If there’s an unpleasant part of summer camp, it’s figuring out what to pack. Yes, most sleepaway camps send detailed packing lists. They’re helpful for giving you general categories, but what if you want to know the best sunscreen or hiking boots? It’s not just the practical stuff, either. You might not be aware of the sandals every camper (and counselor) will be wearing, what bunk decorations kids are clamoring for, or what games might break the ice for first-time campers looking to make new friends. To help you get a handle on all of these things, we spoke to 15 camp experts, including camp owners, camp directors, camp counselors, and parents of kids going to camp this summer about the best, most useful things you’ll definitely want to pack in their trunk or duffel bag.
The suggestion we heard the most was not to bring anything you wouldn’t mind losing or ruining. As Julie Cole, mother of six camp-aged kids and co-founder of Mabel’s Labels puts it, “Don’t spend a fortune on camp clothing, it will get trashed.” But the experts also say it’s worth the risk to pack a keepsake or two. Comforting things that remind kids of home — like a stuffed animal, a favorite book, or photos of friends, family, and pets — will go a long way toward curbing your kids’ anxiety and homesickness.
Note: We cover a lot of different things in the list below. To help you navigate it more easily, you can click on the following links to jump directly to what you’re most interested in: trunk or duffel bag, bunk décor, gear, free-time activities, clothes, toiletries, bedding, or masks.
Trunk or duffel bag
Before you start laying out swimsuits and folding underwear, you’ll need something to pack everything in. Anything big should be fine, but you’ll want to make sure to account for the specific circumstances of the camp, too. “One of my best friends runs a camp where they sleep in cabins with open walls and just a roof. They require a trunk because it just keeps their stuff safe and it’s waterproof,” says Kayla Weissbuch, co-founder and executive director of Brave Trails in California. “But we actually recommend a rolling duffel bag because our campers transport their own luggage to their cabin on opening day, so something with wheels is a lot easier for them.” If you’re in doubt about the requirements at your camp, just call them for guidance. Here are a few solid options in the two biggest camp luggage categories.
If your child’s cabin has drawers or cubbies available to store clothing, chances are you’ll want to use a duffel bag rather than a trunk, since they’re easier to transport and fold flat for easy storage under, say, a bunk bed. Cole finds packing in duffel bags more convenient than trunks and likes that her kids can use them for many other things. “The camp trunk is a staple, but I find them heavy and awkward. My kids all empty out, clean, and Febreze their hockey bags instead. They are lightweight and carry all the camp stuff,” she says. Although it’s not a hockey bag, we like this duffel, which has three wheels for stability and lots of pockets. It’s also on sale.
According to former camp counselor Steven Mumford, his wife (whom he met while working at a camp), and their two teenage daughters, East Coast kids going to camp for two weeks or more will want a trunk. “A good old-fashioned foot-locker-style trunk is best. It should be stout enough to support your kid’s weight if stepped on around the edges while climbing up to the top bunk,” Mumford says, adding that his 14- and 17-year-old daughters give bonus points if the trunk is pretty inside or can be decorated with contact paper. Writer and mom of two Alexandra Lange recommends this classic camp trunk from CampBound, which she is hoping will last long enough for her kids to take to college.
Even if they’re staying only for a week, campers love decorating their bunks to show their personality and make it feel a little more like home. “I know that it’s really big with teens,” says Kayla Weissbuch. “Our campers really love to bring like their pride flags, but for other camps it might be a sports team flag or a poster of their favorite music artist. It just depends on the camper. Sometimes there’s so much decoration, you can barely find the camper.”
No matter how old campers are, nearly everyone we consulted said that packing a stuffed animal is a good idea. Cole says a child’s favorite lovey or stuffy will comfort them if they start to miss home, and Sarah Kurtz McKinnon, co-founder of the Summer Camp Society, says even some counselors will bring one. Weissbuch told us that most of her campers bring Squishmallows because they’re cute and double as an extra pillow. “I know it seems a little silly for teenagers, but lots of them bring stuffed animals to camp. It makes the bunk a little bit cozier.”
