We usually cringe at the extra pressures modern society puts on parents to overschedule and overcomplicate childhood. But, in this case, setting your kid up with the ideal camp experience for them could be the best way to keep childhood simple.
While every child is different and has different interests, consider bucking the trend of trying to use the once-lazy, free days of summer to cram in as much cultural enrichment, athletic training and academic spoon-feeding you can. We understand how hard it is to resist the temptation in today's world of the ever-increasing specialization of kids' activities. Sure you can take 8-10 weeks of summer vacation and enroll your child in a coding crash course, attempt to make them an expert debater at a model UN camp, or have them attempt algebra in 4th grade at a Russian Math School. At a minimum, you might be ruining your child’s summer. At its worse, you’re likely ruining his or her childhood.
And that’s not OK.
So allow us to present our own hand-selected roundup of nature-based, rugged camps that are sure to bring out the wild in your child.
You’re probably thinking, “But all camps get kids outdoors, hiking, swimming.” And, yes, most do. However, the camps that made our list claim a commitment to making nature the focus of the summer experience, often taking the emphasis off the extras like drama, arts and crafts, color wars for back to nature skills like wildlife tracking, hiking, trekking, survival skills, pioneering, convening with nature, self-reliance in nature. In essence, they value the role of nature in the social and emotional development of kids and are designed to foster the relationship between nature and child.
A note that we have no monetary arrangement with any of these camps and no connection to them. In fact, we haven’t attended these camps (though we wish we did) and are not recommending them from personal experience. They just look pretty awesome to us.
Wilderness Awareness School, Duvall, Washington
With overnight camps with names such as Castaway Survival, Fire and Food and Survival Quest, the Wilderness Awareness School is determined to help kids develop an understanding and appreciation of the natural world. This Washington State camp offers both day camps and overnight camps for kids from ages four to 18. How do they do it? According to their website, they “let kids be kids—discovering the outdoors one mud-puddle, bird sound or quiet step in the forest at a time.” No arts and crafts, sports or drama, just pure nature. The Wilderness Awareness School uses “Coyote Mentoring” techniques both to train staff and to bring powerful experiences to students, “blending modern and ancient ways of connecting with nature and promoting community.” Campers learn and share experiences with a small group of kids, while still receiving individualized instruction. Parents seem happy with the results. One parent shared on the WAS website, “A week of getting up close and personal with nature is what every child needs. She gained an appreciation and respect for nature, right down to the bugs in the soil.”
Northwaters and Langskib, Ontario
This canoe and outdoor adventure camp for young men and women camp in Ontario grabbed our attention with its philosophy: “We believe that when a young person steps off the pavement and into the natural world, they move toward a deeper understanding of themselves. We believe in teaching young people how to be with the land, the water and the sky, how to be with one another, and ultimately how to be with themselves.”
Offering canoe trips/camps for boys, girls and co-ed for ages 10 to 19 of all lengths of time, these camps look like an amazing experience for kids to explore, to embark on an outdoor adventure, challenge themselves, develop independence and experience the unknown.
Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, Breckenridge, Colorado
With a mission to expand the potential of people with disabilities and special needs through meaningful, educational and inspiring outdoor experiences, Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) is truly making the doors more accessible to kids. Where else can you find a camp that is designed for kids with sensory processing disorders, learning and attention deficits and developmental disabilities? BOEC is a non-profit in beautiful Breckenridge, Colorado that serves individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities who want to enjoy the experience of rafting, rock climbing, hiking, cycling, canoeing, camping, accessible high ropes course, and more.
As far as the camp programs, there’s Camp Big Tree for kids ages 12-16 years old with sensory processing disorders, learning and/or attention deficits, as well as developmental disabilities. Through outdoor activities – designed around established experiential education models – campers will have the opportunity to develop social skills, teamwork traits and leadership qualities that will transfer into everyday life. Or there’s Camp Little Tree, a camp for children 8 to 12 years of age with sensory integration (SI) impairments, as well as learning and/or attention deficits. This 3-day overnight program is designed to meet the unique needs of these children and specially trained occupational therapists from Children’s Hospital Colorado use occupational therapy (OT) and SI principles to make this camp experience positive and motivating for Little Tree campers. For kids with cerebral palsy (CP) there is the 3-day camp CamPossible and its outdoor activities such as climbing, canoeing, ropes courses and outdoor education.
