Alright parents, yes only parents; unfortunately even if you tell your children to read this they probably won’t, this will be an in-depth look at different types of gear your child will need for camp, and will likely use outside of camp. I still recommend you go over camp’s checklist, linked here. However, if you’re looking for specific recommendations, or need help choosing between different brands, then you’re in the right place!
These recommendations are based on my six years as a camper and three as a counselor, so I've been around the Boundary Waters block. My experience has included dragging canoes along coasts in freezing rain, tipping a canoe with my personal gear on multiple occasions, falling into mud up to my ears, and breaking my toe on a rock due to poor shoe selection (I probably should have seen that one coming when I purchased these "shoes").
Camping is just living in a minimalist setting, and just like normal living, there are multiple options that work. For example, I don't like wool socks because they make my feet itch, so I select my shoes to help me avoid them. I can already see the eye-rolls of my fellow counselors because this is sacrilege of the highest order. While I wouldn't recommend cotton socks (or anything cotton for that matter), consider your camper's preferences so they don't end up hating their socks and stuffing them in the pocket of a pack to be forgotten for what I can only assume is eternity.
A few things to consider before selecting gear: How sensitive is their skin to scratchy materials? Unfortunately durable gear tends to be less comfortable. How sensitive is your camper to the sun? While campers will be reminded to put on sun-screen, as a camper, and yes, even a counselor, I have been known to overestimate how much sun I can handle. A good brimmed hat or long sleeves on breathable clothes will help your camper remain protected despite the heat or their own confidence. What kind of sleeper is your camper? Some campers can sleep on nails and wake up singing with the birds, whereas I could sleep on a bean and still struggle to get a good nights sleep. How does your camper do in colder weather? A long sleeved shirt compared to a t-shirt can make a big difference. These considerations and more all contribute to helping campers, but realistically their parents, understand what gear is going to help them the most on the trail.
The trail is unique for gear because it has two conflicting sides. Gear that would make for the most comfortable at-campsite experience (such as: large tents, refrigerated food, the in-camp sauna) also make for the most difficult to downright impossible from a travel perspective. On the other hand, what would be easiest to travel with (a water-bottle, good clothes, and your sense of adventure) will likely leave you freezing and hungry at-campsite. The bad news is the top of the line gear thats helps you balance these two to a ridiculous extent is expensive. The good news is a significant portion of people who engage in these activities have little to no income, a la college students and yours truly. There are a wide range of solutions, so without any further adieu lets get down to the actual gear.
We'll start with the most important, and work our way down to the optional. We'll also go over what camp provides, and you as parents don't need to worry about.
Trail Shoes: Step into my office. I have tried just about every option over the years; some have worked, some have broken my toe (yes I'm still upset with toe-shoes, even though I probably should have seen that coming).
Rain gear: This is a tricky one. Rain gear will serve two functions: it should keep you dry, at least relatively, and it can keep you warm. Just like any gear it has some contradictions. You could need your rain gear in the freezing cold, but on usually when it rains it's is still quite warm. Heavy rain gear in a warm rain can add up to some miserable portages or hikes, or even heat exhaustion, so I recommend lighter rain gear. Any rain gear will do a good job of insulating heat due to is material. It is important to have cold-weather options on the trail, but I'll cover those in a later section. I use the North Face Venture 2 (pictured right); it's lightweight, durable, and waterproof. It's also lasted me over 20 trips that gave it plenty of wear and tear. For those looking to spend money for the sake of spending it, I present Arc'teryx Beta SL. It's a little lighter, probably about as durable, and a whole lot more expensive. As a budget option I would recommend Marmot PreClip, or borrowing from a family member or friend. The PreClip is tried and proven, but when it comes to other finds, like small Amazon brands, it's best to test them first to be sure. If there is no rain in the forecast all you need is a garden hose and your camper. Remember rain can last a while on the trail, so really make sure it will hold up. Who knows, he might spontaneously find the motivation to clean his room.
Sleeping bag: This is one of those areas that some parents tend to get wrong, sorry guys it happens to the best of us. Your concerned your camper will get cold at night, and you look for something that can keep him warm no matter the conditions. Except that camping is all about the conditions and fitting everything in a pack. I have only known one camper to be cold at night due to his sleeping bag. This nameless camper decided his sleeping bag should be a thin white bed sheet. You know, the kind that are on every bed under the blankets that actually keep you warm. Needless to say the poor nameless soul got cold. But besides him, everyone has either been a perfect temperature, or a bit too hot at night. The real problem for most campers, and then inevitably their counselors, is packing their huge sleeping bags into a pack. It's a huge hassle, and it's a great way to start the morning off terribly. I would recommend a sleeping bag rated to around 40F, and a pack size around a football. The Marmot NanoWave35 (pictured right) is a good option. 35F is plenty, especially when considering your camper will likely have warm clothes to sleep in. And it will pack up nicely, so your camper won't spend 10 minutes trying to pack it before asking for help. For budget alternatives check Amazon or surplus stores for products like Mountaintop Lightweight Envelope. From its description it sounds like it will be more than fine. I only hesitate because I've never heard of the brand. Testing stuff out is always a good option. For those who some might call "financially absurd" there is the Ghost Whisperer. Is it only slightly better? Check. Does your child really need it? No. But hey, a guy can dream.
