With over 14,000 camps in the United States changing the lives of over 14 million people each year, you’re an essential part of a thriving community, and your summer camp planning will make or break the success of your program. The more you put into preparing for summer camp before it starts, the more you, your campers, and your staff will get out of it.
Use this summer camp checklist to make sure your program is unforgettable, not because it was an unforgettable disaster but because it was unforgettably awesome.
Know who you are and what you want.
Before you dive into this summer camp preparation checklist, tap into the passion that led you here in the first place. Think about who you are and what you want to accomplish this year at camp. Once you’ve established a clear vision for your summer, every decision you make should support that vision and the camp culture you wish to create.
- Define your values and create a clear and compelling camp vision statement. Take time to consider and identify what you and your full-time team personally and professionally value. These values should inspire your vision, which will be at the heart of everything you do to prepare for summer camp.
If your camp already has a vision statement, review it. If your camp doesn’t have one, then write one. Everything on your summer camp checklist should support your vision statement.
Invest in the best summer camp management tools.
Now that your values and vision are driving your pre-camp planning, you’re ready to focus on how to organize your summer camp checklist. There are many online camp management tools available, and investing in the right program will save you precious time and money.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to ditch the disconnected spreadsheets, long email strings, and misfiled documents. Use a camp management program that lets you do it all in one place. From camper registration to staff recruitment to meal planning, find a platform that enables you to manage it all efficiently. Use a program that also allows you to share information with several people at once, so you’re not wasting time explaining the same things over and over again.
Get your mind off your money and your money off your mind.
As much as we don’t like to think about it, camps are businesses. Even non-profit camps need money to stay afloat and serve the communities they love. Unfortunately, passion, dedication, and fun aren’t going to pay the bills. Take time to organize and understand your budget, so you don’t have to worry about spending regularly.
- Get the best tools to track your spending.
Make sure you’re happy with your current camp budgeting tools, and if you’re not, then take the time to update them. Take a look at our CampMinder blog The Most Common Misconceptions About Managing Camp Finance
- Compare last year’s spending with this year’s projected spending.
Make sure your spending aligns with your values and camp vision. If you’ve adjusted your camp vision, then you’ll likely need to change your spending. Also, review your resources leftover from last year that you can use this year. Nobody likes a cluttered camp, and nobody likes wasted resources.
Happy communication means happy campers.
Summer camp is all about making meaningful connections, and communication is the key to those connections. The more accessible, understandable, and fluid your interaction is with parents, staff, and campers before, during, and after camp, the more enjoyable your camp program will be for everyone involved. The more time and energy you put into your summer camp planning before camp starts, the more engaging your communication will be, and the more connected your campers, staff, and parents will feel.
Pre-camp jitters are real. Day-one sets the stage for the rest of your program, and the more you do to make your campers, parents, and staff feel informed and prepared for camp, the more excited and less nervous they’ll be when they arrive, and the more willing they’ll be to jump into the fun.
- Make your website awesome and not cumbersome.
Going to camp should be easy and fun, and a confusing or uninspiring website is not the first impression you want to make. The more clear and engaging the information is on your site, the less time you’ll spend answering redundant calls and emails.
If you have an FAQ section, then make sure it includes your most common, and even some of your less common, questions and concerns. If you don’t have an FAQ section, then make one. Also, make sure your summer camp preparation guides and packing lists are easy to use and find. Not only include what to pack but also add what not to pack. The fewer things your campers and staff forget to bring, the fewer bottles of sunscreen, bug repellent, and contact solution you’ll have to give away.
- Create a clear communication timeline.
Get your campers pumped for camp by sending monthly messages with relevant and exciting information. Include photos and personal anecdotes. Let campers and parents see and feel the camp experience. Let them in on parts of your summer camp planning so they can see how much you’re putting into preparing for an excellent program.
Communication During Camp
Keep your campers, staff, and parents connected with fluid, relevant, and engaging conversation.
- Test your camp communication systems.
Make sure to test and prep your walkie talkies before counselors arrive. Put a label or sticker on each device with channels and underlying protocols. Whom should your staff contact in an emergency? What should they say? Also, be sure to test your PA system.
- To cell phone or not to cell phone, is it even a question?
If your staff members have their phones, they’ll likely use them for more than just communicating about camp. Decide when, where, and if your staff can use their phones. Develop clear expectations and consequences of inappropriate use.
- Print your daily schedules.
Even if you post your agenda in a common area, each staff member should have a copy of it. Develop a way for your staff to easily carry the camp schedule, so your camp isn’t cluttered with loose papers, random clipboards, and lost campers and counselors. Consider having your staff bond over making summer camp ID badges that are also lanyards with pouches. If that’s not your camp style, then require your staff to wear clothing with pockets.
