Sleepaway camp is a luxury many parents can’t afford. And even those that can often balk at the expense.
You can send your child to summer camp for two weeks or you can take the whole family to the beach. It’s a tough call.
For some families, overnight camp is an indispensable tradition, and they make the sacrifice because they believe it’s an essential part of childhood development. For others, it’s just a fun summertime activity that they fit in if they can. Just like everything else, it’s a personal cost/benefit decision.
How much does sleepaway camp really cost?
A quick analysis of the 250 overnight camp organizations in our database illustrates the wide range of costs per day. A per-day cost is the best metric, as session length varies greatly; for example, some week-long camps are five days, some are six.
The average cost for a one-week session is $860 (median of $700).
The average cost for a two-week session is $2400 (median of $2600).
Traditional and Outdoor Adventure camps are the most affordable. About one-third of them fall between $83-133 per day. Summer camps associated with church organizations have the lowest cost, as they are often heavily subsidized by ministries and donations.
Academic camps tend to be the most expensive, especially the science and technology programs held on college campuses.
Special needs programs are of course on the higher end due to the staffing and medical requirements. However, they provide as many scholarships and financial aid as possible.
What do you get for the price?
You are getting lodging, meals, activities, certified instructors, and counselors to take care of your kids. When you consider what you may pay per person for a comparable vacation, like a family trip to a national park with additional activity fees, $100 per day seems rather reasonable.
Key components of a camp’s cost are:
Staff to camper ratio. Some camps have 1:5 and some have 1:2. This number includes support staff and special instructors as well as counselors. If there is a dedicated rock climbing guide, the ratio is affected.
Types of activities. Cooking (supplies and facilities) and Horseback riding (horses!) are two of the most expensive.
Number of activities. Offering 30-40 options means more equipment, facility construction and maintenance, and qualified instructors.
Excursions or overnight trips. Running vans, hauling camping equipment, and having enough staff to cover for those on offsite trips adds to the budget.
Cabins and grounds. Is the camp more like a Caribbean resort or a boy scout campground?
Facility rental. For academic camps, you may be paying high rental fees at a prestigious institution and wages for certified, experienced teachers.
What do you really need?
Your goal for your children’s camp experience can help determine how much you need to spend. Options include:
Opportunity to try a smattering of activities, sleep in a cabin, and make new friends
Access to adventures like mountain biking, rafting, and rock climbing
Basic facilities vs. more comfortable lodging with more amenities[VJ1]
An exciting waterfront with a blob, slides, zipline, etc. vs. a basic lake or swimming pool
Higher vs. lower staff ratio
Growth and personal development can occur in the simplest environment, provided you have a great group of counselors and leadership who drives the camp’s philosophy and approach.
If you're worried that an inexpensive camp may be a little sketchy, you can check to see if it is accredited by the American Camping Association. Learn more about ACA accreditation here.
Let’s not forget the additional expenses that aren’t included in the camp fee. Some items you may need to purchase include:
Trunk or duffle to store belongings
Creek shoes, camping chair, cabin comforts
Hiking backpack, mattress pad, sleeping bag
There’s also the gas expense for two round trips, or in some cases, a plane ticket or bus fare.
Is it crazy to spend $3000 on camp? Let’s compare that to other kids’ activities we shell out money for:
Travel soccer: $3000
Ballet lessons for serious dancers: $5000
Music lessons: $1500 plus the instrument
Pool membership: $1000+
The bottom line is that you can’t do everything. Kids who attend four weeks of camp during the summer probably don’t do travel soccer. Parents who think it’s crazy to spend $3000 on sleepaway camp probably have other financial commitments.
You don’t have to be poor to get financial aid. Many camps offer financial assistance, and sometimes funding goes unused because not enough people apply. And be sure apply early, as funds are often doled out on a rolling basis. Sometimes organizations make it easy to find the financial aid application on their website; other times you have to hunt around.
To get a list of camps that offer financial assistance, simply check the scholarship box in our search filters. You’ll get a detailed list of sessions and all the pertinent details.
If there is not an official scholarship process, don’t be afraid to ask. If you really want to attend the camp, the organization may be able to help. Camp directors are so committed to their mission to that they hate to turn children away due to financial limitations.
Want to help another child benefit from a life-changing camp experience? Consider donating to the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund. They give money directly to camp providers who then award the scholarships.