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Outdoor Summer Camps

Texas boasts a wide variety of resident and day camps specializing in outdoor skills.

By Garland Levit

Hunt, Texas, is more than 300 miles from Pam and Dan Bond’s West Texas home in Vernon. For the Bond daughters, though, this small town nestled in the heart of the Hill Country, about 70 miles northwest of San Antonio, has become almost like a second home.

In 1994, a family friend encouraged the Bonds to send their daughter Natalie, who was 9 at the time, to an overnight resident camp in Hunt called Heart O’ the Hills. But Pam and Dan had serious reservations. Neither had stayed at an overnight camp growing up, and they wanted to make sure they researched their options fully before committing to a camp for Natalie.

"We visited several camps before we decided on Heart O’ the Hills," says Pam, who later sent her youngest daughter, Meredith, now 13, to Heart O’ the Hills as well. "The owners of the camp really impressed me, and I liked that it was all girls. The size of the camp was also important in that it had a nice, small atmosphere where the girls could get to know each other."

Natalie, now 16, has been to camp almost every year since. She is preparing to return to Heart O’ the Hills this summer as a counselor in training.

According to the American Camping Association, 9 million children went to summer camp in the United States in 2000. In all, there are more than 8,500 camps in the United States that serve the purpose of enriching children’s lives each summer. The ACA says there are 1,111 summer camps in Texas, and the actual number is higher.

With so many camps to choose from, what is the best way to go about finding the right camp for your son or daughter? There is no exact formula for discovering the perfect summer camp. For the most part, parents can’t go wrong in their selection process so long as they use some discretion. Still, there are personal issues for any parent to consider, such as deciding what type of camp is best suited for a child.

The first step in narrowing down a list of potential summer camps is determining whether a day camp or resident camp is right for your child. A day camp may be preferable for younger children, whose parents are not ready to send them away for an extended period. Day camps typically are more affordably priced because the camp does not have to provide lodging or multiple meals for the campers. Additionally, at a day camp, parents can closely monitor their children and keep up with any potential or ongoing problems, because the child returns home each day.

Karen Allman, a district director for the Camp Fire USA First Texas Council since 1990, says that day camps are very effective at catering to younger children. "Parents of first- and second-graders may be more cautious about sending a child away from home," she says. "They enjoy the feel of a day camp, because they can have daily interaction with the people supervising their children."

Resident camps differ greatly from day camps. They can vary in length from a few days to usually no more than four weeks. Privately owned resident camps are normally not cheap, but overnight camps run by public agencies such as the YMCA (see directory) are more moderately priced. However, sessions at these camps are normally much shorter in length than the private resident camps.

"At a resident camp, there is an opportunity for campers to develop their independence away from their parents and form closer ties with other children," says Dick Eastland, owner of Camp Mystic, located in Hunt. "Friendships really take off when the child is in a cabin living with other campers their age. In a cabin, they have to learn to share and be more tolerant of others."

Once you decide on the type of camp, there is still the chore of narrowing down what can be a long list of prospects. To start with, listen to recommendations from campers and their parents. Although you shouldn’t commit to a camp solely based on word of mouth, testimonials from friends and relatives about the merits or weaknesses of a camp should be considered valuable information.

To help with this task, Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine has compiled a directory of day and resident summer camps in Texas. We’ve chosen camps with an outdoors emphasis — great places where children can swim, go on nature hikes or, in a few cases, learn about marine biology or wildlife management. This list is by no means a comprehensive directory of outdoor-oriented camps in Texas, but it is a great starting point for people searching for a fun and valuable camping experience for children.

To feel absolutely comfortable with a camp, you can take other precautions. Tour the camp facilities. If possible, go the preceding summer when the camp is in session, and meet the camp directors. This gives both the parents and campers a feel for the camp. It also affords parents an opportunity to ask questions or express any concerns. Many camps also show informational videos in cities throughout the year. Call the camp to find out when and where these showings take place.

Inquire about safety before deciding on a camp. To ensure the protection of children, especially in activities such as swimming and shooting sports, be sure that the camp has a certified counselor on hand to supervise these activities. Ask about the attention to detail that the camp takes in maintaining their grounds. "Camps must stay on top of things and check equipment frequently by keeping up with day-to-day usage and repairs," says Allman.

"Training of the staff is very important," says Brian Brandt, executive director of public relations for Sky Ranch, who has worked for summer camps for 13 years. "Most camps have a staff training week, and what goes on during that time can dictate how safe the camp will be."

The attitude and caliber of a camp staff can have a profound effect on the direction of a camp as well. According to Brandt, the more experience the full-time staff and administration at a camp have, the better a camp will be run.

Camps should abide by health standards dictated by the Texas Department of Health, the American Camping Association or some other accrediting body. Some camps, such as those run by state agencies, are exempt from review by the health department, so be sure to consult the camp to see what standards are being followed.

Plan ahead. Even with the abundance of camps in the state, some of the popular resident camps begin to fill up almost a year in advance. Day camps usually start their push soon after the New Year. Most camps have several sessions during the summer, which provides flexibility for parents who must schedule around family vacations and other summer obligations. Once you’ve signed your child up for summer camp, sit back and relax, because your child will soon be off on an experience that will stay with him forever.

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