12 Essential Camping Gear for a 4-Person Family | South Africa Weekends!

Packing for a 4-person camping weekend is an exercise in identifying your needs, your risks, and bringing your essential gear. This is what we pack for a typical weekend of camping here in South Africa.

What are the essentials for camping?  Let me share my years worth of experience.  My or your essentials are having what we need for the outing, weather conditions, etc…  Make one or more lists so that you do not forget key things and you can improve on your packing each time you note something else critical to the success of your trips.

We love to camp, regardless if it’s here in the southern African wilderness or back home in the Canadian wilderness.  Regardless if looking back at pre-kids life, life with infants/toddlers, and now older children, camping is such a great way of travelling, keeping costs down, and spending a lot more time outdoors.

A year ago, I released a Better Preparedness episode on 12 Essential Camping Gear for a 4-Person Family in which I documented the repacking of our truck after a long weekend of camping at Mahai Campsite here in South Africa’s incredible Royal Natal National Park, one of my favourite campsites worldwide.  Here is the narrative and I dive deeper into each essentials.

Care For Your Gear And It Will Care For You

I’m a stickler for taking care of our gear and that makes it last nearly forever.  Much of my light-travel (bike touring, canoe camping, trekking) gear dates back to me gearing up for my epic 1997 solo bicycle touring crossing of the Canadian Arctic, part of Alaska, and the length of British Columbia.  I went to town on buying new reasonably-priced lightweight (at least for 1997) gear since I didn’t own much of it other than an eclectic collection of camping gear stuff. 

The Better Preparedness View of Camping Gear?

Being safe, comfortable, and enjoying yourself can depend on having the right gear for the location and conditions, and knowing how to use it.  Forgetting essential items can greatly impact the success and fun of your outing.  Make a list or lists and improve those lists when you take note of missing items.

For bicycle touring over the 3,000m high mountain passes (this one visible at the top of the image) in the southern African country of Lesotho, gear lightness was important. Sadly, my gear is older and pretty heavy and bulky.

Store Your Gear Where You Can Find It

If you can, dedicate a space in your home or perhaps your garage/basement/storage to store much of your camping gear.  This makes it faster to pack for an outing, less likely to forget things, and perhaps see something you might need because your kit is always together.

Here we go with my 12 Essential Camping Gear for a Family of Four:

1. Shelter: Tent

A sound shelter is possibly your top priority.  When we reach any camping destination/location, one of the first things is setting up the shelter, done.  Nothing beats setting up your shelter in good and dry conditions, which can suddenly be replaced by rain if you procrastinate. 

You now have your safe space in case the weather goes sour and whenever you want to pack it in for the today, it’s all ready for you.

When you are setting up your tent, take a few moments to remove any rocks, branches and especially any thorny items that can pierce the bottom of your tent.  A tent footprint ground sheet can help protect the floor of your tent from damage, wear-and-tear, and rain/ground dampness.

Our set-up: We have a 12-year old awesome 6-person Sierra Designs Bedouin Annex tent and my trusted 1997 2-person Eureka tent I’ve used for cross-continent bike touring trips, trekking, and canoe camping.

This is my ageing 1997 Eureka tent while bike touring the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa’s Free State and the country of Lesotho in 2018. The tent’s waterproofness is not as good as it used to be. Might be time for a new lightweight tent.

2. Sleep System: Sleeping Mattress, Sleepingbag / Bedding, and Pillow

Your “sleep system” (sounds fancy doesn’t it?) is that set-up of what you need to sleep decently: sleeping mattress, sleeping bag/bedding, and pillow.  What you bring will vary greatly depending on the time of year, weather forecast, space in vehicle, and so on. 

For wee little ones, we used to pack the travel crib and that was awesome.  When sub-2 years of age, the kids sleep so well each night in the crib and we’d bought a 6-person tent with a 4-person side and a 2-person side separated by a non-transparent openable divider.  The sleeping baby couldn’t see us in the main section of the tent and therefore the little child tended to sleep well and fall back asleep if they woke in the night.  Additionally, we could bring that crib outside the tent as a safe play space with the kids were still super young.

