How To: Pack for Summer Camp
I have a love-hate relationship when it comes time to pack my girls for sleep-away camp. First, I know that going to and being at camp is something that my girls love to do - it is truly their happy place in life. And I can completely relate! I also went to sleep-away camp as a child and, still to this day, cherish my years at camp and the lifelong friendships that I made. However, when it comes time to pack for sleep-away camp, I also start to get sad knowing that my girls will be out of the house for so long. As a parent, I know this tug happens to us all at different moments. So I try to sit with all of the different feelings surrounding them leaving for camp and use that time to power through the packing!
As the organized mama that I am, I actually love when it comes time to pack for camp because, as you know, I am all about lists, piles, labels and more. However I know that is not the case for many families getting ready for camp and the packing process can be overwhelming. When I mentioned on Instagram that I was starting to pack for summer camp my DMs were flooded with questions and requests for tips and must-have items. So after years of experience not only as a camper but camp mom and organizer, I have compiled a list of the most frequently asked questions below about all things packing for sleep-away camp. I have also create a free-download with my favorite camp products and printable lists to help keep you organized.
Before we start, I will remind you that every camp’s packing list is different, every camp handles what you can bring vs. what you can’t differently, so please keep that in mind when thinking about packing and do what is best for your child and their camp experience.
I also strongly suggest that you pack with your child so that they take ownership in their own organization and packaging experience for summer camp. They are going to be away from home having to navigate getting dressed each day, showering, making their beds, etc. and the more involved they are knowing what is going into their trunk, the better off they will be while at camp.
I hope the tips and free download help create some calm and ease when you are packing for summer camp. And I am wishing your children going off to sleep-away camp such a magical summer filled with nature, being disconnected from technology, swimming, waterskiing, canoeing in the lake, singing songs and being with friends. Summer camp is an experience that I am grateful that my girls and kids across the country get to have in life!
WHERE DO YOU START?
I always say that the earlier you begin packing, the less stressed out you’re going to be, so there is no harm in starting as early as you can. But before you dive in, it is helpful to have a plan in place on how you will organize everything, where you will be “staging” the items before you pack them up and your timetable for packing.
First, depending on how your child and their baggage are getting to camp, it is important to work backwards from the departure date of their duffle or trunks. For example, my girls’ duffles and items leave two weeks before camp starts. This means we have to not only make sure they are fully packed by that date but we need enough stuff at home for those two weeks after their bags leave. Packing is much easier for kids that have to wear a uniform because they can continue to wear their “everyday” clothes while you work on packing and after their duffles/trunks have departed. But for those children that need to pack up their “everyday” clothing for sleep-away camp, you have to be a bit more strategic about things.
After you have established a timetable for packing, it is important to think about the type of bag(s) you are going to use to pack. We use a soft sided duffel and they have truly stood the test of time. They are large, spacious and then get unloaded into a trunk and some cubbies once at camp. However, some kids might need an actual trunk to bring with them because it is also used for storage when at camp. The specific piece(s) you use to pack are going to be determined by camp rules and how your child is getting to camp. If you are driving your child you might have less room for larger bags, if your child is flying you might want your bags on wheels or if your child is taking a bus you might be limited with how many pieces they can take.
Next, every camp that I have ever seen has a packing list for the summer which is a great place to start. You will probably have most of the items on the list already but there will always be things on the list that you may need to purchase or replenish, so, again, starting to pack for sleep-away camp can never be done too early! Some kids wear uniforms and some camps don’t require it. Many camps supply some items for campers like bedding and towels so you may have the option to opt to use the camp’s items. Essentially, your packing list is going to completely vary from one camper to another based on where they are headed.
Use the packing list provided by the camp as your guide to get started and then create a supplemental list for/with your child. I have created a free download here that includes my templates for packing lists. I also recommend trying to chat with a family that has already been to the same camp to see if you need to pack exactly according to the list or if you should be adding anything else. For example, even though the packing list says bring 4 pairs of shorts, do you really need to pack many more?
Finally, most camps will probably have a list of items that they recommend not to come to camp (for example, things like electronics, food, etc.) and it is just as important to keep an eye on those lists as the must-have list.
HOW DO YOU PACK?
When packing in our house we first go through each category on the camp’s list and lay everything out that we already have on hand. We then add in the items from our own personal list within that same category. Once we have gathered all of those elements, I create two separate lists - the first is the list of items that I have to purchase and second is a list of the items that we are holding out from packing at that time but will eventually need to add in. One of my biggest tips when compiling the items for camp is I highly recommend not packing nice items that could break, get damaged or that you or your child would be upset if it didn’t come home.
After you have gathered all of the items you need to label everything and I mean, everything! This is the most important step when packing for camp because your kids are living without you, even if for just a week and camp laundry (if your kids stay longer than a week) is notorious for losing things. There are tons of different types of labels available. We use these two types of labels. I prefer the sew in labels for clothing items or the iron ons labels and then sticker labels for other things like sports equipment or toiletries. There is also the trick of using a plain old marker that works totally fine if you don’t want to have to get out the iron!
