what you need in your Northern Michigan car at all times this summer

“So that’s what you do; you just have that stuff with you all the time?” said my downstate friend. That was my eureka moment. I had just described the key stuff a Northern Michigan mom needs to have in the car at all times to be ready for the impromptu beach swim, bonfire or boat ride. My friends had been up for a week and on the last day I shared a key recipe for success, not realizing it was such a valuable piece of Northern Michigan intel … So here it is:

When I was little, there were several times when we’d be visiting friends and lunch would be along a waterfront somewhere. Without a swimsuit, we’d wade in. Invariably, the waves would eventually get whatever I had on soaked. Soon, my mom would let me swim in my underpants, saving the outfit from it’s inevitable drenching, which meant at least a damp seat on the ride home … This solution only works for toddlers. My mom learned to keep a swimsuit handy whenever we were Up North. Decades later, I put her wisdom to good use. I essentially have pre-packed bags with me all the time; these change seasonally and I’ve spoken before about a well-packed ski bag.

Here are my contents for a well-packed summer bag:


My daughter’s least favorite suit is always in the swim bag because it can just stay there. It might be last year’s suit, and a little snug, but in a pinch, it works.


Also for that impromptu swim. Doubles as table cloth. Works after one of those isolated thunderstorms catches you.

Sunscreen, Bug Repellent, Bug Spray 

I’ve paid as much as $15 for sunscreen from a tony shop where we were kayaking. And often the shops are closed up for the night when the sun sets at 9:00 and the mosquitoes remind you.

Wine Bottle Opener with a Church Key (Bottle Opener)

Yes, it could go in the glove box. But I don’t relish going back up the 110 steps at Peterson Park to get it once I’ve carried the swim bag down the bluff.


Could be a windbreaker, good for high speed boat rides and sunset watching bluff top. Or a sweatshirt, good for the part of you not facing the beach fire.

Extra Credit

These items give you options in the schedule and additional comfort.

Dry Underwear & Shorts/Pants

Sometimes they still go wading in their clothes and there’ll be a wave just a bit higher than expected. Or a slippery rock in a shallow stream. You’ll be the hero when they don’t have to go home wet and cold. Whatever they are wearing, shorts or jeans, put the other in the car. It’ll get hot or cold, and the switch will make them more comfortable.

Food & Drink

Peanut butter sandwiches, beer, pop and canteens of water. Paying for water makes me feel stupid, so I have 3 canteens rolling around the back of my truck right now. The noise annoys me less than forking over $1.25 for something that comes out of the tap. Peanut butter sandwiches, thrown together in the morning tide over anyone getting a bit cranky. (Dads, too!) Cookies, seasonal fruit, a hunk of cheese, leftover whatever from dinner. Toss those in a soft-sided cooler with an ice pack and you are super mom! The trick is to grab and go.

Picnic Basket

My picnic basket is forever stocked with acrylic wine glasses, cheese knives, plastic utensils, plastic plates, tea towels (they don’t blow away) and a table cloth. It also has another wine bottle opener. (you have to ask?) Those capri suns fit nicely, and don’t spoil. I forgot a package of chocolate covered espresso beans in there on a 90 degree day; not recommended. Crackers in a zip lock—sure!

Wetsuit & Swim Shoes

The water is so cold this year, my daughter’s wetsuit is permanently available. And we’ve been taking swim shoes with us every where since my cousin sliced her foot on a zebra mussel and ended up in the ER contemplating stitches. Ugh. What a way to ruin a coveted vacation day.

My childhood family packed for vacation in the 90+ degree heat, 100% humidity of St. Louis, MO in June. It was impossible to think about putting on winter stuff. And yet, my dad, anticipating every Northern Michigan weather, often would make us pack up sweatshirts, jackets and long pants. One year, when we were camping in the Upper Peninsula, he stuffed our winter coats into the car.

“You might not need it. But if you do, you have it,” he’d say. Exploring Northern Michigan, there have been plenty of times when we decided to enjoy a newly discovered beach, walk along the windy shore or stay longer and picnic. I’ve handed my daughter’s extra sweatshirts to shivering friends, shared picnic items, and opened plenty of wine bottles for strangers who wanted to enjoy a fresh purchase from the vineyard.

Recently, black flies drove us off  our favorite beaches at Shalda Creek and Good Harbor. By the time we found a fly-free beach on the other side of the peninsula, everyone was hungry and no one wanted to leave the beach we’d sacrificed so much time (and blood) to enjoy. Somehow a mixed six-pack of beer, two peanut butter sandwiches, a bag of carrots and handful of Oreos sated the seven of us long enough to relax on the beach until it was time for pizza. (It was a little like the loaves and fishes, mind you.)

Pack these bags now and you’ll have the time and equipment to say, “Yes,” to all that Northern Michigan can present in the impromptu.

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