Who couldn’t do with some last-minute unsolicited overnight camp packing advice?
I sent my kids to a Jewish sleepaway camp for the first time about nine years ago, and have been doing it with some combination of my children ever since. But I clearly remember what it was like being a first-time camp parent — after all, I was once the newbie who sent my kid to camp with brand-new sneakers, assuming they would return in a state where they were recognizable as sneakers. (Spoiler: They came back as dirt-encrusted bricks that smelled so unbearable that I don’t know how my son actually managed to live with himself.)
Here are 10 things I wish I’d known about packing before sending my kids to sleepaway camp for the first time.
1. Don’t pack anything that you ever want to see again.
Think of all the contents of your kids’ duffels as making a one-way trip, and pack accordingly. Keep the favorite T-shirts home. Trust me. Yes, I’m aware that you label everything. (Personally, I’ve spent many an unrewarding hour writing my ex-husband’s inordinately long last name on the bottoms of tube socks.) However: The camp laundry — if there is a camp laundry, that is — is not an artisanal institution or five-star resort. Your kid will somehow manage to misplace basically everything not attached to their small, soon-to-be very dirty bodies. Also, there are kids out there like my older son who see the camp lost and found as a source of alternate clothing, and come home wearing sweatshirts from schools they couldn’t even find on a map (sorry).
2. The first time is the priciest!
Camp is expensive — but the first year is the worst. That’s not because the tuition is so expensive (spoiler: in many cases, it is), but because you have to buy ALL THE THINGS, from the duffels to the sheets to the flashlights. It’s a lot, and it seems overwhelming and leaves a bad aftertaste. Just remind yourself that many of these things are (hopefully) one-off purchases. The joy you will feel next spring when you open these duffel bags and find the same crap in them from last year — and you get to send your kids to camp with all of it and again and again? Priceless!
3. Set expectations for communication.
If you plan to get any mail from your children, sit your kid down and explain your expectations. I have high expectations for written communications from my kids, and they have met them because I set them out in advance, but also because I do the following:
- Have your kid pre-address and stamp the number of envelopes you realistically expect them to fill. (Pro tip: If you use forever stamps, any unused envelopes can go back to camp next summer!). This method not only teaches kids the useful perhaps-as-yet-unused skill of how to address an envelope and stamp it, but also minimizes their “work” (lol) in communicating with you over the summer.
- Get them a storage clipboard, like this one and fill it with the addressed envelopes as well as pens, pencils, stickers, etc. Also buy them a durable envelope like this, where they can keep the mail they receive.
4. Pack extra underwear.
And, this summer, extra face masks. As Meryl Streep says in “The Devil Wears Prada,” “That’s all.”
5. Some small extras can make things comfier.
At my kids’ camp, there’s not really a nightstand-type situation for all the stuff they might want to have handy by the bed at night. So I like to send them some sort of bedside organizer (like this) so even a top-bunker can have a book, flashlight and bottle of water at the ready. I also like to send some hooks that can adhere to walls or bunks. Maybe if they hang up the towels, that will help them smell less pungent? A girl can dream.
6. Don’t forget a fan!
Camp is fun, but it is also hotter than my perimenopausal self at 2 a.m. I believe you cannot go wrong with one of these battery-powered babies (note: pack batteries too). Also, while you’re at it, get one for yourself — you won’t regret it.
7. Get the right water shoes.
If you send flip-flops to camp, just know that they’re going to break within 24 hours. It’s basically inevitable. Because of this, I’d suggest packing slides instead. Whichever way you go, I’d suggest packing a cheap extra pair of either. And yes, you need both shower shoes AND beach/water shoes — these are two separate entities. Because trust me: You do not want your kid wearing the same shoes into the lake as they do into the shower.
8. Printed photos are your friends.
Print out photos and put them in the kids’ bags, but not just family photos — print out photos of friends, funny shots of the dog, whatever might make them smile. These will serve as a reference point for new friends (“this is my annoying sister!”), a balm for homesickness, if needed, and a way to help them recognize you when they get off the camp bus at the end of the summer.
9. Pack some painters’ tape.
Something that comes in handy at camp is painters’ tape. Whether it’s used to hang up those photos, Color War signs or warnings to other bunks, it’s something that few people bring. YOU CAN BE THE HERO.
10. Familiarize your kids with their toiletries.
Header image via Maya Karkalicheva/Getty Images