Another unanimous recommendation is battery-powered fairy lights (most bunks don’t have outlets available to campers) and, of course, extra batteries. Parent Amit Bhattacharyya, Vox Media head of data science, says, “We’ve noticed over time that the things that our daughters want the most are not iPods or whatever. It’s a set of fairy lights to decorate their space. They’re not particularly expensive and not particularly bulky either and they just make them really happy.” According to Brooke Cheley-Klebe, camp director at Cheley, where kids sleep out in covered wagon, “I think the fairy lights help them feel like they’ve made a little home around their bunk.” As for which lights to bring, that depends on the camper. Doug Sutherland, a father and the executive director of Brantwood Camp in New Hampshire, bought unicorn-shaped fairy lights for his daughter to bring to camp two years ago, and Mumford’s daughters prefer more basic sets.
Some camps will let you hang things with push pins. Others will ask that you use sticky tack so you don’t damage the walls. But Mumford, Cheley-Klebe, Weissbuch, and Karen Aronian, an education consultant and mom of two, all recommend packing several rolls of tape for decorating bunks and to share with fellow campers. “It doesn’t matter how much tape I send. It’s always gone when I come pick them up,” says Aronian.
Going to horseback-riding camp obviously requires different gear than a summer spent rock climbing or hiking, but there are a few things you should pack no matter what kind of camp you’ll be attending. Above all, our experts said, it’s important to label your kids’ stuff — especially the water bottle — so it doesn’t get lost or mixed up with another camper’s.
Six of our experts recommend packing a Crazy Creek chair for free time, camping out, and attending evening events like talent shows or movie nights. Kurtz McKinnon says the foldable chairs might be even more important this year because of social distancing and moving large group assemblies outdoors. “Normally you would be in a recreation hall, where everyone sits in tight and looks at a stage. But this year it might be more common for that to be moved outside and for everyone to sit on the grass spread out instead of on benches,” she says, noting that Crazy Creeks are popular among both kids and counselors. According to Mumford, you can sometimes get a “lower-quality version” of the chairs at the camp store, but in addition to being not as good, they’re also usually more expensive.
Cheley-Klebe, Kurtz McKinnon, Sutherland, and Kimberly King, a kindergarten teacher and mom of two, recommend a headlamp instead of the traditional flashlight because it keeps your hands free while helping you see in the dark. King says she packs them for campouts, reading after lights out, trips to the bathroom at night, and playing flashlight tag.
Though we have written a lot about the popularity of Hydro Flasks and S’well water bottles in the past, the consensus choice here was a classic wide-mouth Nalgene. They are a lot less expensive, something most parents told us was an important factor in shopping for camp, since so many things never make it back home. In addition, Nalgene bottles have a handy loop that makes them easier to carry, among other things. According to Mumford’s daughters, whom he asked to weigh in on the debate, “S’well is great for school, but you want a loop to anchor the friendship bracelet you’re working on, or to clip to a belt loop with a carabiner.”
For younger campers, Lange recommends this smaller Nalgene with a sip top. “These lids don’t leak but are easy to drink from,” she says.
“I think it’s important for kids to have a project they can go to when they want some time to reflect or reenergize from a rush of social interaction,” says Lindsey Charbonneau, camp counselor and co-lead of Adventure Ready Girls. The activities your camper likes best will, of course, depend on their individual interests, but classic camp crafts like friendship bracelets are always a good choice. As Charbonneau points out, they take multiple days to create and can be done anywhere if temporarily tied to a water bottle.
Most camps will have embroidery floss (the colorful string used to make friendship bracelets) available as part of camp arts-and-crafts activities, but you might want to pack some, too, just in case. Strategist senior writer Karen Adelson got back into making friendship bracelets during quarantine, and this is the embroidery thread she used and recommends.