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What It’s Like to Go to Adult Summer Camp

In 2016, the age of smartphones and instant access to a stream of terrifying news, it can be tough to find a second to decompress. So when I was tipped off to adult summer camp – three glorious days of worry-free fun and R&R in the middle of the woods – I knew I had to try it out.

See recent posts by Paola Singer

True fact: I went to Camp Bonfire, an adult sleepaway camp, for the first time this June as a 23-year-old. If you didn’t know adult sleepaway camps existed, no worries – I totally didn’t either! But turns out, they’re not only out there, but they’re multiplying like crazy across the US, attracting adults of all ages looking for a place to reminisce on childhood camp days or live out childhood camp days that never were.

If you’re thinking hmm…this might be for me, tell me more… Then check out the highlights from my adult summer camp diary and our picks for the best adult summer camps out there.

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By Paul Gargagliano for Camp Bonfire

Day 1: Opening Ceremonies, Canoeing, Cabin Olympics, a Camp-wide Bonfire

It’s Friday and I took the day off of work to board a coach bus to the Poconos where I’ll be joining the two-year-running Camp Bonfire, a three-day summer camp for adults, complete with camp directors, counselors, bunk mates and scheduled activities like archery, jewelry making, extreme frisbee and mini mosaics.

I walk past Herald Square, headed for 10th Ave, to meet with other campers who are riding the 2.5-hour bus from Manhattan to Camp Bonfire’s setup at the Lake Owego boy’s camp. Approaching a group of women sporting backpacks, yoga mats and pillows, I ask "Are you guys headed to adult summer camp?" and I hope to hell they are. Luckily, they answer quickly, and turns out, they’re my people! Swift introductions reveal that they’re first-time campers too, and I’m a little relieved.

Boarding the bus, I sneak in the last of my cellphone time (as everyone else does since camp is technology-free!), and the further out of Manhattan we get, I start to day dream about what camp will be like. As someone who’s never gone (I grew up in New Hampshire, it seemed unnecessary), I gleaned all of my knowledge first from Parent Trap and then from Wet Hot American Summer, so I have Hollywood-high hopes.

Once we make the turn into camp, it’s off the bus, and through a check-in line of singing and dancing counselors to my cabin; past the high ropes course, the hammock grove that hugs a lake, and benches with buckets full of Kind Bars and Nature’s Bakery snacks.

Not long after putting sheets on my camp cot, the opening ceremonies are held on a set of steps overlooking the lake. Camp Directors Ben and Jacob (who met at camp as kids) get things going, introducing themselves and then the counselors who fashion their own theatrical intros. Following them, it’s our turn, and as someone who toes the line of being an introvert, this is the part I’m most anxious about. Thankfully, our conversations are prompted by suggested questions like: What are you passionate about today? And: What fictional character (or Spice Girl) would you lunch with? But those questions asked and answered, I’m mostly interested in why everyone chose to come to camp, and how they found out about it in the first place. With a diverse group of 170 people falling somewhere between their early 20s to early 70s, and with every corner of the country (some flew from Texas, others drove in from Ohio) and every type of personal and professional background accounted for, the answer (in this moment and throughout the weekend) is almost always the same: I wanted to meet new people.

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By Paul Gargagliano for Camp Bonfire

After Ben lights a ceremonial fire, intros are over and we have our first activity period. I choose canoeing – a relaxing diversion that garners more laughs than usual thanks to comedically tiny, child-size life vests (we are at a boy’s camp, after all).

The Cabin Olympics follow dinner (which is held in the exact mess hall you’re imagining: The one with wooden walls covered in plaques from bunk wars gone decades by). And since I know you’re wondering – the food was actually good. Like, way beyond expectation and with plenty of gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, and xyz options for every type of diet. But back to the Cabin Olympics… Each bunk is tasked with coming up with a team name, intro song and performance to be judged in the processional. And the clincher? We have a half hour to pull it off. Suddenly, with the countdown started, costumes and musical instruments are drawn from duffle bags and our cabin nails down a routine.

We’re the first team to go and for this I’m thankful and kind of scared. Big performances are not my thing but I always feel much better after doing it, so silly cheering and chanting aside, I’m free to enjoy everyone else’s intros. First round event down, we roll through lemon jousting (where you try to knock a lemon off an opponent’s spoon without dropping your own), running and screaming (exactly what it sounds like), and trivia (with questions that play to the strong suits of every generation), before night falls and we head to the mega bonfire for S’mores and canoes full of Brooklyn Brewery beers.

