After I wrote my camping for beginners post, I got some questions that made me realize breaking down what we brought into more detail would be helpful. And, so, this family camping checklist below with all of the camping must-haves you’ll need was born.
But before you run out and spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on camping equipment and other outdoor gear, consider how much you’re going to use it all. I like to operate on a “cost per use” basis — that is, if I spend $100 on something and use it 10 times, it only cost $10 per use. But if I just use it two times, that same thing just cost me $50 per use!
I’m bringing this up because if you’re on the Internet searching for a family camping checklist, that’s probably because you’re new to this. Hey, way to go! Camping is super fun and a great way to get into nature, but it can be an expensive upfront investment if you don’t think things through.
So, before we dive into camping must-haves, here are 5 things to ponder:
- Are you camping at an Ontario Parks site? If so, its Learn to Camp program (at least in non-pandemic times) will provide some of the equipment you need to make your stay comfortable. That means it’s possible that a park or campground near you offers a similar service. It’s something to look into before you spend a cent.
- Do you live near or is your campground near an outfitter that rents equipment? If this is your first or second time camping and you’re not sure it’s going to become a frequent family activity, perhaps investing in things like tents, tarps and camp stoves isn’t the right move for your wallet.
- Do you really need “X”? You know, that thing that you’re positive needs to be packed for your camping trip? We definitely took some things with us that we didn’t use as much as I’d expected or didn’t ultimately fit our needs. Less is definitely more. After all, you’re supposed to be “roughing it” at least a little, right?
- Do expensive outdoor brands really perform better or can you get away with something from a store or “no name” brand? In every experience we had during our camping trip, products from Decathlon performed just as well as the big-name brands we own and cost somewhere between 30 to 80 per cent less.
- Can you borrow anything from the camping must-haves below from a friend or family member?
Camping equipment list: camping must-haves
Packing for camping can be overwhelming, so start with the big stuff when you’re making your camping equipment list. The most important stuff. The “we will be doomed if we don’t bring this” stuff. The camping must-haves:
- Tent — any kind of tent that will fit your family, but also consider those that have coverage so you can keep things like shoes outside but protected from any overnight rain. This is the one category where bigger is better! The more space you have for yourselves and your things, the more comfortable you’ll be overall
- Ground sheet or tarp (with extra pegs)
- Extra tarp with rope in case it rains and you need to cover your cooking/eating area
- Mattress (with an air pump) or a sleeping pad — we had the Comfort Self-inflating Camping Mattress and they worked brilliantly; not only do they take up far less room than those big blow-up air mattresses that you may have taken camping in the ’80s, they zip together to create larger sleeping spaces and that means less shifting around in the night and landing on the cold, hard ground. But don’t be entirely fooled by their name — they don’t self-inflate all the way and you will have to blow your own hot air into them to fully inflate each one
- Sleeping bags — this is one spot where you could blow many hundreds on just one bag, and you really don’t need to unless you’re a hardcore winter camper. In my experience, branded sleeping bags are no better than the ones we tried from Decathlon. We used synthetic “mummy” style sleeping bags that were all less $110 or less and were perfect for summer camping:
Trek 500 hiking sleeping bag 0° ($110) — we had this in the XL size for Big B (who is 6’6″) and it actually fit him really comfortably, which is difficult to do
Trek 500 mummy sleeping bag 5°c ($85) — The K Man used this sleeping bag in a size L and though he found it too warm to be inside all night, he loved it unzipped, using it more like a blanket
Trek 500 10° trekking sleeping bag ($75) — I got this in a size L and slept inside with both zippers open only near the bottom to allow my feet out when I got hot, which was a great feature for this perimenopausal mama
Forclaz 0/5°c sleeping bag for kids ($60) — Miss Q is a tall 10.5 year old and although she filled this bag out from (literally) head to toe, she still slept peacefully in it
- Pillows — we used these $10 portable camping pillows since they take up soooooo much less space than bringing pillows from home, but they’re certainly not the definition of comfort. That said, I seemed to be the only one who noticed. If we go camping again, I’ll be bringing my personal pillow so keep that in mind if you’re also a pillow diva
- Heavy-duty garbage bags — because you’re definitely going to have garbage and the last thing you want is a thin garbage bag breaking on you as you walk it over to your campground’s dumping site
- Fox 40 whistle on a breakaway lanyard — we made our kids travel as a pair at all times if they were out exploring near the campsite or heading to the Comfort Station, but we also sent them with a Fox 40 whistle in case they found themselves in trouble. These things can be heard from a mile away and rarely fail even if they’ve gotten wet
