10 Tips on packing for summer camp

Be prepared to lose everything you send to camp except your kid..

“Where are my shoes?” “I can’t find my bathing suit, help me look.” Sigh, just another typical day for a summer camp counselor. Digging through overstuffed duffel bags, suitcases that are bigger than the campers who brought them and travel trunks closely resembling small coffins. While the bathing suit and gym shoes continue to evade your child’s counselor inside the 15-foot-by-20-foot cabin, the camper has no trouble finding his iPod, candy and flashlight (especially after the lights are out at night). In the end, the camper is late for the swimming lesson, gets mad when the iPod ends up broken or lost and the cabin becomes infested by mice loving that sweet candy.

So what can you, the parents, do to save your child’s camp experience and the counselor’s sanity? Be prepared to lose anything you send to camp, except your child. A counselor’s responsibility starts and ends with his or her campers. When you have 10 children to look after you can’t always spend time looking for a towel or a bathing suit that was lost. The answer: Pack smart. It’s’s just as important to know what not to pack as it is to pack what’s needed. Children need an extra bathing suit, not a cell phone; a water bottle, not a bottle of aspirin. Here are some tips to help send your child better prepared than the average camper.

  1. The bag. Let’s start with the basics–the pack. Big duffel bags work best. They should be big enough to have some extra space after everything is inside because we all know dirty balled up clothes take more room than clean folded ones. Within the duffel bag you can invent you own ways to organize things. Large zip lock bags work well for things like underwear, socks and toiletries. Extra pillow cases could hold shorts and T-shirts. If you want to go the expensive route you can buy nylon stuff sacks in lots of different colors and sizes from camping suppliers. Trunks or big plastic tubs can also work, unless your camp prohibits them. The advantage is that they hold their shape and keep the things inside from being tossed around. The disadvantage is that they’re hard to move around.
  2. The flashlight. For a flashlight just send one that is small and cheap. Counselors try to keep flashlights in the camper’s bag. Campfires are not much fun when the most commonly heard phrase is “if you turn that flashlight on again I’m taking it away.” It’s part of the experience to be outdoors at night. Children are amazed when they turn their flashlights off and can actually see that the moon casts shadows. For kids flashlights are more of a security blanket than a necessity. They like them at hand to ward off what looms in the dark when we’re out at night.
  3. The clothes. Every camp clothing list is pretty much the same: shorts, T-shirts, underwear and socks. That’s the easy part. But there are some very important things that get forgotten. One major thing is an extra bathing suit. Most any camp’s activities are based around swimming or water. If that bathing suit decides to just “walk away” as they sometimes do, you child will be in a lot of trouble without it. When a packing list says 12 pairs of socks, expect to find about four in your child’s bag when he or she comes home and none will be pairs. For any normal summer camp, cheap low-cut white socks should work fine. A sock’s life at camp starts by getting worn, then getting dirty, sometimes getting wet and finally getting lost. Bottom line, if your child wants to have Nike socks, remind them that’s why they have an allowance.
  4. Don’t forget. One thing parents often forget is toiletries. Ironically this is something that I myself left at home accidentally when heading off to work at camp. My parents lovingly rush-delivered them to me. Sometimes during a week of swimming in a lake, sweating outside and being a kid, campers need a shower. But no one showers every day, not even counselors. Just send enough toiletries for them to get by. Hotel-sized or sample bottles are great. Two little shampoos and a bar of soap should be all a young camper needs in a week. Obviously, a longer stay at camp requires more stuff. Toothbrush and toothpaste, any kind and size will do. Put all of this into a zip lock bag, it’s the easiest way for the camper to bring it to and from the bathroom at night. Don’t throw in other things that the camper really doesn’t need. Scissors, tweezers, first aid supplies, medication, should all stay out of this bag.
  5. Medication and first aid. If your child needs medication be sure to give it to the camp nurse with instructions on when it is to be given. Inhalers also go to the nurse. Don’t send any medication in the child’s bag, even if it is over-the-counter. If you want to make sure your child gets a particular over-the-counter medication, send it to the nurse. She’ll put your name on it and can administer it to your child if necessary. Also under the whole medication, nurses, and health genre, please don’t send a first aid kit with your child. Camps want to be responsible for properly treating and documenting any injuries. Counselors carry first aid kits and are also never bothered by taking kids to the nurse’s office. Campers are there to have fun, not to play doctor.
  6. No high tech. They’re also not there to play video games. Toys, iPods, smart phones and the like, should stay at home. If your child comes back from a week at summer camp and they tell you they got the high score on their video game, you just wasted 0. Summer camp is a place where children get away from their normal lives and try something different. You don’t send them off to sit around inside. Besides, the electronics and other banned items are taken from from campers and held until the end of the session. Do I really need to mention that guns, any kind of knife, matches and pets are never to come with your camper?
  7. Cell/Smart phones. Cell phones aren’t allowed for another reason. Calling home promotes homesickness. When a child misses home, the last thing he or she should do is call and think more about it. At camp we don’t talk about home. We don’t ask about it and we don’t tell about it. It’s all camp, all day.
  8. Sleeping bags. Every family has those old sleeping bags with the nylon outside, the metal zipper and the plaid lining. They’re great for sleepovers, not so great for campers. To say the least, they soak up water like a super sponge and then hold onto it for dear life. And moisture is a problem on a campout, not only after it rains but also–parents, c’mon, you know what I’m talking about–bed-wetting. It happens, counselors know it happens and we know how to deal with it. The faster we can dry your child’s sleeping bag then the less chance that other campers are going to notice anything different in the cabin. Buy a sleeping bag to fit your child. A child who is 4 feet tall doesn’t need a sleeping bag that can fit a 6-foot 200-pound man. My sleeping bag packs down so small I once had a camper ask, “How come you get all the James Bond stuff?”
  9. Water bottle. Every camper needs a water bottle. Pull top or sport bottles are the best bet for price and usefulness. On a hot day in Wisconsin, I would drink about a gallon of water every day and I wasn’t going to the bathroom every five minutes. I know my campers did not drink nearly a third of that. It’s not a bad idea to “teach” your kids to drink water. At dinner tell them, “No juice or milk until you drink a glass of water.” We use that approach at camp all the time.
  10. Mark it all? Mark everything with your child’s name, every sock, each pair of underwear, the pencils and the flashlight batteries. Mark your child. Put his or her name across the forehead, spelled phonetically if need be, in big black marker. It will avoid those first day names of ‘kid with the hat’ or ‘you, no not you, the other you.’ Seriously, though, putting your child’s name on everything isn’t necessary. Mark the most important things: towel, swimsuit and shoes. As long as your camper has that stuff set, the counselors can take care of the rest.

Campers aren’t going to look at the pile of dirty socks in the middle of the room to see which ones have their name on them. Counselors aren’t all heartless teenagers. We know when certain things just have to be found. I once put the most effort into finding a camper’s retainer. Classic story–took it out at breakfast, put it in a napkin, forgot, and it was cleaned up with the tables. Well, the camper and I pulled on some latex gloves and dug through all of the breakfast trash. After a while he pulled out a napkin and excitedly said, “I found it!” To which I replied, “Are you serious!?” He had found it and after it was washed in the camp’s sanitizer, it was safely returned to his mouth.

Follow these tips and you’ll be able to send your child off prepared for everything. Then, when you pick your child up from camp, the only thing that will matter is the smile on his or her face. The duffel bag will be a mess, it’s a given. It might drip water as you carry it to the car and you’ll smell things that you may never have smelled before. You’ll also have a child who is begging you to sign up for camp next summer.


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