The overnight camp experience, A through Z

What will you feel at overnight camp? It’s hard to answer through words alone. So we assembled photos—from Canada’s leading photojournalists—to help.

Writer: Geoff Davies   |   Photo Editors: Andrew and Margaret Stawicki



The ABCs of summer camp start with Anticipation.

Anticipation starts every spring, if not every winter, as the milestones of the year roll by, and camp friends check in to celebrate them and count the days left.

But if you’re a first-time camper—or, really, a camper of any age—there's no anticipation quite like the night before camp.

Campers come in all sizes and stages, from all walks of life and for all kinds of reasons. Some come once and move on; many return every summer. Some kids grow into counsellors, to pay forward what camp has given them.

Some campers grow up at camp over a lifetime, and in their hearts, even years later, find they never really leave.

What all campers have in common, though, is they’ll all know this feeling: of the night before you go, the night before it starts, and the night before you learn everything that happens next.

Camp Wapomeo/Taylor Statten Camps  |  James Forsyth


The Bus

The bus ride to camp is something all campers should experience at least once. Sure, parents might feel a bit of FOMO when it comes to the trip to camp. And who can blame them? Once you get far away from crowded cities and past the busy traffic, everyone in your family van will start to feel the freedom that takes hold, and the excitement that sets in. Even if they’re not the one who gets to stay at camp.

For campers riding the camp bus, that excitement sets in from the first moment, and so does the feeling of family.

The first turn off the highway, the first time you roll down the window, the first glimpse you get of the camp sign—the trip to camp is full of visceral firsts for your senses.

The Bus


(Social) Contract

Some cabin groups hang them on the walls, some hammer them out around the campfire, and sometimes many campers already know them by heart.

Even though it’s not Rousseau, but the Waterfront Director and your cabinmates that we’re talking about, the idea isn’t much different: to succeed as a community, we put our shared needs and values on the table for all to see and agree upon.

It’s the cabin rules, the community promise, the Full-Value Contract, the pledge to live with mutual respect. It’s the first step in transforming a dozen different kids into a single group of teammates, if not friends, and it’s the foundation of everything to come.

Camp Ak-O-Mak   |   Mike Pochwat


Dip, Delve, Dive (in)

Some kids, when it comes to their first time at camp, prefer to dip their toes in before anything else. The world they’ve just arrived in is something entirely new, and different than anything they’re used to. There’s a good chance that, upon arrival, camp looks wider and more wondrous than anything they were ready for.

After that first bracing moment, the courage of our kids tends to take over. Once they’ve lined up their toes on the end of the diving board, they’ve found a good posture. They feel the wisdom of their momentum, then they can soar in heart-first.

Camp Pathfinder   |   Mike Pochwat



Whether it’s the natural beauty of wilderness around you, or the beauty of what you discover inside yourself, the camp experience brings you back to earth, in the most out-of-this-world kinds of ways. 

Life here takes on epic proportions, even literally. The heights are higher, the sky is bigger, and the magnitude feels more momentous than anything from the grids and boxes of urban life.

Camp Kawartha   |   Mike Pochwat


Fuel (up)

The idea of summer camp, for many folks, evokes the image of the classic dining hall: a large lodge buzzing with voices, high ceilings with tawny rafters, colourful plaques and mementos on the wall—and, in the midst of it all, clusters of kids laughing, listening, and coming together as a new team around the table. 

A casual observer might say it’s because of the central importance that food and mealtimes have at camp, to keep kids fueled up for some of the most active days of their year. 

But that’s only half the truth.

Coming together for nutritious, community-minded meals is important at camp because it’s important in life. In this dining hall, three times a day (four, with evening snack), a curriculum in healthy living unfolds.

Camp Arowhon   |   Dick Loek


(Get) Grounded

Normally, those aren’t the words our kids want to hear. If they woke up to find a packed duffle and news they were going to “get grounded,” something might get lost in translation. 

