Two of our top questions are what to put in a care package for the military, and how to package them up. After all, most of us have never been in deployed, so it's hard to come up with military care package ideas, and even harder to know what to put in a care package. We've seen a ton of care package ideas out there, but often found (sadly) that they didn't cater to what those of us in the military really wanted. Because of that, we designed this product-by-product guide to let you customize your care package, while at the same time giving you ideas for useful items for your military member.
After we go through our top products, we give you some care package themes to help tie it all together. (Complete with links and items to order by theme, too.) These were packages thought up by real military families, and we love each idea. If you're focused on those themes, scroll down now. But for most of you, first things first... Let's start with what to include in the care package!
Care Package Basics: How to Know What to Send
This is the hardest part for most people! To begin, if your service member requests something, send that! When I was in the Navy, for example, I used to play catch on our flight deck on Sunday afternoons. (Yes, this is a real photo of me out at sea.) As accurate as we may have been, we'd lose baseballs over the side as the ship rocked back and forth. I put the word out to my family: send old baseballs in the next care package. And from then on out, each military care package I got had a couple of beat-up baseballs in it. My grandfather even sent a whole box with just baseballs and a simple note: "Hope this helps." Well, it did, and I still remember that care package all these years later. It was like a treasure trove for a young sailor who just wanted a bit of normalcy on those long deployments.
But for every baseball I got, I also loved the things that came along with it. And frankly, if all anyone sent me were baseballs, I'd run out of space! That's why we've put our heads together, brainstormed a list of 100 items, and whittled it down to the top 20 items to include in a military care package. And we put them together into a list here, complete with easy links to buy each one on Amazon. We guarantee that, if you add these to the care package, it will make for a fantastic military care package. If you choose to buy one of these products for your Hero, if you use our link, you'll pay the same price, but we get a small commission, which helps us to keep bringing you great content! We aren't paid to list any of these, though. We came up with this list all by ourselves!
You'll notice some commonalities among the products, which should help give you guidance on what to put in a care package.
First, these are all small items. Military members don't have a lot of space, so space is at a premium.
Second, every snack is packaged in single-servings. It's hard to keep things fresh, and it's so much easier to store unopened snacks, and they're more compact as well. Gatorade powder, for example (see #7) is best given in single-serve packets. Sure, it costs much more per serving, but we were all in agreement: we'd rather have 10 single servings rather than 50 servings in a tub.
Finally, our most important thing is to keep your service member in mind when choosing what to include, and the more it relates to home, the better. If you have a local coffee shop, sending that coffee is a game-changer. But absent that special treat, we guarantee that if you use our list, you can't go wrong.
And just to build suspense, we start with #20 and work our way to #1. Without further ado:
Our Top 20 Products
#20: Quick Protein
Our service members work hard, and a source of quick, high quality protein is always great to help keep them going. Include some "quick protein" in your next care package. "I ate so much beef jerky while deployed, but it helped when I was starving between meals," one Marine told us. Beef and turkey jerky is great, but mixed nuts can get the job done, too. A must have for each military care package.
#19: Air Fresheners
Deployments will often find many heroes sharing a small space, so any effort to freshen the room is often appreciated! While not the most exciting gift, it's definitely one of the most appreciated. We like these charcoal bags because they are discreet, work continuously, and absorb odors, even in close quarters.
Admittedly, these only work for about half of the year, but they're so great for those time periods that we included them on this list. Nights in the desert, nights at sea, and duty stations in cold climates leave many service members exposed to cold temperatures. Hand warmers are air activated and can help keep feet and hands warm, and they'll last through an entire shift.
#17: Unscented Body Wipes
Body wipes are a popular request for military care packages, particularly for our heroes that serve in a desert environment. Usually, people send baby wipes, but these Dude Wipes are FAR better. They help keep you fresh when a shower isn't ready available, which happens across all services, especially for soldiers and marines. They're great for wiping sweat and grime from the face. We like these Dude Brand body wipes because they are thick and unscented, and they are a far cry from the standard baby wipes. These are especially good for marines and soldiers serving in hot desert climates who need military care packages.
