Starting Car Camping – Part One: Gear

I’ve been blogging about camping with kids on the west coast of BC (check out the archive here). Lately, I’ve been asked quite a bit about getting started and decided to write a two part series aimed at beginners. Part one, below, details some of the initial gear you’ll need to invest in or borrow to have a great weekend away. Part two (coming soon) will look at the type of food I usually prepare: stuff that pleases the campers, is simple to make, and doesn’t break the bank. I’ll share how I plan for and buy groceries for a weekend away and what food prep I do in advance, as well as what gear you need for storing and toting the food. 

I’d love your feedback if there is other camping related topics you’d like me to share on so get in touch if there’s something you want to read about! 

Recently, the province increased the rates for the provincial campgrounds, anywhere from about $2 to $5 a night. (Grumble grumble: this is the same government who spent more than $350,000 on social media advertising during last fall’s labour dispute that kept my kid home from school for six weeks and I think it is a sad reflection of what the Liberal provincial government really thinks families want./rant)

Despite the campsite fee increases, I think that camping is still one of the cheapest and most affordable family vacations around. I’ve compiled a list of the initial investment items I think a family needs to have in order to have a fun car-camping weekend, and made some notes where you should splurge and where you can be more frugal.


We have graduated to a tent trailer, and you can often find some great Craigslist deals if you know what you’re looking for. (Sidenote: I’ll try and write another post about our experience buying a used tent trailer in the future.) But when you are just starting out, you need somewhere to sleep.  You can rent gear if you are near a MEC, but if you’re selecting a tent to buy, there are a lot of factors to consider: weather or season you’ll use in it, how much you need to put into it (people, gear, etc), how you’re going to carry it, and how many years you want to use it.

Chances are, you’re going camping in the summer, at a fairly well stocked campsite with reasonably level pads, and chances are you have your vehicle to haul it there. As  result, worry less about weight and size. Most modern tents are all fairly simply to put up, so try not to be sucked into a “5 minute easy up” tent for that factor alone because, well, they all are.

It rains a lot in BC, even in the summer, so you want to buy a tent that is rainproof or offers a fly you can easily pop on if it starts to pour. A tent that comes with a ground cover is also nice, but don’t forget a $7 tarp makes a great ground sheet too. Avoid anything that calls itself a “sundome” if you’re camping along the BC Coast – they seem really flimsy when it comes to actual rain and are designed more for a day at the beach.

Small Kale in our (then) new tent, pretty impressed with his set up.
Small Kale in our (then) new tent, pretty impressed with his set up.

In our family, a tall tent was a priority – Ross is a tall guy and I wanted Kale to be able to stand up inside without taking out the entire tent if he forgot he was in a nylon box. We needed enough room for sleeping pads for the whole family, but we didn’t need room to store our packs or cooking stuff because our car was right there. I also resisted buying a tent with many “rooms”. While I know campers that swear by them for keeping their kids asleep at night, I felt like I wanted to be able to take our tent to some smaller campsites and not worry about fit. Also, the more poles and toggles and cords a tent has, the more room for breakage you have.

We chose a really basic Coleman four person tent. The exact model is no longer available, but it is similar to this one – fairly square with a detachable fly, and we paid about $130. Budget between $100-$200 and you can often find really great deals at the end of summer at Canadian Tire.  If you aren’t going for more than a weekend at a time, and you don’t plan to backpack or hike in with your gear, I don’t think a tent needs to be too technical.

Sleeping Stuff:


Bring pillows from home, or bring pillow cases and stuff them with your fleecy clothes. You don’t need a “camp pillow”. Resist the urge to buy a special little one, as you’ll need to store that somewhere at home when you’re not camping, and it’s just more stuff that takes up more room in your car.

Sleeping Pads or Beds:

We both had Therm-A-Rest brand inflatable sleeping pads from our back in our hiking days (about $150-$175 each). We used them for our first car-camping trip, and simply made a bed for Kale with a piece of foam. My hips KILLED me the next day and so for our next trip I picked up an entry level flocked foot-pumped blow-up bed for us (about $40) and passed on a Therm-A-Rest to Kale.

