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Indoor & Outdoor Play

Camping with Kids in the Bay Area

Memorial Day weekend is here and camping season has officially started! If you are planning your first camping trip with kids or contemplating the idea of taking one, this article is for you. With two other moms, Lucie and Melody, we shared our experience of going camping with our family: what we liked, what went wrong, how we usually find campgrounds, what equipment we use, and other tips that we find useful.

Lucie has 2 kids who are 11 and 8 years old. When she was a teenager Lucie used to go to summer camps where she would go backpacking for several days and she loved being in nature and sleeping under the stars.
Melody has 2 kids a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. Before having kids she and her husband used to go camping in National parks, it was a practical way for them to get the most out of their time in the parks.
I, Aurélie, have 2 kids who are now 6 and 4 years old. I started going camping with my husband when I was a young adult. It was the cheapest option for us to go on vacation at the time.

If you have ever gone camping in Europe, as we had, maybe we should start by pointing out that camping in the US is a very different experience than in Europe. In Europe, camping is mostly used as a cheaper way to travel or go on vacation than hotels. Campgrounds usually have spaces designed for tents, RV, and motorhomes but they also often have mobile homes for rent. They offer a lot of commodities like hot showers, grocery stores, restaurants, pools, washing machines, kids clubs, daily activities, and entertainment for the whole family. Sometimes campgrounds are located very close to town centers, firepits are not allowed and spaces are often small and crowded without any trees. In the US, camping means spending time in nature, going back to the basics, and using a fire pit to cook your meals, campsites are often large, there are a lot of trees and bushes, and very few amenities (sometimes just vault toilets).

Our first time camping with kids

The first time Lucie went camping with her husband and their kids, her oldest son was 4 years old and her second was 18 months old. It was a friend who suggested going camping together with two other families for the weekend. Her kids loved spending time in nature, so she was confident they would enjoy camping. Her youngest son was just a toddler so of course he ended up covered in food and dust. But she decided that it didn’t matter, she was able to embrace the dirt knowing that it was okay and that everyone would take a bath once home. She was afraid that the kids would have a hard time sleeping but they did great. Lucie and her husband just had to stay with them in the tent the first time until they fell asleep. Her kids had always been great sleepers so they were able to adjust easily.

Melody’s daughter was 1 year old the first time they took her camping with her husband. They also decided to go with friends. Their daughter was not a good sleeper so they knew that the night part was going to be a challenge but they were used to it and they didn’t want it to prevent them from going camping. The night was difficult, as anticipated, they took turns sleeping with her in the car because they were only able to get her to sleep by driving around and then they didn’t want to take the risk of waking her up by transferring her from the car to the tent. They were okay with that, they were just afraid to disturb their friends but they tried to be very quiet. Of course, having a one-year-old who was barely walking and crawling most of the time resulted in her being pretty dirty but they knew what to expect. Despite these challenges, they had a great time and the following year they went camping three times. The pandemic had started so camping was a great way to discover new places and spend time outdoors. And this time their daughter was 2 years old and was finally sleeping well.

In my case, even if I love being in nature, handling a crawling baby or a young toddler barely walking in the wild was not very appealing, so I waited until my youngest child was 2 ½ years old. My kids were both super excited to go camping and spend time with friends. They loved playing in the woods and watching the campfire. My son had a hard time sleeping, he is used to moving a lot when he sleeps, and being in a mummy sleeping bag prevented him from moving so he didn’t like it. I should probably have taken his usual sleep sack and added a blanket on top. We were not very lucky with the weather, it rained a little during the first day and heavily during the second night so the next morning we had to pack our wet tent under the rain, it was not easy but we tried to make it fun for the kids.

What we like about camping

For Lucie, camping is all about spending time together with her family and friends. Being together around the fire pit, grilling marshmallows, playing cards, chatting, and laughing. Her kids love camping, for them it is a place of total freedom, where they can play all day long but they always stay close to her and have never wandered off, so she knows she can relax. Lucie and her family usually go camping twice a year, once for Memorial Day weekend and then another weekend in September. She likes to go camping with 2 or 3 other families and tries to find large shaded campsites ideally close to a river, lake, or sea because they love water activities.

For Melody going camping means being outdoors, ideally in the heart of a national or state park to be able to easily reach trails or vista points. She also loves spending the evening around the firepit. For her camping is a break from everyday life and a nice little adventure. She likes to do some camping trips with friends and others just the 4 of them as a family.

For me too, camping is really about taking a break from our routine and slowing down. We usually go camping twice a year. I would love to go more often but I have to admit planning, packing and then cleaning and putting everything away is a lot of work. We love finding campsites in redwood forests, ideally not too far from home, so we don’t spend the weekend in the car. We like to plan a camping trip with friends at least once a year, camping is such a great way to spend time all together. We always look forward to our next camping trip.

