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How to choose a camp in three steps

Start with this blueprint to finding the perfect summer camp

If you've spent any time yet browsing camp profiles or reading through our guide to the different camp types in Canada, you'll already have a sense of how much choice is out there.

It's daunting, right?

This guide will make your search both easier and more effective. It covers the three stages to finding and enrolling in the ideal camp: wants and needs analysis, research, and registration.

Contents:

Step 1: Identifying your wants and needs

Choosing a camp begins with understanding what you want and need out of a camp. It’s important to involve your child at this stage: their participation from the outset is critical to a happy outcome. The more they know about camp before arriving, the more easily they will settle in.

Wants

Begin by discussing the following questions with your child:

Do you want an overnight or day camp experience?

Day camps offer:

  • Broad choice of activities and specialtiessports, the arts, computers and more
  • Great way for campers to sample and discover their passions and strengths
  • Urban as well as rural and wilderness settings
  • Chance to develop physically and emotionally—to gain social as well as problem-solving skills
  • Busing and before and after-care at some camps

Residential (overnight) camps offer:

  • More time to spend on a specialty focus or exploring new activities and learning new skills
  • Opportunity to make new friends with campers from around the world
  • An environment that allows kids and teens to become more independent, being away from the security of family
  • Opportunity for summer work, building leadership skills and responsibility for self and others

Some overnight camps advertise five as a starting age but six to eight is more common. However, there are camps that offer a three-day, two-night introductory program for campers as young as three. Fifteen or sixteen-year-olds are in their final camper years. At sixteen or seventeen, youngsters participate in a counsellor or leader-in-training program.

So what is the right age to start overnight camp?

Readiness is a more significant factor than age. Has your child attended day camp, which familiarizes children with camp activities and counselors? Is your child asking to go to sleep over camp? Has your child slept away from home at a grandparent’s or a friend’s house?

Further steps:

Do you want a traditional camp experience or one that specializes in a few activities?

It’s a somewhat messy distinction, but you might say “traditional” camps offer a variety of activities, while specialized camps hone in on one.

Traditional camps offer:

  • A wide range of sports, recreational, creative, and social activities: games, canoeing, swimming, and hiking; arts, crafts, music, and campfires.
  • Some traditional camps also have highly-regarded facilities and programs that offer a focused (and customized) experience: rock climbing, mountain biking, gymnastics, trampoline, pottery, archery, and painting.
  • Skill development in independence, teamwork, leadership, co-operation, an appreciation for nature and the chance to develop meaningful relationships and lifelong friends, (see: The Benefits of Camp).
  • Both day and overnight options

Specialized camps offer:

If your child’s aim is to increase skill level in a specific activity, enquire about the qualifications of the counsellor/instructors and the number of hours of daily instruction.

To determine if the program is suited to your child’s needs, you might ask:

  • Will my child receive formal instruction in all the activities or are some simply for fun and recreation?
  • Are any of the activities compulsory?
  • Will my child have choices in planning his activity schedule?

Further steps:

  • To view a full list of camp-types and activities, visit our Types of Camps hub.
  • You can also browse the camps by type/specialization through our advanced search.

Do you want a long or a short stay?

Aside from cost or scheduling concerns, this question is most relevant in the context of overnight camp.

Historically, sessions for overnight camps were four to eight weeks. This is no longer the norm. Recognizing the many summer-program options and the preference of working parents to schedule a family, summer holiday, camps are offering more choices. A seven or eight-week session is still possible, but more families are choosing one, two, three or four-week sessions.

Choosing a shorter session initially is desirable. Preferably, at the end of a session, a camper is happy and begging to stay longer than miserable and counting the hours until departure.

Typically, as campers get older, they stay for longer sessions. This allows them to fully experience all the program choices and to acquire the skills to move to the next level in their preferred activities.

