Our top family camping tips and gear (ultralight style)

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After going camping literally every week since we got back from New Zealand, and then going on a 9 day family bike-packing trip, Jason and are pretty much experts now in the family camping department. From car camping, to backpacking to bike packing, we have tried and tested many different systems.  And while things will change as the kids get older and older, for now we feel like we have some pretty good parenting hacks and general fail proof guidelines that will last for a while.  Since CoVid hit, I have seen an exciting surge in family camping interest. It makes sense – people have been on lockdown and social distancing with no schools, events or group activities to attend too. So, I have put together the below list of our tips and favorite gear that can hopefully make your next family outdoor adventure more fun and successful.

Pack as light as you can, even if you are going car camping

For many people and especially parents the packing part is what gets overwhelming. So overwhelming in fact, that many do it once, and never do it again. No matter if we are going to be right next to the car, or miles from it, we always try to pack as light and simply as possible. Packing less means less choices, less stuff to go through when you are out in nature and less clean up when you do return home. The more simple you make everything, the better. For example, we always pack one pair of “play clothes” and one pair of “night” clothes – and this goes for the entire family. This minimizes choices and makes less laundry when we get home. Gear wise, we always choose pads, sleeping bags and pillows that pack down small and easily, this makes it fit in our car nicer. It also gives us the option of hiking further in to a place, even if we planned on camping near the car. As far as food goes, if we are car camping, we bring a small cooler for cold drinks, meats and cheeses, but for the most part we try and choose food that can get by with out any refrigeration (more on this in the gear list below).

Involve your kids in the journey

Before we head out on camping or bike trips, we try and involve Max from the very beginning. A few days before the trip, we start to talk about all the fun things we will do. Little kids love to know plans and the more they can feel a part of it, the more ownership they take – which translates to less temper tantrums and more over all stoke. Also, tapping into what they are already excited about and weaving that idea or item into your trip can be really fun. Every night before bed, Max loves to hear “Zelda” stories. Zelda is a character Jason made up that is in every bedtime story. He is very adventurous and goes on lots of different missions with friends. Max also really loves cars, so for our bike trip Max got a new mini car that Zelda had hid for him every night at camp that he had to find via a small map and clues. It was such a life line for Jason and I, as when ever Max got cranky during the day, all we had to do was start talking about how we were on the same journey that Zelda had gone on.  Max would usually get really into speculating what we’d find that night at camp!

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This too shall pass

If you are a parent, you are well trained in this but it is worth mentioning (and remembering, especially when you are out in the middle of nowhere with your three year old who is screaming “I want to go home right NOW.”)  We all have low moments, and toddlers are just more expressive in the moment than we are. My best advice is to have compassion for them, let them fully process and move through their feelings and don’t take any of it personally.  Every time we go camping, at some point Max says “I want to go home”, or “I want to go to Nanny and Papas”.  And honestly sometimes, I agree with him, I too would like us to be home or for him to be at Nanny and Papas. But then, the moment passes and we get on to do something else, or we get through a rough patch in the trail and we all learn together that everything passes and nothing ever stays the same. Now, when Max sees me getting upset, he says “Mama, don’t worry, it will change.” Having him learn this AND pass it back on to me is worth every rough tantrum in the wilderness.

Have a “kid kit” fanny pack on you at all times

Ever since having kids, I LOVE fanny packs.  I put one on every morning and I rarely take it off until evening. Jason used to make fun of me for it, but then he saw how that when ever one of the kids needed something: a tissue, a dab of sunscreen, a wipe for their hands, or a quick snack I never had to go looking for it. Now he wears one whenever he is “on” the kids. When we go camping, I stock my fanny pack up every morning with all the essentials for the day and It keeps all of us sane and happy. I highly recommend it.

Delegate jobs to each other before you go:

Before we went on our big bike trip, we discussed at length what we were each going to be in charge of. At the time it seemed like a silly thing to be putting so much effort into, but once we were well into our trip we both agreed that it was one of the most important things we did. It was really nice being able to immediately fall into our roles and to fully trust one another. For example, Jason was on navigation, camp set up and meal prep. I was on coffee, camp break down and getting the kids ready for bed. For all the the rest of the “chores” we took turns getting them done while the other one played with the kids.

Make the trip as much about you having fun, and find ways to fit your kids in.

