Packing for summer camp so a messy boy can keep it together

Say you have a son of middle school age. He’s smart, funny, and fascinating, but keeping his things organized isn’t his strong suit. Let’s call it a struggle.

How do you help a kid like this enjoy his first week away from home, and ensure that his belongings make it back with him?

Two things made our summer camp packing successful: a carefully conceived plan, and straightforward access to what he needed when he needed it with hanging organizers that provided great visibility and a primary suitcase with strategic compartments.

Rolo in bathroom - 1

Rolo bag: one solid solution for summer camp organization

First, I checked in with my son. Did he have any thoughts on how he wanted his stuff to be packed? Did he want to do this job? Did he want or need help?

Response: mostly crickets. He was happy to let me plan, and he agreed to cooperate with whatever system I devised.

Using a packing list

I adapted the camp packing list by cross-checking it with my usual travel list for DS. I also reprinted it in a format that I thought my child could reference more easily when he re-packed to come home.

The major improvements I made to the generic camp list were specifying garment colors (e.g., he knew to look for dark blue fabric if he wanted pants) and item location within the bag‘s various pockets.

DS’s jobs included:

  • check that everything he wanted to bring was listed
  • select items from his wardrobe that reflected personal expression (graphic tees, mostly)
  • carry the clothing from his wardrobe to where I was packing
  • try on everything I asked him to (he just keeps growing!) without complaint so I could confirm fit and appropriateness of individual items
  • pay attention to the walk-through I gave him about where he could find each type of stuff (information I also added to the packing list)

One large suitcase with strategic compartments

My first decision was to try to get everything into one large rolling duffel bag. Arriving at camp is fairly chaotic. Having only one item to keep track of would be best.

I opted for a bag with a flat bottom compartment beneath the more voluminous main section. All of his sheets and blankets (three warm ones suggested for northern Minnesota) could be compressed into the base of the bag. I made sure DS understood that he could unzip this one compartment and make his bed completely.

The boy can live in the same stinky outfit for a week if he wants to, but his parents can’t bear the idea that he might lie awake shivering every night for that long.

Providing trivially easy access to his bedding, his bug spray, and his toothbrush was my top priority.

Don’t sweat the small stuff: organize it!

Toiletries were organized in a large hanging kit bag made by Eagle Creek.

Eagle Creek kit toiletries - 1In addition to hygiene items, I opted to pack his flashlight, extra batteries, and pencils in this case. I thought he was more likely to find them here than to rummage through the exterior pockets of his large bag. Also, a boy his age doesn’t need many toiletries.

Small items are much easier to find against the Eagle Creek kit’s neon green and grey interior than in the duffel’s black nylon depths.

After those basics of health and hygiene, my next mission was to ensure he changed at least his socks and underwear every day. It’s camp. He can (and should) get dirty. My parenting job here was to help him understand the limits of how dirty (within socially acceptable limits), and how to keep track of it for himself in the woods.

Visibility and easy access to key items of clothing

Solution: our Rolo bag.

I’ve written about the Rolo bag before, specifically, for use in the limited confines of an Amtrak train sleeper compartment.

Camp has a couple of similarities. Space is limited with kids filling bunk beds in small cabins. Stuff spilling out onto the floor can be easily lost, though it will be obscured by others’ possessions instead of mechanical equipment at camp.

Rolo rolled - 1

The Rolo bag isn’t large. Packed and rolled, it will fit within my usual carry on travel bag, a Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45.

I used the Rolo as an interior organizer within the big duffel. Trousers in my son’s size don’t fit efficiently, but it was ideal for separating socks and underwear (the two narrow bottom sections) from t-shirts (middle) and camp-appropriate insect repellent/UV blocking shirts (top section.)

Once his cabin was assigned and found, DS only needed to unzip the duffel, take out and unroll the Rolo bag, and hang it in the locker-sized cubby assigned to him. He could easily find fresh next-to-the-body clothes each day. Visible through the mesh fronts of the pockets, he also had a reminder of the most important items to change.

Packing cubes keep clean clothes at the ready

I used packing cubes for the rest of his things: trousers and shorts, warm layers, accessories. He never took out his swimwear or “dress up” outfit, but he did wear the rest of his clean pants. He found his rainwear when he needed it.

From a mother’s perspective, the way that we planned and packed worked very well.

After camp, I asked my son how this system worked for him.

Putting plans to the test in the field

It turned out that his bunk was reassigned an hour after I’d dropped him off. I had helped him make his bed and unpack in the first room, so he had to re-pack everything. He didn’t find it hard to get his things back into the duffel and moved across the campus on his own.

That was a great test of how well we packed, if annoying for my son.

My son felt the Rolo bag was the single most helpful item for keeping him organized. He would prefer to have all of his clothing packed using this (or similar) bags next time he’s on his own.

Since I also really like the way the Rolo bag packs, I’ve ordered a similar Red Oxx product to expand our hanging/rolling packing options in the future. The Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-up looks like it will excel at organizing smaller items, but I expect it to create a larger roll at a heavier weight due to the Red Oxx philosophy of seriously overbuilt products.

I’m looking forward to testing the Big Bull Roll-up, comparing it to the Rolo bag, and reviewing it here in the next few weeks.

7 thoughts on “Packing for summer camp so a messy boy can keep it together

    • I think I made my Rolo purchase on Amazon. I was searching for some sort of hanging organizer when I found it.

      It’s very much like an oversized version of a popular (usually cheap) cosmetics bag design, but no one else appears to have made the leap to stashing clothes this way.

      It’s best for smaller, knit garments where wrinkles are less problematic. Access to items is just unparalleled, though, so long as you have have to hang it.

    • If they offered any other colors (it only comes in black), I would already have bought more. I prefer to see at a glance (different color!) whose bag it is when traveling as a family.

      It did work well as a shared bag for one night hotel stays. I assigned two pockets per kid–fresh outfit in the big pocket; socks, undies & pajamas in a skinny pocket. I used color coded zipper pulls to show whose stuff was in which pocket.

      Even with see through mesh, the boys of my household can’t identify their own clothes. Sigh.

      • Wow, that really is handy! Also, do your boys help fold the laundry when it’s done? I feel that it helps with distinguishing clothes!

      • That’s a good point. They only match socks. They don’t yet fold.

        My older one is responsible for washing the bath towels. I taught him that first to manage sturdy laundry with few special requirements: no pockets to empty or stains to pre-treat. He’s always been forgetful about stuff in his pockets.

        He helps me carry the heavy baskets and he moves wet to dry when I ask, but I usually take care of the clothing up to the point of folding it.

        The boys both have to put their own clean laundry away in their room. You’d think they could come to recognize it in that state! 🙂

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