.

5. Too many clothes

The first time we went camping we took a suitcase full of clothes with us, for just one night! Toddlers get through lots of outfit changes and they’re bound to get covered in mud and dirt when camping, and that’s part of the fun. To avoid the suitcase situation, take the bare minimum amount of clothes your kids needs and wash them on-site if the facilities are available.

The basic wardrobe your toddler will need for a three-night camping trip in average summer weather (early 20s) is:

  • two vests
  • one long-sleeve t-shirt
  • two short sleeve t-shirts
  • two pairs of shorts (or skirts/dresses)
  • one pair of long trousers
  • one pair of long PJs
  • one pair of short PJs (we regularly mix and match PJs and day wear when camping. But make sure you always have one clean and dry pair of PJs!)
  • a swimming costume (even if you’re not camping near water these are useful for cooling down, having a dip in a paddling pool or washing your toddler outdoors)
  • one hoodie or jumper
  • one raincoat
  • wellies, trainers or walking sandals, and crocs-sale sip on shoes

That’s it!

The exception to the above list is if you know it’s going to be rainy and muddy. Kids attract mud at the best of times but if you’re staying on a water-logged campsite, your kids are going to be covered within minutes. The best way to combat mud is to kit your kids out in waterproof all-in-ones and wellies.

6. Bulky and expensive electronics

OK, so a tablet is handy if you want five minutes of peace from the kids while you prepare food, but is it worth the worry of having your tablet stood on or covered in mud? Electronics are handy but going camping with a DVD player, tablet or laptop is going to make for a stressful trip. Plus your kids will be outside all day, having adventures and burning energy so (hopefully) in the evening they’ll be happy to have a rest.

We take both our phones so in an emergency situation (such as if one of the kids wakes up at 4 am and won’t go back to sleep) they can watch their favorite programs. Both the kids have a kids’ personal stereo and headphones which we let them pack in their own backpack if they choose to but these are pretty sturdy.

7. Excessive amounts of toys, games, and books

Before we go on any camping trip (or any trip) we give their kids their backpacks and let them pack only the toys, books and games that will fit in each backpack. This has the double advantage that they don’t then try to take their entire toy cupboard with them and they have lots of toys to hand to play with in the car and when we first get to the campsite.

lots of toys spread all over the sand on a camp site

Although the kids get the ultimate say on what they pack, we try to encourage them to pack toys that are light and don’t have lots of different parts that might get lost.

Ideas include:

  • coloring books, notebooks with plain paper and crayons
  • cars and trucks
  • dolls, Barbies, and Disney Princess dolls are Joni’s favorite (just take off things like shoes and earrings before you pack them so they don’t get lost)
  • a ball
  • stacking cups as these are great for collecting things in, hiding things under, or for using in water play

8. Most toiletries

Our kids love having a bath but absolutely hate showers, as not many campsites have baths, this means a few days without a proper clean. And that’s OK! We just take a couple of flannels and some baby wash and give them a wash down every evening. They don’t mind not having their hair washed for a few days.

If we go away for longer, we make them have a hair wash in the shower, it’s not pretty but at least they have a good clean. The only other toddler toiletries we take is Evan’s eczema cream and anti-histamine for his allergies and toothbrushes and toothpaste.

Tent and camping shoes

5 tips for packing even less when family camping

Now you know what to not pack, here are five more tips to try for a minimalist family camping trip with toddlers.

1. Camp near home

If you’re camping near where you live, you’ll feel more secure about leaving ‘essentials’ at home. It also means you can just ‘pack and go’ on a Friday after work and make the most of a weekend in the countryside. Camping near home is a great way to practice whittling your packing list down to the bare essentials. It also means if you have a bad night and the kids won’t settle or if it pours down with rain, you can just go home!

2. Camp at a well-stocked campsite

We stayed at one campsite that had toilet roll and toiletries in the shower block, a little farm shop, and a little covered area with things people had left that were free to use. This included camping chairs (and a kids’ chair), a camping table, some food, a kids’ scooter, and a camp stove! We’ve also camped in sites that have firewood and fire pits. Call the campsite before you set off or check the website to see what amenities and extras they have so you can leave as much as possible at home.

3. Go camping for just one night

A one-night camping trip means you can leave on a whim and just pack what you need for 24 hours away from home. Even the most demanding toddlers are not going to miss their home comforts and toys for one night away!

4. Do the one-bag challenge

If your toddlers are struggling to choose what to take with them, give them a backpack and tell them they can only take what will fit in it. This will soon help them make decisions about what to take with them. Adults can do this too, if you’re inclined to pack more extras than you need then only take what can fit into a small backpack to help you pack lighter.

5. Borrow a smaller tent

If you’re used to the luxury of a six-man tent for two adults and two kids, could you handle a four-man tent? A tent is probably the bulkiest item you’ll pack when camping, so if you can cope in a smaller one it might be worth downsizing to save valuable room in your car. The bonus is that smaller tents are lighter and usually easier to put up than large family tents.

So there you go, with just a few changes you can easily reduce the amount of stuff you need to pack when you go camping with toddlers. And if you don’t want to leave something at home, look for a smaller or foldable option.

Remember, minimalist family camping means you can get away more easily without worrying about taking half the contents of your house with you!

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