35 years ago I went to my first camp. Goshen, a scout camp in the Shenandoah Mountains. My daughter Kate is 12, the same age I was the first I went to Goshen, when I signed up for a leatherwork class, and realized just how boring summer could be. Hopefully my kids will never have to tan cowhide or make a snazzy hairbrush holster.

The Basics

Camp has changed since I was young. For starters, my kids have never been to sleepaway camp. Instead, they've attended a variety of day camps that maximize what's truly fun about summer - exhausting car rides with your parents, not sleeping in and waiting in mile-long kiss-and-ride lines.

These days, camps are more specialized and diverse. Rock Star Camp. Harry Potter Camp. Spy Camp. Create Your Own Multi-platform Reality TV Brand Camp. I went to a very traditional scout camp with swimming, campfires, toasting marshmallows, sunburn canvas Army tents that leaked in the rain. The campgrounds were in the middle of an immense forest; the counselors and troop leaders let us roam freely most of the time.

We did have the buddy system. You couldn't swim in the dark, muddy, hydrilla-infested lake, unless you both hung your nametags on a wooden check-in board. When the lifeguard called buddy check, you had to raise your hands. If you hiked three miles to the archery field, you also had to take a buddy. Kate had the same set-up when she attended Science & Technology camp for middleand high school girls. You couldn't go to the bathroom, which was seven feet down the hallway, without a buddy, even if you were old enough to drive. The camp leaders were slightly preoccupied with stranger-danger, which is a responsible attitude I guess, but they all wore t-shirts that read: We Empower Girls! I was glad they were encouraging my daughter to pursue a career in a male-dominated field, but I wasn't convinced that preventing teenagers from walking a few feet without supervision was empowering.

Several years before, Kate had been to Zoo Camp. After providing her passport and birth certificate, Kate's personal data was entered into a database. She was given a wristband that was scanned as she progressed to each stage of the day's activities - feeding birds, petting a snake, riding a train through Primate Country. The counselors were quite security-conscious. If my kids were mauled or eaten by a gorilla, we'd know exactly where, when and what the gorilla had for dessert.

Supervision was different in my day. After a week with my troop I stayed on for Trail Camp - hiking around the mountains for a week with kids from all over the country. I waved to my friends as the bus pulled away, turned around and found myself … alone. There were no counselors in sight. The mess hall and general store were closed. Thankfully, I had half a canteen of creek water mixed with chlorine tablets. Mm - like taking a sip from the washing machine.

I met a group of older kids. We hiked 10 miles into the forest, across some rapids, to a high, rickety swinging bridge. A drunk hillbilly family was stumbling through the river, throwing beer bottles, drinking from gallon jugs. They'd parked their rusted-out pick-up right on the sandy banks of the river, and their gun racks were overflowing. The more I think about it, this may be why I send my kids to day camp.

What To Bring

No hand-me-down canteens of chemical-infused creek-water for my kids. They're required to bring two water bottles a day - for each hour of camp. They're also given a commemorative water bottle, on the final day, to remember what camp is all about: relentless over-hydration. And mild paranoia about under-hydration. If they worried less about water, the kids wouldn't have to undertake so many perilous seven-foot hikes to the bathroom - with only smartphones, Fitbits, iPads, laptops and Google Glasses for protection.

Aside from a Caspian Sea of water, and a Silicon Valley of tech, the following staples are recommended:

  • A backpack of hand sanitizer

  • Protein bars and Gatorade, for those long treks from the car and the half-hour interval between snack and lunch

  • Several quarts each of mosquito, deer, tick and badger repellent in addition to Natur-B-Gone© off-line-world suppressant

What did my parents give me? Half a roll of quarters to buy candy at the general store - which, I soon learned, wasn't open for two days. So the next year I brought an Army trunk filled with candy and soda, which I sold at extortionate prices. Sadly, there's no merit badge for Market Gap Exploitation.


Summer camp was, for me, a place to refine a number of critical life skills. Basket-weaving, knot-tying, Morse code. OK, maybe I'll never use any of that, but I did learn to swim a mile, make a fire by rubbing sticks together, navigate through the forest with a map and compass, fish, use a hatchet, pitch a tent, rappel down a cliff and hike with a 25-pound pack. I even learned how to look great in a red neckerchief.

I also learned to use a skill my dad taught me. The first night, some older kids were playing poker for money. I quickly realized they were cheating. I could see the clumsy black marks on the face cards. Regardless, I won $30, thanked them and went to my bunk filled with self-esteem and crumpled dollar bills.

My kids learned many different things at camp. How to construct a play and design costumes. How to enunciate. How to head a soccer ball. What life is like on the African Savannah. How to use a bedazzler and glitter-gun. How to chair an anti-bullying campaign. How to fill out 50 release forms without triggering your carpal tunnel syndrome. And the forms taught me something - camp directors don't want anything bad to happen to my child but, if something does happen, it's definitely not their fault.

At Science & Technology camp Kate learned "the science of cooking." A useful skill, but I couldn't figure out why an organization designed to liberate girls from outdated gender roles focused so much on pink aprons and "mom's role in the kitchen."

The Sleepaway Takeaway

Every summer I'd get a dozen ticks lodged in my scalp. I found this sort of interesting and weird, but nothing to be scared of. When I got home, Mom would light a match, blow it out, touch it to the tick's back and watch the pest crawl away.

Today's kids are more prepared, and a lot more frightened, of woodland insects. They come to camp with sprays, wristbands, ultrasonic repellents, garlic necklaces, essential oils and net-covered safari outfits. They have tick-checks twice a day and trauma counseling for kids who thought they had a tick but didn't. Lyme Disease seems to be the biggest worry. However, your chances of getting it are almost 100 times less than your chances of contracting cancer - perhaps we should be more wary of the toxic chemicals we slather on our bodies to prevent Lyme Disease, than the condition itself.

After my first year at camp I started bringing my own matches. My friends and I took turns burning ticks off our scalps. I was more independent than my kids, and less frightened of the world around me, but of course I sometimes started small fires. Caution is good, but so is self-reliance. I appreciate the fact that my kids can go to Star Wars or Instagram Camp, but I also recognize that a lot of young people today would benefit from some basic life skills. Swimming in a murky lake. Knowing how to use a map, in case you're stranded without tech or the energy to run it. Catching fish and cooking them over an open fire. How to spot card-cheats. How to live without screens and buttons. We live in the natural world, whether we like it or not. Sometimes we need to get out there and experience it firsthand.

Andrew Madigan is a freelance writer. His first novel, "Khawla's Wall," is available from Barnes & Noble, Amazon and a few very hard-to-find book shops.