Summer camp is an integral part of American culture. I grew up in Britain so was never privy to the experience as a camper. However, I did of course watch The Parent Trap which made the entire thing look incredibly appealing. When I was 19 I decided to see what summer camp were really about so I got a job as a camp counsellor with Camp America. That summer I spent 2 months working at Camp Aloha. Camp Aloha is an all girls camp for 12 – 17 year olds. This is what I learnt from my summer camp experience as a counsellors.
It’s all an illusion
It may seem like camp is crazy and hectic at times but really it has all been carefully planned and manufactured. We call it organised mayhem. The campers love it as they think its anarchy camp. However, behind the scenes the counsellors have planned a fun, yet controlled, deviation from the everyday camp schedule. This isn’t to say it’s boring and predictable. It just means the counsellors have a plan to ensure campers don’t get bored.
We had a day called MJ’s mayhem at camp. (MJ was the camp director.) It was a day where all structure and rules went out the window. Campers aren’t told when it’s happening so it’s a surprise for them. Throughout the day there are alternative activities from paint wars to mattress surfing. Campers were provided with a constant supply of sugar from lucky charms and doughnuts for breakfast to ice cream cones mid afternoon. To the untrained eye it would have looked like chaos however counsellors had it all under control. Everything was set up by counsellors and everyone had jobs to do and activities to supervise throughout the day to keep everything running smoothly.
No-one cares how you look
Everybody is more concerned with having fun than grooming. It doesn’t matter a smidge what you’re wearing at any given time. Whether that’s silly face paint, pyjamas at staff meetings or even a towel at an evening unit catch up! (Yes, this last one did happen. The catch up is held in the units bathroom and someone had just got out the shower when the meeting started.) We actually had a uniform at Camp Aloha. This meant no one was preoccupied with deciding what to wear in the morning. The philosophy being “See who I am, not what I’m wearing.”
Furthermore, showering isn’t as important at camp as it is elsewhere in the world. Swimming in the lake is basically a bath. In fact I was once part of a discussion in which campers and counsellors were bragging about the longest time they went without a shower at camp! I hate to tell you but a counsellor confessed to going the entire 7 weeks without showering one summer just to prove she could. Though she justified this by going swimming everyday and taking soap with her. I’ll admit, maybe that is too far. However, the fact stands, both campers and counsellors get incredibly dirty each and everyday. Way more dirty then you would on an average day back home. Yet for some reason you will still shower half as much.
Rest hour is the best hour
Camp is hard work. There is simply so much happening each and every day. It’s exhausting! The day started at 7am and campers went to bed at 9pm. Counsellors often then went out after this time if they weren’t on duty. Of course there are free periods during the day however there’s usually something to do during these times. Rest hour fell immediately after lunch before the afternoons activities.
The rule was that during rest hour everyone was silent and on their bed. Everyone could do whatever they wanted providing they stuck to these rules. Therefore most people would sleep, read or write letters. It was a much needed time during the day. I’m not usually a napping person however whilst at camp I treasured my naps. Normally I would split the time between reading or writing letters and a 20 minute power nap. It was always a sad day when for whatever reason I didn’t get my rest hour.
Sing loud and proud
Everybody loves a good camp song and there are so many to choose from. Camp songs are an integral part of the camp experience. They are sung everywhere and at all time of the day. There is a camp song for everything. We had a few different birthday songs, there were songs for the morning and songs to say goodbye. Some songs are well known and sung at camps across America and others are specific to your camp. There are also the songs which are the popular hit songs of the summer which have been edited to be a camp song.
The best part though is that you don’t even need to be a good signer. It’s about joining in and having fun. So even if you are completely musically challenged (like myself) you can still belt it out. So sing loud and proud and out of tune. A word of warning though. These songs will get stuck in your head big time! Months after you leave camp you will still occasionally catch yourself humming along to the tune. My two favourite camp songs were Country Roads which I still have on my Spotify playlist 3 years on. The other was These Green Mountains which is the Vermont state song.
Food is the centre of everything
Meal times invoke a lot of excitement at camp. It’s a time to catch up with your friends and eat until you can’t move. Camp food doesn’t always have the best reputation. However, I couldn’t find anything to complain about. I was getting French toast for breakfast which I didn’t have to cook. The most popular meal though without a doubt was tomato soup and grilled cheese’s for lunch. Meanwhile, staff meetings are attended for the snacks and the snacks alone. (Also because it’s a job requirement. But I mean the snacks are what make you want to go.)
Important side note – Rolls do NOT count as snacks! However if you are disappointed so badly one week it will be made up to you the following week with pizza.
