Car Camping Essentials for Families

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Summer is the perfect time of year for camping. Especially now, when other forms of travel may be restricted, camping is an easy way to get your travel fix. But if you’re new to camping, putting together your car camping essentials may seem intimidating. There is just so much gear to buy! 

Which gear is essential and which gear is a nice to have? What brands do you choose? How do you even know what you need? These types of questions can keep would-be campers from trying out this type of travel. And the cost of all the gear may make families say “no” to camping altogether.

Fortunately, car camping doesn’t have to be that intimidating, even for folks who’ve never camped before. The biggest step is getting together your list of gear. And then all you have to do is find a nice campground and go from there!


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mountain and lake
North Cascades National Park (May 2018)

Getting together your car camping essentials

Putting together your car camping essentials can take time. Especially if you want to avoid having to make a big investment all at once. My husband and I spent years putting together our camping supplies.  And then we got rid of most of our camping supplies when we started traveling for our family gap year!

Now that we’re back in the United States again, we’ve replenished our car camping essentials with new gear. And this time, we’re being a lot more mindful about the camping supplies we buy. We’re focusing on items that are easy to pack up and that don’t take up a lot of space.

Whatever you decide to get for your camping supplies, make sure to take some time to read the descriptions and reviews, to make sure they are a right fit for your family. 

Camping in Nevada (June 2020)

Tips to minimize costs on your car camping essentials

One of the many complaints we hear about camping is that the gear is just so expensive. Even if you’re only buying the essentials, all that gear can really add up!

Fortunately, there are a few ways you can minimize the cost of your car camping essentials. Here are the ones we’ve used in the past.

Hiking at Mount Rainier National Park (May 2017)

Buy used

Who says that you have to buy your camping essentials brand new? Buying used (or inheriting hand-me-downs from friends or family) is perfectly fine. This is especially helpful if you’re trying to put together your first set of camping supplies. 

Goodwill is a great place to find cookware, camping chairs, coolers, and other camping supplies. If you’re planning on buying a used sleeping bag, make sure you wash it well before taking it out camping. And if you’re buying a used tent, make sure it’s still in waterproof condition, with no holes.

Filling up water during a camping trip (July 2016)

Borrow if you can

If you have friends who enjoy camping, see if they’re willing to lend out some of their gear to you for a weekend. This is a great way for you to figure out what you’d like to add to your own car camping essentials list.

Remember, if you’re borrowing gear, return it in the same condition as when you bought it. Take care of the gear that you’re borrowing. And replace any gear that you break.

Borrowing binoculars for bird watching (May 2018)

Rent your car camping essentials 

If you’re not ready to fully commit to investing money into your car camping essentials, you can opt to rent the gear. This lets you see if camping is really a fit for you and your family.

Outdoor companies like REI offer rental gear for camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities. For car camping kits, the rental fee is $114 for the first night and $27 for each additional night for REI Members, and $171 for the first night and $40 for each additional night for non-members. 

This kit includes a 4-person tent, 2 sleeping bags, 2 sleeping pads, 2 camp pillows, a camp table and 2 chairs, 2 headlamps, a lantern, a camp stove, a cook set, and a cooler. REI also offers a la carte equipment rentals. So for a family of four, you may end up paying between $200-$400 to rent equipment.   

Renting a car for a camping trip (July 2016)

Spread your purchases out

A more common method for minimizing costs of car camping essentials is simply to spread out your purchases over a period of time. This is what my husband and I mainly did. 

Rather than buying everything all at once, we spread the purchases over the course of a year. We started with our must-haves, and then added more gear to our supplies over time. Eventually we ended up with a pretty good camping set!

Our camping supplies all packed up (July 2020)

Our family’s car camping essentials – the must haves

When it comes to must-haves for our car camping essentials, the focus is on having a good shelter to serve as a safe and secure place to sleep at night. This part of the list includes a tent, sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows.

Expect to spend between $300-$600 on the must-haves. This is especially true if you’re buying these camping supplies brand new. You want to get items that are good quality and will last for awhile.

Ready for a night’s rest (July 2020)

Tent

For a family, look for a tent that is durable and has enough room for you and your kids. Our current tent has a screen room in the front where we can store our shoes, but it’s not necessary if you’re just starting out. The most important thing is to make sure your tent is waterproof.

Tents can range from as little as $50 for cheap tents, to as much as several thousand dollars for fancy tents. For a decent quality tent, expect to pay between $100-$200. We had a Coleman tent in the past, but our current tent is a Pacific Pass. 

A tent, one of the most important car camping essentials
Our new tent (July 2020)

Sleeping bags

A good quality sleeping bag is worth the investment. You won’t necessarily need one that can withstand sub-zero temperatures. But you do want a sleeping bag that will keep you warm during those cold mornings. We have two double sleeping bags that can zip into four single sleeping bags. They pack up into their own carrying case, so it’s easy to throw these into a larger duffel bag when packing up for a camping trip. 

