Contrary to one parent's request, summer camp staff can't pad the ground at the bottom of a mountain your child's about to climb. But that doesn't mean parents should sit home in fear for their child's safety, even if their child is at an adventure camp that includes go karts, mountain climbing and a ropes course.

Summer camp is a time for a child to test her independence. Especially true at sleepaway camps, it is a time for her to make her own friends, create an identity outside of the context of her home and school, and test her physical boundaries. Still—that doesn't change the fact that the thought of your 10-year-old rappelling down a giant rock can make you nervous.

Rather than sitting home with the camp send-off jitters, put your child's prospective camp through a rigorous background check.

“An informed decision gives you a comfort level that allows you to let your child go,” explains Carey Rivers, co-director and adviser for Tips on Trips and Camps, a service that helps parents choose the right camp for their child. “It's as much about the parents letting the child go as it is the child letting go of the parent.”

Get these 10 questions answered ahead of time to ease any concerns you may have, and  we're confident you'll spend the summer a lot more relaxed.

 

1. How does the camp hire its staff?

An informal poll of several camps reveals this to be the number one question parents have when researching a summer camp. A strong, mature, well-trained staff is essential to a safe and positive camp experience.

“You can never be fool proof with anything, but for us, the biggest piece of ensuring safety is our staff,” says Jon Tebeau, director of operations for Sheridan Mountain Campus coed overnight adventure camp. “They're the ones on the ground with the children, working with them every day.”

Ask the camp director about the hiring process of camp staff, Rivers suggests. You want to know that the camp director conducted the interviews personally, rather than relying on an outside agency to do the hiring. The director should have conducted thorough background checks on staff members, including a look into their driving and police records.

If the staff member is assigned a specialized task, the director should know what kind of experience he has. For instance, a van driver needs a CDL, or Commercial Driver's License. Anyone watching children swim in a pool or lake should have life-saving training for pools or open waters, respectively.

The camp director should hire staff members who arrive knowledgeable about the activity they will be leading.

Chris Jenkins is chief operating officer of Earth Treks climbing centers, which offers indoor-outdoor climbing day camps. When hiring, he says he looks for someone who has lots of experience working with youth as well as personal climbing experience.

“While we are a climbing camp, it's still about being able to work with kids and deliver a really positive camp experience,” he says. “The second thing we look for are technical climbing skills on a personal and occupational level. … When you don't have personal experience, you're kind of really narrow-minded in the way you can deliver an activity.”

Finally, parents should ask about the minimum age of staff. Rivers suggests going with a camp where the youngest staff member is at least a freshman in college.

“You want staff members who are young at heart, but not so young that they don't have any maturity or patience,” she says.

2. What type of training do staff members receive?

Staff training is critical in terms of safety, Rivers says.

The amount of days spent in training varies from camp to camp, but parents should feel comfortable that staff members are prepared to handle whatever is thrown at them.

That includes training in “soft skills”—working with children, recognizing and easing homesickness, solving issues between campers—and “hard skills”—training in adventure-based activities and following safety procedures.

Rivers says most camps have about a week of training for staff members, but there's no real benchmark; it depends on the amount of experience the staff already has when hired.

 

3. What is the mission of the camp?

Whether you're meeting a camp director at a camp fair or an open house, he or she should be very clear and open about the mission statement of the camp.

“The camp director should be able to clearly say to parents what the goals of their camp are,” says Mary Ellen Waltemire, a volunteer with the American Camp Association’s Chesapeake office. “Is it recreational? Is it educational? Does it encourage diversity?”

Ask the director for an example of a typical day at camp. This should give you and your child an idea of what to expect, and it can be an important tool in preparing your child to be away from home.

If a director avoids answering any of your questions, that’s a big red flag, according to Waltemire.

“Most folks in the camping business are there because they love kids and they want to provide a great experience,” she says. “If they’re not open with you and don’t answer a certain question, I say keep looking.”

 

4. What kind of relationship does the camp have with parents during the session?

“Most parents want to know if anything has happened to their child,” Rivers says.

Of course, camps should be in contact with parents if their child is having any physical or emotional issues. Nowadays, however, many camps are using technology to keep parents in the loop throughout the course of the session, even if nothing’s wrong.

Many camps have secure photo websites parents can check daily to see photos of their child participating in camp activities. Some camps use one-way email systems to allow parents to write their children letters while they’re away.

“It’s becoming standard operating procedure for camps,” says Tebeau, of Sheridan Mountain Campus. “It’s all about transparency, and it helps parents feel safer in their decisions.”

 

5. Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association or any other relevant agencies?

