Family Camping Gear, Some Essentials

*Today we are re-posting one of our favorite posts from Kevin, the Sierra Trading Post Gear Doctor. We dug this post out of the archives to share some helpful tips on Family Camping Gear.*

Now that summer is upon us again, I have been talking with some customers new to family camping. Since most of their questions were about what kind of gear they needed, I thought I would write about the essential gear you need to get started with family camping.

Family Camping Tents

family camping tents

Ideally, a tent for family camping should perform a few functions. It should keep the rain and bugs out and provide some privacy for your family from adjoining campsites. There are few things to consider when you are shopping for a family tent. First size matters. The occupancy rating given by tent manufactures is on the generous side and should be taken with a grain of salt. A three-person tent will hold two comfortably; a six person tent is good for four. This means shop for a tent that is rated for one or two more people than are going to stay in the tent. Other considerations are that it must have a good rain fly and bathtub type floor both with taped seams to keep the rain out. Other features that are good to have are two doors and a vestibule area to store gear. Last, you should look for a tent that is reasonably easy to set up.

Sleeping Bags and Pads

Car Camping gear

Since most of us who are planning to family camp don't intend to camp in sub-zero conditions, you can save yourself a lot of expense by sticking to sleeping bags that are not rated for sub-zero conditions. Also if your plans are to do most of your trips car camping you can save more by going with synthetic fill bags. Synthetic fill bags also have the added advantage of still retaining their insulating properties if they happen to get wet. Similarly, rectangular bags will do just as well as the mummy variety and for summer car camping expeditions they're probably the more comfortable alternative in that they allow you to move around more freely. (And Mom and Dad should note that they're much less awkward than mummies when zipped together.) My experience has taught me ... don't skimp on your pad or mattress. The wrong or right pad/mattress will make the difference between a comfortable night's sleep and a miserable night with no sleep. An air mattress will give you the most support and keep your weary body off the cold hard ground. You may want to add a foam pad for additional insulation. Foam pads are a choice if space is an issue or you would like to rough if a bit more. Cots are another option however you would still want some kind of pad to help insulate and provide a softer surface to sleep on.

Camp Furniture

camp chair

Even if your campsite has a picnic table you may want to consider a couple of camping chairs. Having nothing but a hard bench to sit on can get tiresome. You can find a variety of lightweight folding camp chairs that are almost as comfortable as your favorite seat at home. An extra table can come in handy for an extra surface for meal preparation. The added advantage of having some camping furniture is you have for those sites that may not have a picnic table.

Camp Stoves

Camping Stove

There are some who prefer to cook on charcoal grill or a fire pit which can be found at most campgrounds which is OK, but it takes time to get coals hot enough to cook efficiently on. A two- or three-burner liquid fuel or propane camp stove is an efficient and convenient way to cook camp meals. Anything smaller and you'll be serving the last of breakfast about the time the family's ready for lunch. Propane stoves are generally the easiest to operate and you won't risk spilling fuel, but the typical white gas pump stoves burn efficiently.


Flashlights and headlamps are fine for finding your way on the path back to camp, but if you're planning on staying up past sundown, you'll need a good camp lantern. If you're using a white gas stove or propane, pick up a lantern that uses the same fuel and make sure you pack extra mantles. Electric lanterns tend to be heavier, less bright and can run through a lot of batteries. Their advantage is that you can take them into your tent. (Fuel-burning lanterns should never be used inside due to fumes and risk of falling over and starting a fire.)


Unless you are planning on using only prepared dried back packing meals or canned food, a good cooler or two is an essential for the family camping experience. A good cooler can also double as table or extra seat. (Tip: Pack the cooler with food that can be frozen for the trip to your camp site and get ice for the cooler at a location as close as possible where you are camping.)

Cooking Utensils

family camping cookware

You can use the pots and pans from your kitchen, however my experience is camp cooking can be hard on nice cookware from home. I recommend investing in some camp cookware. There are a lot of durable options from cast iron to light weight backpacking cookware. Your cookware should include, at a minimum, a frying pan, two pots and cooking utensils. I also suggest a tub or bucket that can be used as a camp sink for cleanup.

Now these are the basic gear essentials that would get you started in the world of Family Car Camping. There is still a lot gear out there one could use to make your family camping adventures even more comfortable and successful. You can learn more about family camping gear in our Family Camping Guide.

What about you? Got any special pieces of equipment you're sure to include in your Family Camping kit? Tell us about it in the comments.

-The Gear Doctor
Andy Hawbaker
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Andy Hawbaker
Andy is a hiker, backpacker, snowboarder and outdoor fanatic. When he isn't exploring the Rocky Mountains, burning marshmallows or scratching his dog behind the ear, he shares his experiences here on the Sierra Trading Post Blog.
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