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By Paul Gargagliano for Camp Bonfire

It’s day one, and looking around the bonfire, there’s already such an overwhelming sense of community for a group of 170 adults who have mostly never met before. At this point, following a bunch of successful introductions, a communal dinner and activities, my nervousness has subsided and I’m relaxing into being out of my element.

Day 2: High Ropes Course, Talent/No Talent Show, Camp Dance Party

Saturday starts with a wake-up call at 8 a.m. from Camp Director Jacob and the megaphone that never leaves his side. Sporty clothes on, I’m off to breakfast with my cabin mates before taking to the high ropes course where I’m hoping I can convince myself to do the free-falling rope swing. After watching a couple of other people do it, and receiving a bunch of encouragement from the others in my group, I step up to take my turn, not quite believing that I’ll be able to pull the ripcord once I’m hoisted high enough. But I do, and suddenly I’m soaring over the field, my feet touching the leaves and treetops along the way, and before I’ve even been unclipped, I already want to go again.

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By Paul Gargagliano for Camp Bonfire

Following the ropes course and rock wall (not exactly my shining moment…), I lounge for a good chunk of the day in the hammock grove – probably my favorite part of camp (read: definitely my favorite part of camp). While I would normally fill every spare moment with Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and all of the other life-consuming social medias that I’m a slave to, I just rock back and forth and watch the campers who are leisurely rowing around the lake in canoes and on paddleboards.

That night, the Talent/No Talent show unfolds in the camp theater, and after shuffling in to take seats along the wooden slab benches, we’re treated to original songs, choreographed dance numbers, balloon animal demonstrations, and camp songs – my favorite being "This Camp is Bonfire" to the tune of Alicia Keys’s "This Girl is On Fire."

After the Talent Show is the dance, and Camp Bonfire’s is exactly what I imagine it would have been like had I gone as a middle schooler, just with the added bonus of volunteer bartenders mixing Lake Breezes (with cranberry juice, OJ, vodka and the special ingredient: enthusiasm).

In the basketball court pulling double duty as a dance hall, we have a polaroid photo booth with costumes, props and signs applicable to every type of camper, like: "I made new friends" and "I took naps." There’s also a snack bar and a DJ spinning beats. Some campers come in costume, and some, like myself, are still in workout garb. Dance circles break out to Beyonce and conga lines start to snake their way through the space that’s been strung with patterned party pennants. Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you how anti-dancing I am, but to my own surprise, I give in and dance a little (a true testament to camp’s transformative powers).

Day 3: Yogic Sleeping, Hammock Naps, Closing Ceremony

I decide to end my time at Camp Bonfire with some leisurely activities. Intrigued by the term "yogic sleeping," I grab a mat on the half-built cabin deck that serves as our yoga studio. I learn that yoga nidra is a guided meditation and all positions are based on your own comfort level, so that’s reassuring as a two-time yoga practitioner. The wind is blowing lightly through the trees overhead and I can feel the sun on my face, through closed eyelids. While I definitely don’t see myself mastering this meditation thing anytime soon (I’m thinking about everything going on around me and how I’ll eventually write about this), this is the calmest I’ve ever felt whilst attempting yoga, so that’s gotta count for something.

After yogic sleeping, I head back to my favorite place: The hammock grove. Snuggled in a pink- and purple-striped sling, I pretend to read for about five-minutes until I realize 1. I’ve read 3 pages without comprehending a thing, and 2. I can do whatever I want since, in the words of Ben and Jacob (and a favorite phrase among campers), "I’m a grown-ass adult." This in mind, I put down the book and enjoy my last camp cat nap.

The closing ceremony is held in the same spot the opening one was just two short days ago, but now, groups sit chit-chatting like long-time friends. First thing’s first before we part: All 170 of us have to smile and keep our eyes open simultaneously for a series of group photos – a task that involves laughing and talking breaks and proves no simpler than the first time we attempted it in kindergarten. After that, it’s a series of sincere goodbye speeches and campers share their favorite moments from the weekend.

