Camp Counselor Tips & What To Expect Working On A USA Summer Camp!

Last Updated on August 6, 2022

8 years ago I decided to take the plunge and start the ball rolling for my first ‘solo’ trip. It didn’t stay solo for long, it was spent with 70 other people like me and then hundreds of kids…yep, I signed up for Camp America when I was 19 years old for the craziest summer of my life.  You must have seen all the movies about American Summer Camps?! I laughed, I cried and I ate far too much but I wouldn’t have changed the experience for anything.

Camp Counselor Tips

How To Be a Camp Counselor: Applying to work on an American Summer Camp

I had child care experience through Saturday jobs, but at the time, didn’t have any teaching/coaching experience. This didn’t seem to matter. On my application, I said I enjoyed doing ropes and climbing courses but had never lead them but was willing to learn. Next thing I know, a camp in up-state New York had contacted me asking if I wanted to be a Ropes counsellor. I could NOT stop grinning while reading the email and watching the camp’s promo video. They had a lake for water sports, a swimming pool, heaps of land sports on offer, horses, alpacas and a bunch of other stuff on top!

I had to have an in person interview with a previous Camp America counselor, a medical, buy long term travel insurance, have a long distance phone call with the camp director and then go to a visa appointment at the US Embassy in London.  (My post: What Happens in the Visa Interview at the America Embassy will give you an idea of what it’s like…this was for the Green Card but it’s a very similar process and on “J Days”, Camp America staff were there to help!).

There are several different companies but I went through Camp America.  Since I signed up 10 years ago (!!!!) it’s changed slightly, the now require a video application too.  AND they have a whole bunch of cool Camp America merchandise…I swear I would have bought everything on the list, I was bad enough at my camp store!!!

At Camp

No joke, camp is the hardest job I have ever done in my life. But it was also the most fun! The first week for me was spent doing ropes training…learning how to set up the courses, how to lead the activities, how to do line rescues. You bond quickly with fellow counselors due to the unique situation…and then you hardly see each other again as the kids descend for 8 weeks and you’re too busy running round teaching and then trying to make the most of your time off.

You stay in the cabin with the campers, meal times were crazy (you WILL be called on to ‘get down’), you plan evening activities, had to be flexible…not only did I teach ropes (high ropes, low ropes, zip-lining, bungee trampoline, playpen, climbing wall, giant swing), I also led other activities such as go-karting, basketball, arts and crafts, music etc all at the same time of finding the fine line between being hypo and happy yet serious and safety conscious! You have to really throw yourself into EVERYTHING. By the end of the summer I was drained!

My Highlights

  • Having this as my back garden for 3 months…
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  • Learning to Wakeboard on my evenings off!
  • Cook outs! Camp was a HUGE learning curve. You sign up with a rough idea of what will happen and then its sprung on you that once a week you will have to make a fire out of sticks and cook a BBQ for your whole cabin. This turned out to be something I looked forward to every week, I was the camp pyromaniac!
  • The relationship you build with the campers. You have to be everything: their parent, sister, friend, counselor, teacher. The majority will really respect you. My campers made me a 100 link paper chain and on each link they wrote one of my ‘English-isms’ or something that reminded them of me. I managed to get it home and I still have it.  (Now one of my campers…who was 15 at the time, is moving to London and we’re planning to have a catch up next year!)
  • One of my favourite nights, was also one of the coldest. I was sent on a ‘hiking overnight’ with one of the other counsellors and some of the kids to camp in the woods. It got down to -1c but we sat round the camp fire singing songs, having a cook out and the following morning I saw an albino deer and took one of my favourite photos ever…
  • ‘Circle E Diner’ milkshakes in town and seeing America with my day off counselors!
  • Star gazing! Laying up in the baseball field just staring at the sky. With no light pollution it’s AMAZING. Being up in the mountains as well, we could see lightening storms in the distance around 10pm and knew that they’d hit around 4am. (The storms weren’t a highlight, especially as sleep is precious but it was awesome seeing them in the distance!)

The Challenges of Being a Camp Counselor

  • You’re literally cut off from the world. You don’t really have much clue what’s going on in the rest of the world, you’re in a camp bubble.
  • Lack of sleep
  • Some kids (and counselors!) will try and push you to your absolute limit yet you just have to keep on smiling.
  • The food! Some days were ok, but some days you just wanted something proper/healthy or at the other end of the scale, FIZZ! The only drinks on camp were water, milk or bug juice unless you managed to buy something else from camp store or in town!
  • Taking the ropes courses down in heavy rain/thunder storms = TERRIFYING

“One Time, At Band Camp”

By the end, I was in mixed minds as to whether I would want to return. I think I would have done if my home situation was different. I was lucky enough that my full time job let me have 3 months off and then have my position back once I was home (I actually got a promotion!) but I don’t think they would have done it for a 2nd year.

The experience has given me a great talking point in interviews for jobs, you can some how make it relate to any position!  Now I’ve emigrated to America, the experience helped me to find employment here too!

I travelled with Camp America. They made the process easy and circulated you on their HUGE database of camps to hopefully find you the perfect camp. For me, the camp I was on was exactly that. It was smaller than some camps (staff and camper wise) but it offered everything I could have wanted from a camp. The directors were lovely and really made you feel welcome and backed you 100%. Camp America aren’t the only option though, there are several other companies that offer the same service.

Camp Counselor Resources

Secret Diary of a Camp Counsellor – Lucy has published a book (paperback or digital) of her diary she kept while working on her camp. It’s well worth a read, I couldn’t put it down and is a great guide of the type of ups and downs you’ll experience on a daily basis!

Another good book to read is…

Campingly yours: A Heartwarming Journey of a Lifetime at Summer Camp – Thomas C. Adler

It’s about a boy who was sent to camp as a kid, then he became a counsellor and eventually a camp director. Where as Lucy’s book is obviously from a counsellor’s point of view, it’s nice to see the thoughts that go through a camper’s head during their first summer on camp. I think if I had have read it before I went, it would have been pretty helpful to as you’re bound to encounter a first time camper. This book is on Amazon in both paperback and digital too.

I created a handy packing list of everything you should take to camp!  From dressing up gear to flags from your home country (you’ll be working with people from all around the world!): Camp Counsellor Packing List: Things EVERY Camp Counsellor Should Take To Summer Camp!

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Camp Counselor Tips
Summer Camp Counselor Tips and What To Expect

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