Planning for Your Kid's First Summer Sleepaway Camp

How to find the right camp for your kids—and how to know if they're ready.
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Photo courtesy of the American Camp Association.

Photo courtesy of the American Camp Association.

I was a camp kid. At the end of my sixth grade year, I spent a month away at Gold Arrow Camp in the Sierras. I did a lot of things I’d never done before in my ball sports-oriented family. At camp, I rock climbed, canoed, and made homemade ice cream with rock salt. I got my sailing certification and sailed a little Sunfish by myself across a big lake, and learned how to shoot a bow and arrow. I learned camp songs (“Peanuuuut, peanut butter, jelly”), and made friends from all over. I got out of my comfort zone and learned how to be independent from my family. It was an awesome experience.

Now I’m a parent, and I haven’t yet sent my kids to camp. I’m starting to look at sleepaway options for my 10-year-old, because I want to instill in him the kind of confidence I feel like I got during my camp experiences.

But how do you know if your kid is ready? The American Camp Association offers this advice: “Ask the following questions,” they say. “How excited is your child? How did he/she become interested in camp? Has your child had successful overnight experiences with a friend or relative?”

While I can answer the last question with a solid “yes!” the other two answers are a little more uncertain, and so I’ll take the next couple of months to weigh them. Since I know going to overnight camp is not my son’s idea, as it was mine all those years ago, I plan on describing camp and gauging his interest. And since I I know going with a friend or two will increase both his interest and his comfort level, so I’ll be talking to his friends’ parents. Realizing camps fill up months before summer, I’ll be doing so sooner than later.

So, how do you (and I) choose the camp that’s right for your kid or kids? There are a number of camp finder tools online, like this one from the ACA, and this one on Camppage.com.  

I’ve already learned that camps have become a lot more specialized since I was a kid. They range from art- or science-focused, to horseback or other single sports-focused, or general sports-oriented camps. And of course there are plenty of great adventure summer camps, the kind of classic camps that combine outdoor adventure with good old-fashioned camp silliness.

But I’m particularly interested in camps that have a backpacking focus. I know how transformative true backcountry trips are, and I want that to be part of my kids’ camp experience. Backpacking ups the ante in self-sufficiency, teaching kids not only how to thrive away from home, but how to be away from camp and survive with what they’ve packed on their backs. 

Camps like Cheley Colorado Camps have kids head out from the camp’s home base for two- to five-day backpacking and bike-packing trips. “Going on a mountain bike or backpacking trip away from camp helps challenge kids," says Jeff Cheley, camp director. "They learn to work together as a team and rely on their fellow campers when things get difficult. They also deal with failure and success.” 

"We hear from parents, and see for ourselves, that kids who head out on Day 1 are more mature, confident, and experienced when they return on Day 6," adds Katie Ryan, executive director of Oregon's Opal Creek. Other camps around the country with backpacking outings include: Avid4Adventure (California and Colorado), Outward Bound (nationwide), NatureBridge (Washington and California), Camp Greencove (North Carolina), and more.

The American Camp Association accredits camps and says, “An ACA accreditation means that your child’s camp cares enough to undergo a thorough peer review of its operation—from staff qualifications and training to emergency management.”

So, I’ll be keeping that in mind when searching. The ACA also recommends asking camp directors the following questions: What is the camp’s philosophy and program emphasis? What is the camp director’s background? What training do counselors receive? What is the counselor-to-camper ratio? What are the ages of the counselors? How does the camp handle homesickness and other adjustment issues?

Another major question: How much does the camp cost? I’m learning that many camps offer payment plans and financial aid, so those are important things to look into, as well.

But since the most pressing question is this: Is my son ready? I’ll be talking with him, and maybe a few of his buddies, about camp and figuring out if this is the summer for it or not. Considering all the research proving the benefits of overnight camps, and also knowing what it did for me, I’m looking forward to the experience for my own kiddos.