The 5 Best Summer Camps for Outdoor Kids
When it comes to plotting the perfect summer for your kids, balance is key. Aim for a mix of unstructured outside play time—backyard sprinkler tag, rambling along local trails, tire swings—and organized adventures that will give them the skills and support they need to take their love of the outdoors well into adulthood. These five picks do an admirable job.
The Best Outside Summer Camps: Sanborn Western Camps, Colorado
Set on 6,000 acres of meadows and ponderosa forests, Sanborn combines traditional sleep-away camp with extended backcountry expeditions. The largest private camp in the country, it has access to more 14,000-foot peaks than any other program in Colorado, and kids can head out on two- to five-day backpacking and horsepacking trips to bag summits, cast for trout, climb granite crags, and explore the high country.
What's nice about Sanborn is that they don't try to organize the whole day. Back in camp, kids can chose from more than 16 activities, including bouldering, anoeing, tubing, and a ropes course. Combine that with classic camp fare like archery, arts and crafts, ghost stories, and roasting marshmallows, and you have a recipe for a summer they won't forget. Monthlong sessions for girls and boys 9 to 17, $4,500; two-week sessions for 7- to 10-year olds, $2,400.
The Best Outside Summer Camps: Wild Whatcom, Washington
Back in 2004, founder Aimee Frazier started taking her children and their friends on hikes along the rugged beaches and trails near their home in coastal Washington. Nine years later, these impromptu outings have grown into a year-round education program dedicated to fostering a connection between young people and the natural world, inspiring kids to give back to the environment and their communities and teaching them fundamental backcountry skills and outdoor leadership.
Wild Whatcom's day camps are full of outdoor play: rock-hopping, waterfall hunting, scrambling, and more. Along the way, kids learn to identify edible plants, build fires, and navigate with a compass; each week ends with an overnight campout. Tweens and teens can sign up for three- to ten-day backcountry expeditions, from beginner-friendly backpacking rambles along the Baker River to the more ambitious, 26-mile Cascades crossing.
Five-day camps for 6 to 13-year-olds, from $175; multiday backpacking adventures for kids 9 and up, from $320.
The Best Outside Summer Camps: Western Spirit Cycling, Idaho and Colorado
Thanks to the efforts of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) mountain biking is the newest and fastest-growing high school sport in the country, with more than a thousand racers in seven states and plans to go coast-to-coast by the end of the year.
This summer, Moab-based outfitter Western Spirit Adventures is teaming up with NICA to launch two new backcountry skills camps, in Sun Valley and Durango, for girls and boys ages 15 to 18. In Colorado, aspiring student racers will bomb down a 2,000-foot singletrack descent in Telluride, ride technical alpine terrain along the Colorado Trail and Durango's marquis ride, Hermosa Creek. Sun Valley campers log an average of 20 miles a day on narrow, steep trails, many of which are above 10,000 feet. At both, campers spend their nights camping out trailside. Six-day camps, ages 15-18, $1,185.
The Best Outside Summer Camps: Otter Bar Kayak School, California
This renowned, family-run kayaking school on the banks of the Salmon River, in remote Forks of Salmon, California, has groomed many a competitive paddler—starting with the owner's son, Rush Sturges, who went on to win the junior world freestyle championships and shoot first descents around the world.
While Otter Bar offers weeklong whitewater kayaking camps for adults and kids, the last week of July is dedicated to introducing the sport to river rats ages 10 to 14. Otter Bar’s Not Quite Grown Ups program (NQGU) teaches beginning and intermediate paddlers boat control, basic strokes, wet exits, and Eskimo rolls on the lodge's flatwater pond before graduating to the mellow, clear-water rapids on the Klamath River. NQGU camp runs concurrently with adult camps at the main lodge, so you can run Class II rapids while your kids are learning to roll, and meet up later to swim in the river. Call it babysitting, with major benefits. The week fills up fast, so book early. $950.
The Best Outside Summer Camps: Avid4Adventure, California and Colorado
Studies show that preschool is the best time for kids to get interested in outdoor adventure. Problem is, there is a dearth of summer camps willing to let your toddler loose on a climbing wall.
Not any more. With a handful of day camps in Denver and Boulder, Avid4Adventure puts kayaking, climbing, and biking within reach of three-and-four-year olds. Preschoolers learn to paddle hardshell whitewater kayaks in a two-foot-deep tank, top-rope on an artificial climbing wall, and shred an off-road Strider balance bike course, using top-of-the line gear from Jackson kayaks and Specialized. With five different adventures in five days— leave-no-trace exploring, arts and crafts, and yoga round out the week—the camp's goal is to create well-rounded outdoor enthusiasts who, by the time they're seven, have graduated to real rock, rivers, and singletrack. Five-day sessions for kids ages 3-12, $375.
Bonus: Avid4 recently partnered with Outside to launch Outside Adventure Kids, a series of adventure day camps which will launch with a pilot program in Marin this summer for kids aged 7 to 12.