Now you’ve done it. You considered the possibilities, applied, interviewed, and accepted a job at Camp Insertnamehere. You’re counting down the days until your first day on the job. Until then, all you have to do is pack and get out there.
Packing can seem more overwhelming than the actual camp experience. You want to be prepared, because missing even one key item could leave you miserable. You don’t want to face mosquitos without insect repellant, or the sun without sunscreen! But at the same time, overpacking will lead to what’s known as “stuffocation”: too much stuff crammed into tight quarters. Your roommates won’t appreciate your belongings overflowing into their space!
I’m a big advocate for packing light. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn the art of packing light right away. It took several years. But when I compare my earlier camp experiences where I packed too much with more recent camps when I pack light, I notice that light packing allows me to have a better time at camp.
I got really serious about packing light when I got a yearlong internship at Camp Rivercrest. Over that year, we went on a few business trips such as a staff retreat, a denomination get-together, a spiritual training, a recruiting event, and a camp conference. Since I was typically the only female who went on these trips, I didn’t compare how much I packed with how little the guys packed. None of them had to room with me, so my baggage was only an inconvenience to them on the car ride there. If any of them said anything about my luggage, I would just snap back with “but I’m a girl!”
“That’s no excuse!” one of them would always reply. For a while, I just shrugged it off as him being clueless about females. But after thinking about it, I was probably the one who had something to learn. There isn’t much a girl HAS to have, and some of the things I packed I didn’t even end up using. With each new trip, I gradually packed less and less.
A couple years later, I felt like I was practically an expert at efficient packing. I decided to put these skills to the ultimate test. Instead of summer camp that year, I decided to spend three months backpacking Europe. To save money on luggage fees and make it easy to walk around each destination with all my belongings, I would only bring an airline-approved carryon. I spent weeks carefully selecting clothing, purchasing multipurpose products, and condensing my toiletries, while still leaving enough room for a few souvenirs. While in Europe, I shocked some short-term vacationers whose suitcases were three times bigger than mine, but I also noticed a few travelers who packed even less than I did for longer trips. I guess I still have room for improvement!
While I aspire to pack even lighter, I still use the bag I took to Europe as a standard size for packing in all my adventures. It seems like, whether I’m packing for a weekend retreat or for months abroad, the size of a carryon is enough to bring everything I need. (I do make an exception if I’m bringing my own pillow. I know that there are foldable and inflatable pillows meant for travel, but they just don’t cradle my neck the way my big memory foam pillow does!)
If you still feel the need to pack more for camp than what you can fit in a carryon, that’s okay. If you feel like all you need to bring to three months at camp is a toothbrush and a change of underwear, I wish you well. But I hope you still read this chapter so that you have a better idea of what to take to camp, and how to pack it all efficiently. It may require reading between the lines of the packing list!
That Camp Packet
Many camps will mail you a packet of onboarding information. Or, if the camp’s in tune enough with the 21st century, it can be found online. This packet might go over the camp rules, employee information like how you’ll get paid, and maybe even a map of the camp property. But the most important part of this packet is the packing list.
There’s usually a reason for every item listed on the packing list. And there’s usually a pretty good reason for the items on the list of things NOT to bring. Well, I can think of one exception. I worked at one camp where the packing list specifically stated not to bring unicycles. No one knew why, not even the current camp administration. One guy brought his unicycle anyway after the encouragement and permission of some of the leadership staff, and it ended up being a fun addition to the camp staff camaraderie. He even unicycled across the camp high ropes! But there are definitely reasons to not bring drugs or weapons.
Keep that packing list on hand when you’re packing, and make sure to check off every item. But don’t consider it a conclusive list. You may think of an alternative for one of the items that will serve your needs even better. And there may be a few extra things that you think will be useful. Consider the camp-issued packing list a rough draft, and make your own substitutions and additions. Keep reading as we discuss a few of these changes.
Comforts of Home
If you’re just going away to camp for a few days, it’s fine to bring a suitcase and a sleeping bag. But for longer terms, it can be annoying to live out of a suitcase and sleep in a bag! With a few simple adjustments, your bunk can go from a standard cabin to a home away from home.