Advantages to longer stays or multiple sessions include:

  • A week to adjust and settle in, then a second week to fully get into camp life
  • Stronger bonds and deeper connections with other campers and counsellors
  • A chance to sample and participate in all the diverse activities and experiences offered
  • Increased opportunity to acquire skills and improve abilities
  • Time to develop greater independence and self-confidence
  • Fewer missed activities due to inclement weather
  • Fun and learning multiplied over time!

Further steps:

Do you want a coed or single-sex environment?

If boys are from Mars and girls are from Venus, would they fare better separately or together in the world of camps? It really depends on the child.

Coed sessions offer:

  • A chance for campers to interact with the opposite gender in an appropriate and positive way
  • For children who aren’t used to the opposite sex, coed camps can help them develop social skills and prepare them for the real world.

Coed camps vary in the degree of integration of the sexes. At some, the entire experience is integrated with the exception of cabin assignments. At others, boys and girls are segregated at instructional activities but together for meals and general programs.

Single-sex sessions offer:

  • Programs and activities targeted more specifically toward boys’ or girls’ interests.
  • A space free from distractions and the pressures to impress the opposite gender. Over her 34 years as the owner and director of the all-girls Glen Bernard Camp, Jocelyn Palm says many former campers have told her: “I learned who I am at camp.”
  • At an all-girls camp, girls look up to staff as positive female role models. Depending on their age, they skipper sailboats, carry canoes and do other activities stereotypically seen as things girls can’t do.

Further steps:

Is your child willing to attend alone or do you need to find a friend?

At the risk of stating the obvious: If your child is going with a friend, you’ll need to coordinate with them on which camp to choose.

If going alone is a concern, but you can’t find a friend to go along with the camp of your choice, you could enquire if there is another new camper in the area your child could meet before camp starts.

Having said all that, children who go solo are more likely to make new friends, (and socialization is one of the core benefits of summer camp).

Counsellors are trained to assist new campers in establishing relationships. They will assign a buddy for the bus ride to camp, ensure that bed assignments are inclusive and no new camper is relegated to a corner and that everyone is included in the conversation at mealtimes.

Particularly in the first few days, counsellors are expected to be omni-present and attentive as individuals blend into a cohesive group. New campers who arrive as a pair may miss opportunities to expand their friendships. Counsellors are aware of this and will gently force a twosome to separate at mealtimes or at an activity.

Needs

There are some core needs to consider in addition to the wants outlined above.

What can you budget for camp?

Overnight camp fees range from under $200 to over $1400 per week. Day camps, meanwhile, range from under $50 to over $500 per week.

Some camps have an all-inclusive fee; whereas, others quote a fee for the general program and surcharge for special activities such as horseback riding, waterskiing or extended canoe trips.

Tuck accounts record a child’s incidental expenses for items such as batteries, stamps, candy bars or notepaper. Transportation is usually a discretionary charge.

Higher fees may be the result of more luxurious accommodations or special programs requiring expensive equipment and certified instructors. Campers may enjoy a more varied, sophisticated program at a costly camp, but camps with modest fees still offer an excellent experience.

Many camps offer financial aid/subsidies, and discounts are sometimes offered for siblings.

There is also usually a discount for registering early.

Further steps:

  • If cost is a concern, we highly recommend you read our guide to camp costs and subsidies. This will allow you to search for camps by cost and find sources of money (from camps, government, and third-parties).

Is the location a deciding factor?

Would a location near the cottage facilitate transportation and visiting? Would your so or daughter feel safer at a camp close to a hospital because of her severe allergies? Consider the extent of the health care service at camp.

Also remember that, to some extent, the site determines the activities. Location is not just a function of need, then, but also what you want out of the camp: does your camper want to climb mountains, paddle wilderness rivers, hike in forests, canter across meadows or swim in pristine lakes?

Further steps:

Do you need transportation to be provided?

Overnight camps often have a transportation program where campers are picked up and dropped off at one or more central locations. This is sometimes built into the camp fee, but sometimes it is an extra charge. Parents can always drop kids off at the camp directly if they choose.