Air mattresses are pretty crazy these days. Many come with battery or car lighter operated pumps (around 7pm at campsites all you hear is the whirring of these little motors) but I caution you to make sure:

  • The bed will fit into your tent (take into account the slope of the tent walls and the height of the bed, too!)
  • The cord of the pump can reach the mattress (outside the car) to pump it up while plugged inside your car. We watched one friend comically struggle with a too short cord, a too big mattress, and a too small hatchback last year.
  • That whatever material it is made out of doesn’t make you totally sweaty at night or that your sleeping bag doesn’t slide right off it
  • That it comes with a patch kit, because yup – those happen

This is an item that only you know how high quality you need to go for a good night’s sleep, but I recommend starting off small and upgrading for subsequent trips rather than feeling you need the fanciest and cushiest option right from the get go.  Watch for deals at the end of summer and online. Be prepared for it to stink when it is new out of the box.

Sleeping Bag / Blankets:

Having both been hikers, Ross and I both owned fairly technical, extremely lightweight, three-season, mummy bags (and Ross actually also owns a super light down summer bag pictured above with Kale in it) so this wasn’t an expense we had when we started out. But, I learned pretty quickly I was a bit wider than in our hiking days, and the first night I wiggled into my sleeping bag I got hilariously wedged in part way. The lesson here? Pick an appropriately sized bag for your shape. Mummy bags are designed for minimal air inside, which helps keep you warm, but there are other shapes such as barrel or rectangular.

It can be really overwhelming looking at sleeping bags and their prices vary wildly. And, truthfully, you might opt not to bother buying a sleeping bag depending upon the place you are sleeping, the pajamas you wear, and the type of weather you’ll camp in. We now simply bring fitted sheets and duvets from home, because it is rarely cold enough that I need to be zipped in all tight.

If you need to buy a bag though, budget between $100-$150 for some entry level, reasonable quality sleeping bags (less for ones for the kids). Here are some things to consider when shopping for family car camping sleeping bags:

  • Summer, Winter, Three Season? When are you going camping? What’s the coldest you expect to sleep in? Will you only ever camp in the desert? Pick a bag rated for the type of camping you are most likely to do. Don’t forget you can always bring along warmer clothes or a fleece blanket if you opt for some late fall camping.
  • Washability: Down bags, and some synthetic ones, require dry cleaning, so if you have a child still occasionally having night time accidents, don’t opt for anything you can’t stuff in your machine when you get home. A bit of dust and dirt is no big deal, and make sure you implement “sleeping bags stay in the tent” rules right away. You can always bring along a easy to wash, smaller, camp blanket for snuggling around the campfire.
  • Fit: Still have a child sharing your bed at night or need room for night nursing? Consider a large bag that will give you enough wiggle room for a “guest”, such as this double size bag.
  • Child Sized Versus Adult Size: while I recommend you don’t buy a bag for the cartoon character on the front since kids change so much and are going to ask for another bag well before they’ve grown out of their bag, do consider a shorter, child-sized bag to keep their feet warm since there is less room for air. If you do opt to buy an adult size bag for your now-small child, remember to stuff the bottom of the bag with fleecy clothes to keep toes warm and congratulate yourself when they’re a teenager still in the same bag.

Camp Kitchen:

If you’re going with friends, and you’ll be sharing meals, coordinate so that you both aren’t bringing a complete kitchen, especially for pricier items like a stove. It’s a space sucker and you invariably will lose at least one thing. I used a Rubbermaid storage tote for most of the camp kitchen, and go on the theory that if it doesn’t fit in there we probably have too much stuff. Now the tent trailer has cupboards so we luxuriously have more space and we’ve amassed enough that I need to do a purge.

We have outfitted almost all of our camp kitchen with cast-offs from our home kitchen and through trips to the thrift shop and probably at a very minimal cost. This year we’ve upgraded on coffee and tea preparation stuff with fancy, all aluminum french presses and insulated teapots.

Each camper needs a plate, bowl, and basic cutlery. Each camper also needs something to drink from, but a container that can manage both hot and cold beverages is best, such as an insulated mug. Avoid the cutesy interlocking or stacking stuff if it isn’t sturdy or doesn’t perform well – I can’t tell you how many times I have snickered while watching a friend struggle to scoop up their food with a fork that bends like rubber but by gosh it stacks really cool with the spoon!

I generally suggest plastic over the enameled metal plates we all associate with cowboys – the enameled stuff cools down super fast and on a cool night a hot meal can be super important.

My friend Kevin getting fancy in the camp kitchen making espresso.
My friend Kevin getting fancy in the camp kitchen making espresso.

