What Are My Choices?
Tales from the Safety Zone
A 1998 survey by the American Camping Association found that 55 percent of campers are girls. It also found that campers are getting younger. Three fourths of camp directors reported adding new activities to their programs in response to increased interest in adventure activities, the arts, and sports. Some of the additions included mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking, photography, in-line skating/roller hockey, gymnastics, soccer, and golf.
There are two basic kinds of camps: day camps and resident (sometimes called sleep-away or overnight summer camps) camps. Day camps tend to have younger children, sometimes as young as pre-school, and, of course, campers don't spend the night. At resident camps, kids usually should be at least 7 years old, and they stay from one to several weeks, sleeping in cabins or tents.
Some camps are single-sex, but the majority are co-ed. Some offer a variety of summer camp activities, while others have a special focus, such as performing arts, sports, horseback riding, or sailing. Many have begun offering popular adventure activities in recent years. There are even space camps for budding astronauts, and at least one for kids who want to become race car drivers!
Then there are trip and travel camps, which are becoming very popular.
In a trip camp, groups of campers get to their campsite by transportation other than motor vehicles—hiking, canoeing, or riding horseback, for example. The destinations tend to be state or national parks, where the campers pitch tents.
At travel camps, participants go by car or bus to scenic places of interest. Sometimes the two types of trips are combined so that the campers first travel by bus to a location and then begin the trip camp.
Beginning the Search
High demand means camps fill up fast. If you wait until May, you could be left with few or no options. Start your search months in advance. Some day camps make their enrollment applications available as early as February or March. Popular camps can fill up soon after enrollment begins. Use these questions to help you evaluate a camp.
To find out what's available, start by asking other parents. You also can inquire at your child's school because some programs, especially day camps, distribute information to them.
If you use a referral service, find out how much direct knowledge it has about the camp. Ask, for example, if the service has visited all the camps it recommends, or if it gets evaluations at the end of the summer from campers it has placed. Also ask how many camps it represents.
Fairs provide one-stop shopping for camps. They're held in schools, community centers, or even hotels, usually in late winter or early spring. Some communities also have camp fairs in the fall. The regional offices of the American Camping Association (ACA), an organization of camping professionals, can provide you with information on camp fairs scheduled in your area.
At a fair's information booths, you can browse the displays, pick up literature, and talk to camp representatives. Some booths have slide shows or videos.
A number of resident camps sponsor their own individual events in large metropolitan areas where parents can view more in-depth presentations. If you would rather sit in front of your own TV and take a tour of a camp you're interested in, some of the larger, more established camps do indeed have videos that prospective campers and their families can watch. Contact the top camps on your list to ask about these sources of information.
In some communities, organizations publish camp directories —particularly day camps—and place them in schools and libraries. Parenting publications often put out a special camp issue listing camp offerings. These aren't necessarily comprehensive, however, as they may be limited to camps that buy advertisements.
Can you go online? Many camps have their own Web sites where you can get additional information.
Some sections of the American Camping Association publish free directories listing ACA-accredited camps in their region. For a copy, phone the nearest ACA office. You also can search for ACA-accredited camps nationwide at www.acacamps.org, or order a printed copy of the annual guide for $19.95 (at the time of this writing) by calling 800-428-2267. Many libraries carry the guide, too.
If you're thinking about a resident camp and want help in knowing what your options are, check to see if there are camp referral services available to you. They help families find camps that meet their criteria, such as program type, cost, and location. They are usually listed in the Yellow Pages under “camps.” These services usually are free to families, because the camp consultants earn a commission from the camps they represent. This means the services recommend only their client camps, so you'll get a limited picture of what's available. But those choices might be all you need.
The ACA offers a free referral service through its regional offices, where experienced staff will counsel parents in person or over the phone and match them with ACA-accredited camps.