While many people come to camp with suitcases, this might not be the best thing to bring! Who said you had to keep things in a suitcase? Most big-box stores sell dresser-style drawers made entirely of plastic. These are about as lightweight as a suitcase, but so much more organized and better-looking. Better yet, find out if you’ll have a closet in your camp dorm. If so, make sure to bring enough hangers so you can hang up at least some of your clothes. Regardless of how you carry your clothes to camp, using packing cubes can help keep things organized.
Also, who said you have to sleep in a sleeping bag at camp? I’ve always been more comfortable bringing sheets and blankets from home. Of course, you’ll have to find out ahead of time if you’ll have a twin-size, full-size, or queen-size bed so that you can bring the right size of sheets. Regular bedding is a lot easier to clean than a sleeping bag, which typically can only be washed in a front-loading washer and air-dried. Even if I take a sleeping bag for a short camp, I still take a fitted sheet so that my body doesn’t have to come in contact with a potentially dirty mattress. If you think you might get cold at night, flannel sheets are great. Another thing to consider when it comes to bedding is that your mattress or cot might be old and uncomfortable. A roll of foam or a pillowtop mattress cover can help with this. I’ve even had coworkers who ditched beds altogether in favor of hammocks!
Find out what kind of decorations you’re allowed to have. (You may be limited, since nails, tacks, and adhesives can ruin walls.) Even a simple poster can brighten up a room, provided it’s in good taste. When decorating the camp health center and adjoining bedroom where I was working and living, I found a framed picture in the health center storage of a man praying over what looked like a dying child. I’m sure whoever donated this had good intentions, but it wasn’t exactly fitting with the friendly atmosphere I wanted to bring to the health center! Instead I made collages out of camp mementos, fun health facts, and the summer memory verse. Place your decorations strategically. Unless you’re living with your family at camp, your family photos might be awkward adorning a common area. Keep personal decorations like these near your bed.
Making camp more comfortable goes beyond the dorm room. Camp bathrooms are used by a lot of people, and often don’t have much room to keep your toiletries. I try to keep all my toiletries in one bag so my things don’t get mixed up with others. I especially like my hanging toiletry bag, which has a hook so I can hang it from a towel rack or bathroom stall. For the shower, I either use travel bottles with a built-in suction cup that can attach to the shower wall, or I get an organizer that can be hung over the shower head. That way, I don’t have to juggle holding all my shower items while simultaneously trying to wash my hair or shave.
Don’t forget about the kitchen! Your staff quarters might come with a kitchenette, or you may be allowed to access the camp kitchen outside of work hours. I’ve typically experienced a hodgepodge of miscellaneous cookware available to camp staff: ten strainers but only one pot, Tupperware without a lid, you get the idea. Even with a fully stocked camp kitchen, you probably don’t want to use the industrial-sized cookware to make a snack just for yourself. Bringing a few key items from home can help out during the times when you’re responsible for your own meals. You should especially make sure to bring kitchen supplies if you’re on a special diet that calls for eating differently than what the camp will serve. Some camps may not allow you to bring food in your sleeping quarters or other certain places. You can double-check the rules and packing list to figure out what you can do, but I have yet to hear of any rules about bringing your own dishware!
Most importantly, if there’s something that you really want to bring from home, bring it. It doesn’t matter if it will take up extra space; if you’ll have a hard time without it, it’s worth it. I’ve already shared how my contoured memory foam pillow is exempt from my carryon-only rule. I have scoliosis, so if I go without my pillow for too long, my spine hurts even more, which will affect my productivity as camp staff. I also often bring a stuffed frog. It’s fun, it’s comforting, and it often ends up being some sort of camp mascot!
I’ve worked at camps where we had a uniform shirt to wear every day. I’ve worked at camps where staff got a camp shirt, but it only had to be worn on days when parents were at camp. And I’ve worked at camps with no official dress code. Find out what your scenario is, as it will be the biggest factor in what you pack.