This is a basic philosophy we believe in, especially with younger kids.  We choose trips that we want to take – big or small – and find ways to integrate the kids.  Developing new climbing routes, designing a course for next years adventure race, exploring a new river trail, or looking for one of Oregon’s toughest Geocaches.  If we are engaged, it is much easier to engage the kids and have them see us at our most vibrant.

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Some of our stand out favorite kids gear:

After multiple camping trips and outdoor excursions, we discovered a few items for the kids that have proven to make both our lives and the kids lives better. Some are obvious, and some are quite surprising, find them below with a little blurb on why.

Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Crew and Patagonia Baggies

Both of the boys wear their daily crew shirts and baggy shorts just about every day of the summer and when we go camping, this is their “play” uniform. On our bike packing trip, this outfit is all they wore during the day for 9 days straight. It held up to all the dirt, water and sun amazingly well.

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Wool layers:

We have been racing in merino wool for the last fifteen years because of its breathability, anti microbial properties and ability to keep you warm even when wet, so to dress our kids in wool as much as possible was a no brainer. For camping sleep wear, Max is in his Icebreaker 260 wool top and bottom long underwear and Revel wears his Woolino bodysuit.  For chillier days on our bike trip, we had both Max and Revel wear their “cold play clothes” which is a Chasing Windmills wool top and bottom (the bottom we put under their Patagonia Baggies). We love their stuff because it is wool AND it can hold up to kids that are tough on materials.. which is every kid right!?

Morrison Baby Sleeping Bag:

If you are at all like I was and asking yourself: “what am I going to dress my baby in for sleeping outside!?” : Don’t fret. The Morrison Baby Sleeping bag is all you need until your baby is 4 years old because when your baby grows out of it in two years, you can send it in and get the next size up!  They have a range of 20 degrees to 60 degrees and as soon as you zip your baby up in this thing, they will be diving for their bed. Revel slept the best he ever slept on our bike packing trip, and I credit most of it to this sleeping bag. It is comfortable, warm, breathable and lightweight. Seriously, stop looking and get it. You can thank me later.

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Big Agnes “Little Red” 15 degree sleeping bag:

If your little one is already past sleeping in a sleep sack like Max is, check out the “Little Red” from Big Agnes. It is also extremely warm, light weight and stuffs into a reasonably small stuff sack. Our favorite feature of all of Big Agne’s bags are that they have an integrated sleeve for a sleeping pad. For a squirmy toddler, this proves to be extremely important for everyone to get a good night sleep because they stay on their pad and do not have to wake you up to be put back on their pad!  Max loves his “little red” bag so much that it’s the first thing he asks for when we get to camp.

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Adventure Eats Food and Baby Food:

Adventure Eats camp food is one of the best camp foods I have had (and that is saying a lot because we test ALL the camp food). Max (who is getting pickier by the week) loves it too – especially the Jambalaya.  The meals come in easy to eat from compostable containers. It is all Vegan, and is chocked full with a ton of yummy, nutritious  ingredients. Two meals  is enough for Max, Jason and I. We love that it is made locally right here in Bend. And what’s even more exciting is that they are in the process of making baby food. Revel got the opportunity to test some on our bike packing trip, and it he couldn’t get enough of it. In fact, the whole family wanted to steal his food. I personally think dehydrated baby food is genius for camping and traveling because it is so light. All we had to do was add hot water, mix and it was ready with in a few minutes. Email or comment below if you and your baby are interested in testing some, as they are trying to get as much feed back as possible!

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Wee-hoo IGO 2 bike trailer:

While we love our Double Thule Chariot for smaller trips, for our long haul nine day bikepacking trip we opted for the Wee hoo. Why? The main difference is that it’s a single wheel trailer vs a double wheel trailer, so it is much nicer on the person who is towing. The single wheel is also less bumpier for the kids, as it is more in line with the bike.  We augmented ours because Revel is not quite big enough to sit in a seat like Max so we traded out the seat for a car seat and it worked out perfectly. We were able to make it so that they were facing each other, and so for most of the trip, they were either playing footsie or giggling hysterically. There are a couple things that could be improved including: the rain fly, the weight (it is quite heavy for what it is) and the fact that you have to buy the kickstand separately – but over all, it does the job and we are more than happy with how well it held up to all our wear and tear on it.