#16: A Deck of Cards
Cards have a tradition in the armed forces. They've kept military members occupied for decades, and for good reason. They're portable, there are endless games to play, are an excellent way to pass the time, and a great group activity. "We had card night every Tuesday night," one soldier told us of his bunkmates. Service members can never have too many decks of cards, since individual cards have a habit of running off, requiring frequent deck replacement. Toss a pack into every few care packages.
For some solitary down time, check out puzzle books, like crossword puzzles or sudoku. They can be great for taking one's mind off a stressful day. Puzzle books also tend to be inexpensive, so throw a few in! We like this Jumbo book, since it has a variety of puzzles and won't get too old.
#14: Other Games
Another option for off time: travel sized games. Even if board games, they come organized so it is easy to keep track of all the pieces. There is often an area for communal board games, where service members share things they bring with them or get on deployment, so it's a gift that will keep giving to the entire unit. Our favorite board game was Cranium. It's expandable to any number of players, and gets out of control quickly. Two of our team members remembered Cranium as their top game on deployment, so it gets our #1 nod. But the Monopoly Deal card game, which is a 15-minute version of Monopoly, is hands down the most fun game we've played. And it fits in a pocket!
Many of our service members will serve in hot, sunny environments, so make sure their skin is protected. While the military provides sunscreen, some service members don't like it's thick, chalky texture, and so they'll skip it. Send a bottle of sunscreen they won't mind putting on- we like the Neutrogena Brand (for both men and women!) because it's clear, non greasy, and absorbs quickly. It feels like you're just rubbing water on your skin, but it works just as well as the classic stuff.
Half our staff was outraged that this was not #1. These are a welcome item in any care box, especially for the hero that spends their whole day on their feet. Our tried and tested favorite is Dr. Scholl's massaging gel work insoles- it helps to relieve tired, aching feet and joints. No matter the branch, service members are on their feet almost all day. From standing watch on a Navy ship to hiking long miles in the desert, new gel insoles are miracle cures. These come in men's and women's sizes, too. Think they may already have them? They need replacing every few weeks, and most service members never have the supply to replace them fast enough, so send one in every single military care package. But be sure to send the work insoles pictured here. Standard insoles may work for civilian shoes, but wear out in under a week with the military boots. This is the one we suggest for our female service members.
#11: Writing Material
Writing material is always a great thing to send, especially if your service member wants to write letters home. Send paper, envelopes, and pens. Writing material doesn't have to be limited to just letters, though. Many service members keep journals on deployment. It's a nice break from the hectic world they live in, and helps them to process the day and clear their heads. We like the Moleskin notebooks as well as Field Notes. They're both understated, well constructed, and sturdy. Not only that, but they fit in cargo pockets, letting the service members take them wherever they go. Get them a color besides black, because the black ones are common, and having a different color will make it harder to get mixed up with the crowd.
Heroes can never have too many travel sized portions of their favorite shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, or lip balm. It's a little bit of their home routine in a bottle! Extra credit: if you know your hero's favorite facial moisturizer (especially if they have sensitive skin),send that along, too. For men, we like the Body Care Kit here, because it has a little bit of everything, and is small enough to actually send all these pieces at once in a tidy military care package. For women, we love the Burt's Bees Travel Kit. It's cheap, but really high quality and useful on deployment.
You never know when a headache or stomach ache will strike, and your loved one will be grateful to have travel sized medicine readily available. The best ones to send along are Advil, Pepto Bismol, and even a pain relieving topical ointment like IcyHot (we like it in stick form linked here, since it's quicker and less messy). "Great for those 3 am moments when you wake up feeling terrible," one soldier told us. When possible, get tablets or pills, as liquids have a tendency to spill.