If you wear a uniform at camp, you’ll probably only need a couple other shirts, to wear while sleeping and on your days off. I’ve always made the mistake of forgetting to ask what color the shirt is. Navy seems to be a popular choice for camp shirts, which was the selection at my first uniform camp. The problem was, the pajamas I brought were the same color, so I felt like I was constantly drowning in navy blue! Knowing the shirt color will allow you to coordinate your pants, and allow you to contrast your other outfits!
Camp clothes should always be practical for the environment. Growing up, I equated summer camp clothes with jeans and sweaters. Since I lived in Oregon, I had only ever seen camps situated either on the coast or high in the mountains. Both of these are chilly places! I had to buy shorts to survive the hot and humid Midwestern summer camps, and even make use of my skirts on days I wasn’t running active events.
This should go without saying, but your clothes need to be modest. Even though camp is a casual setting, you still need to have an element of professionalism, as you’re representing the camp itself. Your clothes should be just one way to reflect that. Plus, with the wide range of activities done at camp, you'll be glad you’re wearing clothes that cover! (Especially don’t forget modesty when it comes to swimwear. You can buy specialty modest swimwear online, and even most department stores sell rash guards, swim shorts, and coverups that will make your swim clothes camp-approved.)
You’re probably picturing baseball caps, tennis shoes, and other practical attire for camp. But be sure to pack at least one nice outfit. You’ll end up in a situation where either you use it, or you wish you brought it! The possibilities for a nice outfit are endless: there could be a wedding, you might have a fancy dinner, you may attend a formal-attire church, or you’re tired of typical camp clothes and just want to dress up for a trip to Walmart.
Lastly, remember that clothing can be washed and re-worn. If you’re working long-term, it’s common for the camp to allow staff to use washers for personal clothing. So don’t pack an outfit for every day! Instead, pack some laundry detergent. I’d also recommend a mesh bag to wash your underwear in so that if you have to leave the laundry room before your clothes are done, the opposite gender doesn’t accidentally handle your delicates! Being at camp doesn’t mean you can’t clean your clothes.
Each year, I attend an annual camp fundraising banquet. Everyone gets dressed up to enjoy catered dining and presentations. Quite the contrast from what we actually wear at camp! The dresses and ties are replaced with jeans, shorts, and t-shirts. Oh, those t-shirts are considered high fashion at camp!
Tie-dye is an age-old camp tradition that’s still popular in many camps today. While white clothes seem impractical to take to camp, you might want to bring a white tee for any tie-dye or color war opportunities. This is also a good way to bring new life to any stained clothing. And tie-dye isn’t just limited to tees. You can make multicolored pants, bandannas, and even underwear!
While tie-dye usually means knotting up your shirt and dipping it in different colors of liquid, there are some fun variations you can try. I once went to a family camp where we hung our white shirts on a clothesline, and then shot them with dye-filled squirt guns! Or if you don’t have a white shirt, use a dark solid-color shirt and dip it in bleach instead of dye.
Have you seen those crazy graphic tees at malls and big box stores? Those seem to be popular at a lot of camps across the nation. Since a trip to Walmart or the mall is a common staff outing during time off, it almost became a competition to see who ended up buying the craziest bargain tee. The ones with cats on them are almost sure to get some compliments! Sometimes we’d even have unofficial dress-up days based on whatever was trending at camp. “Minion Mondays” were a common thing during the popularity of Despicable Me, since most of us bought yellow shirts with the iconic characters’ faces printed on them. One time a few of my coworkers and I celebrated “International Farmers’ Appreciation Day”, which was a holiday we just made up as an excuse to wear overalls along with our required staff shirts.
The trendy tees are popular at camps that don’t have required shirts you have to wear daily. But you can still create some trends surrounding your staff shirt if that’s part of your dress code. I have a collection of long socks with fun, colorful designs. Those are fun to show off! Whenever I wore them, I would say it was Wacky Sock Wednesday, Fun Sock Friday, or make up a name for whatever day of the week it was. You could also be a trendsetter with another article or accessory. My favorite trendsetter was one of the program aids at a camp I went to when I was young. Due to ticks and sunburns, we were all required to wear some sort of hat or head covering. She decided to wear a propeller beanie!