Once things are labeled, I suggest categorizing the items you are packing. Ziploc bags are the easiest way to categorize items and then just as easy to unload once at camp but obviously not wonderful for the environment. Now that my girls are older, I am not sure how many Ziplocs I will use but I will inevitably use some. Ziplocs come in multiple sizes like these here and here so it is useful for packing a variety of items. They are great for setting aside an outfit for one night if there is something your child needs to look “nice for” during the summer or a uniform set. They are also the best for packing toiletries that might leak. We always double bag things like shampoo, conditioner, face soap and toothpaste.
Another option for creating categories are packing cubes. However, I have found that when I have sent my nice packing cubes (like these here) away with the girls, only half of them return! If your child is more responsible, something like this here makes a great option. Additionally, bags like these here are great for towels, linens or bulkier items because the air can be sucked out. They also are great for re-packing dirty items on the return pack.
While you are creating categories you can think beyond the inside of the bag. If your child is allowed two bags, I tend to categorize clothing in one and things like bedding, towels and sports equipment in the other.
For a bonus tip: if you are packing things like posters or family photos, I recommend that you pack the way you would like it hung (tacks or sticky tape like this here) along with the item so that counselors or your child knows how to put it up and with what.
IS IT ENOUGH TO FOLLOW THE CAMP PACKING LIST?
In general, yes. The camp puts a lot of time and effort into the list to try to be as helpful as possible.
However, there are definitely items that you will want to add or at least think about if your camp doesn’t mention them on the packing list. If your child is allowed to personalize their space I would suggest things like twinkle lights, family photos, a calendar, stuffed animals, smaller bed pillows and posters. Other fun options are something that new friends at camp could sign like this here, a disposable camera, crafting items, card games or jacks.
Also think about things that your child might not use at home but will want at camp like a towel wrap for the shower or a robe so they don’t have to use a towel to get back to their bunk. I also have received complaints from the girls that the beds aren’t comfortable so they use a pad on top of the mattress. They have also let me know that it is really hot so they need more than one fan one to help - they like these here and here. My girls also read a lot at night and instead of the traditional flashlight that I send them with, they use a headlamp to make it easier to read.
I linked all of these suggestions and so many more of our of our family’s must-have items on the free download here.
HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILD STAY ORGANIZED AT CAMP?
As with many elements of packing for camp, your child’s camp’s specific rules of how to get items to camp and how they are stored once they are there will play a role in what you can and need to bring with you to set your child up to stay organized.
I always suggest thinking about organizational items like under the bed storage, something for their everyday toiletries that can hang and be accessible to your child on a daily basis, something for shower toiletries that drains out any extra water, something for their shoes to hang off their bed and something for their clothing or other belongings if they don’t have a trunk or other cubbies at camp. All of these “extras” depend on how much room you have in your car and/or how much your child can bring with them to camp. I also love these pouches for holding games, stationery and just about anything or these open bins for cubbies for creating a category for clothing or shoes. We are also big on a stationery clipboard that can double as a writing surface and storage.
ANYTHING SPECIAL TO KNOW?
There are a few organizational details or “special” things to know that won’t be on your camp’s packing list. I suggest writing and sending a letter or two to your child before they get to camp. This way, they will have mail to open the first few days of camp. My husband and I also go out and purchase cards to send for special occasions like the Fourth of July and other fun random cards so that it breaks up the letter writing on plain stationery and gives our girls a bit of a fun surprise for their mail that day. For your letter writing, I would also put a reminder on your calendar, like you would for any other appointment, so you don’t forget.
While we are on the idea of stationery, I suggest putting your camper’s return addresses on envelopes (along with stamps) to make it easier to write as well as creating address labels for those crucial letters, like those written to you! We love getting address stickers which are easy for your camper to use. I also love personalized or camp themed stationery from here, here and here. And if you don’t want to create labels, you can also create an address book for your child which we did the first year the girls went to camp and even drew a diagram of how to address the front of the envelope since our girls hadn’t done much letter writing before. And of course, if you can organize their stationary ahead of time in something like this here with a designated section for each individual, the better.
Finally, I would make sure you have double checked the batteries in all of their devices before they are packed up for camp. And pack extra batteries in pouches or Ziplock bags with a note labeling which batteries go with which device.
HOW DO YOU UNPACK ONCE YOUR CHILDREN ARE HOME?
Do you mean other than lighting a match to things?! I am kidding…
I now can honestly say that I had never seen dirt or stained clothing before my kids got home from camp. There is a built in grim factor on absolutely everything that comes home.
When I wash things, I first categorize them to make it easier with darks, lights, etc. And when I go to fold things, I pull out the list of items I packed and begin to cross things off. At that moment, I also make the decision whether the item is going to be stored until next summer, will go back into their rooms or another part of the house or isn’t going to make it anywhere but the trash (like a sock with a hole in it, etc.). And since my girls have a uniform, I tend to save things for other people we know to pass them down if I don’t think my girls will fit into the size next summer.
Finally, for the items that will and could be used next summer, I make sure to label what they are, write them down on an inventory and store them until the camp packing fun begins again next year.
DISCLOSURE: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning when you click the links and make a purchase, we receive a commission.