If you’re a parent, you’ve probably encountered the phone book-sized Official Packing List issued by your children’s camp, along with dire warnings about the minimum number of socks required, the importance of labeling underpants, and the forbidden nature of sharp objects, video games, cellphones, lighters and processed sugar (Because, you know, it attracts bears.).
As a child, I remember epic battles with my mother about packing for my first time at overnight camp.
“But Mom,” I whined. “I need this axe. We’re going to be in the forest. We have to survive.”
To my 8-year-old-brain, the survival demands of sleeping away from home were roughly on par with that scene from The Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo slits open the belly of a Tauntaun and shoves in the comatose body of Luke Skywalker to keep him from freezing to death.
I didn’t know what camp would be like, but based on the number of socks I was told to bring, I suspected it would be cold, stinky, and I would have to get tough if I wanted to survive.
“You don’t need an axe,” she said, taking it out of the bag. “They have axes. In fact, you’re not allowed to use an axe. Where did you get this?”
On the other hand, going away to camp for the first time meant getting my very own sleeping bag. Prior to this, I had to make do with hand-me-downs from an older sister, including a particularly obnoxious Strawberry Shortcake-themed sleeping bag.
Sleepover parties were rough. My friends all had bags printed with cool action figures like Skeletor, Optimus Prime, or the Tazmanian Devil.
“What’s his super power?” demanded my friend Steve, pointing to an image of The Purple Pie Man, leering out the window of a pastry-castle.
“He makes pies,” I muttered, and then pretended to fall asleep.
But no more! With summer camp in my future, it was time for a trip to the L.L. Bean camping department where I immediately focused on the $800 arctic survival bag.
“Mom! This is tactical nylon. Tactical. You can sleep on a glacier, it only weighs 2 pounds and I think it stops bullets.”
“Put it back,” she said, dragging me into the Lightweight Summer Cotton zone.
Still, it was a good day. I took home a new plaid sleeping bag, which was cool, because Braveheart had come out that year, and I would be able to tell Steve that this was how Scottish Highlanders went camping.
Even better, Mom agreed to get me a flashlight. My own flashlight. Not one of the crappy plastic ones that lived under the sink, no, this was a Mag Light.
It had an adjustable focal point and a textured grip. This baby was clearly high-tech gear used by law enforcement professionals, ninjas, scientists, and could probably burn through walls if I could only get the adjustment right. I leaned out the car window on the way home, attempting to signal nearby planets in morse code.
“I’m only giving you one extra set of batteries,” Mom said. “Don’t waste it.”
Back then, LEDs were still a dream of the future, and the 12 size-D batteries required to run this monster cost roughly a week’s salary.
We made one last camping-supply stop, dropping into the local pharmacy.
“One bag,” Mom said. “And don’t tell your counselors.”
I stared wide-eyed at the candy isle. Was this real? Was I dreaming? This never happened. Even at Halloween, Mom routinely demanded a 90% candy tax on my haul. “It’s for charity,” she lied.
I made some quick mental calculations. Hard candy would last longer, but chocolate bars would be better for trading. In the end, I settled on a bag of Smarties, reasoning that I could always split them up into smaller units if I needed to wheel-and-deal with the other kids.
That night, I insisted on trying out my new sleeping bag, and lay on the floor of my room, tracing the glow-in-the-dark stars attached to the ceiling with the beam of my Mag Light.
“Are you sure I can take the candy?” I asked Mom when she poked her head in to demand I go to sleep.
“Probably not,” said Mom. “But it’s ok to have a treat. It’s your first time at camp. Sweet dreams.”
In the end, Steve and I ate the candy before I left for camp, and I used up all the batteries on the first night, but I still have that plaid sleeping bag. And it still reminds me of that first time away from home.
Cullen McGough is Chewonki’s Director of Communications & long-time summer camp fan.