- Don’t let unforgettable moments be forgotten.
One of the most memorable and emotional parts of any camp program is the last day of camp celebration, and that usually involves a slideshow or video of memorable moments from camp. Be sure to test all memory-making equipment before camp starts. Also, create a secure charging station and invest in backup batteries.
Create a way to track which campers and staff you’ve photographed. Nobody should be left out of the final production. It’s also essential to develop a way to share those camp memories. This is not only an excellent way for kids to connect with their families, but it’s also a useful camp marketing tool.
Finally, and arguably one of the most critical and often neglected aspects of summer camp photography, is holding your photography staff accountable by making sure they’re regularly organizing and editing. We’ve all seen the photography staff all-nighter, which typically leads to a lackluster photo show and a tired staff on the last, and one of the most important, days of camp.
- Get feedback not only at the end of camp but also during camp.
The camp is always moving, and so are the thoughts and feelings of its participants. Create a way to track feedback during camp so you can do something about what’s happening when it’s happening. Moreover, don’t forget to communicate with yourself. How often are you facilitating an activity that’s a mile away from your office, and you think of something to change next year? “Next year I need to remember to do this cool thing so that I can make this super annoying thing less annoying,” and by the time you make it back to your office, you forget the cool thing, and the annoying thing stays annoying?
Avoid annoying things with an easy way to remember and put those “next year” ideas into action. Use an app on your phone, email yourself under the same email string, or communicate the idea to a staff member whose job is to record those ideas for you.
Unused feedback is worthless feedback. We all know to collect feedback, but how often and well do we use it?
- Make giving feedback easy.
Nobody wants to read and answer a million questions, so keep your camp feedback survey brief, and only seek feedback you know you’ll use.
- Exciting post-camp communication makes campers want to come back to camp.
Don’t let the excitement end on the last day of camp. Make your campers and their parents feel connected between seasons, and inspire them to invite others to join in the fun.
Secure a stellar staff.
At camp, people run the show, and the more reliable, competent, and all-around fun the people are on your staff, the more time you’ll have to focus on the campers you’re serving. Much of your summer camp planning should focus on your team. The more prepared for camp they are, the more quickly you can cross off items on your summer camp planning checklist.
- Know what you’re looking for before you start looking.
Remember those values and that vision? Your recruitment message should make them transparent so you reach the people who will best support your camp philosophy and culture. Clearly define each role and the type of person who will best fill it. If you’re also looking for international staff members, then make sure you know and communicate international work visa requirements. See our other CampMinder blog post – 5 Secrets to Recruiting and Onboarding the Best Summer Camp Counselors
- Don’t waste time and resources.
Test your staff application process to make sure it’s easy to use, and everything’s working, and streamline your background and reference check processes.
The most crucial moment of camp is the first moment of staff training. This moment will set the tone for the season. The more engaging, inclusive, productive, and all-around fun your training program is, the more appealing, inclusive, productive, and all-around fun your staff will be.
- Revisit and improve last year’s program.
Make sure each aspect of your training program communicates and reinforces your values and vision. Also, make sure that summer camp staff members will know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it throughout each step of the training process. Your camp staff training program should also include a way to make sure your staff retains and uses what they’ve learned.
- Make the most of your time.
What can your staff do at home to start training before they’re at camp? Use an online training program so you and your team can get the most out of your time together.
Let’s get real; when you’re working with teens and young adults, there are bound to be shenanigans, and when those shenanigans threaten the positive experiences of your campers, you need to hold your staff accountable.
Have a way to manage romantic staff relationships, drama, and bullying. All of your camp staff expectations should be clear and accessible. Consider ways to use love and logic rather than negativity to support and hold your staff accountable.
Recruit and keep amazing campers.
Your campers are the heartbeat of your camp. Why the heck else would you spend hours perpetually planning, seriously stressing, and manically multi-tasking? Make it all worth it by filling your camp with eager and prepared campers.
- Know your audience and use multiple recruitment channels.
Sure, most campers are kids and teens; however, their parents are the ones filling out the registration forms and making the payments. Reach your audience in several ways like social media, print media and mailers, eNewsletters, local events, and your fantastic website.
Also, let others do some of the work for you. Campers who have an unforgettable camp experience will invite others. Make it easy for campers to share their experiences with their friends and family. Have pictures and videos available via your website or your camp management platform.
A rough registration process can make for a rough first-impression on campers and their parents. Make this process flawless so that parents are confident about leaving their kids at your camp. Always test your method before campers and their parents have access to it. Make sure everything’s up-to-date, easy to use, and properly functioning. (See our Blog Post, 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying Camp Registration Software)
Let the real fun begin with your program and activities.
