Cabin FeverThe New Luxury of Adult Summer Camp

Sioux-style tepees at El Cosmico, a bohemian, nomadic hotel and campground in Marfa, Texas. (Martin Robles/Unsplash)

This article was published in Heat Issue #83 | Summer 2019

I’ve always had a zeal for summer camp. Maybe it’s because I loved Nickelodeon’s sitcom Salute Your Shorts or because I ardently watched Disney’s camp-fueled drama Bug Juice. But my mother taught elementary school, so instead of being shipped off to camp or to a relative in another state, my siblings and I spent balmy, sticky summer months in Stone Mountain, Georgia, swimming at the nearby pool, taking trips to Six Flags Over Georgia, and immersing ourselves in the local library’s programming. Mom kept us so busy that there wasn’t time to wish we were elsewhere.

Recently, there’s been an uptick in summer camps that are geared toward adults. These camps, tinged with nostalgia, have different themes: camps for those who are spiritually minded, like Soul Camp; camps for adventurers and lovers of the outdoors, like the Pursuit Series, Snow Peak Way, REI Outessa, and Fjällräven Classic; and camps, like Camp Grounded, Camp Getaway, and Camp No Counselors, for those looking for a break from their everyday lives. And while each adult summer camp offers something different, they all offer a core perk: building community in real time, in the flesh.

The role of technology in our lives has shifted from the days when we puttered away on Nokia cell phones with limited capabilities. We no longer tie up our landlines to make calls to family and friends, and many teen interactions tend to happen through screens. We text, email, or video chat to keep in touch as a default. Adult summer camps allow bonding and connection to happen face-to-face through a series of indoor and outdoor activities meant to remind adults of their childhoods. And isn’t that supposed to be some kind of revolution?

An abridged history of American summer camp

Though some might guess that American summer camps sprang into being with the advent of ’70s hippie culture, they existed long before 400,000 people converged on a dairy farm in the Catskill Mountains for Woodstock. Abigail A. Van Slyck’s 2006 book A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890–1960, traces summer camp’s beginnings to the middle of the 19th century, when many Americans were trying to mitigate the disconnection from nature that resulted from the burgeoning urban lifestyles demanded by industrialization. Leaving the countryside and smaller rural towns in exchange for the different pace of city dwelling created a need for some semblance of a return to nature.

Summer camps were considered a reprieve: The idea was to take a weekend or a couple of weeks to immerse oneself in the wilderness, live off of the land, and return to the city refreshed and rejuvenated. To that end, Kenneth Thompson writes in a 1976 article for The Journal of Historical Geography that spending time outdoors was seen as a “wilderness cure”—an emerging type of medical treatment for the chronically ill in which fresh air and trees were considered a balm for their ailments.

Summer camps were also becoming a rite of passage for children of all ages. In the 2008 book Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp, author Leslie Paris writes that “children found the experience of attending a camp revelatory and formative.” Camp attendance signified a marker in childhood development, as children often returned from summer camps with a newfound sense of independence and belonging. Christina Grof, one of the authors featured in the 1998 anthology Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, writes, “In our innate need to mark the important transition during the adolescent years, we have created such events as Sweet 16 parties, debutante cotillions, and summer camps, in which children are removed from familiar daily life and, with their peers, introduced to various group activities.” Over time, attending summer camp became a cultural experience and a period of maturation in which more and more children wanted to participate.

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Though spending time in nature was still the primary appeal of summer camps, a focus on children in particular changed how summer camps were marketed. Magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and Redbook began printing glossy ads about camp, children’s fiction authors used summer camp as a setting in their books, and parents bought into the idea that camps were “educational” and that breathing the fresh “country air” would impart something special to their dear children. In 1881, Ernest Balch created Camp Chocorua, the first organized summer camp for kids, located off the juts of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. Balch ran the all-boys camp until 1889, and treated it as both an entertaining and educational experience. There were pillow fights, fishing, carpentry, land sports, and letters sent back home that detailed the campers’ exploits.

When Balch closed the doors of Camp Chocorua in 1889, there were fewer than 100 camps in the United States, according to the 2016 JSTOR Daily article “Summer Camp, History Of” by Livia Gershon. By 1920, that number had climbed to more than 1,000; now, just as many camps for children are shutting down due to declines in enrollment, adults are getting in on the fun.

The evolution of the adult summer camp

According to Tom Holland of the American Camp Association, more than one million adults attend summer camp each year. The adult summer camp boom started around 2014, with the advent of popular camps, such as Connecticut’s Club Getaway. Now you can pick from a growing list of summer camps. Want to unplug and meet other unplugged adults? Attend an adult summer camp focused on digital detoxing and forming personal connections in real time. Seeking adventure or outdoors thrills? Need a chance to reset? There’s a camp for that, too: Soul Camp might have a psychedelic tie-dye logo reminiscent of the ’70s, but the adult sleepaway camp is anything but a relic of the past. Rather it pitches itself as a ripe ground for modern renewal.

“At Soul Camp, we create an environment where our campers are able to experience healing, joy, and transformation,” says Michelle Goldblum, one of the camp’s cofounders. “For some, this can be as subtle as a week of rest, relaxation, community, and a deep (substance-free) joy that they haven’t felt since childhood. Others experience an incredible shift in perspective and clarity that completely alters their lives.”

