20 Tips Parents Of First-Time Overnight Campers Need To Know

Summer Camp

Sending your child off for their first experience at overnight camp can be very emotional for parents, fraught with worry, wonder and questions. Here are 20 things to make this monumental experience A LOT easier for first time parents sending their kids off to overnight camp, gleaned from years of personal experience.

1. Find an empty room: Or find a large empty space in your house, to lay out the clothes and necessities for overnight camp, before you start packing those two duffle bags. Packing for overnight camp is a two to three day full-time job, even if you are a good packer. Yes, it does take about 16 hours to pack and label all the stuff that’s listed on the overnight camp packing list. You (and me!) should have started this…like yesterday! I pack two duffle bags. One for bedding, sleeping bags, and pillows. The second larger duffle bag is full with clothes, toiletries, and (most) things listed on the packing list, to make it easier for my child to unpack and be organized at camp.

2. Don’t fret over the packing list: When you first see the packing list you will suddenly be paralyzed with fear and think you are sending them off for University for the year, not a mere four weeks in nature. There is just SO much on the list, which is why packing can take days. Trust me, you do not need 12 t-shirts, 12 pair of underwear, 6 pair of shorts, or 4 swimsuits, as the packing list suggests. I’ve been doing this overnight thing for a while, and trust me, nine t-shirts will do. Three bathing suits will do. Four pair of shorts will do. Definitely don’t pack anything that you consider ‘nice.’ Your kid, more likely than not, will not be changing their clothes every single day, nor do they care really about what they wear at camp, which is refreshing. One year, I dropped my daughter off at the bus, and four weeks later, she returned wearing the exact same outfit (but backwards and inside out.) Don’t pack any fancy/brand name clothes. There’s a high probability they will be ruined or lost. Pack items you that you really don’t care if you ever see again.

3. Labeling: Yes, some people label every damn item. I am not that person. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t label every pair of their underwear. I don’t iron on labels (Iron? Me? Ha!) I buy sticker labels and stick them on to the care tags on the back on their shirts or shorts. Kids can figure out what’s there’s or not, when the laundry comes back to the cabin.

4. Embrace the tears: There are three times you will most likely cry when sending your child off to overnight camp. The first time is when you drop them off at the bus. Things happen very quickly, with hundreds of kids and parents, and even though you want to hug your kid for a million more hours, it’s best to say a quick goodbye. Once you see they are on the bus, you will walk back to your car, with a heavy heart, and will probably sob your eyes out as you drive home. Totally and completely normal! Cry away! I do every year! It may get easier to drop them off, but that feeling of your heart sinking is always there, as soon as they are off, but it goes away quicker with each year. Which brings me to…

5. The obligatory first letter: You will either cry or laugh when you receive what is the “obligatory” post card from your child at overnight camp, sent within a couple days of them arriving, when they are forced to write to you by counsellors. Do not be upset, or mad, or sad if the post card only reads, ‘Hi Mommy. I had to send this. Bye!’ Yes, that’s most likely all you’ll get. But at least you know they’ve gotten there. Don’t take this Obligatory First Note personally. It’s actually pretty funny. Speaking of letters…

6. Letters: You either have a kid who likes to send letters or a kid who will barely write. Only you know your child’s personality. That being said, you can make it easy for them to write letters if you write addresses and stick on stamps on many, many envelopes. (I do this not just for our address, but for my daughter’s grandparents, her cousins etc.) This way, they don’t have to worry about addressing anything. Also, there is a time lapse when it comes to camp mail. By the time you receive a letter telling you how much fun they are having and what activities they are doing, or what friends they have made, they have probably already moved on with another activity and other friends. By the time you write them back, ‘So tell me about your new friend,’ and they receive the letter, they will have no idea what friend you are talking about. Also, camp letters are notoriously slow. Or notoriously fast. One week, I’ll get nothing, but then another week I’ll find three letters in my mailbox on the same day. Even three weeks AFTER my daughter returns from camp, I’ll get letters from her, each year, without fail. So don’t fret if you get no letters (all is good). If you get a ‘COME GET ME NOW’ letter, again, do not fret. By the time you get this letter, trust me, they’ll be having the time of their life. No news is good news, and remember: there’s no rhyme or reason to when camp letters will show up in your mailbox.

7. How often to write: At my daughter’s camp, they use an electronic platform where parents can e-mail a letter twice a week, which they print off and give the kids. Feel free to break this “twice a week’ writing rule (Shhh! don’t tell them I spilled this secret!) especially if you’re a mom like me, who just likes to send a lot of letters. For the past four years, I have sent my daughter letters, five days a week, for the entire month. Sounds excessive, doesn’t it…but…

8. The science of letter writing: After the first couple of letters, you will start writing them about what you ate for dinner or that you went grocery shopping or that you read a book or that it’s raining outside. Snooze. But writing camp letters IS a science. You don’t want to make it seem like they are missing out on things, nor do you want them to become homesick, but also, you want them to know you are thinking about them without making them miss you. So, yes, write about the stupid asparagus you ate for dinner, and leave out the part where you stayed out until 2 a.m. partying with friends, or took your other kid to the cottage. Young kids also like to get letters from pets. So get Spot to ‘write’ a damn letter too. I also send letters written on empty paper towel or toilet paper rolls. Make it fun! Often, I send an envelope full of sparkles, so when your child opens it, well, SURPRISE! Which brings me to…

9. Send a care package! I didn’t realize how important this was until my daughter told me she was the only one in her cabin of 15 girls who didn’t receive a care package. Oh, the guilt! So, yes, try and send one care package to your kid(s). Don’t send food (you are not allowed). I usually buy cute pens, cute socks, funny books, notepads, crossword puzzles, and something she can enjoy with her bunk mates, like a card game of truth or dare. I once sent a box of Tarot Cards so my daughter can ‘read’ fortunes to her friends. She and her cabin mates loved it! Yes, the postage will be more expensive than what you are probably sending. Welcome to being a mother of an overnighter.