Sleeping pad: This has a clearly wrong choice. If it doesn't inflate, chances are it's gonna be a pain to pack. I'd recommend the REI Co-op Flash (pictured below). It condenses well and will keep you camper comfortable over those pesky rocks and roots. Other similar pads will work, but be conscious of how much space they take up when deflated. For the budget option I've got a real kicker here so strap in; $0. Camp Voyageur has some life jackets that can easily be zipped together to form a relative good sleeping pad. I've known several campers and counselors to make use of this feature. I would only warn that this technique does rely on campers keeping their life jackets dry, which isn't as hard as it sounds. Insert running gag about rich people, here's the gear I wish I had: Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xtherm. All the stuff I said before about expensive gear, but I wish I had one.
Dry sack: Despite our best efforts, packs aren't waterproof. This can be a problem, especially because canoes always have a little bit of water in them. It doesn't matter if it comes in on shoes, or spills out of a water bottle. And when it's raining, the packs don't stand a chance. The pack liners do some good, but inevitably it will fall to your campers dry sack to keep their clothes and sleeping bags dry. So you really need something good for this. Sea to Summit (pictured right). This is the best, and it's $30, 20L. If your bag fails and the weather is cruel, it can end your trip. If used right you could jump in the water with this pack and your gear would be dry. It's also good packing practice to fit your sleeping bag and clothes into this pack. If they don't fit your probably packing too much stuff. The sleeping pad isn't packed into this bag.
Water Bottle: There are options, but we recommend Nalgene. We need a lot of water on the trail, so we require two large water bottles. Also they need to be durable, because they will be on the outside of packs and slipping all around the canoe. Finally they need a big mouth so they can be filled up fast and purified fast. Don't get a bottle with a straw. Nalgene is simple and proven, and they can also be purchased at the camp store. So if they are lost, we can replace them easily. Water is really important, so if your child shows up with a Gatorade bottle some changes are going to have to be made.
Trail clothes: It's good to pick out a set of clothes that are going to be worn on the trail. Always keep in mind these are going to get wet and dirty. Your camper will be spending most of the day in them, so pick something they like, but can stand to burn after your done with them.
In-Camp clothes: These are campsite clothes, not In-Camp like at 709 Voyageur Rd Camp Voyageur In-camp. Again it's good to pick out a set of clothes for this specific purpose. A few things to keep in mind: These are going to be packed up, not worn, during the day, so they need to be packable. They are also worn in the morning and at night, so they need to be slightly warmer than your camper's trail pair. They should also be kept as dry as possible, excluding the inevitable slip and heavy rain once in a while, so we can relax the no cotton rule a bit.
Flashlight: Your camper will need a flashlight, more specifically a headlamp. If you've ever tried to pee at night while your flashlight, it's not easy. This one is pretty highly rated (pictured left). Just be sure to test out your headlamp before camp and check what kind of batteries it takes.
Mess Kit: Your camper will need something to eat out of on the trail. As always, packable is a must, but their are also some unique requirements. First, it needs to be easily cleaned. The trail isn't the most conducive environment for cleaning, so the easier it is to clean the better chance it has at actually getting cleaned and not quietly shoved in the bottom of a pack with cheese still stuck to it. Additionally, if it's going to hold something hot, it needs to not burn your hand. I've had cool mess kits that seemed great until I tried soup. Turns out they weren't very cool. As always test them out by just using them, or pour some boiling water in them and hold them for a bit. Remember the outdoors doesn't provide tables for visitors, it's the ground or your hands. We recommend a plastic cup bowl spoon, like these.
Knife: Yes, your camper will try to convince you this is the most important gear they can get. I know I did. And I don't mind honestly. Because I'm in it for the look in a child's eye when his knife, certified for fighting bears or to survive the arctic with a flint embedded handle, gets plopped into the peanut butter jar and spread across my bagel, or slices through the veggies at night for our dinner. Honestly, counselors don't even bother checking to see if we have a knife anymore. We know there's always a camper with one attached to his belt. Has he ever needed such a rapid from-the-hip response? Nope. For our budget conscious consumers I recommend not bothering, like at all. They don't need it. For those that like to spend money, look for products with Bear Grill's name on it. That name is like a camping black hole for your knife money.
Book/Cards: I'd recommend bringing them. Despite the exhausting days, the trail can have some down time, and even the most active child will appreciate some quite reading or old-fashioned games.
Toothbrush/toothpaste: Don't forget these.
Don't Worry About: Tents, Lighters/fire-starters, Life-jackets, Paddles, Pots/pans, Food, Stoves and Maps.
Happy hunting out there. There are a lot of options, but just remember: Whats the worst that can happen really? We can probably make it work, it will be ok. Except jeans, we will leave your kid at camp if he brings jeans on the trail.
Special thanks to Outdoor Gear Lab. I would recommend parents who want more in-depth comparisons and gear reviews check their product reviews. Remember I don't actually get to test out gear, and I definitely can't afford to buy all these different brands myself, especially the really nice stuff, so I relied a lot on the reviews of others. This is a site I trust to give good information, so check it out if you need more than what I could offer, which I completely understand.