You’re taking that? A guide to packing for camp

For the past eight summers Katy has headed to summer camp. This will be our first camp-less summer. (Edited: She ended up going to church camp.) Since we won’t be packing for summer camp and have picked up a few tips, some learned the hard way, along the line, I thought I would pass them onto parents just sending their kids out into this brave,  new world. But first, a little walk down Memory Lane.

I don’t even remember how Katy found out about Space Camp, I probably told her, but she had her heart set on it. The summer of 2010, we were driving back from our vacation in Texas when Heath decided to take a small detour and surprise Katy with a trip to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. It was summer and the place was crawling with campers in their flights suits. Katy was going to be nine the following December, which is the minimum age for Space Camp, but you have to be nine and completed the fourth grade (which makes most first-year campers 10). She was headed into fourth grade. I knew she was ready for camp, though. So we settled on a week of Girl Scout camp. I figured it would be a nurturing all-girl environment and it was inexpensive and close to home if she decided to bail out halfway through. We signed her up for a week of horse camp at Camp Meriwether. Not only did she not bail, she forgot we existed as soon as we got to her cabin.

Ready for a new adventure and the first of many exciting summers

With that successful summer behind us, she was really raring to go to Space Camp the following summer. Then the next year, we found out about Camp Juliette Low in the mountains about halfway between Atlanta and Huntsville, just along the Georgia/Alabama border. Katy and I were both intrigued by the fact that the camp, which is now independent, was established personally by Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of Girl Scouts, and had a really strong outdoor education program. So the third summer she spent a week at CJL. The next summer Space Academy, the second tier of Space Camp, beckoned and it was back to Huntsville. After that she decided she wanted to do a two-week session at CJL and that filled the next three summers. Lost count yet? We’re up to seven summers. Katy’s last year at CJL was the last year she was eligible to attend as a camper. She could have done the following two summers as a counselor-in-training. However, Advanced Space Academy was calling her name so her last summer was back in Huntsville. She was invited to Elite Space Academy this summer but that isn’t going to work out for a variety of reasons. We’re both a little disappointed but what to do?

So with all this packing, hauling and figuring out the best way to do things, we’ve learned a few things along the way. I will try to pass some of that on in an organized manner. Click on product photos to link to the item.

The Necessities

How do we get it all there?

The first thing anyone asks about camp is “what do we pack things in?” Summer camp brings up images of trunks plastered in stickers with the names of various camps. And trunks are often a very good choice. For Katy’s first summer we picked a rolling duffel bag. I don’t remember why, I don’t know if we were worried a trunk wouldn’t fit under the bed (it does and girls had them) or what. But we bought this rolling duffel and it was an excellent purchase. She also used it for three summers at Space Camp, which does have very low beds. If your child is staying in a cabin or other non-tent structure, a trunk isn’t a necessity. A duffel bag or even a suitcase work fine.

This is the bag we picked and I recommend it. It has held up well and it has very good reviews for airline travel, too. Important if you are flying to camp or just want to use it on another trip.  You can stuff it full and it rolls easily.


Outside the Space Camp area of the Space and Rocket Center.

Katy had no problem wheeling the bag around herself.

The other option is a trunk. If your child is going to be in a tent, a trunk is the best option. You need something water proof in case the tent flaps get left up in the rain. They are also sturdy enough to sit on, which is nice. Some kids use big Rubbermaid totes and tape them up with duct tape. I just don’t see that as very practical and Katy says at the end of the week someone usually has to sit on the lid to flatten it enough to tape it closed.

We needed a trunk the third summer, which was her first year at CJL. We went with the camp’s recommendation of a trunk from The Container Store as I certainly knew nothing about trunks.

This is the trunk CJL recommended. There are counselors who said they’ve been using the same plastic trunk for 15 years.

I know, Katy took more stuff to two weeks of camp than soldiers took to four years of World War II. Back to the trunk. The Container Store no longer carries it. I did some research and found out that this trunk is still being made but they’ve replaced the metal hinges with plastic and the reviews on Amazon dropped from five stars to one.