I don’t think you need fancy backpacking cookware – most of it is TINY and designed for one or two person meals, and the truth is you have your car to carry it. A few well selected pieces from the thrift shop are all you need:

  • A stove. Don’t count on using the campfire grate or even a fire to cook on. They often ruin your pots and pans, cook unevenly, and we frequently have fire bans.  You can buy camp stoves that use propane, butane, or liquid gas, and the liquid gas is by far the cheapest to operate. A propane model often uses those non-refillable canisters, but you can outfit or retrofit it so that you can bring along a standard refillable propane tank. A good two burner Coleman stove will give you years and years of service, so splurge here, or spend considerable time hunting on Craigslist for a find. Check with your family and friends too! These things often get passed down for generations and are highly fixable. And do not forget a lighter or even two if your stove is not a push start ignitor (and even then, those things break). Small, collapsible stoves designed for hiking are also okay if you know how to use them, but they are less practical for cooking family sized meals.
  • A large, well seasoned cast iron frying pan. This is your go-to for a lot of meals and is worth the weight and expense. Splurge here. This is your camping pan and you can make anything from cornbread to steaks in one of these.
  • A medium size sauce pan with a well-fitting lid, and a larger sauce pan (the size you’d want to boil up pasta) with a lid that, ideally, the medium one fits into. Don’t bother with a tiny sauce pan. We have a kettle but you don’t have to have one to get started – remember you can boil always water and make tea with a pot.
  • A wooden spoon, a flipper, a large serving spoon, and a pair of really good tongs. A can opener and corkscrew are also essentials, and I prefer to splurge on these two rather than get frustrated at camp. You might want oven mitts, or even welder gloves that are good for the fire too.
  • A collapsible strainer is also a good purchase if you intend to eat pastas a lot while camping, and is more reliable than the “lid over the pot” type of strainer. Remember, you’re only bringing so much food so if you accidentally dump out all of your tortellini, you’ll be hungry.
  • Food storage stuff: I bring zipper sealed plastic bags,  aluminum foil, and a couple of plastic containers to store leftovers in. I also bring a serving bowl for chips, because I’m fancy that way, but also because you can put fruit salad or quinoa salad in there.
  • Bring at least one good multi-purpose knife and I totally recommend buying a knife case to transport it in. So many accidental cuts are as a result of cheap and crappy knives – bring something that reduces the risk.
  • Spices: I started out repurposing pill containers and filled them with spices from home. This works great, but moisture is the enemy so try to find pill containers that are air tight. Don’t forget salt and pepper, too. We use very small refillable grinders. I’ll write more about my “pantry” items in the next post about camp food.

Other Items:

Toys: Check out my post about the Camping Toy Box for some ideas on toys you can bring to make things fun. Never forget a frisbee.

Firewood: See if you can find firewood to haul up there if you have the room. It is infinitely cheaper and you have a greater chance of having higher quality wood. If you can’t find any or don’t have room, most of the provincial campsite operators will come around selling bundles. They almost always only take cash.

Clothes / Linens: Bring clothes you are okay getting grubby in. For a weekend, I usually bring two pairs of shorts, a pair of leggings, a pair of warmer pants, two or three t shirts, a sweater, a rain jacket, socks, underwear, and a swimsuit. I usually bring sandals and my hiking boots. We also bring along a clothesline we tie up. We have “camping” towels and tea towels that are specific for camping because they’ve either been stained or bleached at home.

First Aid Kit: a pre-packed kit works just fine, but I’ve built mine from scratch in a specifically sized tote container. I added stuff we use all the time when camping, but always forget like bug spray, sunscreen, small bottles of Advil, good quality tweezers for slivers, and calamine lotion.

Tarp, rope, and an ax: If you have these, they are totally useful. Don’t forget newspaper or dryer lint for firestarter. Don’t worry if you don’t have them the first time you go – you can make do. And, like my knife advice – buy a good, sharp ax and not a dull “accident waiting to happen” one.

Dish pans and water: we bought two tubs for dish washing and rinsing. Being “that guy” hogging the communal tap, washing your dishes in ice cold water, is no fun. And speaking of water, I like the Reliance brand water containers with self-storing spigots, but you can also start off small with their folding aqua jugs which are way cheaper.

While I wouldn't exactly call this an essential, a bubble machine is an awfully fun way to celebrate your child's birthday while camping.
While I wouldn’t exactly call this an essential, a bubble machine is an awfully fun way to celebrate your child’s birthday while camping.


So there you have it! The items above are probably the most essential items that you need to get going as a car-camping family. Let me know in the comments what camping gear is essential for you and if you think I missed anything.

In the next post, I’ll share some food ideas, and let you know how I plan, shop and prep my camp food. Stay tuned!

7 years ago