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By Paul Gargagliano for Camp Bonfire

Back in the bunk, we finish packing our bags before heading out to the Philly and NYC-bound buses, and others to their cars. Some collect cell phones they surrendered at check-in and some filter through the hugging (with enthusiastic consent) station. On the bus, we’re all silent and it’s refreshing to see that for once, everyone hasn’t jumped on their phone just because they were given the chance. Turns out adult summer camp is the perfect antidote to sometimes-stressful city life, and on the bus back, I spend a couple of minutes formulating an elevator pitch that will have all of my friends on board for next year’s weekend away.

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Camp Grounded

Best for: Those who need a push to put down the phone.

Where: Northern California, New York, North Carolina, Texas

Camp Grounded, a "pure, unadulterated camp for grown-ups," can be found in woodsy locales all around the U.S. Ditching cellphones and MacBooks for S'Mores and color wars, adults kick it old-school camp-style, sleeping in classic cabins. Fashioning a full schedule includes picking from daily activities like flower crown-making, acro-yoga, synchronized swimming, pickling, and zine making. Whether you're looking to pack your day with crafts, sports or a little bit of each, Camp Grounded has more than 25 activities that present endless combos.

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Camp No Counselors

Best for: Those who like to pair childhood activities with adult privileges (namely booze-fueled bonfires).

Where: Austin, Boston, LA, Chicago, Miami, Michigan, Nashville, New York, San Francisco, Toronto

Sometimes, just sometimes, days filled with favorite childhood activities are best capped off with raging (yes, raging) nightly theme parties. At Camp No Counselors, all of your basic camp things are covered: color wars, talent shows, arts 'n crafts, etc. But when night would typically come to a close at other camps, CNC's 200 campers are just busting out the open bar, world-class DJs, and outrageous costumes. And the next morning? Gourmet breakfasts are accompanied by mimosas & Bloody Marys as far as the eye can see.

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Camp Throwback

Best for: Risk takers and wild childs who think beer pairs well with (or enhances) just about any camp activity.

Where: Clarksville, Ohio

The Ohio-based Camp Throwback prides itself on being a Parent Trap/Wet Hot American Summer crossover, and if you don't like the sound of that, then it appears camp isn't for you (and we'd love to hear what you do like). The camp takes classic recreational activities (canoeing, swimming, arts and crafts) and food (hey, sloppy joes), and tacks on a Drunk Field Day for good measure, constructing the kitschiest camp of our dreams. Pack your tie-dyes!

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Photo by Zak Mann


Soul Camp

Best for: Soul searchers yearning for a nostalgic camp experience that simultaneously embraces wellness practices.

Where: New York, California

If you’re not into the frat-ish, drinking-fueled activities other camps are offering up, consider Soul Camp (West or East) – an alcohol-free, 18+ wellness camp focused on total mind and body rejuvenation. Wake up to a morning reveille and all-camp flagpole lineup before dining in the mess hall. Play leisurely games of jax and attend optional yoga, tibetan singing bowls and dreamcatcher making workshops. Major bonus: Soul Camp East, at Camp Towanda in the Poconos, is where the cult-classic Wet Hot American Summer was filmed.

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Wanderlust Yoga Festivals

Best for: Yogis (new and advanced) in need of practice buddies and mindful meditation.

Where: Colorado, Whistler, BC, Quebec, Queensland, Lake Tahoe

Wanderlust festivals bring yogis together for four days of mindful living spurred by musicians, speakers, chefs and meditation instructors. Fill your days with vinyasa, standup paddleboarding, aerial yoga, and sunset hikes, or combine your flow with live music in a DJ-powered yoga class or acoustic music meditation. Fuel your mind as well as your body by attending one of the thought-provoking Wanderlust Speakeasy lectures which cover everything from politics to holistic health.

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Camp Wandawega

Best for: Anyone who has ever wanted to spend time in Wes Anderson’s fantastical, fictional worlds.

Where: Elkhorn, Wisconsin

Camp Wandawega isn't just a Wes Anderson set come to life – the storied resort has a background that's as film-worthy as its locale and retro style. In 1925, the Wandawega Hotel was built, a law-defying maze of a building with trapdoors, hidden stock rooms and multiple exits, all to conceal an illegal speakeasy, and underground gambling and prostitution. Nefarious activities continued to rule the spot until 1950, when the resort focused on actually being a resort, and in the 70s, it even had a stint as a Catholic Latvian summer camp. Fast forward to today and resort guests can rent out vintage cabins and bunkhouses, or attend culinary and creative retreats.

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