Be prepared to lose everything you send to camp except your
"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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 $600. 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?
- 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.
- 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?"
- 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.
- 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.
Graham is the digital editor for ChicagoParent.com
See more of Graham's stories here.