Camp TALON, St. Simons Island, Georgia
With our fondness for birds, we had to include Camp TALON on the list. Camp TALON is a camp for teens with a strong interest in the outdoors, birding and ecology based in Georgia. The camp is small. There’s room for just 16 teens. But if you’re teen has an interest in birding and can tolerate hot, buggy environments, this is a camp to look into. Trips and classes are led by biologists, ornithologists and environmental educators. Campers travel by charter bus to barrier islands, state parks, wildlife management areas and refuges along Georgia’s coast. Evening classes challenge campers with presentations and quizzes about bird identification, songs, behavior, flight, migration and other “birdy” topics. Camp TALON says its campers come home with new and improved birding skills, a better understanding of coastal ecology, and great memories. Can we come?
Nature Camps, Monkton, Maryland
Based in Monkton, Maryland on 230 acres of nature conservancy woodlands along the Gunpowder River, Nature Camps is a summer camp specializing in environmental education and adventure education. We like that Nature Camps takes children and young people into the woods, fields, streams, and trails, as it describes, “in a real and personal way.”
Nature Camps is primarily a day camp but includes two explorer-only overnights. For teens there is the Teen Adventure session, a combination of a one week day camp and a one week overnight trip.
White Pines, York, Maine
Based in York, Maine, White Pines offers day camps with an optional overnight in most camps. Supported by caring mentors, camp Wildwood Ways is a week of deep nature connection and personal growth for kids aged 10-14. Campers navigate daily challenges, push edges, learn from the forest, make and tend fires, gain primitive skills, practice observation and stealth. The Bushcraft Fellowship, also for kids aged 10-14, is a specialty program in which campers form “a tight knit community of nature apprentices while being guided by caring mentors.” Campers deepen their relationship with fire and explore the forgotten skills that allowed people to live and thrive in the forest for thousands of years, learning forest-based skills such as creating tools, carving, and weaving with wild materials.
Seeker’s Wild, LaCrosse, Wisconsin
Based out of the LaCrosse, WI and Winona, MN area, Seeker’s Wild week-long nature based day camps are truly out of the box. Campers can choose to participate in Fishing camp and learn about live bait, lures, cordage, nets, crawdads, frogs, lure making. There’s also River Rats, a survival camp mixed with fishing camp “all through the lens of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn” with fishing, forts, rafts, silly games & just good summer fun. The flagship camp is a wilderness survival and stealth camp in which campers learn basic skills to meet human needs from the natural world. Whatever their choice, campers are sure to be immersed in the natural world here.
Teen Wilderness Adventures, New England
Teen Wilderness Adventures from Appalachian Mountain Club is a just for teens outdoor experience in which they can head out hiking, rock climbing, backpacking, kayaking, canoeing, rafting to beautiful places in nature on trips that last anywhere from 5 to 23 days. Groups are small (from 6 to 10) with at least two instructors on trips. The experience is designed to foster an appreciation for the environment, develops self-esteem, instills a spirit of adventure, and promotes teamwork, friendship, and a sense of community through memorable wilderness experiences.
Cottonwood Gulch, New Mexico
Imagine your teen living and working on a Navajo farm, learning to rock climb, exploring ancient Puebloan ruins. New Mexico-based Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions is an opportunity for your teen to explore Southwestern art, science, farming, and archaeology, learning from the Native American traditions of the Navajo, Zuni, and Acoma people in the beautiful Southwest.
Have younger kids? Cottonwood Gulch also offers Family Trek, an opportunity to travel, experience, and live in the great American Southwest while sharing the experience with your family. Experienced educators accompany your family as you hike, rock climb, visit local artists, experience native pueblos, and visit historic ruins.
Night Eagle, Vermont
Perhaps the wildest of the camps on our list, Vermont-based Night Eagle describes itself as “a unique, primitive, sleepaway summer camp” and, judging its website, that seems pretty accurate. This small camp of fewer than 40 boys aged 10-15 is situated on 135 forested acres in the heart of Vermont's beautiful Green Mountains.
The outdoor experiences at Night Eagle are intentionally different from a boy’s everyday life. There are no iphones, Fortnight or memes here. Night Eagle campers experiment with such activities and skills as making drums or didgeridoos, carving bows and arrows or atlatls, whittling spoons and bowls, tanning deer or beaver skins, making pitch-glue, designing and carving atlatls, beading on looms, lashing a raft, shaping and firing primitive pottery, or carving hobblebush chokers.
Night Eagle’s philosophy is to “give boys space to be boys, surround them with nature-based activities, and listen to what they have to say. They take it from there!”