The Container Store is now carrying this trunk.

I checked it out at the store and it’s pretty much the same trunk. It has recessed wheels and a retractable handle so it’s very easy to move. The nice thing about this trunk is it weighs next to nothing. I can get ours into the attic by myself. That also means when it’s stuffed full it’s not any heavier than necessary.  If you are flying, you won’t find yourself with a hefty overweight luggage fee like with a wooden trunk. It’s very sturdy and provides a nice place to sit in the tent. It slides nicely under your standard-issue metal-frame camp bed.  At CJL the trunks are dropped off and then picked up in a central location and I’ve noticed it’s about half these plastic trunks and half wooden trunks. With the occasional duct-taped Rubbermaid container.

OK. We have our luggage, now let’s pack it.

The number one rule of packing: Have your camper pack or help you pack. A camper who packs her own stuff knows what  she has and where to find it. And can’t blame mom when she gets to camp and doesn’t have enough underwear.

Packing clothes

First rule: don’t pack anything you’ll miss if it’s lost or destroyed. This is a great time to pull out all those shirts your kids collect from field day, day camp and vacation Bible school. If you don’t have enough old clothes you can hit up Goodwill except around here Wal-Mart is actually cheaper.

Ziploc bags are your best friend here. You want the slider bags, they are easier to open and close. Pack one bag per day (or amount suggested by camp if laundry will be done) with a shirt, shorts, socks and underwear. Each day your camper grabs a bag and it’s all there. If the clothes are going to the shower,  they won’t get wet, and if rain leaks into the trunk in a tent, the clothes stay dry.

Be sure to pack an extra Ziploc with extra socks and underwear. Tell your child to bring the empty bags home, you can use them again next year. Katy threw hers away the first year, which isn’t nearly as bad as the child I heard about who forgot to bring her entire laundry bag of dirty clothes home.

If you have boys, don’t be alarmed if they bring back untouched baggies full of clean clothes.

Anyone lose a sock?

It’s recommended that you label things, especially if laundry will be done at camp. I’ve had great luck with labels from I get the iron-on ones because I just feel like they have a better chance of staying on and it only takes about two seconds to iron them. They’re also a whole lot cheaper. The stick-ons have good reviews. You’re supposed to put stick-on labels on the tag and most of Katy’s clothes don’t have tags, they may or may not stick to just the cotton. I have no idea, I haven’t tried. The iron-on labels stay on until you peel them off. I don’t think I’ve ever had one come off in the laundry but when it’s time to get rid of the clothes they peel off pretty easily. They also carry labels that stick to plastic, metal, wood, whatever other things you might want to put a label on.

And speaking of bringing dirty clothes home

Get a mesh laundry bag. Trust me on this. Katy took a non-breathable laundry bag to Space Camp, I figured they’re in air-conditioned buildings, it’ll be OK. When she got home, I opened that laundry bag and was hit with mildew. Pee-yew. And I found out lemon and salt does work on mildew. I sent old clothes but they get a camp t-shirt and that’s the one that got hit.

This way to the showers

I remember years ago a comic about a little boy at summer camp showing another camper how to rub the letters off a brand-new bar of soap so it would look like it had been used. Your camper will need all the usual toiletries and something to keep them in. Whether they use them or not, you’ll find out when they get home.

For toiletries, we’ve found liquid body wash and a nylon net scrubby are much easier to deal with than a slippery bar of soap and a drippy wash cloth. You can get two-in-one body wash and shampoo, which is really convenient.

For a container, I have three requirements: something that is flexible so it’s easy to cram into your bag or trunk, has drainage holes so the camper doesn’t bring home a bunch of scummy water and a handle because it’s easy to carry and sometimes there’s a hook to hang it on in the shower house.

Katy has used two that have worked great.

There was nothing wrong with the first one, we still have it, she just decided she liked the one with all the pockets.