#8: DVDs of TV Shows
Surprisingly, DVDs are still at a premium on deployment. Most service members can't stream Netflix, so they're stuck with old-school DVDs. And many service members have a good amount of down time. It's usually a necessary break from the stressful times. DVDs are often a great source of relaxation. Sending some DVDs will be sure to work with the equipment. We recommend television seasons. They are a great way to take a short break, and sometimes movies are just too long to have the time to watch. Plus, television series lend themselves to re-watching. We recommend the complete series of The Office. It's great for re-watching over and over, and unlike some other TV shows, if the service member misses an episode or two, they can jump right back in. Other great options are Game of Thrones, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or Parks and Recreation.
There are all kinds of drink mixes out there- powdered hot cocoa mixes, juice mixes, even powdered coffee mixes. Whatever you think your loved one may want, make sure you pick some that are packaged in individual serving sizes, not a big bucket We are a big fan of Gatorade powdered mixes- they're perfect for hot climates and for the Hero hard at work- they re hydrate and replenish electrolytes. They're also a great alternative to unhealthy soft drinks, and are good to add in some flavor to everyday drinking water. Toss a few single packs into each military care packages. Although these look like the traditional canisters, inside are single-servings. Make sure you don't accidentally get the bulk serving containers! Click the link here for the right kind.
Reading material is another great idea for solitary downtime. Send your loved one some of their favorite magazines, books, or even a copy of the local newspaper. It doesn't matter if the magazines are older issues. Time in the outside world tends to stop on deployment, so most service members won't know the difference or care, since either way, the information will be new. "I used to read through a couple of Sports Illustrated issues in my bunk every night," one Marine told us at Hero Care Packages. "Even though some of the issues were old, I didn't really care. It was nice to think about something other than work." If you really want something great, we recommend the Amazon Kindle, loaded with a few books. Space saving is always a must, and having all of your books electronically is a great option. And the cost of books to send starts to add up. Much better to get one Kindle and allow the service member to add books when they get the wifi connection. Make sure to get the one with the built-in light. We recommend the same one as Amazon-- it's has 35,000 more reviews than the other models for a reason.
#5: Candy and Gum
Candy and gum are a must have! Chewing gum was often the only thing that kept us awake on those long 2 am watch shifts. Gum and candy is also a great alternative to some of those less healthy habits, like smoking or chewing tobacco.
Our service members have salt, pepper, ketchup and mustard in their mess halls, but eating the same types of food in the mess can frequently get old. Condiments are great to enhance meals or MREs. Does your hero have a favorite locally made BBQor hot sauce? Extra credit if you include some in your care package to give your hero a little taste of home. Absent that, we like Sriracha packets. They're versatile and the small size is perfect for service members to use when they're looking to spice up their meal.
Crackers, chips, nuts- every military member loves to get some snacks. "We used to microwave popcorn during our movie nights, so my grandmother sent me a whole box just of extra butter popcorn," remembers one airman. Popcorn is great, or send an assortment of smaller sized chip bags for a little variety. We like the variety pack pictured here because it's affordable, and had a great mix of things as well.
#2: Photographs from Home
Every single service member on our team talked about the importance of photographs from home. Baby pictures, pet pictures, you name it. Even a picture of Uncle John's new house will help service members feel like they're in the loop. Nearly every military member has pictures taped up in their limited personal space. We all remember that it was the first thing you saw when you woke up in the morning and the last thing you saw before you went to sleep. And there can never be too many of them.
#1: A Personalized Note
Our #1 pick was almost as easy as our #2 pick. We can't say enough about the importance of an old fashioned letter. A letter from home is something that has sustained soldiers at the front for hundreds of years, and its importance is still felt today. When writing a letter, keep in mind that It doesn't have to be Shakespeare, but it should come from the heart. Make sure to include some news of home and some words of encouragement. Service members read these letters multiple times, and most keep them in a drawer or at the bottom of a pack when times get rough. It's the little things that matter, and adding a note to your next military care package is the most important thing you can do.
