Summer camp: is it safe? |

Summer camp: is it safe?

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen Co, Colorado

ASPEN ” At Aspen’s Camp Eco and Camp Eco Sport, students aren’t told about basalt rocks. Instead, they’re taken to a place where basalt rocks are, and told to find them.

The teaching style doesn’t just help the students learn more, said director-owner Greg Gissler. It also keeps them safer, by alleviating some of what he calls the “I’m bored, I’m going to do something to get attention” attitude.

The good news for parents sending their children off to day and boarding camps this summer is that outdoor programs, in general, have tightened their risk-management policies over the years.

“The industry is maturing,” said Todd Schimelpfenig, curriculum director for the Wilderness Medicine Institute of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), based in Lander, Wyo. “There are more expectations.”

For example, NOLS used to have students bury or burn their food five days before the end of the trip, in order to practice fishing, gathering and fasting. Some courses still do a fast, explains Schimelpfenig, but for a shorter time period, and with emergency rations.

Having a small staff-to-student ratio and well-trained staff is one of the best things a program can do to keep campers safe, according to Clay Colvig of Colvig Silver Camps, a wilderness adventure camp in Durango, Colo.

While First Aid and CPR certifications still appear to be the standard for day-camp counselors, many nearby wilderness adventure camps report that their instructors have a three-day Wilderness First Aid certification. Many programs that take students on wilderness trips say they have at least one counselor who has a 10-day Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification.

“My guess is that the trend in the industry is going to move more toward the WFR,” predicted Marty Ferguson, director of Camp Chief Ouray, YMCA of the Rockies.

And while many directors talked about the importance of adequately training counselors for the activity they’ll be leading, Ferguson said he also trains his counselors in the “soft skills.”

In past years, parents have called with bullying concerns. He would talk to the counselors, who would often say they hadn’t seen anything happen.

So on the first day of staff training this year, his counselors all sat through a Web seminar on recognizing bullying.

Jared Thompson, director of Mountain Kids Academy, agreed that counselors need training or experience with the age group they’ll be working with.

“The word we use at [Aspen Middle School, where he is the physical education teacher] is ‘with-it-ness’ ” that you’re already in-tune with all kids all the time. It’s a practiced art, he said.

Despite the perceived risk of summer camp activities such as archery or mountain biking, driving ” which involves moving a large number of campers at a high rate of speed ” is arguably one of the most dangerous things that camps do.

One of the hottest debates within the outdoor/camp industry in past years has revolved around the use of 15-passenger vans.

The vans have been accused of being prone to rollovers–especially when loaded with roof racks and passengers behind the rear axle.

Several years ago, Camp Chief Ouray stopped using roof racks and seating students behind the rear axle. Recently, they stopped using the vans altogether, largely because their insurance company refuses to insure the vehicles.

But most camps have continued to use them ” often instituting restrictions to make them safer.

Colvig Silver Camp uses 15-passenger vans exclusively. Colvig explained that he thinks the rollovers are a “software problem not a hardware problem.”

The vans require different inflation for front and rear tires, and 80 percent of 15-passenger van rollovers are caused by under-inflation of rear tires, said Colvig. So he has instituted a policy that requires staff to check the tire pressure of the vans at the beginning of every day.

Aspen City Day Camp restricts the number of passengers in its vans to 10, said director Desiree Ventrello.

Many camp directors emphasized the importance of being licensed by the state of Colorado and/or accredited through the American Camping Association, the Association for Experiential Education or another accrediting agency.

Camps in Colorado are legally required to be licensed by the state, but many are not, said Gissler.

Directors pointed out that this licensing and accreditation requires camps to meet certain standards each year.

“It’s not that camps that aren’t accredited aren’t safe–they’re just self-policing,” Colvig said.