Some of my happiest childhood memories were spent on the lake. When the Alabama summer heat was too unbearable, everyone jumped in their cars (or more accurately, their pickup trucks) and headed just 45 minutes away to spend weekends and holidays at Lake Martin. My family owned a Sea-Doo and we would often retreat to the lake houses of friends and family. After imposing on their hospitality too long, my parents finally bought a lake house and a boat to call our own.
Lake days were lazy, filled with lots of water-skiing, swimming, and plenty of good Southern barbecue. There were no electronics, unless you counted the oldies music we played from the boat radio. The goal was relaxation and family bonding. We rarely looked at a clock. Sunset was our only limitation.
In many ways, these lake vacations were the opposite of the way I often travel with my kids today, rushing from site to site trying to make the most of the little vacation time my husband and I have between us. There’s something so valuable, however, in these simpler getaways.
We’ve luckily been able to take our kids on a quite a few old-fashioned lake vacations so far, from places like our perennial favorite Lake Tahoe to Lake of the Woods in southern Oregon. Of course, we’ve also been back to my childhood stomping grounds at Lake Martin, Alabama and Lake Norman, North Carolina and lots of places in between. In the last couple of years with many families taking their travel to the great outdoors instead of the normal crowded urban destinations, many of you re-discovered these low key and remote vacations too.
If you are a regular reader, you know I’m all about trip planning and list-making. So this seemed like the perfect chance to put those skills to work for you. Keep reading for all the tips you need to know if you are more of a beginner to lake vacations, complete with a a comprehensive packing list for anyone headed to a lake destination (and there’s also day at the lake packing list printable below, so don’t miss it!).
(Trips With Tykes uses affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase through links in this post. See our full disclosure policy linked in the menu at the bottom of this site.)
First Time Planning a Day at the Lake? Tips for Lake Vacation Newbies
If you are new to lake vacations and this kind of travel, a few important tips before we get to the lake day checklist part…
1. Decide what kind of a lake trip you want
Lake vacation experiences can be very different depending on the destination you choose. Some lake trips are all about motorboats and active water sports like water skiing and wakeboarding. Others are more about spending quiet time swimming on the shore of a secluded lake cabin. Be sure to do your destination research so you get the lake experience you want.
2. Check your state’s rules & regulations
If you plan to operate any kind of motorized vehicle on the water at the lake or go fishing, make sure you have checked your state’s and destination’s applicable laws first. An increasing number of states now require a special license for piloting boats and personal watercraft like Jet-Skis. And lots of bodies of water around the country may not allow fishing (or allow it only with a license). You’ll also want to make sure you follow all rules and regulations for how many life jackets need to be aboard boats, etc.
3. Plan well in advance
Although lake vacations are easy and simple in so many ways, they do require preparation. A few of the supplies you’ll need for a successful lake vacation might not be easy to buy on the fly in a lot of places. Be prepared to do some ordering online or hit up an outdoor supply store like REI, Dick’s Sporting Goods, or West Marine. Additionally, if you need a place to stay or plan to rent a boat, you’ll need to make reservations for that. Availability can be tight on popular summer weekends, so plan early.
4. Safety first!
As with anything around water, safety is essential – especially if you are traveling with kids who might not be water safe yet. Have all the right gear like life jackets and first aid supplies. Be sure to not overload your boat or operate it unsafely (alcohol is sadly the cause of a lot of lake tragedies, so have a DD!). And leave behind items that may be a safety risk in a lake or boating environment – like glass bottles.
Related: Water Safety Tips for Kids
5. Think practical
Lake vacations are not the time to pack the designer sunglasses or expensive swimsuit. The joy of lake travel is that it can be a little messy. Things get dropped in the water, lost, or broken. Bathing suits get snagged sitting on the dock.
So I highly recommend packing practical, functional, and inexpensive items for your lake day. And make sure you have the gear to avoid common mishaps (like a waterproof case to protect your cell phone and a floating keychain so your car keys don’t disappear in the depths). I’ve made sure to include some of our favorite products linked below so you can purchase intelligently and inexpensively!
What to Bring to the Lake: Lake Packing List for Day Trips
What do you need to pack for a successful family day trip to the lake? Here are my must-have lake essentials, with a few tips for where to buy them. Be sure to scroll to download the printable below so you can check things off as you pack them and don’t forget to pack anything!
- Bathing suits, rash guards, and coverups (for colder lakes, you may also want a shortie wetsuit – especially for younger kids)
- Dry change of clothes
- Flip flops
- Water shoes (for kids, these aqua sport shoes have been our personal favorites for price and functionality)
- Tote bag or backpack
- First aid kit (this waterproof first aid kit has all the essentials)
- Swiss army knife or multitool (look for one that has a bottle opener, corkscrew, scissors, and a screwdriver on it like this one)
- Flashlight & batteries (this floating waterproof flashlight is an inexpensive choice)
- Bug spray or insect repellent wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Brush & hair ties
- Coast-guard certified life jackets (we like the Puddle Jumper for swimming but a traditional toddler life jacket with a head up float feature may be safer for boating)
- Swim goggles or masks
- Floats, rafts, inner tubes, & noodles (our kids have had way too much fun with this jumbo one on beach vacations)
- Sand toys (these collapsible buckets and sand toys will save space in your trunk!)
- Camping or beach chairs
- Waterskis, kneeboards, wakeboards, & tube with appropriate pull ropes
- Kayaks or paddleboards
- Snacks & food (if you have a lake house as a home base, check out this grocery shopping list for vacation rentals for more food ideas)
- Cooking utensils or supplies if needed (plates, serving spoons, knife, cutting board, grill and related supplies like matches, charcoal/propane, tongs, aluminum foil)
- Drinks: water, beer, soda, juice boxes, etc. (pack water bottles and/or plenty of bottled water especially)
- Cooler & ice (you may want a larger cooler with wheels for the trip and a smaller soft sided cooler to take to the dock or on the boat)
- Paper towels
- Trash bags
- Ziploc bags, multiple sizes (put dry items in them to protect against splashes, consider this larger 2 gallon size to pack up wet bathing suits)
- Swim diapers (for babies & toddlers)
- Books or magazines
- Playing cards, board games, or puzzles
- Fishing poles and supplies + fishing license
- Boating license & registration (where required)
- Boat/boat trailer with any and all locks/keys
- Floating keychain
- Cell phone with cell phone waterproof sleeve (we swear by this waterproof phone case for our iPhones, even while taking photos underwater!)
- Portable phone charger power bank with cords
- Portable speaker
More Packing List Posts to Add To Your Lake Vacation Packing List
If you are going for a longer lake trip or need speciality supplies for babies and toddlers, check out these packing list posts for more items you may want to add!
- First Aid Kit Packing List for Family Travelers
- Daypack Packing List for Potty Training Toddlers
- COVID-19 Packing List: Extra Items to Bring
- Ultimate Diaper Bag Packing List
Is some time on the lake with your family usually part of your summer travel plans?