Setting Your Kids Up for Success at Sleep Away Camp

Lessons Learned

By Debra Flanagan, Publisher May 30, 2024

My daughter was only eight when she asked to go to sleep away camp. I think a combination of a classmate having gone, and the show, Bunk'd, inspired her. 

We decided to test the waters by attending a Family Camp at the YMCA Camp Maclean in Burlington, WI.  We had a great time as a family, and I immediately recalled how much I loved girl scout camp and what an amazing opportunity it would be for her, especially as a city kid.  We swam, sailed, wind-sailed, paddle boarded, canoed, kayaked, did archery, climbed rock walls and ropes courses, and zip-lined.  We cooked over an open flame, told "ghost" stories and ate smores. The best part was having enough people for a seriously competitive game of Capture the Flag.  

When we returned from our weekend, I tried to find a girl scout troop so that our daughter could camp through them. Unfortunately, there were none available. We decided we would send her back to Camp Maclean at age nine, without knowing anyone else there. 

We sent her for a two night mini-camp. The mini-campers have the option of completing the week if they want. I sent my daughter with strict directions, not to call me to ask to stay the week. She might have been ready for this separation, but I was not. Sure enough she called after the first night, begging to stay the week. And so the summers of sleep away camp began. First one week, then two weeks, and even FOUR this summer. She loves every second of camp.

We decided to send her younger brother when he was eleven years old. We sent him to Camp Maclean for what was a longer mini-camp. It was three nights. Though mini-camps are geared towards beginners, we sent his sister too, so that he would feel a little more comfortable.  

He did not enjoy camp life like his sister. There were a few reasons for this, that were out of my control, but I also realized I made the mistake of assuming he was as self-reliant as his sister was.

In retrospect, I would have done a few things differently to set him up for success, that you might want to consider too.

1. Start early. Had we sent my son a year or two earlier, I think it would have gone better. Mid-puberty is not necessarily the right time to toss them into an insecure situation.  

2. Stay the whole session. While mini-camps have their upside, the downside is that by the time they get used to things and start having fun - it's time to leave. Also they may not have had the chance to experience everything the camp has to offer.

3. Bring a buddy. Having a friend for my son, in his cabin, may have made all the difference. My daughter didn't need this, but they are very different kids.

4. Talk to the counselors about your kid's hesitancy, whether it be the water, bees, the shower situation.  Ask that they assist to make them more comfortable. Of course, I indicated some of these things on the enrollment forms, but I made a terrible mistake of thinking my son would speak up for himself as well.

5. Pack their things in a roller bag. I label everything in zip lock bags, and then also include an inventory list of everything they have, so they bring it all back. However, I put everything in a duffel bag. Apparently all the other boys had brought roller bags, that were easier to transport, and easier to find what they were looking for in, without unpacking everything.

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6. Get them used to quick showers.  Really quick. There are lots of kids and limited showers and they have to rotate in and out quickly. 

  • If they are shy, suggest showering in their bathing suit.  
  • There may or may not be a clean place to put their dry clothes.  Apparently, there wasn't at Camp Maclean.  If I were to send him back, I might purchase a small collapsible bench like this one.
  • Dear God, pack shower shoes! I did this, but I can't emphasize it enough. 

7. Pack super strength bug spray and anti-itch cream. They are going to get eaten alive. Ticks are a big issue this summer so make sure it repels against them also. I bought what I thought was a 2 pack of Deep Woods Off. I gave one to my daughter, and one to my son without looking closer at the labels. One was in fact Deep Woods Off (the one I gave my daughter), and the other was a Family spray that was not very effective.

8. Bring water. When my daughter first came home from camp, four years ago, she did complain about the taste of the "well-water", but she got used to it, and we also bought water bottles with built-in filters. I noticed this year, lots of kids bringing their own gallons of fresh water. Since my son, didn't quickly grasp where and when to refill his water bottle, this would have been a good idea to have on-hand.

9. Pack a timer. If they are not allowed smart phones, try and use a digital watch that can remind them when to reapply sunscreen/bug spray. My daughter's counselors were always diligent about reminding her. My sons - not so much.

10. Make writing home easy. They aren't given much free-time, so pre-address and pre-stamp short postcards for them to send you and/or others, or if your camp uses, use their simple reply stationary.

11. Don't send large care packages. Consider that they already have a ton of stuff, so the more you send in care packages, the more they will have to repack and carry. There is really no need for toys, books, or really anything, maybe just a favorite snack they can't get at camp. I send my daughter Creamsicle Twizzlers via Amazon Prime.  

  • Also, rather than pay to mail any care packages, just bring them with you at drop off and then once they are gone, get them from the car, bring them to the camp office and ask them to deliver them. Our camp even let us write which days we want them to receive them on.
  • A couple of great items we have sent and used have been Letters to the Happy Camper, and Camp Friends Autograph Pillowcase.

12. Make keeping in touch easier. Speaking of Camp Friends, print out cards with your kids contact information, whether that be your phone number, or their TikTok or Fortnite handle, so that they can easily exchange their information and continue their friendship throughout the year.