Minimalist Family Camping

Camping on a school night

How to squeeze a wild microadventure into monday to friday monotony.

The perfect test for my minimalist family camping kit was to camp on a school night. A one night micro adventure with my children, mid week, to escape the boring routine of work and school. With a compact camping kit that’s quick to pack and easy to pitch a one night camp should be easy, right? If you’re just with adults then yes, but how about if your camping buddies are bunch of hungry kids straight out of school? Who need a good night’s sleep and a very early start the next day to get them back to the playground at 8.30am in clean uniforms. If you need to have the car packed and site cleared by 8am? There would definitely be some extra challenges!

I decided to find out if it was possible, and put my easy grab’n’go camping kit to the test on the eve of the summer solstice. It was a last minute decision and I was glad to find an enthusiastic friend up for joining me. I was taking our three children (ages 6, 8 and 9) to the site on my own at 3.30pm and she’d join me later after work. Being the only adult with a bunch of kids going camping feels a bit daunting to me, mine aren’t terribly helpful pitching tents and are more likely to squabble over snacks and nonsense than help me. I would need to supervise them and set up alone.

What we did

Firstly, I choose a campsite with good facilities. Ours had picnic benches, firepits and fridges available (I phoned in advance to check we could use them all) so I left my table, chairs, bbq and small cool bag at home. I really wanted to reduce my gear even more than usual so we would have less to pack up in the morning, knowing we would have to leave the site by 8am to get back to school in time, allowing for traffic. Packing up would have to be REALLY quick.

We had been to the campsite before and knew it was lovely and our children were familiar with it so would hopefully settle in quickly. It was 25 minutes from school with large open fields, a rope swing a lake and some piglets! I stopped work at 2pm to throw our things in the car, packing clothes took me the most time as the camping gear was already organised. My friend had given me her pop-up tent already so I could pitch it for her. I grabbed some food from home, bought a bit more for the local co-op, picked up the kids at 3.15pm and off we went.

Hours on the rope swing instead of watching TV after school

What we took on our one-night camping trip

So, as a ‘mini’ camper I try to pack light when I can. My buddy for this trip was Nicky, a very happy self-confessed ‘maxi-camper’ who has ALL the gear and a massive car to put it in. She loves taking her home comforts camping with her, they have a large family Outwell airbeam tent, electrical hookup, a fridge, heater, toilet, wine glasses, water jugs, salad bowls… However, we both knew we had to take as little as possible and this is what we each took:

Me (with two children age 6 and 8):

Coleman Kobuk Valley 4 Blackout tent

Groundsheet (to keep tent dry underneath – I didn’t want to pack up a wet tent in the morning)

Waterproof picnic blanket

3 x Sims

3x sleeping bags

3 x inflatable pillows

3 plastic tubs (two empty for food, shoes) one packed with all my usual small items (mallet, plates, pans, kettle, matches, head torches, oil, teatowel…)

Clothes (two bags, inc thermals for each of us)

2 cuddly toys, 1 story book, colouring books and pens (my daughters favourite pass-time)

1 folding chair


Small folding table

Folding washing up bowl

Single stove with cannister

Bag of food (and wine!)

1 travel towel

Nicky (and one child):

Quechua 2 Seconds Fresh n Black Pop up Tent (3 man) – (her son’s)

The biggest SIM I’ve ever seen (10cm Outwell Dreamcatcher Double)

A huge snuggly double sleeping bag (Outwell camper Lux)

Kids dinosaur sleeping bag

Real pillows

Mattress cover

2 large padded camping chairs (Vegas XL)

1 Kampa Tub Chair

Chargeable light (Outwell)

Jug with stacking coloured cups

Stacking wine glasses

1 bag clothes

A £30 bottle of wine

Nicky my fab maxi-camping friend with her mattress – its bigger than my tent but I bet she was comfy!

Posh wine in Nicky’s coloured glamping cups and my micro washing up liquid . Maxi-camping meets mini-camping.