Camps are required to meet stringent standards set by the state, but be sure to find out if the camp has any other accreditations.

The American Camp Association has stringent requirements for its accreditation process, which outline minimum standards for eight areas, including transportation, health and wellness, program aquatics, operation management and more.

“I think the American Camp Association really sets the standards or the bar for quality educational camp experiences,” Waltemire says. “Certainly, every state has their own guidelines and regulations, but I think ACA really does set the standard.”

Accreditation by the ACA could put your worries to rest. However, it’s important to note that only roughly one in five camps are ACA accredited, Rivers says. Accreditation can be costly and time-consuming, and many camp administrators think the state licensing procedure to be tough enough.

“I wouldn’t, as a parent, be afraid of a camp that’s not ACA accredited,” Rivers says. “Of the 10,000 camps in the U.S., there are only about 2,000 that are accredited.”

Camps may also be recognized by private school associations (if they are run by a private school), specialty training programs and more. Knowing whether your prospective camp has made the effort to meet the guidelines of any applicable accreditations can give you a clue as to the integrity of the camp.

 

6. What kind of equipment and facilities does the camp have?

Sure, the camp director tells you they use helmets and life jackets. But how can you really know?

Rivers suggests taking a few minutes to look through the camp’s website or Facebook page. As you flip through the photos or watch videos, look at the campers. Are they wearing helmets when riding bikes? Do they wear life jackets when canoeing?

Seeing actual photos taken over the course of the camp is a more reliable way to check  the safety of a camp.

 

7. What kind of medical personnel is on staff?

The experience of the medical personnel, rather than their title, is what matters. Don't shy away from camps that have a nurse on staff rather than a doctor, says Rivers.

Some camps might hire a camper's parent who is a doctor to work on-site, but if the parent is a neurosurgeon, does that necessarily make them better at handling bug bites?

“A lot of times, a nurse is more familiar with the kinds of issues that come up at camp: bug bites, sprained ankles and sports injuries,” Rivers says.

Ask about the person's background and if she has worked at camps before. Know the camp's procedures for dispensing medication, especially if your child has an ongoing medical condition, such as allergies or asthma.

Finally, make it clear to the director how you expect to be kept in the loop. Do you want to get a phone call about every bug bite, or only about more serious incidents?

 

8. What is the camper-to-staffer ratio?

The American Camp Association provides a helpful guide on recommended staff to camper ratio for both day and overnight campers. The camp you choose may differ from these guidelines, but it can be helpful to know what the recommended numbers are.

  • 4-to-5-year-olds. Overnight: 5:1. Day camp: 6:1.
  • 6-to-8-year-olds. Overnight: 6:1. Day camp: 8:1.
  • 9-to-14-year-olds. Overnight: 8:1. Day camp: 10:1.
  • 15-to-18-year-olds. Overnight: 10:1. Day camp: 12:1.

Adventure camps, as a rule, should have smaller ratios than other camps, as should camps geared toward children with special needs.

9. Has the camp received any complaints via the Better Business Bureau?

As you do your online research into camps, be sure to visit the Better Business Bureau's site at bbb.org, says Edward Johnson, president and CEO of the BBB of Metro Washington, D.C. and Eastern Pennsylvania.

There, you can conduct an online check of the company. Simply enter the business name—in some cases, you'll have to find out the camp's parent company—and the location, and you can take a look at the organization's BBB rating and find any complaints filed against them.

If there are complaints, bring them up with the camp and ask for an explanation. Know what issues others have had with the company and how they were resolved.

 

10. Are references available?

Along with checking out complaints, be sure to seek references for camps you are seriously considering. References provide feedback on the good, the bad and the ugly of a  camp.

You can (and should) ask a camp director for references. If he doesn't provide you with any, there's reason for concern.

However, recognize that camp-supplied references can be biased. Since the director is referring you to those families, odds are, they're happy customers.

There are camp rating websites, such as campratingz.com, but those are often biased, too. Disguntled staffers or others with a bone to pick sometimes use the anonymity of the Internet to post nasty comments about a camp.

“Take them with a grain of salt,” advises Rivers.

A better way to check references, according to Rivers, is through her company, Tips on Trips and Camps. They keep tabs on the 2,000+ people they place and keep their feedback on file.

Her organization can put you in contact with families who have gone through the process already, and they're more likely to give an honest opinion than a reference supplied by the camp, she says.

 

Go Forth with Safety First!

While putting your child's care in someone else's hands can be intimidating for both you and your child, getting these essential questions answered is an important first step in preparing for a safe, educational and fun summer camp experience.

Here's hoping you spend those sunny summer days worrying about what to put in a care package rather than what your child is up to at camp!