Ask baby boomers about adventure camps and they’ll probably say, “Outward Bound” (outwardbound.org). Teen tours? Possibly “American Trails West” (atwteentours.com). These granddaddies of youth adventure/travel have led thousands of young people in explorations across America for two generations. Still running strong, they offer trips ranging from rustic to resort. They have also spawned an industry of experiential learning programs that cover every corner of the world. For children and parents faced with so many exciting opportunities, the hardest challenge may be deciding which summer program to choose.

New Enthusiasm

“There is a new enthusiasm for outdoor and experiential programs. In the last decade we’ve awoken our environmental consciousness, and it’s saying, ‘You should get out more!’” says Morgan Tebeau, codirector of Shenandoah Summer Camp (mountaincampus.org), bordering Shenandoah National Park in Luray,Virginia.

“Travel programs have evolved into more than just summer adventure camps,” adds Ryan Lofgren, owner of The Wild Traveler (thewildtraveler.com), which leads ecologically focused trips in Hawaii, Costa Rica, California and British Columbia. “Many now blend adventure, service and cultural immersion components. Students return home as global citizens with a genuine appreciation for other cultures and the impact they have had on other people.”

Mike Liese, founder and director of Sail Caribbean (sailcaribbean.com), has run sailing, scuba and service programs in the British Virgin Islands since 1979 for grades 6 through college. He says, “Kids today have many more options, and the quality has improved considerably because program operators continually learn new and better ways to do things. Safety and communications have also improved. Parents are more involved and want their children to have challenging, adventurous summers while learning to be independent, to live with others and to work as a team.”

Overcoming Challenges

Tebeau agrees that families want a camp experience to add value to their child’s life. “Campers definitely want to make new friends and have fun at summer camp, but they also want the accomplishment of doing something challenging, whether it’s staying away from home, climbing a rock wall or building a one-match fire. Overcoming challenges is something children can apply to their daily lives,” he says.

“Teens want to do something extraordinary,” says Mike Meighan, program director for ActionQuest (actionquest.com), which runs adventure trips in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas, Galapagos, Australia, Tahiti and French Polynesia. “They want to step outside of their comfort zone. At the same time, parents are looking for an experience that delivers something beyond a fun time. They would like kids to develop real skills and personal growth.”

Those opportunities abound on ActionQuest’s adventures, where teens might learn to handle a tall ship around Corsica, swim with sea lions in Ecuador, explore archaeological excavations on Huahine, or study tropical marine biology on the Great Barrier Reef.

For even more exotic experiences, consider journeying with Where There Be Dragons (wheretherebedragons.com), whose trips often blend rugged treks with community service and cultural or language immersion experiences in China, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, Latin America, Africa or the Middle East.

Closer to home, Shenandoah Summer Camp, located on the Sheridan School’s 130-acre Mountain Campus, eases children into outdoor skills with its Explorations Camp—a blend of traditional camp and adventure activities—for rising fourth through sixth graders. Programs become more challenging as children mature, culminating in the Ironman Camp for students entering 9th through 12th grades, where hang gliding, whitewater kayaking, caving and overnight backpacking are just some of the exciting adventures kids can experience.

Whether children are mountain climbing in Nepal or canoeing the New River, Jon Tebeau, codirector of Shenandoah Summer Camp, says safety is always at the forefront of every camp director’s mind. “For us, it begins with trained, highly qualified staff members who are college graduates and have experience both in adventure activities and working with youth, well-thought-out emergency action plans and quality programs built around the cornerstone of safety,” says Tebeau.

“Our staff are trained in Wilderness First Response. This intensive medical training allows staff to manage medical emergencies while facilitating adventure activities. We also stay in touch with staff while they are off-site to provide advice or advanced care as necessary. Our campus is seven miles from the closest medical facility. We maintain a five to one camper to staff ratio to help provide a secure program. We can assure parents that our staff will be competent in all aspects, from helping a child overcome homesickness to confidently completing a high ropes rescue,” Tebeau adds.

“Risks are inherent with any type of adventure program. Recognizing the risks is the key to minimizing the potential for accidents, so proper risk management is at the heart of every program. Over 30 years we’ve seen a lot, and we are always learning. We eliminate activities that are not core to the program’s mission. Our staff members are highly experienced and stay current with their certifications. We train both staff and students on safety procedures to prevent emergencies from happening. Fortunately, we mostly deal with band-aids and upset stomachs,” says Meighan.

It’s life-changing when kids find that they can do things they didn’t think they could do, whether that be traveling without a parent or literally scaling new heights. “When a young person docks a 50-foot boat alone, he feels a sense of independence and accomplishment that is real and important to him,” says Liese.

Meighan adds, “Our students are challenged to discover more about who they are, who they want to become, what’s important in life for them, and perhaps that the best things in life are not necessarily things.”