Summer isn’t over yet. There’s still time to get the kid out camping before the back-to-school hustle. My wife and I did just that, taking our 3-year-old and 9-month-old to New York’s Adirondacks for a week of sleeping in tents and roasting S’mores over an open fire. For longtime backpackers like my wife and I, car camping with little ones underfoot is, well, different. But our trip was a huge success—even when bed times were stretched, and nap time was completely ignored. Much of that was due to proper planning, and a few key gear items that made our week in the woods fun, safe, and pre-school-level adventurous.
1. Springbar Highline 6
The heart of every campsite is the tent. We needed room for two adults, our son, baby girl, and a golden retriever. This six-person 10×10 tent from Springbar provided space in spades. The setup is lightning fast. Stake the tent down, (you’ll need to bring a hammer for this), then slot the roof pole through matching fabric sleeves, and hoist the tent up with the spring-loaded side poles. It’s rock solid—both in the 20 mph winds we had all week, and under stress of a marshmallow-fueled little boy bouncing off its side. The rubberized waterproof floor is key for cleaning up apple juice spills, too.
2. Disc-O-Bed XL
The key to our space-rich tent setup was these innovative cots from Disk-O-Bed. The XL adult bunk and streamlined kids’ version are easy to set up quick and stack like bunk beds. This gave us a good three feet of open floor space between the bunks for the baby’s playpen, and the curled up golden. Try has he did, our wild son couldn’t topple them, even on the last night, when we relented and let him sleep on the top bunk. (He’s still talking about it.) The included gear organizer is great for headlamp, water bottle, phone, and magazine storage. Best of all, they’re very comfortable. We slept great—so great that I kept thinking how perfect this would be on a backcountry wall-tent hunt. Make sure to get the kit with leg extensions for more headroom. We didn’t have them and my wife, who had the bottom bunk, wishes we did.
3. Camp Chef Pro60x Two-Burner Stove
This 14-inch pro-level kitchen rig from Camp Chef is ideal for car camping. The stove, grill, and griddle get hot and ready to cook in five minutes or less—a huge plus when the family is hungry. The ripping wind on our lakeside campsite wasn’t an issue with the three-sided windscreen. All three components pack down to manageable dimensions and tote easy in the Camp Chef carry bags. Everything cooked fast and delicious. Ribeyes in a red wine sauce and grilled corn with a side salad in under 20 minutes? Yes, please.
4. GSI Outdoors Hard Anodized Dutch Oven
Cast iron is great, but since moving to a cast aluminum grill last year, I’ve grown to love the high-conductivity, high-heat, and even cooking of this more-modern metal. We brought along this monster 14-inch Dutch oven, which is big enough to make meals that could feed the whole campground. It holds eight quarts, and our hamburger-onion-potato-au-gratin casserole barely filled it. But after 30 minutes buried in coals, our meal was done—and delicious. The burger, oil, and caramelized onions made a crispy, but not burnt, bottom layer—but holy hell did it make a mess of the pan. I dreaded the idea of cleaning it, so it sat untouched overnight. The next morning I took a blue brillo from the Destination Kitchen Set and figured I’d wear out my arm. Nope. Not with aluminum. The super slick surface cleans up so much easier than cast iron it’s not even funny. Some warm water and minimal elbow grease, and the Dutch oven was clean as new.
5. Otterbox Venture Cooler 65
Otterbox knows how to accessorize a cooler. Inside this one cooler, we had more than enough space to feed a family of four for a week. With the two cooler separators and the included tray, frozen foods kept solid all week with two five-pound ice packs on one side, and veggies and dry goods stayed dry on the other. We froze a few 12-ounce water bottles as extra ice packs, and nothing got wet from melting ice. The side table with a cutting board made a nice fireside drink stand. But my wife’s favorite add-on was a set of four wine tumblers and the vino she bought in town.
6. Coleman Back Home 12×10 Instant Screenhouse
We camped with a family friend and her 7-year-old son. They had been to this spot the year before—and they were tortured by insects. This year we were prepared with a pop-up screen house from Coleman. We knew we made the right call driving into the campground. Every third site had this exact same screen room setup over their picnic table. The skeeters, it turns out, weren’t bad in all the wind, but the shelter still proved to be a nice place to sit in the shade, and store our Coleman camp chairs through the near-nightly rains.