But ask them when they come back from camp, after returning again and again, and you’ll hear that “getting grounded” is exactly what the experience is good for. 

When was the last time our kids measured time by the sun, or felt real earth (and real rocks, real trees, real fields) beneath their feet? Are they more used to choosing their path based on which roots look like better footing, or based on which way the ground says they should go?

Camp Tapawingo   |   Tim Fraser


Hers, His, Theirs

You might say: camp creates a new world for kids to step into. But you would have it backwards. 

Camp supports kids, keeps them safe, and gives them the space they need—then kids come together to make the magic their own.

At its best, it gives them solid ground on which to find their footing, fresh air to inspire new thinking, and brighter eyes to help see the world in new ways.

For one camper, the biggest thing in her world today is her creation from arts and crafts, her morning orchestra of beads, leather, twine and glue. 

For another, it’s the space he calls his own, his sacrosanct nook on the bottom bunk.

For many campers, the greatest thing camp gives them is a feeling, a warmth and safety that permeates the place. 

Camp is a lot of things to a lot of campers, but most importantly, it’s theirs.

Camp Tanamakoon   |   Mike Pochwat



You might say: camp creates a new world for kids to step into. But you would have it backwards. 

Camp supports kids, keeps them safe, and gives them the space they need—then kids come together to make the magic their own.

At its best, it gives them solid ground on which to find their footing, fresh air to inspire new thinking, and brighter eyes to help see the world in new ways.

For one camper, the biggest thing in her world today is her creation from arts and crafts, her morning orchestra of beads, leather, twine and glue. 

For another, it’s the space he calls his own, his sacrosanct nook on the bottom bunk.

For many campers, the greatest thing camp gives them is a feeling, a warmth and safety that permeates the place. 

Camp is a lot of things to a lot of campers, but most importantly, it’s theirs.

Camp Ak-O-Mak   |   Mike Pochwat



Two ends glued together make one creation. Two pieces put together make a pair. But two kids who connect—that’s more than the sum of its parts.

For kids, going away to summer camp is like walking away from the social world as they’ve always known it. In the classroom, at daycare or after-school programs, perhaps they’ve grown up with the same group of kids or maybe the right connections never really sparked.

But at camp, our kids get to join in, and step into a new social network with their full selves, making relationships based on who they are now and what they're passionate about today.

Camp Tawingo   |   Peter Redman


(Our Mighty) Kids

No kidding: “to kid” is a verb in more ways than you might think. 

Whether it’s having a laugh or horsing around, inventing a game out of thin air or making friends with some creepy crawlies, being a kid isn’t an inherent skill, something you’re simply born with. 

It’s a learned skill. It’s a muscle, and like all muscles, you have to use it, or you’ll lose it.

The ability to let curiosity whisk you away. Trusting the instinct to play. The courage to hit an obstacle and keep working to overcome it—or the imagination to blaze new trails to get around. 

 This is how kids “kid,” and how camp gives them the workout of a lifetime for this muscle. It’s how they grow, gain new strength, and become truly mighty kids.

Camp Chikopi   |   Peter Power



For the meaning of the word “entrepreneur,” look to its French roots. For the meaning behind the word, look to the portage. 

Entre, as in “between,” and prendre: “to take up” or “to seize.” It means: together, let’s take this up. It’s a call to action: let’s carry this forward, together. Even the portage—the sometimes marvellous, sometimes merciless route the canoeist takes when water isn’t an option—is revealing for its roots: porter, to carry, to lift.

It’s the period between each sentence of a canoe trip, and sometimes it’s the first step out the door, but the real meaning is between the lines, and beyond words. 

“C’mon. Let’s take this and go.”

Camp Pathfinder   |   Mike Pochwat



Out here in the “real world,” we’ve come to see time as money and “productivity” as the art of making the best use of both. But when was the last time you measured the value of your time by the amount of clay between your fingernails or the layers of paint on your jeans?