If your child does a lot of overnights — summer camp, church retreats, school trips and so on — I recommended keeping a toiletry bag permanently packed then you avoid the departure-day “don’t forget your toothbrush” routine. You can pack it all ahead of time and not have to worry that last morning.

Speaking of mildew and drippy wash cloths

Things don’t get mildewed when they have a chance to dry out. If your child is staying in a cabin there’s usually a porch with railings where you can hang things. Or there might be a bunk bed ladder or something. In a tent, there’s not. Katy always takes a clothesline with a few clothes pins and is always the hero of the tent. It gets used. Those little plastic things are for securing it to the tree so you don’t have to tie any knots.


If you have to take your own bedding, it won’t fit in the trunk, don’t try. These Ziploc Big Bags are what you want. If you scroll up to the photo above with the trunk you can see the one I packed. It has a twin sheet set, mattress protector, a tarp to cover the made-up bed (a requirement at CJL), two blankets, her pillow and a sleeping bag.

They won’t zip closed when they’re overstuffed like we do but it’s easy to carry and you’re going to empty it out as soon as you get there anyway. When Katy gets home from camp I wash her sheets and blankets, stick them back in the bag and store it away and it’s ready to go for the next year.

Where is my … ?

Your camper is going to need to carry a few things around during the day at camp and will need some kind of lightweight bag. Katy always uses a cinch bag:

I don’t know about anyone else, but we have these things stacked up around the house. They’re popular freebies these days and Girl Scouts is really big on them. If your child doesn’t like the strings digging into her or his shoulders, something like this might work:

We have one of these backpacks and the little mesh pocket will not hold a water bottle. It will hold a pair of sunglasses.

This is a bag to pre-pack at home. What to put in it?

  • Water bottle
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen/insect repellent
  • Camera
  • Bandana (trust me on this, they come in handy)
  • Poncho
  • Band-aids. Every camp is equipped for first aid but I always give Katy a few band-aids so she doesn’t have to drip blood while she goes to find someone. And one year she went on a hike, a girl scraped her knee and the counselor had forgotten the first aid kit so Katy’s band-aids came in handy.

It sounds like a lot of stuff but kids are busy at camp, they’re outside a good bit of the day, they may or not make it back to their tent or cabin so you need to think about what might be needed throughout the day.

Onto the fun stuff!

I have only ever sent a daughter to camp so I’ve never had to pack a care package or activity box for a boy. If you have any suggestions for boy items, please share them in the comments and I’ll add them.

Activity Box

Some camps are go-go-go all day. At Space Camp the kids never slow down and everything is structured. At outdoor camp there’s usually some downtime in the afternoon. Katy takes a plastic shoe box full of activities. Some girls take bigger boxes and one of Katy’s tent mates had a hula hoop one year. We’ve found this style of six-quart box holds plenty and fits in the trunk.

What you put in it depends what your child likes to do to pass time. Some suggestions:

  • Sketch pad and colored pencils
  • Deck of cards (remember The Parent Trap?)
  • Specialty cards such as Uno, Uno Dare Scrabble Slam, Top Trumps,
  • Camp Bunk if you can find it for less than this. It looks like they quit making it. Katy and her tent mates really enjoyed it. I should have kept ours.
  • Embroidery floss for friendship bracelets
  • Paracord and key rings for making box braid key chains
  • Madlibs
  • Letterwriting supplies (they won’t write but put it in, anyway)
  • Origami paper
  • Novelty duct tape
  • Activity books
  • A journal. Even if your child doesn’t keep a journal it can be used for autographs and write down contact information for new friends.

Care Packages

Check the FAQs for your child’s camp before you do anything. Some will have restrictions on what you can send and how often. Remember anything extra you send, they still have to bring home. Most camps let you leave care packages at drop off. At Girl Scout camp there was a bin for each day and you dropped your package in the bin for the day you wanted it delivered. At CJL they hold them all at the trading post. I always drop Katy’s off (except the year I left it at home) but Katy says it’s more exciting and special to get something in the mail. Keep in mind this might mean mailing the package a few days before you actually leave. Your camp will have that information.

