Should I Send My Child to an Adventure Camp?
Beenie Alonso, a San Francisco 14-year-old, was ready to challenge herself at summer camp. So she joined an expedition that hiked 24 miles with no trail in 90-degree heat.
“I chose to do it because it pushed me physically and mentally,” she says, adding that she returned with increased confidence and physical stamina.
Alonso got her wilderness experience at Camp Unalayee, one of several adventure camps in Northern California that serve Bay Area kids. At such camps, tweens and teens willing to take some risks can try out rock climbing, surfing, ropes courses and more. Camp directors say the programs allow students to test limits in a healthy, positive way with the support of trained staff. They also say the camps give students a much-needed break from electronics and screens.
Camp Unalayee, located in the Trinity Alps west of Mount Shasta, buses in and out kids ages 10-17 from stops in Berkeley and Palo Alto, as well as other cities in Northern California. Costs range from $1,600 for 10 days to $4,200 for a one-month walkabout program. Scholarships are available.
Monique Alonso, Beenie’s mom, sent both her children to the camp because she liked the contrast with their regular life as city kids. At camp, the kids carry their own 30-pound backpack, sleep outside without tent, cook and clean for themselves and learn to be independent.
Alonso says she loved the changes she saw in both her children when they returned. She was especially struck by the differences in her son, now 17.
“I put a boy on the bus, and he was a man when he got off,” she says. “It helped him a lot. He had a month on the trail and it was very vigorous. It was not for the faint of heart.”
By participating in a backpack trip, kids get a chance to stretch out in a lot of physical space – something they don’t have in urban areas.
“Being in the wilderness, being somewhere remote and secluded with a group of people creates this experience that makes it much easier to create strong bonds with people,” says Sarah Camp (yes, that’s her real name), director of Camp Unalayee.
Closer to Home
Adventure Out gives kids a chance to push their limits closer to home with day camp programs in the Bay Area. Rock climbing (ages 8 and up) is offered at Castle Rock State Park near Los Gatos, surfing (ages 8 and up) in Pacifica and Santa Cruz, and survival skills (ages 9 and up) in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Prices range from $225-395 for programs that run two to four days.
Cliff Hodges, owner of Adventure Out, is proud of his organization’s perfect safety record over the last 15 years.
Hodges says most parents who enroll their kids in his programs are outdoorsy themselves and understand the risks involved in adventure programs. However, he says, every year, the day before his surfing camp begins, at least one parent emails him a question or two about sharks. He thinks it’s funny that they don’t ask that question when they sign their kids up.
His biggest challenge is managing the small percentage of kids who didn’t choose to enroll and are only there because their parents are making them attend. Hodges says his staff is good about turning those kids around and, usually, they end up excited about the activities.
Adventure With Scouts
Both the Girl and Boy Scout organizations offer summer camps with adventure components at locations both close to home and in the greater Northern California area.
The Girl Scout programs, which don’t require participants to be scouts, offer rope courses at its Bothin resident camp in the valleys of Marin and at Skylark resident camp, which is north of Santa Cruz. Costs range from $640-810 for a week with programs for grades 4 and up.
Mary-Jane Strom, senior director of camps and adventure for Girl Scouts of Northern California, says the camps give girls a chance to spread their wings.
“It’s good to step outside of your comfort zone and make different decisions and figure out who you are in a resident camp setting when you’re on your own and away from family,” she says. “You’re able to make choices and mistakes on your own.”
Each girl decides herself if she wants to try an adventure challenge. No one is forced to do it if she feels uncomfortable. Girls can also try different degrees of difficulty. For instance, there is a high pole at Skylark similar to a telephone pole that girls can climb. Some choose to stand on the top and jump off and others sit and slide off.
Outward Bound Wilderness
Outward Bound, an international leader in wilderness training, offers backpacking and rock climbing opportunities in Yosemite National Park for students ages 12 and up. Single sex and co-ed camps are available. Costs are $2,320-3,215 for eight to 12 days.
Seventy-six middle schoolers went through the program last summer. In their evaluations, many said they enjoyed bonding with people they didn’t know and overcoming challenges.
Emma Rapp, communications director for Outward Bound California, says kids in the program get a chance to take leadership, make decisions and spend some time alone. For younger kids, the instructor will remain within “sight and sound,” but older teens have the opportunity to spend a few nights by themselves.
Mill Valley parent Ed Colloton says a Yosemite backpacking program was his now 14-year-old son Reed’s first trip away from home. He says his wife was nervous about how the boy would manage being out in the wilderness, but both parents put their trust in the experienced instructors.
Colloton says his son had an amazing experience and loved the other kids he met.
“It’s phenomenal,” he says. “I tell anyone willing to listen about it. In the environment today where kids are saturated with way too much electronics and the anxiety level is high with kids reading about North Korea and wondering what’s happening – this is an antidote to that. It gives perspective being out in nature.”
Lisa Renner is a calendar editor and frequent contributor to Bay Area Parent.