How are you getting to camp? If your plan is to drive yourself, that comes with both advantages and disadvantages. Let’s consider them.
I started working at camps before getting my driver’s license. My parents would drop me off at camp, and then pick me up a few weeks later. The drives back home were a lot of fun; I spent the entire time telling stories of things I did at camp. While at camp, a few willing coworkers would offer to drive me places during our time off. Of course, I was at the mercy of these drivers, only going to places where they wanted to go. Sometimes, if no one wanted to go anywhere, or they were going someplace I had no interest in, I would kind of feel stuck at camp.
Yet when I first got my license, I still asked my parents to drive me to camp. Since I was a new driver, my state didn’t allow me to drive other teenagers for six months. I knew chauffeuring my coworkers would be a temptation for me. This decision ended up saving me lots of money, and not just in gas. When one of my coworkers was driving us to the store, she got pulled over for speeding!
I moved halfway across the country to work at a Camp Rivercrest in Nebraska. The staff there offered to pick me up from the airport. Apparently, they do airport rides for some of their out-of-state workers, which was nice because that would have been one expensive cab fare! At other camps, I sometimes walked a few miles into town when I was desperate for a change of scenery, and my plan for here was to buy a bicycle to get to town.
Unfortunately, here there was a river between Camp Rivercrest and town, and the only bridge at the time was too narrow to be safe for cyclists and pedestrians! I was allowed to drive the camp’s van for work purposes, but was otherwise once again at the mercy of my coworkers with cars. There were times when I couldn’t leave camp for several weeks! After a year, I decided to buy my own car so I could at least get my own groceries instead of being stuck with camp leftovers.
While a car led to more freedom, it was a hassle at camp. The year before, a few of my coworkers’ cars were broken into, so I took extra precaution to make sure my car stayed safe. One day, my car got a flat tire! Since it was an opening day of camp, I was too busy with check-in paperwork, and I couldn’t deal with my car or its tire. Thankfully, a maintenance guy helped me out after his work for the day was done, but I’m not sure what I would have done if nobody could help. That was actually my second flat tire at camp that year. I guess with all those construction projects, a few nails and screws are bound to end up on the service road.
When I moved to Ohio, I was allowed to live in a borrowed RV at camp until I found a more permanent place to live. I definitely needed my car when my roommates and I moved into an apartment five miles away from camp. And we lived a lot closer than our other coworkers! Even on the grounds, it was typical for employees to drive to the locations further away from the main buildings. The camp’s culture was also more like a typical business, so we didn’t go to church together or do much of anything outside of work hours. I was usually on my own when it came to entertainment and adventure. See if you can get a taste of camp culture to determine if it would be beneficial to have a car.
I now work at a camp where I can either drive my own car, or ride with campers in a van. I’m usually the driving one of those vans, but I’ve driven my own car up to camp a couple of times. That long drive to the wilderness eats up a lot of gas! I have years of experience driving down rough backroads and through ice and snow to get to camp, but it can be understandably stressful for those not used to the road conditions. Plus, like kids, cars get dirty at camp. I’d rather that dirt get on another car instead of my own!
So, should you bring a car to camp? That’s up to you. You just read all my pros and cons, but you may have a different situation that may or may not call for a car. If you plan to go home or go on road trips during your days off, it will be difficult to do that without a car. If you’ll be living off camp property, it will definitely be difficult to get by without a car! If you don’t get any days off, there’s really no point to have a car that will just stay parked at camp. The decision is up to you and your situation.
One final note on cars: if you bring one to camp, make sure to pack emergency items it might need, especially if camp is a long way from town. You’ll need oil, jumper cables, a spare tire, and possibly snow chains. Also, I can’t tell you how many people come to camp without enough gasoline! Packing for your car is almost as important as packing for yourself.