Ali Leipzig and Goldblum, who both attended camps as children, founded Soul Camp in 2014. Since then, the adult sleep-away camp has expanded to include hundreds of women who attend one of two weekends at Soul Camp West in California or Soul Camp East in New York. For $1,899, Soul campers can participate in everything from tarot readings and breath coaching to psychotherapy and yoga. Similarly, Life of Yes Sleepaway Camp, under the umbrella of Mac & Cheese Productions, wants to equip campers with tools and offer ever-changing programming that helps them live their best lives. Cofounder Saya Hillman and her husband, Pete Aiello, have been running Life of Yes since 2004, and they’ve produced 15 camps over the past 15 years. Life of Yes charges $607 per camper for a weekend.

“It’s a beautiful and needed thing for adults to revert to childlike scenarios, where we just do instead of thinking/overthinking about doing, where we choose to love ourselves instead of beat ourselves up, where we’re confident instead of afraid,” Hillman says. Both Hillman and Goldblum say they’ve received positive feedback from former campers—gratitude for fostering a safe space or giving that needed push to return home and pivot in a new direction.

Elenna Mosoff decided to attend the now-defunct Camp Good Life Project in 2017 after hearing about it on a podcast. She says her childhood camp experiences were formative and meaningful, so attending Camp Good Life Project was a no-brainer. “I went to adult summer camp because I was so astounded that such a thing existed,” she says. “I wanted an experience that was out of the city and separate from my own network and friends…I met some amazing people, some of whom I am still in touch with.”

In a piece for BuzzFeed News, Canadian writer Scaachi Koul expressed a different reaction to attending Camp No Counselor in 2016. After seeing firsthand what a train wreck unsupervised adults with unlimited alcohol and few restrictions amounted to, her fascination was dulled. “Camp is fun and cute and fine until the dark shadow of reality sweeps over it: It’s impossible to recapture the innocence of youth because adults are here, and adults have bad intentions and bad execution and adults can be abusive in a way kids can’t,” she concluded.

Who gets to camp?

There’s one aspect of summer camps that often goes unexplored. Summer camps for children and adults weren’t solely an American concept—there were also camps in New Zealand, Italy, and France. After World War II, a culturally fetishistic activity gained popularity at summer camps: playing Indian or pretending to be a member of an Indigenous group. Van Slyck suggests this loosely imitative behavior wasn’t new, but rather represented “a long-standing practice among whites to adopt Indian personae” for their own entertainment. Some elements from those days found their way into early camp culture and stayed. Think of all the camps you know that incorporate Indigenous symbols and native names. Is there a way to truly separate summer camp as an entity from the appropriative symbolism it often perpetuates?

Scroll through the websites of most of the adult summer camps and look at the founders, counselors, and instructors. You’ll rarely see a Black person or person of color.

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Photo of a forest with lettering that says "Enjoy the White Noise"

Bitch Media Illustration

The earliest campers were boys, who were assumed to be naturally suited to activities like archery and canoe trips. Same-sex summer camps were created to meet a growing demand for girls who also wanted to attend. Eventually, coed camps were created, but campgoers also straddled racial lines too. Black children often were not allowed to attend camps alongside white children, which only changed after the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Paris mentions in Children’s Nature that, typically, summer camp was accessible only to children who had vacation time in the summers as well as parents and community organizations to support their attendance. By default, Paris writes, “Camp histories are disproportionately those of white, urban children.”

Sadly, not much has changed, even as adults become the target market. Scroll through the websites of most of the adult summer camps and look at the founders, counselors, and instructors. You’ll rarely see a Black person or person of color. The dearth of people of color in onscreen depictions of summer camp initially sparked my own interest in them generally and fueled my fascination with modern adult summer camps in particular. As a Black woman who wishes she could have attended summer camp as a child, I don’t know any other Black women who are seeking out summer camp experiences now, as adults. I also don’t recall hearing any of the people of color that I consider either colleagues or friends musing at length about these types of immersive experiences.

When I reached out to both Soul Camp and Life of Yes Sleepaway Camp to see if there was a lack of representation reflected in campgoers’ attendance, the responses seemed to confirm my preconceived notions about the racial demographics of a typical adult summer camp. Soul Camp’s Goldblum didn’t give an exact number in terms of the ratio of Black and POC campers to white campers, but said that there are “not as many as we would like and we’re actively trying to remedy that.” Most of their campers are white women in their late 30s. Life of Yes attendees fall within a similar age range, from 20 to 60 years old. Hillman says all races and ethnicities have been represented in the past but that overall “white has been the predominant race.” More women than men attend the camps, too. Mosoff said one third of Camp Good Life Project’s attendees were men and that “there were a few Black people and people of color at camp—maybe a handful.”

Anecdotal data from these three camps is far from exhaustive evidence of racial disparity, yet could well point to an ongoing thread in a seemingly new trend: adult summer camps as a continuation of what has historically been an experience reserved primarily for the white, urban elite who have disposable income, and the privilege of time and resources to be able to get away from it all.

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by Nneka M. Okona
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Nneka M. Okona is a writer from Atlanta, Georgia, who has yet to stop wishing that she attended summer camp as a child.