Fun Camps for Less

Money is tighter for most of us these days. But when the summer days stretch on endlessly before us, simply skipping out on camp altogether feels impossible. As I poked around camp Web sites, I realized I could easily spend $1,000 a week sending my three kids to day camp (and that doesn’t even include extended care!). Is there a way to help the kids have fun without going broke?


The short answer is yes – and it often means camp much the way you remember it. Many of the most affordable options are things that have been around forever – the YMCA, Scout camps, local recreation center camps and vacation bible camps. These options may not have as many bells and whistles as some of the private camps, but they do the job of keeping kids – and their harried parents – happy.


Local Recreation Departments: Simply put, you already support these programs through your tax dollars, so they cost less than many private camps. The cheapest options are generally no-frills, but provide fun and decent supervision. City recreation departments also offer some camps (hip hop, Legos, pirates and princesses) with cool themes that mimic those at more pricey camps. A couple of examples:


Palo Alto: Camp Imagine for kids ages 4 ½ to 6 years is $165 for one week, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. 650-463-4900.


San Francisco: Standard camps, including Silver Tree, Pine Lake, athletic and recreation center sites are $122 for five days, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. 415-831-2700.


Fremont: Sunnyside/Lakeside Camps for kids ages 5 to 12, $169 for one week, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. 510-494-4300.


Scout Camp: These camps provide some of the most affordable overnight options. Some are restricted to scouts, but others are open to all children. Most offer a very traditional camp experience with a morning wake-up bell, swimming, crafts, mess hall meals and evening campfires. Others branch out and offer specialty experiences, such as horseback riding and surfing.


Boys: Camp Royaneh, Cazadero, Sonoma County; and Wente Scout Reservation, Willets, Mendocino County. 510-577-9218. Limited to Boy Scouts. Boys generally camp with their group. $315 per San Francisco Scout.


Girls: Bothin, Deer Lake, Hidden Falls, Skylark Ranch, and Sugar Pine Camps. The least costly programs are $280 for a three-day camp geared to the youngest girls.


Vacation Bible Camp: This is the old classic. In the Bay Area, most churches do charge for VBC (in some parts of the country it is free!), but the cost is a pittance compared with commercial camps. “Even if you’re non-denominational, the Vacation Bible School camps are fun, cheap, enforce the be-kind-to-others rule and often have great staffs, snacks and crafts – what’s better than that?” says Martinez mom Andrea Cardinale.


A typical arrangement is a half-day program, which includes music, snack, Bible stories, arts and crafts and outdoor games. Some camps also give kids a compact disc with music or a T-shirt. “Now, more than ever, there is a great need for fellowship with each other – especially without a huge price attached,” says Patricia Parfett, the adult ministry coordinator at Los Altos United Methodist Church. A sampling of local offerings:


Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 149 Manzanita Ave., San Carlos. 650-593-0325. Aug. 9 -13. 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-noon on Friday. Kids ages 5 to 12. $95 (subject to change).


K4J - Kids for Jesus (Catholic). Canyon Heights Academy School, 775 Waldo Road, Campbell. 408-850-2229. Dates to be determined. 9 a.m.-noon. Kids ages 3 to 6. $85.


Los Altos United Methodist Church. 655 Magdalena Ave., Los Altos. 650-948-1083. June 14-18. Last year’s cost was $65 to $95 depending on age.


St. Monica Catholic Church, 1001 Camino Pablo, Moraga. 925-376-6900. July 13-16. 1-4 p.m. Kids entering kindergarten through fifth grade. $50.


St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, 2094 Grant Road, Mountain View. 650-967-4724. Aug. 2 to 6. 9 a.m.-noon. Kids ages 3 to 11. $50.


YMCA Camps: These camps, both day and overnight options, are typically cheaper than many other local options. Listed are some of the overnight camp options provided by the YMCAs in different sections of the Bay Area.


Camp Campbell. 16275 Highway 9, Boulder Creek. 831-338-2128. Tiered pricing starts at $249 for a three-day camp for the youngest campers.


Camp Jones Gulch. 11000 Pescadero Road, La Honda. 650-747-1200. Traditional one-week camps for children ages 8-15 cost $575.


Camp Ravencliff. Redway. 925-371-8401. Traditional one-week camp for children 7-13 costs as little as $420 (tiered pricing system).


Need More Ideas? Search through a national database that includes camps  costing less than $75 per week, and hundreds more in other prices ranges.


Other Ways to Save


Use Your Flexible Care Spending Account to Pay for Summer Camp: The government gives you a break on money spent on care for your kids that allows you to work. Most day camps can be paid for with your company’s flexible spending account.  While it doesn’t make it free, you at least get to exclude it from your income.


Ask About Summer Camp Financial Assistance and Discounts: A major trend with overnight camps this year is the use of tiered pricing. Generally, these camps offer three levels – full freight, partially subsidized and more deeply discounted. This system asks you to determine what you can pay and pony up accordingly.


Many camps also offer true financial assistance to those who need help. Even if you don’t qualify for financial aid, be sure to ask about any early bird specials or other discounts. You may have missed the deadline for early bird discounts this year, but remember them to save next year. Some camps also offer discounts for newer or less popular locations. Others give you a discount if you refer a friend. Ask about all the options and you may get through summer with some money left!


Christine Foster is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent. Her three kids are veterans of inexpensive camps of the Peninsula and South Bay.
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