New York Times - May 29, 2003
Outfitting Summer Campers

By Michelle Slatalla

ONE thing E. B. White and my two older daughters have in common is their love of Maine. Perhaps this is because all three of them spent considerable portions of their childhoods there, Mr. White in a lakeside cottage with his family and my daughters at a girls' sleepaway camp.

In fact, all three of them have written extensively about those experiences. But that's where the similarities end.

Mr. White (from his 1941 essay "Once More to the Lake"): "We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond's Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine."

Ella (from a letter home, dated August 2002): "I ran out of bug spray and Band-Aids and soap. Please send more stamps too."

Years ago, the first time I sent my girls off to camp, I hoped they would return with the same sorts of memories Mr. White had, of nights "when the older boys played their mandolins and the girls sang and we ate doughnuts dipped in sugar."

I am no longer naïve. This year, as I wearily hauled the old duffel bags from the attic, I admitted the truth: the sleepaway camp experience is all about the packing list.

Here are a few of the required items: 15 pairs of underwear, 18 pairs of socks, 10 beach/bath towels, soap, toothbrush, cup, shower sandals, soccer mouth guard, athletic cleats, stationery, stamps, disposable camera, flashlight, sleeping bag, extra batteries, camp chair (optional), lip balm, sunscreen, waterproof shoes, poncho.

That's for one child.

Add to that the fact that each year as my daughters grow older and wilier, they add other items that Mr. White never would have considered essential:
blow dryers, three-drawer bedside dressers, nail polish and hair irons.

"Hair irons?" I asked last week. "For the woods?"

But it was weak protest. I am a broken woman. The only comfort I have each May, as I dedicate much of the nicest month of the year to running to stores as if taking part in an unpleasant scavenger hunt, is knowing that nationwide many other parents share my predicament.

More than 10 million children go to summer camp, so I don't think you have to be a genius to know that the obvious answer would be an online camp superstore where you could order every item on a packing list and have the stuff labeled and shipped directly to camp.

The closest Web site to my dream that I found last week was, an umbrella site where you can shop at the sites of several different sellers of camp specialty items, like Bunkline Camp Outfitters (toiletry case, $7.95), Gilbin's (mesh laundry bag, $6.75) and Texas Case Manufacturing ("the original camp footlocker," $160 to $325, depending on style).

"We designed it to be one-stop shopping for families, well, usually the mother, who have no time to run around to 5,000 stores to find everything on the list," said Nancy Diamond, a co-founder of Niche-Directories, which operates the site.

There's room for improvement. CampersMall needs a keyword search for the entire site so that shoppers don't have to click on the retailers individually to check inventory. No single retailer sells everything on the packing list. So it would be more convenient if shoppers could put all items into a single shopping basket and go through a single checkout process.

Some other major online retail sites are way behind the curve. Consider, for instance. I knew in my heart that somewhere in the cavernous depths of a Target store lurked many of the items on my list. I just didn't want to waste three hours testing that theory. But I had
to, as remained mute on the topic of "summer camp." When I ventured out to do field research, I did find some useful items on the shelves: a a Kodak disposable camera ($6.99, with flash), 75-count packs of white Kleenex tissues on sale (99 cents) and flashlights with ergonomic grips ($5.99, batteries included).

None of those items are for sale on the Internet site.I have similarly sad tales to tell about hours spent wandering the aisles of Bed, Bath and Beyond, where plastic baskets a girl might tote to the shower were stacked in the aisles. Yet I found nothing but a headache in trying to navigate

I was briefly heartened, however, to find at least one online superstore that sought to gather camp-related merchandise into one category. At, I clicked on "School's Out'' and then on the "Happy Campers'' category. But there the problem was a lack of selection;
among the scanty category's five items were a "critter carrier" and a "bug box," which I don't think are on any camps' required lists. Yet. It turned out that while there are lots more camper-friendly products at the site, they're not organized under that category.

Ms. Diamond of NicheDirectories had a cheerier attitude than I do. "Don't make a big deal of it," she said. "Just get it done."

To show her I wasn't such a poor sport, I mentioned that I had hours earlier successfully made arrangements for U.P.S. to pick up the girls' duffels. So at least my ordeal would soon be over. For another year.

The U.P.S. site was a nightmare to navigate, with contradictory instructions that sent me from one confusing feature, "Create a Shipment," to another, "Open a U.P.S. account," only to be told an account was unnecessary. So I went back to "Create a Shipment," where the site announced that my account number was invalid. I didn't mention that to Ms. Diamond, though, because it sounded a little whiny. (Just call U.P.S.'s toll-free number, (800) 742-5877, for help; it's far less maddening.)

"One year, U.P.S. lost my daughter's trunk," Ms. Diamond said.

Or maybe she said "trunks." At that point in my typing, the notes started to look a little panicky.

"When I finally got it back in October, the label was still on it," she said. "They just had lost it in a distribution center."

She could hear me hyperventilating. "Don't worry, it's a fluky thing, you'll be fine," she said.

I decided to take her advice not to worry. Instead I will focus on the things I can control: in a last-minute attempt to instill values in my children, I checked out "Essays of E. B. White'' from the library and read aloud at dinner: "Summertime, oh, summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake, the woods unshatterable."

"That means no hair irons," Zoe deduced.

At least we crossed one item off the list.