I thought about creating a nice, normal packing checklist for family travel, but then I remembered that not everyone has binoculars on their packing list. I have three active young boys, plus a nature-loving husband. Kids forget to pack underwear? No problem — they can go commando until we find a Target. But forget the butterfly net? Total catastrophe.
Instead, here’s a list to help all of you out there who also have little adventurers. We use this list for farflung trips to Costa Rica and close-by adventures into Olympic National Park. It’s also important on road trips: you never know when you are going to need to stop by a river for a little break. Or when you’re going to encounter an awesome bug that MUST be captured before you can take another step.
These items take first priority in our suitcases, and have kept our kids happy and entertained (off the grid!) on many an adventure.
Packing List for Adventurous Kids
Binoculars: I love these durable ones for little kids, but they are bulky. We also have tiny, cheap pairs from national park gift shops. Those are less durable but more packable.
Flashlight: A must have if you are going to the tropics, where it gets dark before bedtime, or on camping trips. Any little flashlight will work, like these cute ones, but headlamps have the advantage of leaving your hands free to catch frogs. That said, I get annoyed when my toddler keeps looking up at me and shining that super bright LED light in my eyes, so I usually just give the toddler the cheapest flashlight I can find.
Butterfly net: I’m partial to Melissa and Doug’s bug net for durability. We’ve had about a million of the super cheap bamboo ones around our house, but they break pretty fast. As a bonus, the Melissa and Doug nets are cute. The Easter Bunny brings new ones to us every spring.
Creature box: This is MonsterDad’s pick. I think anything that is going to escape from a bucket or their hands isn’t welcome in my car…but I’ve lost that battle many times. I like critter cages with hard sides like this one, because the cages with soft mesh sides are easily crushed and torn by toddler hands, in my experience.
Water shoes/sandals: This is a personal choice, of course. I’m partial to Keens. They’re worth it for us because each pair goes through three kids!
Hat: A good, quick-dry sun hat is a must.
Sunglasses: Traditionally I’m a quantity over quality gal when it comes to sunglasses, because my youngest has been known to systematically tear apart every pair he can find. But I’m wondering if a pair like this with a neck strap might help them last a little longer in our family…
Kid’s camera: Kids absolutely love to take their own pictures, and digital technology means its cheap enough that they can. We had this Vtech one for a long time for our toddlers/preschoolers, but I’m looking at this one for my eight-year-old, who fancies himself a serious nature photographer.
Backpack: I’m still on the fence about which type of backpack is best for my kids on extensive trips: best all around? Total travel backpack? Or a hiking-style Camelbak? My kids have Camelbaks that they got one Christmas. I was hoping using the water reservoir and sucking water through tube might encourage hydration. I’m not sure it did.
Insulated water bottle: Like Camelbak’s cute stainless steel ones.
Nature journal: File this under Stuff Nobody in my Family Cares about but Me. A random sheet of yellow legal paper would probably be sufficient with all the boys I live with; mainly they’re just trying to keep track of who saw the most poisonous critter. But I still gave them all cute nature journals one year for Christmas. Because mom should get something that makes her happy.
Sand toys: Finding collapsible sand buckets has changed my life. For a long time, I refused to pack toys like this and insisted they were just fine with scavenged broken coconut husks and sticks at the beach. It’s not life or death, but a bucket and shovel goes a long way toward keeping toddlers happy. Especially if they are insisting on carrying tiny frogs back to the hotel room.
Microfiber towel: I have one I bought for a backpacking trip 20 years ago, but I’m tempted to buy this set. My kids regularly try to climb into the car covered in sand or mud. The younger two are also frequently so wet they have to shed all their clothes before they are allowed back in. Regular towels are way too bulky to carry around, and when we travel I don’t want to take nice towels from a hotel room. These fold up really small and dry fast; they also can double as a sun shade, changing table, emergency clothes, or bib. A multi-use item that’s worth every inch in the suitcase.