How it went

The afternoon and evening were great. It was amazing to find the campsite so empty, there was only one other tent apart from ours. It’s getting harder to even book a pitch at the weekends near us as the sites are so busy so the lack of people was wonderful. Our children safely ran all over place, played for hours on the rope swing and we all enjoyed meeting the campsite’s piglets. My sensory child enjoyed playing with cold ash from a firepit which got him extremely dirty but he really enjoyed himself so I didn’t interrupt, other than to get get him changed out of his school uniform before he trashed it.

Set up was quick with the two small tents, and I had help from the oldest child. As predicted the other two were arguing about snacks while we were pitching but they would have done that at home! I cooked rice, bacon and mange tout on a single ring stove and we had easy snacks like tinned pineapple for pudding.

Our two small blackout tents – small, light and quick to pitch

My technology obsessed 8-year old spent ages just exploring cold ash.

We had both brought blackout tents but still failed to get the kids to fall asleep before 10pm, they were just too excited. The fire was a hit and of course we had marshmallows. It was absolutely lovely to sit by the fire in the darkness with the children finally asleep and just enjoy being outdoors at night. And knowing it was a school night and we would normally have been at home doing boring chores made it all the more enjoyable. The kids slept well, not waking 7.10am.

I did find packing up in the morning pretty stressful. We woke at 7.10am and after a quick shower with my ash-covered child we only had half an hour to feed the kids, get them in their uniform, pack school snack boxes and pack up all the gear. Aarrgh! It was crazy and we only just made it to school in time. SIMs were folded in half and shoved in to cars still inflated, Nicky’s pop-up tent was still up, just manhandled somehow into her massive car boot. My tent was rolled up but not in the bag, basically stuff was everywhere as we didn’t have time to pack up properly.

Traffic was a bit slow but we made it! Despite the early-morning chaos, strolling into school on time with clean kids in neat uniforms like nothing ever happened literally felt amazing, like we’d had a huge adventure. We high-fived and felt extremely pleased with ourselves as we passed the other parents in the playground.

Top 10 camping on a school night tips

1. Choose a campsite less than half an hour away from school which has good facilities you can use, eg picnic tables, firepits… so you won’t need to bring these things from home

2. Pack very very light. eg. Use paper plates and cups which can be recycled so nothing to pack back up the next day, no crockery or washing up equipment required

3. Don’t cook, bring a picnic instead or get a takeaway for the adults (then leave all the cooking gear at home inc stove, gas, pans, utensils, oil…). Busy kids may prefer to graze anyway, grabbing bits of food in between dashing off to explore.

4. Pack school snack boxes the night before. In fact, pack up whatever you can during the evening.

5. To avoid night time toilet trips stop all fluids 1 hour before bed

6. Bring real pillows (takes a while to deflate and pack up inflating ones, real pillows just get chucked in the car. I don’t usually take them but speed is most important on a school night trip plus kids need to sleep as well as possible before another day at school)

7. Try and maintain your usual bedtime routine, settling them down with stories etc. but be aware that your chances of getting children to sleep at their usual bedtime are slim! Allow yourself to relax and accept this. Its just for one night they can catch up on sleep tomorrow night.

8. Get up early! (allow at least an hour to get kids ready for school and pack up)

9. Give kids breakfast in the car (croissants and fruit, not cereal on site as bowls need washing etc.) as we had a half hour journey to school

10. If camping with other adults, consider one parent doing the school run while the other finishes packing up.

So yes its possible, yes its enjoyable and yes it feels like a huge adventure. Its more work than just staying at home but its will be a night you won’t forget in a hurry. (I think its worth the effort just to get an empty campsite!) The key is to pack light so you’ll be able to set up and pack up quickly and easily.

So sod the 9 to 5, the week-day routine, the safety of the four walls. Bust off those shackles and take your littlies on a tiny but mighty adventure, get ‘FUN’ back at the top of your To-Do list.

This little one loved running and running in a massive field with no other people and no cars – one of the benefits of school night camping is an empty site

Strolling into school ON TIME as if nothing ever happened. We did it!!

#campingschoolnight #midweekcamping #campingwithkids #microadventure #campingafterschool #howtocampwithkids

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