Camp Accessories (It’s Not What You Think)

The weather is getting warmer, the days are getting longer and so the countdowns of days left until camp on my kids’ Instagram feeds are getting shorter. This means that I am going through their camp stuff stored away for the winter in oversized trash bags in our attic, seeing what items still fit and are in decent shape, and then checking off the boxes when applicable in their well-organized packing lists. I am also figuring out what new items I need to purchase, and I do this while carefully navigating through my inbox, which these days, seems to be peppered with promotional emails announcing the latest camp trends and camp accessories that are sure to be all the rage for this upcoming summer.

Okay – context. Let’s review the whole notion of a camp accessory as a thing as well as a brief history of the camp packing list. When I went to camp (insert crackly old lady voice here) camp accessories didn’t really exist. My mother packed my coffin like trunk with the most basic of items, some which could have been mistaken for things one would pack for a stint in basic training. She sent me with a metal canteen, an army green poncho/rain tarp, a flashlight, a flannel blanket and only a few non-regulation items of clothing. The non-uniform clothes were called non-regs, and we were allowed to wear them one night a week to a cookout in the woods.

My mother did add in a few extras (let’s call them old school camp accessories) in the form of the “News From Camp” stationary for writing letters home, puffy stickers for trading, playing cards for gambling gum, and a set of jacks for building major skills on the bunk floor during a rainy day.

It’s funny to recall how little I brought to camp with me back in the day as I’m beginning to realize that I may be sending my kids off to camp now for seven weeks with just about as much stuff as I brought to college for my entire freshman year. And it’s worth noting that I did not bring a bedside rug, a battery powered light switch or a tutu to college.

I am the first to admit that there have been many improvements in the camp outfitting market in a generation thanks in part to strides made in fabric and textile manufacturing. My kids are certainly more comfortable in their modern day jersey sheets, plush comforters and fleece jackets than I ever was in my starched sheets, itchy wool blanket and even itchier navy V-neck wool sweater.

I welcome these modern day items, and I want my kids to have much of the new and improved camp stuff, or as they say in the biz, bunk junk. I want them to be comfortable and to feel happy, secure and protected while away at camp. Don’t we all want that? As I think more and more about the ever expanding market of camp accessories though, I am starting to understand that as 21st century parents, we have tricked ourselves into believing that we are somehow providing an idyllic summer away from home for our kids through our purchasing of the perfect pair of camp name branded flannel pajama bottoms, personalized airbrushed headbands and hand painted stationary boxes with built-in compartments to keep the pre-addressed stamped envelopes separate from the glitter pens.

As a former seasoned camper and current parent of my own seasoned campers, I’ve learned that we are fooling ourselves here. Our kids will have their very own awesome summers away at camp without us even if their duffle bags are not packed to the brim with the latest monogrammed fan spritz bottle, the camp zip code necklace or the sports themed (and questionably copyright law infringed) draw string bag. In fact, they may have more fun without all that stuff. (It helps to read this part with the crackly old lady voice in your head as well.)

Last summer, our daughter sent my husband and me home from visiting day with her collection of emoji pillows as they were impeding her ability to make her bed neatly (to score big points on bunk inspection) and to do it quickly so that she could get off to her favorite activities. A few summers before that, we learned that our son didn’t even need the most basic of camp accessories (his toothpaste!) when we realized he lost the cap to it, the tube had crusted over, and it was questionable as to whether our child was brushing his teeth or not. Note: this will be his fifth summer away at camp. He loves it there, and his teeth are in great shape.

While I am not promoting poor oral hygiene or improper pillow support, I am starting to realize that releasing a bit of the control you think you are keeping over your kids this summer, through all the crap you are buying and packing for them, might just be a really good thing.

I truly believe that when you let your kid go, really let go, that is when the magic of camp will happen. That is when your son will head down to the lake with the same one towel that he has been using every day (despite the eight you packed for him) and try out a kayak for the first time. That is when your daughter will get lost in her own mind at arts and crafts creating a slew of friendship bracelets for every girl in her bunk. In each and every one of those colorful wrapped and braided pieces of string is a story, a burst of laughter, a lesson learned and a friendship born. I will tell you as a former master maker of the camp friendship bracelet that this is one of the most important camp accessories your child can have. And you can’t purchase that in a store or even online.

I have a small painting that my mother made when she want to camp nearly 60 years ago. It’s a painting of a giant rock from down by the lake at her camp. My mother and her two best friends often sat on the rock and talked, laughed and sang songs all the while learning how to deal with camp life away from home. I remember my mother telling me about the rock when I first went away to camp. She said how being at the rock always made her feel better – even when she did get a little homesick.

I still think about that rock especially now as I gather the camp stuff together for my kids. I’ll do my best to send them off with the things they need and the things they want. But I also know that there will be things they will need and things they will get while at camp which I could never have bought for them or packed for them or even bedazzled for them.

I want them to find their own rocks, their own friendship bracelets, their own stories, their own memories, their own senses of self. I can’t fit that into a duffle bag. Wouldn’t even want to try.

Photo Credit: Summer 365