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Clek LIing Car seat:

The clek Liing car seat is rated as one of the safest and most comfortable car seats on the market. Revel can’t tell us what he thinks about it, but seeing how much he snuggles down and smiles up at us every time we strap him into his car seat shows us he loves it. We have been using it since the day he was born and at ten months, he is still fitting in it just fine. We strapped it on to the Wee Hoo for the bike trip, and it was amazing. Both Jason and I felt super safe with him in it and what’s more is that it has an awesome vent on the back for airflow and the canopy kept him completely covered up so we didn’t have to worry about him getting sun burnt. While we honestly don’t use it much in the car, when we do, they click in system is super slick and easy. This thing is built like a tank, and while it’s not the lightest car seat at nine pounds on the market, I’ll take the extra weight over uncomfortability any day.

Rumple Stash Mat:

Everyone loves the Stash Mat. To the kids it means snack time, and to the adults it means getting a break and having a nice place to sit. When we are road tripping, rather than snacking in the car, we always try and stop at a pretty place for the kids to run around and have a picnic. The stash mat makes it easy and quick to do just that. Likewise when we are bikepacking or backpacking we don’t carry chairs, so the stash mat serves as our eating and hang out mat – especially if we can’t find any logs or rocks to sit on. Max calls it his snack mat, which we think is also a very appropriate name.

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Rumple Junior Blanket:

Rumple pretty much hit it out of the park when they developed their puffy blankets. They are water resistant, light weight and packable, making them the perfect piece of gear to have on you at all times – especially if you live in Central Oregon or in the mountains.  If you have kids, theJunior Puffy Blanket is perhaps even better, as it is smaller, lighter, more packable AND it will make your kid so happy to have their own little blanket. Max loves his and takes it everywhere now, even when we are not camping. We love it because it is easy to clean and is super durable for all of his adventures.

$49

Sunday Afternoon Kids Ultra Adventure Sun hats:

Putting sunscreen on my kids is the worst ever.  Whenever they see me coming with any sort of cream, they go running.  Spray sunscreen does the trick for the legs and arms, but really, I I just try and keep them covered as much as I can.  For the face, while I do manage to get one quick smear on them, I have just instated a rule from when Max was 2 months old: if you are in the sun, you have to wear your sun hat.  Luckily both boys don’t seem to mind the sun hats at all, in fact Max asks for his before he heads out the door every morning.  I love them because they are light weight, comfortable (I own a few of the same hats myself) and they cover their neck.

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Teva Adventure Shoes

There are so many kids shoes to pick from out there. But I didn’t just want any shoe. I was looking for something that could go in and out of water with out getting weighted down, lightweight (of course), durable, and could easily be put on or taken off by Max all by himself. Tevas Omnum Drift kids sandals checked all these boxes and then some. When we are headed out for any sort of adventure, these are the shoes we all (including Max) reach for. In addition to all the things I already said about them, we found that having a closed toe sandal made it better for everyone. Max stopped stubbing his toes as much, and less rocks made it into his shoes which in turn made us parents happier because we didn’t have to get rocks out of shoes as much!

Good Coffee set up and Lairds Super food:

Coffee is a big thing in our household (if it is not in yours, you can skip this one) and when we are out camping, it is an even more important. For us, there’s nothing better than waking up early and making coffee out in the wilderness.  And when you add kids to that equation, these precious peaceful moments are sometimes all that we get for the day. For all of our camping trips, we take our Stanley french press pot. It’s easy to use, keeps the coffee warm and makes plenty of it. And rather than worrying about keeping cream or any other milk substitute cold, we bring along a small bag of Lairds Superfood creamer – it’s lightweight, yummy and has a full range of MCT oil in it. Our favorite flavor is Turmeric and Original.

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GSE Extract:

Mosquito bites are inevitable when camping with small humans unless you are going to watch them like a hawk.  Max always comes away from our camping trips with a few bites and unfortunately, he is the type of kid that swells up when he gets them on his face.  As a little girl my mom used GSE for everything, so I decided to try it on Max’s bites one day. The results were amazing.  With in a few hours of putting some on his bites, the swelling had almost vanished and from then on, I put it in our camping medical kit.

***Before you use this method, do look it up, as you never want to put this stuff directly on the skin!

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