Trip planning and packing: Car Camping

Trip planning and packing: Car Camping

Confession, camping isn’t my favorite thing to do, but with beautiful California weather and two kids who love being outdoors, i've learned to embrace it. Here's how we prepare, survive and enjoy it, mostly.

At the bottom of this post is a full list of gear that we have stashed in a corner of our garage. It's packed and ready to go during camping season. It includes two 70 quart sized rubbermaid boxes that are already filled with all the essentials we’ll need for a couple days outdoors. At the beginning of the season, I open each box up to check that everything is still in there and replace anything that’s missing.

Find a campsite

Here are my go to's to finding a campsite. Some campsites require reservations months in advance but sometimes you can snag campsites last minute. Also, many state and national parks have walk in sites that require no reservations but book up early the day of arrival (like 11am). (california only)

Setting up

When we arrive at a our campsite, the first thing that we do is put up our Coleman instant tent. We love the ease of this tent!! It takes two people to set up but takes only about 5-10 minutes. Find a flat spot with no big rocks or tree roots sticking up to set up. Once, the tent is up I go in and make sure to remove any debris leftover from the last camping trip (leaves, twigs) from the inside of the tent. We unload the car and pump up our air mattresses.  We use a pump that has a car adaptor, this way we don't have to rely on battery operated and it's a bit more powerful. We put the mattresses in the tent and lay the sleeping bag over them. I put our "camp box" in one corner of the tent for easy access to lanterns, first aid kit, towels, etc. Each person packs a backpack with their clothing and toiletries and is placed at the side of their bed. I set up one laundry bag near the camp box for dirty laundry collection. This way it doesn't get mixed up with any clean stuff and we just throw the bag into the laundry as soon as we get home. 

Our "kitchen box" and camp stove will go into the food locker or on the table where we  eat meals. If there is no food locker, they will go in the trunk of our SUV overnight to avoid any critters getting into any of it. The cooler will go next to the table and also be put away overnight. I'll usually bring a picnic blanket or pack a disposable table cloth to put over the table.


We pack a Coleman camp stove that has a grill on one side and one burner on the other. Best camp purchase ever, because it's so useful but also compact and easy to pack. Dinner ideas include pre marinated steaks, burgers and hotdogs with chips and grilled veggie sides. Smores for dessert with fancy chocolate or my personal favorite, Justins peanut butter cups. For lunches I pack cubed or shredded rotisserie chicken in a Tupperware and a bag or two of salad for easy throw together. For the kids I'll pack coldcuts, carrots, apples, berries, crackers, cheese sticks and yogurt tubes.  Breakfast is our favorite thing to cook while camping. The night before we leave home, I will mix all of the dry ingredients for pancakes in a tupperware jug. In the morning at camp I'll mix in milk, an egg and some melted butter (heated on the camp stove and skillet) then shake it all up and pour back into the skillet to cook them up. We also like to scramble up eggs with any leftover veggies we have from dinner and some seasonings for a quick veggie scramble or throw the scramble into a flour tortilla for breakfast burritos. We never forget our ground coffee and we pack a pint of creamer in our cooler and our Chemex. Instant hot chocolate for the kids. 


What to do

 If we have room, we will pack the kids bikes or scooters so they can ride around the campground. We pick up a map of the camp ground at the visitor center or when entering the park and choose a trail to explore each day. You can pass the afternoons reading, playing cards, singing songs and telling stories around the fire in the evenings. Check out your dollar store or target dollar section for any outdoor activities for kids. Chalk, bubbles, ball games. If our campground has a pool, lake or ocean we pack our suits and spend the afternoons in the water when it's warm. We will also venture out by car if we are near beaches, wineries, or cute towns. We try to enjoy most of our time together unplugged, only using phones to capture photos to share later.


The gear

This is our list of camp gear we have slowly collected over the last three years. When we first started camping, we were not as prepared and I learned over time what our perfect set up was. Most items from the kitchen box are dollar store or target/walmart. Our tent and sleeping bags are from Costco. All other items are from Amazon. Campsites are relatively inexpensive compared to hotels and airbnbs so the initial investment was worth it for us to get out and explore more with our kids. I know not everyone can just go out and buy all these items, so I encourage you to find what you really need and what works for you and your family. At first you can ask friends to borrow big items like tent, sleeping bags and camp stove. Also, scope out garage sales, second hand shops and craigslist for good deals. I have definitely found great additions to our gear this way. 


  • 1 instant tent (8+ people because tents are always smaller than they actually advertise for and I like room to walk around)

  • Two twin air mattress

  • One queen air mattress

  • air mattress pump with car adapter

  • 4 cold weather sleeping bags

  • 4 pillows (regular ones off our beds)

Kitchen Box:

  • Mini Skillet

  • 4 enamel mugs/2 coffee thermos

  • Stainless steel cutlery for 4 (forks,spoons, steak knives)

  • Paper plates

  • Paper towels

  • Metal Spatula

  • Big fork

  • Big Spoon

  • Metal tongs

  • Metal whisk

  • Metal Measuring cup

  • Wine/bottle opener

  • Roasting sticks

  • Foil

  • Plastic bags (4 sandwich/4 gallon size and 4 garbage bags)

  • Salt, pepper, olive oil, other spices

  • Small bowl for mixing

  • Coffee filters

  • Ground Coffee

  • Small camp kettle

  • Chemex

  • Metal grill brush

Camp box:

  • Lanterns

  • Citraonella Candles

  • Firestarter cubes

  • Matches/lighter

  • Extra batteries

  • First aid kit

  • Bug spray

  • Sunscreen

  • Playing cards

  • Welcome mat for outside (No shoes in the tent!)

  • Tablecloth/picnic blanket

  • Propane for stove (2 cans)


  • Camp Stove

  • Cooler (with ice and food)

  • 2+ gallons of water depending on length of the trip


*All photos are from our last camping trip at one of our favorite campgrounds, Hendy Woods in Philo, CA. 

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