Camp program and activities planning is the most fun part of the summer camp planning process. Here’s where maintaining focus on your camp vision and values is particularly important.
- Choose a fun and engaging theme.
From mad scientists to jungle explorers to circus ninjas, choosing your camp’s theme can be a blast. Without focus, it can also be distracting and time-consuming. Your idea should support your values and vision. Consider the supplies it will take to make your theme come alive, and choose something that will enable you to stay within your budget and focus on your campers.
- Offer different activities that will appeal to different campers.
Balance super powerful experiences with more mellow experiences. Include ways for campers to be both physically and emotionally expressive, and be thoughtful about downtime. Consider both extroverts and introverts when planning and scheduling activities. Give both times to recharge and unwind in the ways they need. Also, don’t forget to give your staff and yourself time to relax and reflect. Always keep in mind, though, that boredom often leads to trouble, so don’t give your campers and staff too much time to get into delicate situations.
- Make ordinary things extraordinary.
Plan a summer camp program that enables you to make regular activities more interesting. Make summer camp meals more interesting with music or themes or shows. Get creative, so that cabin clean-up is a fun activity rather than a daunting task. Train your counselors to spice up long walks to activities with games, songs, or meaningful conversations.
- Make room for change.
Ultimately, create a program that you can quickly adapt depending on your campers’ needs. Spontaneity is one of the things we all love about a summer camp, and even with a solid summer camp plan, it should never be excluded and is often the catalyst for some of the most lasting summer camp memories.
Make Your Camp Feel Like Home.
Camp should feel like a home away from home. Scratch that, it should feel better than home. This sense of home starts with your grounds and facilities.
- Have a thorough grounds maintenance and summer camp safety checklist.
Make sure all items on your list comply with state and federal policies and don’t waste time recreating what others have already done. Start with a process that works for other pros, and then develop it with your camp in mind. For example, Boy Scouts of America have a tremendous pre-camp inspection list.
- Have the right tools for the right jobs
As you complete your pre-camp inspection, consider things that may need maintenance during camp. Be sure to have the tools you’ll need to get those jobs done quickly and right.
- Make your supply lists as you inspect your facilities.
Save time and stay focused by organizing what you need for the camp based on where you need it. For example, in each cabin, what will you want available to your campers? Also, stay focused on what you need so that you can avoid overspending and collecting clutter. A glitter-blasting karaoke machine is obviously awesome; however, does it fit into your program? Do you want to clean up the mess it will make? Is there a place in your camp where such a marvel would be utilized in a way that would support and not detract from your vision and goals? If the answers are yes, then go ahead and buy the thing. If they’re no, then it’s a no-go.
- Tune your transportation.
Make sure all camp vehicles are properly maintained and ready to go. Clearly post any necessary operation and safety notes in each vehicle. Review and test your emergency evacuation plans.
Camp Food Doesn’t Have to Suck
Even though it usually gets a bad rap, camp food doesn’t have to suck and is what helps your campers and staff feel energized and connected.
- Hire a camp kitchen superhero.
Here’s where investing in staff is incredibly talented and where many camp directors mismanage their resources. One food-poisoning or allergic reaction can be the end of your camp’s success.
- Hire a camp kitchen rockstar who will adequately plan and manage these essentials:
- Summer camp menu planning that meets all dietary needs
- Safe and efficient food storage
- Healthy, delicious, and fun camp food preparation. We know that the healthier option isn’t always cheap, so what can you do to keep meals simple and cut costs on unnecessary ingredients? How can your meals enhance your camp theme?
Keep it Legal.
The least fun but most important part of summer camp program planning is making sure all aspects of your program meet federal and state health and safety standards.
- If you can, hire a professional and cover all of your bases.
Try to adjust your budget so that you can hire a legal professional to inspect and manage all of the legal aspects of your camp. It’s well worth the investment.
Whether you’re working with a professional or not, it’s good to be aware of all the summer camp legal requirements as you prepare to run a successful summer camp. Consider everything from federal and state licensing to camper and staff insurance. Schedule all safety audits and health inspections with plenty of time to make any necessary changes. Also, review and know employment laws, risk management strategies, tax laws and required accreditations, and food service regulations.
If you’re reading this article, then you’re clearly in the business of turning ideas into real, life-changing experiences. It’s incredible, and it’s incredibly hard work. Use this summer camp checklist to get the most out of your camp planning. The more you put into preparing for summer camp before your staff and campers arrive, the more you can focus on what matters: creating meaningful, fun, safe, and transforming experiences for your campers, for your staff, and yourself.
Cheers! And good luck strapping into spring!