Some day camps require parents to provide transportation too and from camp, and others provide some sort of transportation assistance, whether it’s door-to-door bussing or providing centralized pick-up and drop-off points. Like overnight camps, this extra transportation service can be built into the fees, or charged as extra.

If transportation is provided, particularly for overnight camps, camp directors  generally recommend you use the service. En route, your child will get to know some of the campers and staff. The trip will be carefully programmed and supervised to welcome and include new campers. If your child is prone to motion sickness, administer the medication before starting the journey and advise the supervising staff.

Do you need a lunch program?

This question is only relevant if you’re looking at day camps. Some camps require kids to bring lunch from home, while others provide lunch as a part of the camp fee or as an optional additional expense.

Be sure that your child’s special dietary needs can be met (if there are any).

Are there special health or psychological needs to consider?

While some camps are entirely devoted to children with a special need, others include special needs campers in the regular program. There are camps for children with physical challenges, medical conditions and developmental, behavioural or learning disabilities.

Children with cancer, diabetes or hemophilia go to camp. Children who are blind or deaf go to camp. Children confined to wheelchairs not only go to camp─they go on canoe trips! Parents need to consult the director to establish the right match and the best strategies to utilize the camp’s resources to ensure a successful experience for the camper.

Camps that practise inclusion recognize the benefits for all campers. To ensure success, they provide additional staff training. With the guidance of a caring counsellor, campers discover that there are more similarities than differences. Soon the campers without a disability begin to understand, accept and relate to the child with a disability. They learn appropriate ways to communicate, to be helpful and supportive. Everyone benefits – the camper without the disability becomes more knowledgeable, caring and compassionate; the child with the disability feels accepted and becomes more confident.

Further steps:

Step 2: Picking a single camp from your shortlist

Now that you know what you want, you can better find the camp that fits.

At this point it should be fairly easy to create a shortlist of camps: just use the advanced search (select filters at the top), with Step 1 as your compass.

The more difficult part – sometimes – is settling on a single camp.

For some families, a particular camp -- for whatever reason -- jumps out early in the search process (in Step 1 and when creating a shortlist via the advanced search). If that describes you, congratulations, you can proceed to Step 3 below.

For others, finding the right camp requires a "deep dive": Step 2 in this guide will focus on the sources and kind of information you need to pick the best camp for your kid.

Sources of information

OurKids.net -- Aside from creating a shortlist of options through the advanced search, you can also browse camp profiles, which include photos, testimonials, camp stories and news, activities offered, etc. Dates, deadlines, and opportunities to meet the camps face-to-face are also posted to the profiles.

Camp websites -- Regularly visiting the websites for the camps you’re considering ensures you stay up to date on deadlines and opportunities to acquire more information.

Camp information sessions -- Camps often have Open House sessions where parents and prospective camper can meet camp staff, ask questions, and get a feel for what the camp is like. These sessions are sometimes held on-site, but are also often held in a central (urban) location. Come to information sessions prepared with questions, (see “What to ask camp directors”, below, for inspiration).

Camp tours -- Camps will welcome the chance to show you around and answer your questions. Call ahead to arrange a tour, and make sure to bring your child along. As part of your research, try to visit camps you're interested in the summer before you plan to register your child.

The Our Kids camp expo -- We host an annual camp expo at Roy Thomson Hall (Toronto) late February. It gives you a chance to meet and speak with many of the top camps – all in one place, and at one time. You’ll meet camp directors and senior operational staff. It’s the biggest camp expo is Canada, and it’s free with pre-registration. If you live in the GTA, we think it’s a no-brainer!

Provincial and national camping associations -- These associations accredit camps and can often speak to you about specific camps, and respond to questions and concerns. Find them here.

Friends, family, and neighbours -- Talking to someone who has actually been to a camp you are interested in is one of the most effective ways to get a sense of the camp’s culture.

What to look for in a good camp-fit

Simply engaging with the information sources above should give you a better sense of what feels right for your child. But there are some areas to which you should pay special attention.