Camping must-haves: outdoor cooking equipment
Although outdoor cooking equipment can be as simple as some metal rods to roast hot dogs over an open fire, you may want a few more kitchen comforts:
- A really good cooler with ice/freezer packs
- Camp stove with the required gas (e.g. propane tank) — we tried the BioLite CampStove Complete Cook Kit and the Coleman Classic Propane Stove and they both have pros and cons, but are each clearly more suited for different camping trips:
- The BioLite stove is best for 1-2 back country campers who are really limited on space and need the ultimate in portability; it comes with a French press coffeemaker, too, which is a sweet bonus (but will take up space in your pack so be sure to use the interior to pack things like coffee grinds, mugs, etc.). The downside is that the grill surface is tiny and you really have to stay on top of refuelling (it required more attention than we could properly give it while multitasking with kids) and it takes forever for water to boil in the French press so you’ll wait a long time for that coffee. It also markets itself as a self-charging charging port, which is technically true because it does self-charge but don’t expect it to recharge your iPhone — I got maybe 12% extra battery life before I zapped every bar
- The Coleman stove is best for car camping, where you’ll simply unpack your vehicle onsite. It’s portable, sure, but it’s still big and if you were canoeing or hiking into your campsite, there’s no chance you’re taking this puppy with you. But it was by far our preferred cooking stove during our trip because the biggest trip it needed to make was from the car to the picnic table. It gets VERY hot and will cook and boil just about as quickly as your gas stovetop at home. You will need a fire source of some kind (like matches or a long lighter) to start it and you do also need to buy/refill a propane tank that hooks up to it
- Pot to boil water — whether you’re making hot chocolates or boiling water to do dishes or drink later on should your site not have potable water available, this is a good thing to add to your camping equipment list. This little pot boiled enough water to make a couple of hot chocolates and the handle never got hot
- A jerry can filled with fresh drinking water
- Oven mitts — silicone is best since you’re probably cooking over either an open fire or a camp stove that has flames shooting out of it
- Lighter or storm-proof matches to light your stove and kindling if making campfires
- Reusable plates, bowls and cutlery — we found the plastic sets from Decathlon (all between $1-3) were everything we needed, plus they can all be strung together with a carabiner and hung to dry from a tree if you like
- Biodegradable dish soap — whether you’ll be doing dishes at your campsite or taking your dishes to a Comfort Station, you need to do dishes. And if you’re already being kind to the environment by packing reusable dishes and cutlery, why not add even more kindness and use biodegradable dish soap?
- Dish cloth or scrubbie
- Dish towel if you don’t bring a drying rack
- Resealable containers for leftovers since you absolutely must not throw food away on your campsite (hello, BEARS!)
- Obviously, food and water is going to make your family camping checklist, too!
- Think through your meal plan (I have a good starter list in my camping for beginners post) and all of the things you’ll need to bring from home to prep, cook or serve it onsite: tin foil, cast iron pan, campfire forks for marshmallows, spatula, cutting board, pizza slicer, tongs, knife, cutting board. Just remember: keep it simple. If you need a knife, pick ONE knife that can do it all
Camping must-haves: a family camping checklist for personal essentials
No family camping checklist would be complete without these things:
- A good first aid kit — we have a waterproof kit from Adventure Medical Kits (found at Bass Pro Mills) and simply re-fill it as the products inside get used
- ID, cash, health cards and benefits/insurance cards
- Bug spray
- Hats with SPF
- Sunglasses — polarized are better if you’re going to spend a lot of time in or on the water (and don’t forget a floating strap for each pair of sunglasses that’ll be worn in the water)
- Rash guards
- Towels — we like the very small microfibre towels that pack into tiny squares but absorb a tonne; here’s another place where we’ve purchased the expensive name-brand version as well as the cheap no-name-from-Amazon version and there’s literally no difference. A bigger price tag doesn’t necessarily mean better
- Toiletries — but only the bare essentials; really strip down what you think you need in this category (facial wipes; a moisturizer-sunscreen combo like the NEOSTRATA Sheer Physical Protection, which is my current fave for a 2-in-1; detangler if you have long, unruly hair)
- Toilet paper if your campsite doesn’t have Comfort Stations
- Plastic bags for toilet paper plus any personal hygiene or menstrual product disposal if your campsite doesn’t have Comfort Stations
- Minimal clothing (one set of PJs is enough and then think and pack in outfits: shirt, shorts, underwear!)
- Merino socks for hiking — seriously, one pair is enough for up to an entire week because of their antimicrobial properties
- Hiking boots or at least running shoes
- Water shoes in case your water access is rocky or weedy (again, el cheapo Amazon ones have been great in our experience all summer)
Taking an overnight or weekend canoe trip? Here’s what to pack for a canoe trip with kids.