Our set-up: We choose from our four compact camping mattresses and two camp-grade (twice as thick) camping mattresses.  Us two adults get use of the camp-grade ones if we have sufficient space to bring them, as I feel we’ve earned it from decades of using the thin ones.  😊  I still use the thin ones when bike touring or trekking.

While camping in Namibia’s Namid Desert, the daytime temperature hit +44C (111 Fahrenheit) and our camp set-up had to work with that heat.
Night time in the Namid Desert saw the temperature plummet to about +10C (+55F), so we had to be prepared for that. Pictured is our 6-person Sierra Designs tent.

3. Chairs and Table (and Eating/Bug Tent)

For this article, I am assuming this is car camping and you have the space to bring a fair bit of gear.  If not, you have the difficult decision of what to bring and what not.  Unless you know there will be a picnic table at your site, it’s good to bring a folding camping table and chairs (, and perhaps even and eating/cooking shelter). 

If you have camped in Canadian summer bug season, you will appreciate having a screened shelter to protect you from getting eaten by the bugs.  It also helps keep your food smells away from your tent and risking bears from taking interest in your sleeping shelter.

Our set-up: We have a folding camping table that works well for food prep, eating, happy-hour, and playing cards or boardgames.  Our camping chairs are a mis-matched collection of standard folding chairs in various states of wear. 

Our eating/bug shelter is a cheapo one I bought from Canadian Tire in Canada fifteen years ago, and my only issue with it is that being cheap can often mean not user friendly to set-up/take down, and it does not store compactly, but it’s served up decently, unless it rains.

4. Water Transport and Washing Basin

Having sufficient clean water is critical, wherever you camp.  You need to choose a way of transporting water that works with your vehicle, storage space, and safe lifting strength.  A 20L or 40L water container can easily be too much for most people to safely lift in and out of a vehicle or reposition the container when needed.

A small wash basin makes washing dishes a lot easier and without using too much water.  You can probably store a few things inside that basin when not in use as a wash basin.

Out set-up: We have about eight 5-litre jugs and we fill the number needed for a trip or forever long as needed until.  Additionally, we each have a 650ml bicycle bottle and a few 1L Nalgene bottles for the water we need while underway each day.  It’s easy to drink from a bicycle bottle and there is little chance of spillage.

5. Non-Perishable Food and Cooking Essentials

Make a list what you like to pack and the quantity of food you like to bring.  A clear plastic bin or two are great for transporting and finding your food items like dry pasta, cereal, oatmeal, and various unopened items.  If there is dishware that you only use when camping, create a bin of plates, cups, mugs, cutlery, cutting board, travel Bodum, and cooking pot and pan, …

Our set-up: We have two tall-ish but small clear plastic bins for our non-perishable food, and we also have a small bin of cooking essentials items. 

The bin of cooking essentials is awesome and it’s left packed and this ensures we always have those items like a can-opener, food knife, salt/pepper/sugar/olive oil/etc…, a dish towel, tiny cutting board dish soap, washing sponge, spare lighter, spatulas, food flippers, a few mini containers of spices, and so much more.  Think of all those small items that are needed to prepare your food. 

Honestly, this makes packing up our cooking things a breeze.  Plus, we often find that this bin comes in real handy at AirBnB rentals where you are often up needing this or that.

We have another clear bin with all of our camping dishes, cutlery and cooking things mentioned about.  It sits on the shelving with our camping gear and all we need to do is grab it when packing up.  (Do remember to wash everything before you pack it away after each trip.)

Packed for a mega roadtrip, each item has its rack location and that makes it easy to find and reload each time. Our bins of the dry goods go on the top shelf as they are pretty light. Water jugs always go on the trunk floor. Building the rack has been the biggest advance in our car camping!

6. Cooler, Chilling, and Perishable Food

There is such a range of options, sizes and costs of perishable food transport these days, coolers.  Different styles and durations of trips can require more or less cooler needs.  Some are also plug-in with a chilling or even freezing function.  Have different sizes and sometime a soft-sided cooler can make it more practical when almost empty. 

