Every year millions of young Americans flock to summer camps in pursuit of adventure - discover how to land a camp job and then embark on an exciting road trip before your flight home to the UK
What is an American summer camp?
The American Camp Association (ACA) has revealed that more than 14 million children and adults attend summer camp in the United States of America every year.
It also found that 14,000 day and resident camps had been set up in total, with many having a particular focus on educational, athletic or cultural development. Nearly half offered specialist programmes for disabled people.
In a breakdown of activities offered by summer camps in the USA, the ACA 2017 ACA Sites, Facilities, Programs Report found that:
- 86% offered recreational swimming
- 75% teambuilding
- 63% camping skills
- 47% climbing/rappelling
- 41% community service
- 34% horseback riding
- 23% farming/ranching/gardening
- 21% wilderness trips.
American summer camps employ more than 1.5 million staff in a number of positions (2016 ACA Camp Compensation and Benefits Report). Overseas workers make up a significant amount of this total, with more than half of camps hiring internationally.
What types of camps are there?
While there are many different forms, camps that regularly take on UK students for the summer include:
- Private camps - independently owned and typically sports-orientated, activity specialists are required to teach children of all abilities.
- Religious camps - for those with strong religious values, these camps are usually affiliated with a faith group such as Jewish or Christian organisations, and camp counsellors typically share these beliefs.
- Not-for-profit camps - relying on donations and fundraising activities, these camps use more basic facilities but are still set in beautiful surroundings across the USA.
- Girl Scout camps - with a strong focus on the great outdoors and getting back to basics.
- Special needs camps - catering to children with special needs such as learning difficulties, or those with physical or mental disabilities.
What specific jobs are available?
It takes many people to ensure the safe running of a camp, with cooks, maintenance workers and nurses all forming part of the support staff. Roles for UK gap year students typically fall into two categories:
- Activity instructor - if you're skilled and experienced in a particular sport or hobby, such as swimming, tennis or rock climbing, you'll get to coach the kids and organise group activities.
- Camp counsellor/Cabin leader - your job will involve ensuring that camp life is enjoyable for campers, making yourself available from first thing in the morning until bedtime.
Why work at a summer camp?
There are many benefits to embracing such an immersive experience, where you'll get to live and work on the camp site, and be handed responsibility for groups of children typically ranging in age from six to sixteen. This would be ideal if you're thinking of pursuing a teaching career.
Whatever your reasons, you'll make friends from around the world, become increasingly more independent and learn new skills that can be added to your CV, allowing you to really make the most of your summer break.
Where can I find a camp job?
A number of specialist summer camp providers in America offer work-based gap year programmes for UK students, where your visa will be sponsored.
The most well-known of these are:
The organisation can help you to plan the trip and offer full support with the practicalities, including which type of camp and location would be best for you.
Camps usually run for around 10 weeks from June to August, although some start in mid-May - so you'll need to be available for the duration.
Am I eligible?
To apply for BUNAC's Summer Camp USA programme, you'll need to have some experience of working with children. BUNAC requests that you've worked with children or taught an activity within the past 12 months before you can apply.
However, if you don't meet these requirements there's still time to secure a volunteering opportunity with children through a local organisation, such as a school or youth club.
At Camp America, applicants must be at least 18 years old. For the Campower role, you'll need to be a full-time student - although you won't to apply for its Counsellor programme.
How does the programme work?
While the exact process will depend on the operator, if you're a first-timer to camp you'll typically be able to select from a non-flight or flight-inclusive programme. If you'd rather organise your own flights you could choose the former, or for around £200-£250 more (£500-£600 total) you could get everything included.
For example, BUNAC's £289 non-flight package includes:
- help with finding a camp placement
- assistance with sorting your J-1 Exchange Visitor Program Visa
- SEVIS fees paid (US government)
- medical insurance
- inclusive food and accommodation
- support while you're in the USA
- pocket money of up to $1,850 (£1,450).
You'll also get the opportunity to attend a pre-departure orientation day in the UK.
Other costs to consider include:
- US Embassy J-1 Visa - $160 (£125)
- a mandatory ACRO police background check - £45
- a medical examination - costs vary
- proof of support funds - $400 (£310)
- additional travel insurance - costs vary
- return flights - costs vary.
At Camp America, the amount you can earn will be determined by whether you choose the non-flights (£399) or flights included package (£599). For the former, your earnings will be $1,250-$1,800 (£970-£1,400) while those booking return flights with the organisation will receive up to $1,200 (£930).
How do I apply?
You'll need to register your details online and pay a deposit - at BUNAC this is currently £39. On successful completion of an interview, you'll then pay £161 followed by £89 once you've secured a camp placement. For the flight-inclusive option, the final payment on landing a placement will be greater (£329).
Summer Camp USA interviews for the following summer usually take place between October and December at various regional locations throughout the UK, including London, Manchester, Newcastle, Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Cardiff.
Many summer camp providers attend information sessions at various university campuses throughout the year, as well as holding virtual fairs, while you can contact them directly to ask any specific questions.
How do I get a working visa?
As mentioned, J-1 visas are required for American summer camp programmes. Your operator will be able to advise you on securing this permit but you can read more about them by visiting the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in the United Kingdom.
To find out more about summer jobs and working in this country, see work in the USA.
What do former campers say?
Rough Guides editor Siobhan Warwicker describes how the summer spent working as a camp counsellor in the USA felt like a definitive moment in her career to date. 'As well as fulfilling a craving for adventure, you'll find that you return a little braver, more mature, and ready to take on new challenges,' she says.
'University summers are long, and I wanted to use my final one to create memories, without breaking the bank. Working at a summer camp in America appealed to me because it allows you to spend time outdoors and lead activities in an exciting new environment.'
Rusja Foster, blogger at Summer Camp Secrets and regular BUNAC Summer Camp USA participant, agrees that, 'Working at a summer camp in the USA is a great way for students to enjoy a standalone, four-month mini experience during their summer break, or it can be part of a full gap year'.
However, as applying for a working visa in the USA is tricky, Siobhan feels it's worth choosing a structured programme from an operator because it makes the process much easier. Attending the programme orientation day is important, as this prepares you for the role while ensuring solidarity with other camp workers from the moment you get on the plane.
Siobhan also found that coaching children through the highs and lows of camp life was a surprisingly satisfying part of the experience, while on your nights off you can let your hair down and get to know other young people from all over the world.
'There's no getting around the fact that it's hard work but resilience, the ability to 'wing it,' and a sense of fun, are all skills that you'll call on throughout your career.'
How can I travel around America on a budget?
One of the great things about these programmes is that once the camp season is over, you'll typically have around 30 days to explore the country before your visa runs out. This means that if you've always wanted to go on an American road trip, you now can - and you'll hopefully have some friends staying on after camp to share this time with.
Siobhan explained how she made the most of this opportunity. 'We were all paid a lump sum at the end of camp, and used this to backpack around the United States - creating some of my most memorable travel experiences.'
It'll be easier to get around at the end of summer than during the colder months, and there are many different ways to save money when it comes to travel, food and accommodation.
For a start, you'll see much more of America if you choose to view it from an open highway, with the cheapest means of doing this being via bus travel, hiring a car with friends (and sharing the cost of petrol) or by renting a campervan.
Finally, there's accommodation to suit every budget thanks to Airbnb, Couchsurfing and the availability of cheap hotels and hostels.