Values and philosophy

  • What is the camp’s philosophy or vision?
  • How does this translate into the day-to-day life of the camp?

This is not a fluffy question. Most camps are very committed to – and defined by -- a set of unique values. Be sure to find out what those values are, and if they sound appealing/agreeable to you and your child.

For coed camps, another question might be: “What is the approach to gender mixing and segregation?”

Activities and programming

  • What activities are available?
  • Are there electives, or does everyone do the same thing at once?
  • What activities are mandatory?
  • Are instructions given with each activity? What kind of specialized training do instructors have?
  • Are campers encouraged to try new activities they have no previous experience with?
  • How “competitive” are the activities?
TIP: To see the particular activities and programs offered by a camp (whether it is a traditional or specialized camp), see the “Activities & Programs” tab on their Our Kids profile. If you’re not yet at the shortlist stage, but have a particular activity you’d like to do at either a specialized or traditional camp, (say, “ropes courses”, etc), conduct an advanced search and filter for that activity under the SPECIALIZATION tab. 

 

Often a camp’s promotional material includes the schedule for a typical day. In some camps, cabin groups with their counsellor choose their activities and spend the day together rotating through their choices. In other camps, cabin groups are together for meals, evening program and bedtime, but throughout the day, individuals choose their own activities. Some activities, for example, swimming, may be compulsory.

Ideally, your child will exercise some program choices suitable to his age and experience. Sometimes stating activity choices is part of the registration process.

Camps vary in the amount of free time available to campers. Most schedules permit a little free time.

Environment and facilities

  • What is the "feel" of the camp? Is it a welcoming place? Is it well maintained and secure?
  • Is there a main dining hall, nurse's office, cabins or tents in the case of a residential camp?
  • Are there appropriate activity areas at day camps?
  • Is there a playing field, waterfront or swimming pool? Special equipment—canoes, easels? Special facilities—ball courts, rock climbing wall, performance space, horse stables?
  • What is the overall condition?

Leadership and governance

  • What is the director's background?
  • How long has he or she been involved with the camp?
  • Is the camp governed by a board or an owner-operator?

Even experienced camp professionals have a hard time agreeing on the necessary qualifications for a good camp director. There is no university degree program in camp directing. Camp directors have backgrounds in many disciplines: law, medicine, nursing, recreation, education and business to name a few. Most directors exhibit common qualities: a respect for children and young people, an appreciation of the outdoors, experience in organization, management and leading, and an ability to perform under pressure. They attend conferences on camping or in related fields to further their professional development.

The camp director sets the tone. Everything that happens on the camp property is his/her responsibility. His prime concern is the safety, health and happiness of the campers. Before delegating this responsibility, he must hire mature, experienced, skilled, competent individuals and then train them fully in all aspects of safety and risk management. Throughout the season, he supports, supervises and evaluates his staff to ensure the well being of every individual on the camp property.

Safety and accreditation

  • Is the camp accredited by a recognized camping association? If not, why not?
  • What kind of training do counsellors receive?
  • What written policies are practised at camp to ensure camper safety?
  • Who looks after injured or sick campers?

No question is foolish or too direct when you are dealing with the well-being and safety of your child. Camps are also generally quite responsive to questions around safety (where distance and time permit, some camp directors are willing to visit potential campers in their own homes).

Camp accreditation

The fact a camp hasn’t sought accreditation from a third-party doesn’t make it unsafe. Similar to a private company going public, there are financial and administrative cost to accreditation, which don’t directly translate into a safer camp environment. For smaller camps in particular, they might comply with rigorous safety standards yet still not seek accreditation. Moreover, some non-accredited camps may be in the process of achieving accreditation, (which you can clarify with the association).

All camps – whether they are accredited or not -- must comply with all relevant provincial and federal government legislation including building codes, fire codes, labour laws and human rights legislation.

Having said all that, knowing that a camp is accredited gives you extra confidence the camp is qualified to care for your child.