Other fun things to bring camping
Bringing kids along for any trip — much less one that can be as free and unstructured as camping — means your family camping checklist has got to include at least a few things that help drive the fun times:
- PFDs, inflatables, beach toys — all of the things that help inject more fun into your camping trip if you have a beach and/or lake onsite (and, if your kids are still quite little or aren’t super-confident swimmers, keeping them safe in and around water should be at the top of your camping must-haves)
- Canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and paddles, plus required safety kits — we have a tandem inflatable paddleboard from Decathlon (the Touring Inflatable Stand-Up Paddle Board x500 Tandem) that packs up into a backpack, which is a thousand times easier to manage than a hard board! If you aren’t into simply playing on the beach or like to be ON the water but not IN the lake, I can’t recommend an SUP enough. It’s a great way to get a little exercise while you’re having fun with your family, and a tandem board means your kids can get on with you. This particular board is so strong that I can take both kids with me or Big B can take one of them. It’s also supposed to be able to hold two adults, too, but we haven’t tested that yet! This is by far the sturdiest, most rigid inflatable SUP I’ve ever tried; it actually feels and performs like a hard board. At $800, the price is excellent considering its size and strength. That said, I can’t manage it all on my own because it’s just too cumbersome and heavy for me since it’s a tandem (I’m sure I could carry a single board), so that means if Big B isn’t travelling with us, it stays at home. It also doesn’t come with paddles or even a manual pump, both of which are a bit of a miss to me and that inevitably means you have to spend more. If you’re a serious paddler, the 900 adjustable and detachable carbon stand-up paddle is ultra-light and comes with an awesome carry case; if you’re just puttering around, the 3-part stand up paddle is only $50 and will be just fine. You’ll also need a pump and, as manual pumps go, the Stand-up paddle double-action high-pressure hand pump does a really good job of pumping up what is a very large inflatable board in relatively quick order; however, we’re still trying to get our hands on the electric SUP pump from Decathlon that’s only $75 but has been out of stock for weeks. *Don’t forget to have a PFD with you as well as any emergency kits required by the body of water you’re paddling; in most cases, it’s just a whistle and tow-rope
- Fishing rod, tackle, bait and license if fishing is permitted
- Bikes and helmets if your site has bike trails
- Hydration packs — we take these everywhere if we’re biking or hiking, so for us, these are — hands-down — camping must-haves! And this is yet another fine example of “inexpensive is OK.” We have high-end, expensive hydration packs from brands like CamelBak and EVOC and also have cheap ones we found on Amazon for the kids that work just as well and have lasted two busy summers, no problemmo
Family camping checklist: conveniences & “nice-to-haves”
Your car camping checklist can be much more robust than one you might make for a canoe- or hike-in camping trip. So here are some nice extras to think about bringing along. These are by no means necessary things for camping, but they will definitely be a nice added touch:
- Umbrella or beach tent — these are especially nice if you have babies or toddlers who will need to nap while you’re at the campsite’s beach
- Sandals or flip flops — that’s right, sandals aren’t essential for camping but they’re nice to have if you can fit them in
- Dishpan and rack — you don’t need to have these to wash and dry dishes but they sure will make the process easier
- Folding chairs — instead of crowding one bench of your picnic table that’s closest to the campfire, consider bringing a folding camp chair for each person
- Plastic/wipeable table cloth — in case the picnic table you end up with has some built-in bird poop
- Hatchet — if your campsite doesn’t sell kindling and wood, you’re going to need a hatchet to create your own (just be sure to follow all site rules about cutting wood for personal use)
- Headlamps and/or lanterns — you definitely need some kind of portable lighting for night-time, so include at least one of these options on your camping must-haves list. We absolutely LOVE our BioLite Alpen Glow Lanterns, which can either sit upright on a picnic table, side table or even the ground or hang from the highest point in a tent. They’re dimmable, can be lit in multiple colours and they can even put on a light show. Best of all, there’s a “candle light” option that mimics the flicker of candle light, which my kids liked having on while they fell asleep. Headlamps are great for night-time Comfort Station visits and we like the ones from Ledlenser
- A multitool — we’ve had our Leatherman Signal for years and have used it for so much more than just camping; it has everything from a screwdriver to flint to serrated knives built into it
- Hammock — definitely a bit of a luxury item and only bother with one if you’re not camping in prime pest season lest you be eaten alive while you try to read or nap
- Rain coats and pants — if you know you’ll pack it in should it start raining, these probably don’t need to make your short list. But if you think you’ll go hiking rain or shine, you sure will be more comfortable if you bring waterproof coats and pants along
- A deck of cards — we don’t play a lot of cards at home but we used these a fair bit while camping
- Devices, charging cords, external batteries — just don’t expect there to be cell service at your site
- Folding wagon to cart everything to and from the beach — yes, it’s a luxury item to bring camping but it sure is helpful
- Tick Kit — I had more questions about this than perhaps anything else when I shared what we’d packed for camping, so here’s the info: I have no idea if the kit works or doesn’t work because, thankfully, we’ve never had an occasion to use it. But I’ve taken it on every hike and bike ride for the last 5-7 years (can’t recall how long I’ve had it)…just in case. This is $18 worth of peace of mind. And that includes shipping in Canada!
- Clothes line — a pack-away, portable camping clothes line is awesome for drying wet bathing suits and towels and we used this $6 one every day of our camping trip
- Tent organizers keep wallet and keys, flashlights, water, headlamps, matches, etc. nearby and easy to find, even in the dark
You’re all set! This family camping checklist goes beyond the basics but that also means you’re more likely to enjoy your first few camping trips as noobs. Stick to the camping must-haves and worry about the nice-to-haves if you have room… because it’s OK to bring those little extras to make the experience more comfortable for everyone. So leave the guilt at home.
DISCLAIMER: Some but not all of the products I’ve mentioned or linked to in this post were provided for consideration and review purposes. In all cases, opinions are my own.