Dad’s Ten Packing Principles for the Family Camping Trip

So, you’re almost ready.

Bags and belongings lie in a jumble, barricading your front door.  It’s that exciting yet daunting time once again to pack up your rig for the next big road trip to your favorite camping destination.  You can already see smiling kids sitting contentedly around a mesmerizing fire. But do you have all the things you’ll need?  Are you taking too much? How will you possibly fit all those camping accouterments? And where will you gently cram that fly fishing gear?

Loading a cargo hold is a highly individualized process.  Some take the planner approach, using skills they must’ve acquired while earning their dual degrees in both Physics and Spatial Geometry, using intensive proprietary calculations to place each item with Tetris-like precision within the cargo area.  Others prefer a more casual, Zen-like approach. Seemingly unplanned and effortless, with almost supernatural powers, they appear to will their shape-shifting belongings into place, creating a holistic hatch full of serene oneness.

Whether more informed by science or art, most of all us fall somewhere in between in our loading process. Some trips go a little more smoothly than others and the smoothness levels achieved almost always correlate with the efforts that went into the planning and packing stages. As a father of two kids and one large dog, I’d like to propose the following ten basic principles while loading our vehicles for the trek.

Create lists for organized packing
Some list makers like to use checkboxes, others find enjoyment in the cross-out method.

1. First things, first. Create lists.

Not only do lists help ensure you won’t wind up at the trailhead without your sleeping bags, they also help organize your packing process which greatly speeds up the process of setting camp on the other end of the trip. Lists also make a nice catch-all for those little add-on items that seem to pop into your head at random moments and quickly evaporate as fast as you think of them. They help you decide necessities from frivolities. And they are especially useful for remembering the things you need to keep using at home right up until you leave, like toothbrushes and cooking utensils.

2. Save those stuffers.

Not so fast on consolidating those soft items of various shapes and sizes. They make great filler that you can shove between larger items, saving you more space and keeping gear from sliding around. Best of all, they tremendously reduce those annoying squeaks that you’ll never find or dare to even stop for, once the caravan is rolling.

Camping allows for hours of uninterrupted outdoor play
Casper gets cozy for a sunset truck session. Everyone has their own hierarchy of camping necessities.

3. Hierarchy does matter.

Keep personal necessities at arm’s length, especially for the drive. Snacks. Lotsa snacks for the kiddos makes any drive so much sweeter.  And cold water to revive. Don’t forget supplies to revive the adults as well. Fresh ground coffee, filters, and a pour over cone ensure that only hot water is your barrier to enter a delicious coffee buzz for the remainder of the drive which also offers plenty of energy and a sharp mind to set up camp when you arrive. Be sure to pack the wine and beer and required opening devices just below the coffee kit for easy access once camp is set. I also like to keep toothbrushes, raincoats, and valuables at close range.

Roof racks save more room for passengers
Rod is able to lock on some bikes, fill the roof rack, and keep Casper safe, all while enjoying a sip of Stoneface. These are the skills of a seasoned Dad.

4. Rooftops to the rescue.

If you’re a family, chances are you need the space. Consider a roof rack carrier if you can, as they are aerodynamic and can really make a difference between very cramped and slightly cramped. One would think you would only want to pack the things lowest on the hierarchy in there for the trip, but the quick-opening clamshell designs make little necessities very accessible for pit stops.

5. Hide it.

Use window shades, dash reflectors, and blankets to cover your items. A bit of added security can go a long way in the backcountry, and it helps keep the temperature down as well.

Use up spare tire compartment space before adding heavy items on top
Spare tire compartments and other nooks offer great added storage as well as discreet hiding spots.

6. Spare tire compartment stowaways.

These days, we see spares often being stashed inside the car under the floor of the trunk. Definitely do not remove the spare for extra storage, but it is often a good place to stash a few small items when space starts running out. Hidden out of the way, this area makes a great little stash for valuables.

Leave your laptop at home
Another adventure from the early days at NEMO. Clearly, someone didn’t follow the leave your laptop at home rule.

7. Let’s leave the laptop at home.

What can your laptop do that your phone can’t? Also, it’s a camping trip! Save that big screen for home… unless you are able to extend the family camping trip by exercising a little WFC… Working From Camp.

8. Check for C.O.W.S.

This goes without saying, but nothing sucks the life out of a trip more than breaking down on a bumpy dirt road on the way there. Always check the Cables, Oil, Water, and Spare to ensure a safe and speedy trip to your outdoor adventure, especially if your location is even remotely, well, remote.

A solid nap makes the trip easier for everyone.
These two little bugs will wake refreshed and ready for any adventure.

9. Take care of the kiddos.

Encouraging independence in your kiddos is great. But teaching it via packing on their own is never a good idea for those first few camping trips. There is a good chance a meltdown-inducing item like “Piggy” or “Blanket” will almost certainly be forgotten or misplaced. Pack plenty of books and animals for downtime and goodnight snuggles. And you want to be sure they have a proper fitting sleeping bag and a good pad, that will make a big difference in their sleep… and yours. Nothing compares to those first few nights of tucking your kiddos into their own little cocoon under the stars.

Clothes decisions are very important. I like to bring multiple changes of clothes that will be comfortable in any of the possible conditions you’ll expect to encounter. As the days at camp pass and the kiddos become more feral, clothes tend to get wet and dirty fast.

Camp cooking is really fun.  It doesn’t matter if you make a mess, so bringing foods that the kiddos can participate in prepping makes that fireside camp dinner taste all the more delicious and increases your one on one time.

And last but not least, being outside is inspiring. It frees their little minds to absorb so much, so keep those practiced pursuits going while at camp. Whether your child is a budding violinist, yogi, baseball player or painter, be sure to bring their instruments or equipment along with you. It’s a great way to encourage growth in those pursuits and also allows for some independent relaxation for all.

Be sure to test your masterpiece
NEMO’s Kendall and Kaitlyn masterfully fitting a lot of adventure into a little car.

10. Test your masterpiece.

Everything is set to go. All of your planning has come to fruition in the form of a small warehouse on four wheels. You are ready for anything—well, almost. The last principle is small, but an important one. Give it all a good shake. Don’t hold back, as we’re trying to emulate those bumps you encounter on back roads. Check everything for potential vibration, shifting, squeaks, or noises.

That should do it. Most of all, enjoy your family time in the outdoors. It is a gift.

Being outside for the complete cycle of a day, better yet—multiple days is one of the greatest pursuits. It makes us better people, more patient, and more connected to our surroundings. Instilling that ethos within our children is our duty. It also makes for some great family traditions and memories.  Having a little spot in the world that you return to each year with your family will stand out in a child’s memory for a lifetime. And with good, strategically planned packing, your journey to the woods will be as enjoyable as your adventure in the woods.

-Rod Kovach