Sleeping bags can range from $20-$90 for singles, and $45-$240 for double. For a family of four, expect to pay between $110-$200 for these car camping essentials.

Warm sleeping bags car camping essentials
Double sleeping bags for camping (July 2020)

Blankets

Blankets are nice to have to keep you warm in the evening. In the past, we used to bring along some old blankets for car camping. But this time around, we decided to invest in blankets that are more specifically designed for camping. 

We like our camping blankets because they have a fleece side and a waterproof side, so they can be used as a picnic blanket as well. They are deceptively warm, because using it with the fleece side in helps to trap in the heat. And these blankets pack up into their own bag.

Camping blankets range from $20-$50. We bought two of these blankets for our family, but you may want to buy more. For a family of four, you can expect to pay between $50-$100 for the camping blankets.

Camping blanket (July 2020)

Pillows

Like the blankets, we used to just take along old throw pillows with us when we went car camping. While these pillows definitely were cheap, they also surprisingly took up a lot of space in our car. This year, as we were putting together our car camping essentials, we deliberately chose to buy camping pillows that can fold up and pack away small. 

Our camping pillows are made from compressible foam, so they won’t lose their shape with repeated folding. They’re compact, and come in their own portable bags. Other types of camping pillows are inflatable. The cost of either the compressible or inflatable pillows range from $12-$30. For a family of four, expect to pay between $60-$100.  

Pillows for camping (July 2020)

Our family’s car camping essentials – the extras

Besides the basic car camping essentials, you may want to fill your supply list with some extras. These gear will help make your camping experience much more comfortable. In some cases, they can also make camping more convenient and easy for you.

While many of these extras are fairly inexpensive, adding them up can get quite pricey. Expect to spend between $250-$500 for these car camping essentials extras.

Packing up our stuff during a camping trip (July 2020)

Tarps for your car camping essentials

A tarp can serve as an extra barrier between the ground and the bottom of your tent. Tiny rocks and pebbles can compromise the integrity of your tent, and make the base of your tent less waterproof. Setting a tarp down on the ground before setting down your tent can help smooth out the surface that your tent rests on. 

Tarps can also serve as an extra rain cover if you find yourself camping in the rain. And if you’re camping with a truck, you can use the tarp as a cover to keep all your gear in the truck bed. Tarps cost between $10-$15 and can be picked up at any sporting goods store.

A useful tarp for camping (July 2020)

Sleeping pads

If you’re not used to sleeping on the hard ground, a sleeping pad is a godsend. You can choose from either foam sleeping pads or inflatable ones. We’ve found that the inflatable sleeping pads pack up much smaller than the foam ones. 

We have the ThermaRest self-inflatable sleeping pad, but we also have some lesser known brands that work well too. Good quality sleeping pads range from $35-75 dollars. So for a family of four, expect to pay between $140-$300 for sleeping pads. You may want to check out REI when they have their outdoor sales, as you’ll probably be able to score some sleeping pads for half price!     

Sleeping pads car camping essentials
Sleeping pads of various brands (July 2020)

Head lamps

When it gets dark, your phone light can be sufficient to light your immediate surroundings. But it’s not really a convenient option. We like using headlamps when we camp, because we can either use it on our head, or set it down somewhere to provide light. 

Headlamps are fairly inexpensive, ranging from $10-$15. For a family of four, you can expect to spend around $40-$60 for headlamps for each member of your family.

Headlamps car camping essentials
Headlamps for camping (July 2020)

Tubular bandanas or masks

When camping in the outdoors, having tubular bandanas can actually be quite helpful to have. They can help keep the smoke out of your face when your stoking your campfire. We like the bandanas from Hoo-Rag. They’re priced at around $16, and you can get kid-sized bandanas from their website for $13 each. For a family of four, these bandanas will cost $58. 

Using my tubular bandana for hiking (June 2020)

Hatchet or ax

If you’re going to be building a fire during your camping trip, then you’re going to need a hatchet or an ax. Hatchets and axes are helpful for cutting firewood into smaller pieces. This makes it easier for you to build a fire. 

You don’t need a fancy hatchet or ax, but you do want one that is sturdy. I prefer smaller ones, like this 12 inch camping ax, because they won’t take up too much space in my car. Make sure the hatchet or ax has a cover to protect the blade during storage. Hatchets and axes run between $30-$50.   

Camping ax for chopping firewood (July 2020)

Rubber mallet

For setting up your tent, having a rubber mallet to hammer down your tent pegs is extremely helpful. We like this rubber mallet from Coleman because it has a hook that you can use to pull out your tent pegs. You can find rubber mallets at any hardware store. They cost between $6-12.