Creation takes many shapes. You can make music, make art, or simply make a ruckus. Camp supplants “productivity” with creativity. From arts and crafts to drama and dance, camp removes the measuring stick, showing kids it’s OK to forget “making progress” and just make something.

MAKE 2015
Invervarsity Pioneer Camp Ontario   |   Tim Fraser



Nighttime presents a new side of camp. It makes you turn to new senses to “see” it clearly. 

The bright sun that bore down on you all day now has been replaced by the moon. The streetlights and skylines of the city are now the furthest thing from your mind. You’re reminded of your fascination with an older kind of light.

Close to the campfire, your friends are entranced. Songs bounce softly off the trees, and fade into hums. The last sound you hear before is a distant train whistle—or was that a loon?

You look up and slip into the Milky Way.

Glen Bernard Camp   |   Andrew Stawicki



Sometimes at camp, the line between what’s inside, and what’s outside, starts to blur. Where some see a clearing in the brush, others see a living room. 

Once you get used to the wind off the lake blowing straight through the dining hall, or the loons that call after lights out (or was that a train whistle?), you’ll wonder why the difference was ever there at all. 

Campers get a chance to live outside in a way that’s simply inaccessible in the world of walls and doors. 

 Whether it’s a few hours exploring the backwoods or a few weeks living out of a stuff sack, the impact is as deep as it is enduring.

Camp Tapawingo   |   Tim Fraser



Paddle is a noun and a transitive verb—and much more on top of that. It’s a thing of beauty and a way forward. It’s a piece of wood, plastic or metal, shaped into a tool that’s an end in itself. 

 Each time your blade cuts into the water; each ounce of strength you use to push the lake a bit more past you, and pull yourself a bit more forward, each whirlpool you leave in your wake—it’s all part of a whole that can’t be broken down into any elemental parts.

Camp Wanapitei   |   Mike Pochwat



Down by the water, once the boats are away and the campers have dried off for the next activity, everything is quiet—but far from silent. 

Living by a lake comes with a soundtrack. There’s a constant, gentle splashing, the incessant laughing of waves hurrying down the lake, or the way they whisper in the evening, dancing up and down the shoreline.

Take in the smooth touch of water and the taste of the air. Smell the young pine trees baking in the sun, and hear the cricket songs carried on the breeze.

As much as camp is known for its torrent of activity, the magic happens in the quiet moments, too. This is when reflection and connection happen.

Take a moment, let your senses align, and enjoy a true “augmented reality” experience.

Camp Mi-A-Kon-Da   |   Mike Pochwat



Not all camps are on islands, and not all activities take place by the lake, but when a young person immerses themselves in the camp experience, there's always a ripple effect.

Many campers learn to swim their first strokes at camp, or face fear in its earliest form—from the edge of the diving board, the depths of the deep end, or the heights of the jumping tower. For these kids, these will be the first brave leaps of many.

The splash they make doesn’t end at the waterfront, or even when they leave camp. Long after the summer is done, there's still a ripple.

Camp Frenda   |   Peter Power



Camp is great for its corny jokes, but even the campiest can ring true. For a place known for offering campers a “hull” of a time on the water, it’s only fitting that that’s where some of the closest friendships form. 

Take a look around the waterfront, and you’ll see many reasons for that. Sure, summer camp is famous for the canoe, but kids also head out in a Laser or dinghy. Give them their own kayak, they’ll feel in control. Give them a fleet of boogie boards, and they’ll feel unleashed. 

But put two of them together in a boat for an afternoon or for a full journey, and they’ll learn that the best kind of ship really is a friendship. (And without one, it’s hard to get anywhere!)

Camp Muskoka   |   Stan Behal



How do you define a triumph? How do you say what is, or isn’t, “a victory”? The answer might surprise you—but how you answer will define you. 

For some campers, the hardest challenge is getting off the bus. 

Others will embark on weeks-long canoe trips. Some will trek through the woods or up mountains, for miles longer than they ever thought their legs could carry them.

 Every challenge that campers overcome is immensely meaningful to the person it belongs to. That’s why camp is so impactful to them—for letting them choose which challenge to own.