5 Care Package Ideas
While any care package is appreciated, there is something extra special about opening a box to decorations or an amusing theme. Here are five care package themes with ideas on what to include.
#1: For the service member who lives and breathes sports
Jennifer Lacroix designed this crafty Superbowl-themed care package so her husband could throw an awesome party — even on deployment! Since she couldn't mail real chicken n' hot wings, she substituted with flavored chips. She also threw in some Superbowl staple snacks — Velveeta cheese dip ingredients, chips and dip, and even root beer packets. Jennifer and her husband are Patriots fans, and even though they aren't playing in the Superbowl this year, she was able to include a funny and relevant meme! Definitely good sports (and good care packaging) all around! If you're thinking about sending a sports-themed package, you could also throw in a team flag or jersey. Beverage flavors like Gatorade or Propel powders will feel reminiscent of home and game day.
#2: For the service member who loves to work out
It's no secret that there isn't a ton of stuff to do while deployed. Many service members pass the time by working out and focusing on their fitness. Sending some protein and encouragement, as Lexi Abbott did, will be sure to lift your service member's spirits while they're lifting weights. Find out what their favorite pre or post-workout drink is and include it with some protein bars. You could also include small but practical items to help them reach their fitness goals – resistance bands, sweat-wicking clothes, and cream or spray to ward off chafing and blisters. And, if you need something to fill in some space, send over a fitness magazine. We love how Lexi gave the care package a little flare by saying, "You get me all worked up!" as the pun behind the theme. Don't be afraid to be fun (and flirty)!
#3: A package of color-coded fun
If you're out of ideas or your creative well feels a little dry, consider sending a box full of items that are all the same color. For instance, a "Box of Sunshine" package could have food, hygiene products, and games that all have yellow packaging (vanilla Oreos, Lays chips, lemon drink flavoring, Funyuns, a yellow loofa, etc). Include five or ten reasons your service member brings "sunshine" into your life.
Color Theme Ideas:
Blue Without You
Something Out of the Blue
Lucky to Have You (all green)
"Pinking" of you
Miss You Al"RED"y
Love You More Than the Night Sky (all black)
I Can't Expresso How Much I Love/Miss You (all brown with lots of coffee-inspired items!)
#4 Send a birthday in a box
It stinks to miss a birthday due to deployment, but you can still help your service member celebrate by sending them a birthday party in a box. Start with classic birthday party staples and fill in with favorite snacks! So, what does every birthday need?
Cake – use a microwaveable dessert instead of sending an actual cake or cake mix.
Candles – You could try to send regular candles, but they run the risk of melting en route. Try electronic candles that just need batteries. They'll double as a night light.
Banner – Incorporate a mini banner on the flaps or across the top once you've packed everything else! (Check out this Pinterest picture for inspiration!)
Balloons – Finding Mandee has ideas on how to include balloons, but you could start by only blowing them up enough to fit in the box. Think mini balloons!
Birthday hat – It doesn't get any better than this plush birthday hat masterpiece!
#5 A night at the movies
One of those things you don't think about at first but really miss during deployments are nights out at the movies. The giant popcorn bowls, the giant drinks, the giant screen. If your service member has the big screen blues, send them a movie-themed box or a box themed after their favorite movie! Take things to the next level by throwing in gourmet popcorn, or if you decide to send bagged popcorn, include some popcorn flavoring so they can change things up. Another item you might forget, but that will make all the difference while watching a movie, is a set of nice headphones. Be careful about what you write on the customs form because, unfortunately, care packages do go missing from time to time. If you're vague and honest, you'll be fine! Oh! And don't forget their favorite candies! If you know they have a laptop with a built-in DVD player, include a movie (or three)!
Well, that's our list, but we want to know yours! Let us know which items you think are best to include in your military care package!