Care package items are usually things to be shared, not everyone gets one and everyone is interested in everyone else’s.

This is a photo of the care package contents I sent a few years ago. It’s mostly junky-but-fun stuff. The Dollar Store and Five Below are your friends.

Some suggestions:

  • Whoopie cushions (Katy says these are a must)
  • Silly String (check with your camp)
  • Bubbles (check with your camp, shouldn’t be a problem)
  • Bloonies
  • Glow sticks
  • Temporary tattoos
  • Nail polish
  • Wooden gliders (depending on camp environment, Katy lost hers in the woods immediately)
  • Hair ties if your daughter has long hair (the ones you sent originally will be lost by now)
  • Plastic bugs (lots of fun to be had, here)
  • Madlibs (if you didn’t put them in the activity box)
  • Paddleball with string

The ideas are endless, but anything that’s cheap and amusing looking and at least a few shareable things.

One year I sent cards to Katy. I passed one around the neighborhood for the neighbors to sign. For the other one since I had her cellphone I texted her friends and asked them to text messages to her. I printed the messages and taped them inside a card. She loved it, you’ll have to decide if it’ll cause a homesickness issue. Don’t expect mail home. At CJL, letter writing is really encouraged — there’s even a camp award for it — but the only letter I ever got was the one she was required to write. And it usually had about two sentences.


These items all depend on the type of camp and the setup.

If you’re staying in a tent and have to follow a path to the bathroom in the middle of the night, a headlamp is really nice. Katy likes her for reading so she doesn’t have to juggle the book and a flashlight. I have no idea what specific headlamp Katy has, my husband is in charge of gadgets, but something along this line.

These Crazy Creek chairs were popular at CJL.

They are very low to ground as you can see by this photo. They’re small and lightweight and great for the kids. Not so great for adults, too hard to get out of. Katy has used hers at camp and parades.

If your camp has lots of trees, a hammock is a great investment.

They’re big at CJL. The older girls use them on overnights and all the girls string them up for rest and recreation time. They were designed for college students and the two college visits we’ve made so far Katy has checked out the tree situation on campus to see where she might hang her ENO. She uses it at home, too. They come in two sizes: single and double nest. Get the double, you’ll end up getting it eventually anyway. They attach to the tree with a pair of straps (sold separately, naturally) and go up and down very quickly and easily.

Katy in her ENO at CJL. The girls decided to hang them up and make friendship bracelets.

A few notes for parents

For parents of daughters: Many a female has gone off to camp a little girl and come back a woman. If iour daughter is around 11-ish, I would say, and has not yet experienced this, make sure she has supplies and knows how to use them, assure her if it happens, many, many girls start at camp and if she has any questions or concerns, she can talk to the camp nurse. If you have an older daughter, she will probably say she doesn’t need anything but we women know teens cycles are wired to kick in at the most inconvenient times. Send her with a bag of pads and tampons even if she objects, if she doesn’t need them, someone else probably will.

For the homesick parent: If this is your child’s first time away from home for more than a night or two: you will miss your child. There is a 99% child that your child will forget who you are about five minutes after you get to camp. Katy’s first summer, we went to her cabin and she immediately climbed on another girl’s top bunk, started talking, and we had to drag her down for a hug. And our daughter is an introvert. In eight summers of camp she knows of two girls (at separate camps) who went home early due to homesickness. It’s really not likely to happen. So while your child is gone, enjoy your week of camp. If you have other children at home, do something special with them. If you are childless for a week or two, do something special for yourself or yourself and your spouse. I actually usually just end up mucking out Katy’s bedroom, it’s a good time for that, too. Your child will have a great time, remember “no news is good news” and you’ll hear all about it on the drive home. This is your child’s opportunity to really be themselves, navigate the world without your help, learn new skills in a safe place. And it’ll be a good trial run for going off to college!

Relax and camp on!








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