Rubber mallet for hammering tent pegs (July 2020)

Our family’s car camping essentials – kitchen supplies

One of my favorite parts about camping is cooking in the outdoors. We like roasting hotdogs over an open fire, or cooking simple meals on our camping stove. But a common mistake that novice campers make is expecting that they can cook the same type of meals that they do at home. 

My biggest piece of advice in terms of food is to KEEP IT SIMPLE. While we may have this romantic aspiration of creating a rustic three-course meal worthy of being featured on Food and Wine magazine, the reality of cooking while camping is that things are going to take MUCH longer to make! Your best bet is to plan meals that are simple and require minimal preparation.

Examples of meals we make when we camp are hotdogs and salad. We also will make spaghetti, or grill some steaks over the fire. And your camping supplies, much like your menu, should be simple too. Aim to just bring the bare minimum. And look for kits that are both functional and compact. For kitchen supplies, expect to spend between $275-$475.

Roasting hot dogs over a fire (July 2016)

Cooler or cooler bag

If you’re planning a multi-day camping trip, a cooler is useful to have. We like the Coleman coolers because they’re durable yet lightweight. They do tend to be bulky, so make sure you create some space for them in your car. Good quality coolers will cost between $20-$45.

Coleman camping cooler (July 2020)

Water jug

Unless you intend to buy disposable plastic water jugs, I suggest bringing along a 1-gallon water jug. You can fill it up with drinkable water at home before you set off on your camping trip. These insulated water jugs cost between $15-$20.

Water jug with filtered water, car camping essentials
Water jug with filtered water (July 2020)

Water filter and purifier

At your campsite, you may not always have potable water available. Having a water filter and purifier on hand can be quite helpful in this case. We’ve traveled all around the world with our GRAYL bottles, and we can’t stop singing its praises! We have the 16 oz bottle, which costs $70 (including the filter), but for a family, a 24 oz bottle may be more convenient. These cost $90 with the filter.

Water purifier and filters for car camping essentials
GRAYL water filter and purifiers (July 2018)

A complete mess kit

We used to have a big plastic bin that contained a hodge-podge of our camping cooking supplies. Recently, we bought a 6-person mess kit and it takes up a fraction of the room that our cooking bin used to take! Look for mess kits that at least have a few pots and a pan for cooking, as well as a kettle. Expect to pay between $60-$100 for a mess kit that includes pots, pans, dishes, cups, and silverware.  

A compact mess kit car camping essentials for a family of four
A compact mess kit for camping (July 2020)

Other cooking car camping essentials

As with our cooking pots, pans, and dishes, we used to lug around huge bulky kitchen utensils when we camped. This time around, we bought a small cooking utensil kit that includes a small cutting board, a knife, tongs, scissors, and a spatula. These pack up into a small bag that I can just throw into one of my camping duffel bags.  Kitchen kits like the one we have can range between $30-$50. 

Kitchen utensils for car camping essentials
Our camping kitchen utensil (July 2020)

Camping stove

We used to only cook over the campfire when we camped, but in recent years, we’ve started bringing along a camping stove. Having a camping stove is convenient to have if there are fire bans. And they also free up the fire so that you can just use it to warm up or roast marshmallows. We like our Coleman camping stove, which uses propane to power it up. 

Camping stoves range from $50-$100, and propane canisters will cost around $10-$20 each. I suggest bringing along a few canisters on your camping trip. So for a family, expect to spend around $70-$140 for your camping stove and propane.

A Coleman camping cook stove, car camping essentials
A camping stove for cooking meals (July 2020)

Marshmallow sticks

For our family, the best part of camping is making s’mores. We like roasting marshmallows over the campfire and smashing it between pieces of chocolate and graham crackers! Having a marshmallow roasting stick that can extend pretty far is nice to have. Ours are collapsible, and come in a carrying case. Marshmallow roasting sticks are fairly inexpensive, and can range between $13-$20 for a set.

Marshmallow roasting stick car camping essentials
Our marshmallow roasting sticks (July 2020)

Getting your car camping essentials ready for summer camping and beyond!

Putting your car camping essentials together may not be cheap. Adding up all the must-haves, the extras, and the kitchen supplies can cost between $800-$1500, depending on what you end up buying. At a minimum, if you only buy the cheapest must-haves, you’ll be spending around $300.

But rather than think of it as a one time cost, think about it as a multi-year investment. Over the course of five years, even if you only go camping four times a year, a $1500 cost breaks down to $75 per camping trip.

Camping is one of our favorite family activities to do in the summertime. And we’re so glad that we’re back in the United States and able to enjoy this activity again. While we may not yet be ready for the hard-core back country camping excursions, we can still have some fun doing car camping as a family.

Do you like to go car camping? What are the car camping essentials that you like to take with you? Share them in the comments below!

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I'm a travel-loving mom of three from Seattle. Join our adventures as we explore the Pacific Northwest and the world!

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