Our set-up: Over the years we have accumulated about five or six sizes and types of coolers.  Only one of them is a plug-in variety that I bought used at a garage sale in the early 2000s and it’s showing its advanced cooler age.  We select the cooler based on the trip and amount of food to be kept cool. 
While we used to use traditional freezer packs, we’re huge fans of filling and freezing 1.5L or 5L water bottles as they stay frozen/cold a long time and then we can still use the water for drinking purposes.

Our bug/eating tent has helped protect us from the hungry Canadian mosquitos and also provided shade from the African sun. But being pretty cheap, it’s bulky, a bit heavy, and finicky to set-up.

7. Food Cooking

Growing up in Canada being in the Scouting movement, the standard cooking burner was a green 2-burner Coleman.  Most Canadian campers over the age of 30 grew up using that.  These days there is also a wide range of cooking burners and each style has its pros and cons.  Having 2 burners can make it easier to cook different things at once or for larger families.

Our set-up: Yes, we have a vintage 2-burner Coleman stove and that works like a charm for car camping.  We also have about five other camping stoves to chose from based on the fuel type and how much space/weight we can devote.  My ultralight 1997 MSR Whisperlight International is still my favourite for lightweight trekking/bike touring and some day I might add a newer generation of ultra-lightweight burner.

In southern Africa, this single butane burner is our stove of choice because the butane canisters are readily available. Also pictured are our travel Bodum, wash basin, MSR cooking pot, and folding camping table.

8. Bin of Camping Tools and Equipment

Start assembling a bin of all the small items you always or often need.  Leave it packed and that’s one more collection of small but critical items.  Even an electrical extension cord comes in handy if you have access to an electrical outlet and you can charge or power certain items.  Make a list of items and add new types items you identify over time.

Our set-up: We have an old milk crate bin that we leave packed with numerous items such a duct-tape, a hatchet (mini axe), tent peg mallet, spare tent pegs, paper towel, mini-broom (sweep out the tent), some newspaper as fire starter, candle lanterns, cheap table cloth, string, clothes line, and so many items.  We always end up using a bunch of items from this bin. 

9. Personal Needs: Clothing, Footwear, and Personal Care

If there is a common theme across each of these essentials, it is to make a list of what you always want to have with you and what is optional depending on the season and location. 

Our set-up: We each use one small soft-sided bag for clothing.  We have an old blue Ikea bag (you know the one!) for all our various shoes, boots and sandals, and another blue Ikea bag for all the jackets.  This makes it easy to find whatever item and we can also easily transfer it from the vehicle into the tent, AirBnB, or hotel.

To help the kids pack their own clothing, we took a piece of paper and wrote each type of clothing and an approximate number of each: short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, shorts, pants, sweater, underwear, socks, hat(s), …  For longer, colder, hotter, rainier, …, we then tell them a few more of this or that is needed.

10. Sanitation, Hygiene, Emergency, and 1st Aid

Again, having some pre-packed items like a small bag of toiletries, shower items (and quick dry towels), emergencies, and a 1st aid kit (see my 1st Aid Kit episodes), makes it faster to pack up for a trip and hopefully not forget key items.  Have I mentioned having a list of your preferences?  Ya, for this, too.  Headlamps for each person and spare batteries should be part of any kit.

11. Outdoor Equipment

We all have our preferred gear for keeping us warm, comfortable, and for fun while camping.  Add these items to your list.

Our set-up: We bring always bring a small bin of fun stuff (frisbee, a soccer ball and pump, a compact hammock, a compact kite, …), lighting stuff like a rechargeable/kerosene lantern, a tarp and ropes (if risk of rain), and then swim gear like flippers if they’ll be needed.  This gear will depend a lot on the type of place, season, amount of space in the vehicle, and so on.

Needless to say that winter camping in Canada has a whole bunch of other gear!  Some day I’ll do an article about what I bring winter camping.

12. What Else?

Going camping requires many decisions as to the gear to bring, how much space to use up, the weight, and being able to sort and arrange your gear.  What other categories can you think of?


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