Ontario Pioneer Camp   |   Tim Fraser



Camp is the original outdoor classroom. For every gathering of campers, every block on the cabin schedule, there is a built-in curriculum: a plan, a purpose, and an approach rooted in curiosity for the world around us. 

For all young learners, social context and connections play an essential role in creating the right kind of learning environment. 

Counsellors who are healthy mentors, cabin groups that feel safe and supportive, and camp’s invigorating mix of things to see, do, and discover—taken all together, camp adds up to an unequalled educational experience. (Just don’t tell the kids they’re learning!)

Fraser Lake Camp   |   Mike Pochwat



Once camp is over and the campers have gone home, when counsellors start their slow climb out of the Canadian Shield or down the highway to the places they call home, campers start referring to a place you might have forgotten. “The real world.”

It’s the same world where we all live, where everyday life unfolds. But when kids, big or small, go away to camp and come back to this world, suddenly they see it with new eyes. 

Camp is an idealized society made small, a micro version of a macro idea: that communities can be built on simple joys and shared values. Life here is a virtual reality, built on people instead of pixels. 

When you start seeing it that way too, which world is more real after all?

Camp Muskoka   |   Stan Behal



What does it mean to be wild? Where do you find your “wild self” and how do you let it out?

Inside every kid, there’s another kid. Inside each young person who's learned how to sit still, listen quietly, and keep their colours within the metaphorical lines, there’s another spirit that sometimes peeps out his head, or sometimes bursts out altogether.

It’s a kid who loves the feeling of muck squelching under their feet, the wriggling frog between their fingers, or the pure joy of simply running and screaming.

It’s the squeal amid strobing flashlights, tip-toeing in the dark toward the section washroom. It’s the fire in the eye of the Gaga Ball player, when their only care is what happens in the ring.

We all have a wild self, and we all need to let it out to play, at least every now and then.

Camp Iawah   |   Fred Chartrand


X (marks the Spot)

Every story needs a setting. Every journey needs a starting place or a place to return to.

For longtime campers, the place they call their “second home” isn’t merely a backup. It’s not a place to get away to—it’s a place to come back to.

The buildings, bunkhouses, the famous trees and the familiar smells—they all play a role in creating both a sense of place and the magic that fills it.

Don’t forget the dining hall, the rec field, or even that place where we store our gear and prep our next trip.

Every quiet corner or secret path, it all helps make a place where kids can, quite literally, put their accomplishments on the map.

Camp Kandalore   |   Peter Power



One vital camp lesson that might get overlooked: the power of a positive approach. Yes, you can do it, you’re up to the challenge. Yes, your friends will be here to have your back, or face the challenge with you.

When the way you engage with the world starts with an attitude of “Yes,” it has an impact on everything that follows.

Slogging down a rainy portage, with 10 cold toes inside your two wet shoes, and kilometres still to go—this could be the hardest day of your young life.

Or, as you step off the bug-bitten trail, as the lake breaks through the trees and you see the last morning mist still clinging to it, maybe you start to see things differently.

As the pack slides off shoulders you never knew could be so tired, and never knew could be so strong—maybe this day will actually be your best yet.

Camp Temagami   |   Mike Pochwat



The drive back home from camp has a totally different energy than the last time you were on the road.

In the backseat, everyone is sound asleep. The counsellor cranes around for a look around the bus, the heads in each row gently bobbing here and there. Some are slumped back for a nap, others are braiding bracelets with leftovers from the craft centre or getting lost in the landscape out the window.

The kind of tired you feel after a visit to camp is deep and calm.

The sound you hear is a sign that another summer at camp has come and gone. It was loud, it was fast, it was full of surprises, it taught you a thing or two, it gave you a much-needed moment, and the time of your life.

But don’t worry—the bitter brings out the sweet and camp will come again in just a few seasons.

Glen Bernard Camp   |   Phil Snel

Overnight camp is a basic part of a healthy childhood.

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