Embracing the unexpected: what we learned from our previous experiences

Nature can be unpredictable and all three of us experienced it at least once during our camping trips. It’s important to check the weather reports and the campground and or park website before heading out. Knowing as much as possible about the forecasted weather, road closures, and all relevant information about the campground can help you plan accordingly. It’s always disappointing but sometimes it’s better to cancel a trip if the weather or onsite conditions are unsafe.

Rain can happen, so if you are staying in a tent, it can be good to keep your clothes in your car to keep them dry. You can also take heavy-duty trash bags to pack your wet tent or equipment at the end of your trip.

Some roads can be closed because of snow, fires, or flooding, so campgrounds can close at any time, sometimes just before your camping trip or while you are already there, forcing you to evacuate and cut your trip short.

Wood and charcoal fires can sometimes be prohibited if the air quality is unhealthy or when the risk of wildfire is high, in this case having a gas camping stove is a must-have.

Nights can be cold in Northern California so you need to pack warm clothes and sleeping bags.

Be prepared for encounters with wildlife, keep your food out of reach, and use bear-proof containers (most campgrounds in bear territory provide metal boxes). Campground staff or park rangers can help you learn about wild animals in the area and what you should do to protect them and yourself in case of an encounter.

How to find a campground?

Word of mouth is always a great way to find campgrounds and to know what to expect, so it's always a good idea to ask around for recommendations. Here are some websites that we use to find campgrounds and book campsites:

It’s important to note that there are often more people who want to go camping than there are campsites available. So if you want to go on weekends, especially during popular weekends like Memorial Day, you need to be prepared to book the campsites as soon as the reservation opens, which is usually 6 months in advance. Many campgrounds also offer first-come first-served campsites but neither of us tried this solution. Going camping with kids is already an adventure in itself so handling the stress of not knowing if you are going to find a campsite felt like too much for each of us.

If you go as a group, it is best to find campsites close to one another. On most websites, you can’t book more than 2 campsites for the same dates, so if you need more than 2 you will need to coordinate to book the campsites at the same time. Some campgrounds offer group campsites but they usually have just one or two of these campsites and they usually are for very large groups only.

When you book a campsite you might want to look closely at the following information (usually provided by the campground website and you can also use the satellite view from Google Maps):

The campgrounds we tried

Close to the Bay Area

4-6 hours drive from the Bay Area

Our camping equipment

It’s worth noting that we didn’t buy all of our equipment overnight. We all started camping more than 5 years ago so we added new equipment with each camping trip. All you really need to start is a tent, mattress, sleeping bag, and flashlight, and you can bring things that you already have at home for cooking. If you are going camping for the first time and are not sure you are going to like camping, you can try asking your friends or people on online groups if they have equipment that you can borrow. Some sporting goods stores like REI or Sports Basement also rent camping gear. After this first camping trip, you will know more about what you really need and what works for your family.

To help you get an idea of what equipment can be useful for camping with kids here is a list of things Lucie, Melody and I have bought over time.

Sleeping equipment

Tent: be careful with the number of persons listed on the tent descriptions, this number is given for people sleeping on a sleeping pad and not on a twin-size bed. For example, if you are a family of 4 using a full-size and 2 twin-size mattresses you will probably need a 6-person tent. So make sure to check the actual size of the tent, not the number of people mentioned, to see if the mattresses you plan to use will fit inside.

Putting a tarp, slightly smaller than your tent, under it can be a good way to protect the floor of your tent but not all people use them (I don’t for example but Lucie does).

Mattresses: some people just use thin sleeping pads but we believe inflatable mattresses are important if you want a good night's sleep. In my case, we use a full-size for the kids to share and my husband and I each have a twin-size. But if you have a tent big enough, having a twin-size for everyone is even better because sharing an inflatable mattress is not always easy if you share it with someone who moves a lot during the night.

You can find inflatable pillows like this one. But if you have enough space in your car you can take your own pillow from home.

Bedding: If you are going to a place where the nights are warm you can probably just take your bedding from home, but otherwise investing in a good sleeping bag is essential. Sleeping bags in the 20-32 degrees Fahrenheit range are great for Spring-Summer-Fall in Northern California. Having a fitted sheet for your mattress and a flat sheet can be a good option if the weather is really warm during summer.

You can find sleeping bags designed especially for kids, if you use an adult one for young kids it will not be tight enough and they might get cold during the night.

If you have a young kid that is still sleeping in a crib, bringing a pack-and-play can be a good idea to make sure their sleep environment is not too different from home.


Don’t forget to bring your BBQ brush and utensils. You can cook directly on the campsite grill but you can also use a griddle or a grilling pan or basket. If you want to cook pasta, rice, or just boil water, having a small gas stove can be handy and this is even essential if the campground prohibits wood and charcoal fires. And if you are planning on cooking a lot you can invest in a bigger 2-burner camp stove.