I couldn’t tell you how much I put on whilst at camp. I feel not weighing myself before and after camp is probably the best move I’ve ever made. Every meal there was always extra meaning you would have multiple servings and then top it off with dessert. Then for every event we organised we ensured we incorporated food somehow. I mean we had one event which was just about letting everyone eat unlimited amounts of ice cream.
The Art of Laziness
Now on the whole neither campers of counsellors are lazy. I mean you couldn’t be. There is so much happening at camp and you can’t just bum around doing nothing all day. You couldn’t even get away with doing nothing for a few hours. However, because camp is so busy everyone finds ways to preserve their time and energy where possible. There were two main ways we did this at Camp Aloha.
The first was to avoid the hills. Camp Aloha is set on a huge hill with the dining room and most activities based at the bottom by the lake and all the tents where we slept set in various units at the top. We would try to avoid having to return up the hill at all costs. Of course there were times during the day we had to return to our tents so we would try to make sure we would take everything we would need until the next time we would have to come back up.
The other way we displayed our award winning laziness/time saving abilities, was by avoiding rolling down our tent flaps at all costs. Our canvas tents had to have their sides rolled up each morning for inspection. The only time they needed rolling down was when it rained so we could keep our beds dry. However, rolling up the tent flaps neatly took time and effort. Therefore unless we were expecting a big storm people would use other means to keep their bed dry. These ranged from moving our beds to the centre of the tent, lying ponchos over our bed and hanging towels from the side of the tent. These options were all easier and required less effort then rolling up the tent flaps the following morning.
Flashlights are gold
Flashlights are the most important pieces of camp equipment! Do not go to camp without one! Just as important is to make sure you do have it on you. Walking up the hill in pitch black at 1am with no light is hard as well as terrifying! Make sure you take your flashlight with you before it gets dark. One of the most memorable nights during camp was when a storm struck during our evening programme. We lost all power and as a safety measure stayed together until the storm had passed. This meant by the time we were making our way back up the hill it was dark which we hadn’t expected. No-one had flashlights and the storm had essentially destroyed our paths. I am amazed nobody broke a leg that night!
Whilst at camp you are outside all day. I was also sleeping outside as we slept in canvas tents, often with the sides rolled up. This meant we were exposed big time and the mosquitos made the most of this. They also seemed to have a thirst for international blood. It was always the international counsellors who were getting bitten. They also some how would find the most annoying places to bite you. It’s one thing to have a bit on your arm or leg but on your face!? Who does that?!
Unfortunately the only thing I can recommend if layers and layers of bug spray but alas that still won’t be fool proof. You just have to get used to it, which you do. By the end of summer you will be walking around with a selection of bug bits that you’ve forgotten about. That is the amazing thing at camp. You are having so much fun and so busy that you don’t have time to dwell on the negatives.
Teenagers can be mean
I had a great time at camp on the whole however it was a rough start. Each counsellor is assigned a tent family. These are the campers who you stay in a tent with. I was assigned 3 girls, two of whom had been to Camp Aloha before and one who was a newbie. However, after a few days problems started to arise. The three girls became really close which was great however they formed a bit of a mean girl group. They gave me no respect and I had a really hard time. In fact they actually went as far to destroy the decorations I had brought for our tent. It was a hard few weeks as I saw how well everyone else got on with their tent families whilst mine ignored me and disrespected me.
Thankfully, all the other counsellors were amazing. They were so supportive and encouraging. It got to the point where everybody was counting down to half way point for my sake. My campers were only staying for half the summer. Therefore, when they went home I got new campers. The camp director had heard of the troubles I’d had with my campers so when they came to assigning new tent families for the second half of camp they purposely gave me the three sweetest campers. It made the second half of camp amazing as I finally felt like I was a mentor and part of these girls experience. Whilst it would have been nice not to have the problems with my campers it didn’t negatively impact my experience as a whole. I still look back and remember the great times I had.
Camp is AWESOME
I really don’t know why this awesome experience has it made it over the pond yet. I wish I went to summer camp growing up. The 2 months you spend at camp feel like a year. It’s like a bubble. Nothing from the real world matters. You become really close really quickly with your camp friends because you are with each other all the time. Whilst counsellors obviously have responsibilities it doesn’t feel like a job. It makes the pay check at the end all that more awesome. Free periods are spent playing cards and making friendship bracelets. Everybody feels like they’re family. It makes saying goodbye at the end of the camp surprisingly hard. In a matter of 2 months you form a bond with not only the people but with the camp itself and the values it upholds.
Have you ever worked at a summer camp? What do you think people should know before going?