How to do a Minnesota cabin weekend right

Raucous weekends with your college buddies, family get-togethers, quiet weekends with another couple—there is nothing better than a good cabin weekend.

To the unfamiliar it sounds a bit strange: load up your car and drive 2-4 hours on Friday evening. Spend the weekend in the middle of nowhere in a cabin with limited amenities. Haul everything back into your car and drive home on Sunday.

But where else can you stare into a fire for hours or spend all day swimming and sunning on the dock? Bring along your friends and it’s like you’re in college again, bunking up or sleeping next door to each other, staying up late and then stumbling to breakfast together. And don’t even get me started on family cabin weekends–between having your parents cook your favorite meals and doubling the adult-to-kid ratio, it’s hard enough to tear myself away on Sunday.

A few words on the cabins themselves. They might be primitive little three-season cottages with 70s decor and carpet installed on the day you were born (in the case of Adam’s family Ely cabin). Or they might be three times as big as your current house (as in the case with my parent’s “cabin”). Both have their charm.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a cabin trip invite you may be wondering what to bring. Over the years I’ve learned a few things by watching my parents, truly pro cabin hosts, by being a guest at friend’s cabins, and by hosting my own weekends. Each situation is different but there are a few commonalities among cabin culture, so here’s the gear I recommend for a guaranteed good time:

Warning for the cabin novice: you will be peer-pressured into being dragged behind a boat on waterskis or a tube. Depending on your host, they may or may not take no for an answer, and if you accept, they may or may not delight in whipping you off your skis/tube by turning the boat at high speeds into the wake.

1. Bulletproof directions. Nothing gets the weekend off to a bad start for the host and guests like someone getting lost. Print out detailed directions (knowing that you might lose cell phone reception) and ask the host for tips before you leave.

2. Your favorite sweatshirt or fleece, slippers, pajamas pants, and the like. While you’ll need to change out of your PJs at some point (and showing up to breakfast in them is totally fine) “cabin casual” attire is all about comfort. Think: threadbare college sweatshirt. Pajama pants that make your wife cringe. Forget: makeup.

My cooking club, rocking out on the frozen lake. As fun as summer cabin trips are, I think I like the winter ones, with the snowshoeing and cross-country skiing and all-day fires in the fireplace, almost better.

3. Ear plugs and a sleep mask. With staying up late to play games, someone’s kid (hopefully not yours) crying in the night, and the sun peeking in at eight, you need all the help you can get. With these essentials I spent a happy night on an Aerobed in a screen porch, oblivious to errant mosquitoes and guests who opted for late night “fishing” from the dock, and woke up to half a dozen people having breakfast a mere five feet from my head, separated only by a glass patio door. No matter how careful you are, though, there is not much to do when your domination in card games kept you up until 2 a.m. and your babbling toddler wakes you up at 7:30 a.m. Luckily, a nap is always an acceptable cabin activity. And as soon as she’s able I’m teaching Beatrice to toddle upstairs to say “Good morning!” to Grandpa and Grandma.

Another perfectly acceptable cabin activity: going on a boat ride (or booze cruise, if so inclined) to check out the local wildlife.

Want to earn “best guest” status and ensure repeat invites? Then bring along the following:

1. The makings of your favorite secret recipe drink. Whip up a pitcher of Bloody Marys, zizz up some Pina Coladas mid-afternoon, or break out the after dinner coffee and Baileys. It doesn’t matter what it is–margaritas, home brew, a round of well-timed shots–I’ve seen it all received with enthusiasm. Bonus points if your drink has an NA version for non-drinkers and kids. Since your host has probably planned out the meals, your drinks provide a welcome addition without added effort.

My brother’s pina coladas add some fireworks to a Fourth of July weekend.

2. A lawn game with a ridiculous name, preferably homemade. Cornhole, Polish horseshoes, Kubb, ladder golf — all of these are winners. Bocce, lawn darts, and croquet are acceptable as well.

3. An indoor game with a ridiculous name that you get really competitive about and that inspires a tournament of champions that goes until the wee hours. Dice games like Farkle, dominos games, card games, or my family’s beloved Carbles are good bets.

1. Find out the situation on water usage–for some cabins, it’s limited, and observing a one-shower-per-weekend limit is prudent. Also know that most cabins’ septic systems can’t handle anything more challenging than toilet paper. (Although a non-functioning toilet adds a little adventure, its charm is short-lived.)

2. Volunteering to bring snacks, drinks, or the makings for a meal is a nice thing to do, and is typically the most that your host expects.

3. Most cabins are far from good grocery or drug stores, and the last thing you want to do once you’ve driven three hours is hop back in the car for another hour. So err on the side of extra, and don’t assume the cabin is stocked with the essentials. Now that we have Beatrice I throw in a kid’s medicine kit (the nearest hospital is 45 minutes away) and if I’m bringing up food or snacks I’ll usually pre-mix the ingredients so the lack of say, baking powder, doesn’t ruin the breakfast muffins.

Another thing that is at least 10 minutes away: a place to buy a fishing license. And if you’re a fisherperson, you don’t want to miss out on this. We pull stuff like this from the lake all the time. Beatrice caught this at 6 months.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to throw in a good stunt or prank or two. We’re not too old to throw each other off the dock. Show your love for someone by short-sheeting their bed. Skinny-dip by moonlight. Build a gigantic bonfire. Create some memories, friends! And send me a postcard.

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