Keeping your food fresh is often one of the biggest concerns while camping, especially if you plan to go for several days. A 45 to 65-quart cooler is a good size for a two-day trip for a family of four. Make sure to choose a cooler that is bear-proof like this one. Coolers can have wheels or not, so you need to decide depending on your needs and the size of the car (wheels take more space). To keep your food cool you can use ice cubes but if you want to avoid the mess of having your food floating in water, ice packs can be a better option. Cooler Shock makes great ice packs and they tell you how many packs you need, depending on your cooler size and the length of your trip.

Make sure to plan your meals to use the food most sensitive to temperature first on your trip. If you want to bring meat, you can freeze it before your trip so it can slowly thaw in your cooler and stay fresh longer.

If you go backpacking, if you cannot bring a cooler, or if you just need a backup meal, you can use ready-to-eat dehydrated meals.

Don’t forget to check if your campground provides drinking water. If not, a general rule of thumb is to bring 1 gallon per day per person, especially if you are going hiking or if the weather is hot.

To learn more about food and water safety you can read the article from the US Department of Agriculture about food safety while hiking and camping and the article published by the CDC about water treatment options when hiking, camping or traveling.


Having proper lighting is important because it’s quickly very dark in the evening, even during summer. It is good to bring a headlamp for everyone, even the kids (they usually love having their own lamp). Black Diamond for example makes great headlamps. You should also have at least one large camping lantern.

Toys and games

To keep the kids entertained don’t forget to bring outdoor games and toys like balls, pretend play kitchen sets, small cars, toss and catch ball sets, sand toys, frisbee, explorer kits with magnifying glasses and binoculars, glow sticks, coloring books or card games. You can also print a scavenger hunt for them.


Campsites nearly always have a picnic table with benches but even if this is the case, having camping chairs is great to warm up close to the firepit.

If you have a lot of electronic devices that need to be charged, bring a portable power bank or station.

Prepare a first aid kit with a tick remover, wound care supplies, anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine medication, and don’t forget your prescription medication if you have one. You can read this helpful First-Aid Kit Checklist from REI.

A camping hammock doesn’t take up much space and is nice to relax.

A folding wagon can be useful if you cannot park your car close to your campsite.

Our tips

If it is your first camping trip, and especially if you have young kids, it will probably be best to find a campground close to a grocery store and a pharmacy in case you forgot anything.

If you can, practice setting up your tent at your home or in a park before going camping for the first time. Plan to arrive at the campsite at least two hours before sunset. Setting up in the dark is usually not a fun experience.

If you have a toddler that still takes naps, you can bring a stroller so they can sleep in it under the shade. The tent can be very hot during the day. And if you have a baby and have enough room to take it, a pack-and-play can be useful both for daytime and nighttime.

If you have a potty-trained kid, bringing a travel potty is really useful to avoid having to go to the restroom in the middle of the night or in the early morning.

Try to bring things that are important for your child's nighttime routine (nightlight, sound machine…)

Once you get home after your camping trip, make sure your equipment is clean and dry before storing it, it will help make it last longer.

Lucie’s experience of RV camping with kids

In April 2017, Lucie and her husband decided to take their kids, who were 17 months old and 4 years old at the time, on an RV road trip to Redwood National Park.

They booked the RV through Cruise America. Their road trip was planned for 4 nights, but since the pickup was only possible after 5 pm and the return before 11 am they booked the RV for 6 nights. The cost was about the same as going to hotels for the same number of nights.

They chose a standard RV for 5 persons with a separate bedroom. Their older son slept in the bedroom, their younger son in his own pack-and-play and with her husband, they slept in the over-cab bed so they didn’t have to convert the RV dinette into a bed every day.

They spend the nights in RV spots along the way that they had selected before taking the road. And in order to have enough time to enjoy each place they visited, they had planned short drives for each day.

Unfortunately, they faced a lot of issues during the trip. The heater was not working but they had brought clothes warm enough so it was not a major issue. Because of heavy rains before their trip, parts of Highway 1 was closed so they were only able to go as far as Eureka. Because of the road closure, they had to take an alternate road to make their way back and this road was very narrow so they ended up scratching one side of the RV against rocks. Before the end of the trip, Lucie’s skin started to be very itchy and that turned out to be bedbug bites.

This might sound like a nightmare to you, but despite everything, they still liked the experience, especially the kids. Going on a road trip and sleeping in the RV was a fun adventure for them.

For Lucie, having an RV makes it difficult to access narrow places and is not the best if you are planning on visiting urban areas but if you are planning a trip to wide-open spaces, like the Pacific Coast Highway, using an RV is a great option. If you are traveling with the RV from your home, you can bring a lot of things with you, even large equipment like bikes, and you don’t have to worry about keeping your food cold since you have a fridge, so it’s easier than tent camping. You also have more flexibility than when you are going to the hotel. You don’t have to rush to find a restaurant or arrive at your hotel on time. Your bed and your food are with you.