Camps accredited by a provincial camping association must achieve additional standards set by the association, which always meet but sometimes exceed the legal standard. These standards pertain to site, facilities, health, safety, food service, water quality, leadership, activity programs, transportation, management and administration.

In setting standards for specific activities, camp professionals seek guidance from the experts such as: the Lifesaving Society, The Canadian Red Cross, Canadian Coast Guard, the Association for Challenge Course Technology (USA), Canadian Standards Association and the National Coaching Program.

Every detail of an accredited camp’s operation is addressed in the standards: police and/or reference checks on staff members, the number and qualification of lifeguards, the minimum depth of water under the diving board, the safe storage of the archery equipment, the contents of the first aid kit on an out trip, the temperature in the refrigerators, the minimum square footage in the sleeping cabins and the minimum number of toilets for the camp population. These are but a few of the hundreds of standards that camps meet to achieve accreditation.

If the camp isn’t accredited, it isn’t a show-stopper: but in that case you should pay extra attention to the following questions:

Counsellor training

The person with the most immediate responsibility will be your child’s counsellor. You will want to know the age, experience and qualifications of the counsellors. The minimum age for resident camp counsellors is usually seventeen. Directors devote considerable time to building the best possible staff team, beginning with former employees returning to a previously held position or taking on the challenge of a new role with additional responsibility.

When hiring new staff, after reading many applications and résumés and short-listing the candidates, they begin the interview process. Preferably, they personally interview the applicants individually or in groups, but, if this is not possible, a phone or internet interview is considered. If geography is an issue, the director may ask a trusted, former employee to meet a new applicant. Following successful interviews, reference and police checks are done. Directors hire the most qualified, mature, experienced and skilled staff available, then further train them for their specific jobs. Waterfront counsellors/instructors will have life guarding, first aid and lifesaving certification. Boat drivers require a Pleasure Craft Operator Card. Activity instructors will have training and/or certification in their specialty area.

Staff training often occurs in the off season at camping conferences and continues in pre-camp. By asking about the rate of return of former staff, a parent can gauge the staff’s stability and commitment.

The staff-to-camper ratio dictates the level of supervision. In determining an appropriate ratio, the age of the campers is key. Suggested suitable ratios are: ages five and under - one staff to six campers. six and seven- one staff to eight campers eight to sixteen - one staff for ten campers.

Written safety policies

In pre-camp training, staff learn the written safety guidelines for every activity and program and practice the emergency procedures for fire, waterfront emergency, severe weather or a missing camper. The counsellors are then responsible for teaching and implementing the safety procedures with their campers.

Medical supervision

A good health centre is adequately equipped to handle the anticipated first aid and health needs of the campers. It provides suitable space to isolate sick or injured campers and a quiet place for resting or overnight accommodation. There is a locked cupboard for medication and a refrigerator for ice packs or medicines like insulin that must be kept cold.

Some more questions include: is health care available on the camp site twenty-four hours a day? Is there a health centre, and, if so, who is it staffed by? Generally speaking, the qualifications of the health staff are determined by: the needs of the campers and staff; the distance to the local health clinic or hospital; the level of care offered by the local clinic or hospital. Arrangements for emergency care should be made in advance of the season with the nearest hospital.

For more on safety, click here.

Other questions to ask camp directors

  • Given your child's age and stage of development, what programs would be good choices? Is there a range of ages among campers in each session and how is that handled?
  • What is the food like?
  • What are the sleeping arrangements like?
  • What is the communication policy like (with parents at home)
  • What bursaries or other financial support are available?
  • What fees/costs are extra, if any?
  • What percentage of campers return each year?
  • Ask if they can refer you to parents of previous campers.

Current or former campers and parents are a camp’s best advertising. After seeking their permission, directors are pleased to provide this information to give prospective parents another perspective on the camp operation.

Your child will have his own questions. They are likely to be simple questions that cover the basic needs. Where, when and what do I eat? Where do I sleep? Where do I go to the bathroom? Will there be other new campers? What will my counsellor be like?