7. Old Town Discovery 133
It wouldn’t be a North Country camping trip without some time on the water. I opted to bring this squat 13-foot canoe from Old Town for a couple reasons. First, it’s light enough that one adult (me) can move it on and off a roof rack with minimal struggle. (OK, moderate struggle.) Second, its wide body taper is built for stability, so two kids were able to goof around without Dad (also me) barking about tipping over. We fished for smallies and panfish, then explored the pine islands that dotted the lake. The canoe rated for 800 pounds, so I didn’t get bent out of shape when my 3-year-old decided to collect rocks. (“Son, there are rocks back at camp.” Henry: “Dada, these are MY rocks.”) With the included oar locks, the canoe easily converts to a float boat for fishing, and is all-around ideal for sportsman. Frogging, scouting for deer and turkey spots by water, duck hunting with a dog, or geological surveys with a toddler—this boat can do it all.
8. Outside Inside Horseshoes & Bocce Ball
When the adults needed to chill and the kids hit peak no-nap craziness, we set them up with a couple of camp games from Inside Out. Horseshoes were a big hit, until they got bored, then the plastic stakes become spears to chase chipmunks and dig holes in the dirt.
With a little redirection they were back to chucking horseshoes and lobbing bocce balls—until a family of ducks floated in, and we had a little talk about why it’s okay to razz chipmunks, but not mallards.
9. Osprey Kid’s Moki Pack
Of all the gear we took camping, my son was most excited about his own pint-size hydration pack. It took about 30 seconds for Henry to become an expert. “No, Dada,” he said, when I hung the hydration tube over his shoulder. “It goes here,” and he snapped it in place to the magnet holder on the shoulder strap. I packed his lunch and the baby’s food into a UCO Mess Kit, and tucked it into his pack. The little guy even toted my water bottle as I hiked with the baby on my back. The gear made the hiking even more fun for him. He was easily the youngest hiker on the trail that day, and shined like a new penny when I told him so. “I’m a good hiker,” he said. “Yes, son. Yes, you are.”
10. BioLite Headlamp 330-Lumen No-Bounce
These ultra-thin headlamps are perfect for kids and adults alike. They came fully charged and worked all week, despite the kids running them constantly. The high-beam mode is very bright, but low mode is not, so getting regularly blasted in the face by kiddos wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The single-button operation is complicated enough (you adjust through the six brightness settings by pressing the button one to six times) that my son couldn’t do it himself—a plus. The headlamp is small and comfortable, so once one is on your head you’ll forget it’s there. One headlamp filled our big tent with more than enough light to get the kids ready for bed.
11. Camp Chef Outdoor Big Screen
As a surprise for the kids, who don’t get much TV at home, we brought along an outdoor movie screen, plus a portable mini-projector and lithium battery pack. If you can’t tell, this wasn’t a minimalist camping trip. This trip was all about big fun—and this big screen delivered. After dinner, the kids walked the loop in our camp ground and invited every person under 12 years old that they could find. As it got dark, a small army of elementary school kids and their parents showed with camp chairs for a late-night viewing of Inside Out. It was a riot. The next morning all the parents came by to thank us. Honestly, I felt weird about bringing a screen—a big, big screen, at that—into the outdoors, where the point for me is mostly to disconnect. But the one-time showing was such a good experience I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
12. Yakima SkyBox
Camping with small children only works if you plan well, and are well equipped. We managed to fit two adults, two kids and two car seats, a golden retriever, and all the food, tents, bunks, and big camp kitchen into our 2016 Honda Pilot—plus a little help from Yakima. Without it, we would have needed two cars. Ours held 18 cubic feet, and swallowed the bunks, sleeping bags, camp chairs, fishing rods and tackle, life jackets, table clothes, and the little odds and ends that I jammed around the edges. It’s rated for 125 pounds, but I wager I pushed that. What surprised me most was the gas mileage. With this beast atop our SUV, we got 24.3 miles per gallon on our mostly highway-driving trip. It also made for great mid-drive threats. “One more ‘Are we there yet?’ Henry, and you’re going in the box!” He saw right through that, and after a good laugh, paused, and asked me again: “Are we there yet?”