10. The first few days will be the hardest on youBut you chose the camp for a reason and trust me, again, when I say no news is good news and you should be enjoying your freedom. After a few days, you’ll get used to it. You may miss them, but you’ll also start to realize that you don’t have to prepare breakfast or clean up their rooms. You have…peace and time! And you can actually get drunk because you don’t have to deal with kiddos the next morning. Do not waste this time away from your kids! ENJOY!! MAKE PLANS! HAVE FUN! PARTY LIKE IT’S 1990! Enjoy sleeping in!

11. You’ll likely be worried. That being said, if you are concerned or just want to know how your kid is doing, guess what? Just call the camp office and tell them you want to speak to your kid’s head counsellor. You will receive a call back from the unit head or head counsellor of your kid’s cabin, who will tell you that your kid is okay, having a blast, is fitting in wonderfully with their cabin mates. Sometimes you just want to know they are having fun. This is absolutely fine! Call away! (Also, shhh, don’t let on that I told you!)

12. Missing special celebrations will happen. Do not worry if your child is at camp on their birthday. You are allowed a birthday call. And the camp will celebrate it, do not worry, with a pizza party for the cabin or a movie night. Also, my daughter, along with numerous other kids, has lost a tooth at camp. Luckily, the Tooth Fairy DOES come to camp! (One year, when my daughter was on a mini camping trip at camp, the tooth fairy actually made it to the middle of nowhere!)

13. Medical attention: If your child is on medication, for anything from having OCD or anxiety or other mental health issues, do NOT feel embarasesd. My daughter is on a regular medication and she tells me there is a very long line-up at the nurses office each evening with campers getting their medicine, doled out by camp nurses. Do not be embarrassed about this at all. Your child, who is on medication, is in good company.

14. Shy children can thrive. If your child is shy, this is the perfect opportunity to tell them that they can be whomever they want to be at camp. It’s a perfect way for your child to try to be more outgoing or funny. After all, they may know a handful of friends, but they will be meeting a host of new people. It can be a great ‘new start’ to a child who’s had a hard year at school, or who had difficulty making friends at school. Remind them that camp is for FUN!

15. Will they fit in? Yes, every parent’s worry is that their kid won’t fit in. Usually, I don’t practice ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ But where I shop for all my kids camping supplies, like laundry baskets, flashlights, batteries, bug spray, and sleeping bag, I ALWAYS ask the store employee what other kids in her age group have bought. There is always at least one item on trend that most campers will bring. Last year, it was a tool box to keep…whatever. Ask what the trend at camp this year is. Although this may sound silly or stupid to ‘fit in,’ why chance it?

16. Visitor’s Day: The second time you will cry is on Visitor’s Day. Leading up to Visitor’s Days, for both parents and the children at camp, can be very emotional. The excitement is exhausting! You may tear up when you see your child and you will hold them tight. I also suggest you bring another care package. I stop on my way to pick up my daughter a Starbucks Smoothie and french fries from McDonalds. If you are divorced and can’t stand your ex and can’t be civil with your ex during Visitor’s Day, camps usually offer another day (usually the day before the real Visitor’s Day) for parents who can’t get along. Just letting you know! You will have a heavy heart upon leaving the three-hour long visit, even if it was so wonderful to see them and even if they are coming home just three days later. Yes, Vistor’s Day happens three days before first month ends. This is for parents who have kids staying at camp for two months. It’s also a smart business move for the camp, because your child MAY ask you to stay for second session. Be prepared if your kid tells you they want to stay for two more weeks.

17. Electronics: Almost ALL overnight camps make it very clear that the only electronics that can be at camp is something like an ipod mini to listen to music, but nothing with internet connection. Do NOT send them with a cell phone. Although many (older) children are pretty damn sneaky (yes, they will take out the stuffing of a teddy bear, stuff their iphone into it, and sew that teddy bear back up, for example. I will not say how I know this, but I do.) While pretty innovative, I highly suggest you make sure your child doesn’t do this. Why? Because your kid DOES need a social media break. Also, at least at my daughter’s camp, they will confiscate your phone…and give it to charity. The no electronics rule is serious and actually good for your kid. Some kids will also sneak in junk food. That too will be confiscated, but let’s be real, it’s a gold mine for the counselors, who, yes, will take it for themselves. (I know because I was once a counsellor!)

18. Enjoy your time: I can’t stress this enough! You have probably paid an exorbitant amount to send them away for a month (or two?) and even though your kids will pop into your head every few hours this is the time for you to get together with old friends, or go on a mini-vacation. Basically, even though we all LOVE being moms, this is kid-free time. So listen to your own advice that you give your kids – camp is for fun! That goes for you too!

19. Back home: Once they get back home, you will realize immediately that you probably didn’t enjoy yourself as much as you should have, kid-free. Routines are back. My last suggestion is to take them to a lice centre, or hold a lice party, ASAP, because many kids do come back from camp with lice. Sorry! It’s true! Best to be prepared.

20. Finally: You’ve got this, Mommy!




  1. Angela on June 12, 2018 at 4:37 pm

    If I may ask, where is your go-to source for Camping supplies?

    • Heather Dixon on June 18, 2018 at 8:26 am

      Hi Angela! Rebecca said she knows a lot of people go to Walmart. She also likes a place called Camp Connection General Store. Hope this helps!

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