CASE STUDIES
Choosing a camp can take a little or a lot of time. It’s up to you! Both actual scenarios below resulted in a successful camp experience and the decision to return the following year.
Scenario A
Mom, dad and daughter, on a sunny day in August, paddled into the lake where the camp, recommended by friends, was situated.
They set up camp on the opposite shore and spent the remainder of the day observing the activity: boats coming and going; lifeguards supervising, swimmers playing and campers strolling along the shoreline paths.
The next morning, as scheduled, the camp director toured the trio around the entire camp property where they observed every activity, entered every building and chatted with the staff and campers. The parents were impressed with what they saw and heard; their daughter loved the camp ponies! Throughout the winter months, the parents chatted casually about the camp.
In the spring, with their daughter’s consent, they registered. A sleepover at their neighbour’s house (their camper-in-training arrived with her sleeping bag, pajamas, stuffed animal and flashlight – just like at camp!) completed their pre-camp preparations.
Scenario B
After discussing the parameters, mom and dad gave their son the task of choosing a camp on the internet. After viewing many sites, he chose a camp that “had tons of activities.”
The parents followed up with some pertinent questions for the director and made the decision to register. Task complete!

 

Step 3: Registering for your camp of choice

Some camps begin registering for the following summer before the current summer is over. Sometimes, early registration for the next year is offered at this year’s fee.

While some camps are fully booked months before the opening session, others register right up to the opening day. The advantage of making your plans early is that you are likely to have more choice of time and program.

Forms, forms

After registering your child, you will discover that there are several forms to be completed. Be assured that every piece of information requested is necessary and will be used. Understandably, the director needs to gather enough information to care for your child properly. All information will be treated with confidentiality in accordance with the Privacy Act. The information will be relayed to members of staff on a need-to-know basis. For example, for safety reasons, the entire staff will be informed if your child has a bee sting allergy or is a non-swimmer.

  1. Application Form: Your signature at the bottom confirms that you deem this particular camp program suitable for your child.
  2. Health Form: You may be required to submit a photocopy of your child’s health card. International campers will require supplementary health insurance. You will be asked for a complete health history as well as current conditions and medications, sleeping and eating habits. Full disclosure on health forms is essential. For example, don’t hesitate to mention if your child is a bed wetter. Camps are accustomed to this, but counsellors will be better prepared if forewarned. Relevant information will be relayed to the kitchen staff and the counsellor.
  3. Personal Information Form: The director needs to know recent, significant changes such as a family move or a serious illness in the immediate family. A counsellor can be better prepared and more effective knowing about a child’s goals, fears, siblings, pets or previous camp experience.
  4. Camper transportation arrangements and parent visiting plans
  5. Camper cabin requests: Most camps will accommodate limited (one or two names), mutual requests to share accommodation. Generally the persons named must be the same or close in age (one to one and a half years apart). Occasionally, to avoid disastrous combinations, camps will ask “Is there anyone you do not want to live with?” Camps carefully consider cabin arrangements to create the best combinations for all parties. Once groups are assigned, most camps prefer not to make changes.

Cancellation policies

If the camp’s cancellation policy is not presented in print, ask about it. If your plans change, most camps will refund the fee prior to a certain date but retain a small percentage as a non-refundable processing fee. After this date, some camps will refund fees under certain circumstances e.g. an illness or injury that prevents your child from participating in the camp program.

Others will offer a credit for a future session. There is usually no adjustment in fees for late arrival or early departure.

Because camps are caring communities committed to the wellbeing, growth and development of the campers and staff, they often have a written Code of Conduct. Some codes are very detailed with varying levels of misconduct and graduated consequences, but generally speaking, everyone is expected to treat everyone else with kindness and respect and to refrain from any illegal activity related to smoking, drugs or alcohol. All camps agree that gross misconduct (such as physical abuse or use of non-medicinal drugs) would result in immediate communication with the parents then dismissal with no refund of fees.


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