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Chiggers and Blisters and Bears, Oh, My! Get Ready for Summer Camp

Once upon a time, families might take an entire month or more to go on low-key vacations to the countryside or the beach. The idea of spending a long while way from the hot stagnation of a city's summer heat in the mountains and woods had a lot of appeal to those who could afford it. Another choice might have been sending the kids off to Grandma and Grandpa's farm. Today, with our modern, air-conditioned homes and the grandparents likely still working or possibly retired to a Florida condo, kids who are inexperienced in the sweet art of enjoying themselves in the outdoors sometimes need a special place where they can go and have fun in a low-tech, high-energy way. We call this carefully crafted extracurricular activity summer camp.

Choosing a Camp

Summer camp can mean many things these days: computers, foreign languages, drama, or more. For this article, I am assuming you or your family members are heading out to the great outdoors. If you're a teen, you might want a summer job as a counselor. If you're a camper, you may be facing your first time away from all the comforts of home. Parents, also known as they who foot the bills, will want to look at lots of choices for the best fit for their kids and their budgets.

Many of our area families choose a local day camp, sponsored by the parks and recreation departments, the Y.M.C.A., or a private organization. Stafford, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, King George, and Westmoreland counties all host camps and give a discount to their own citizens.

For kids who are ready to be away from home for a week or more, the choices are wide open. East Coast, West Coast, North, and South, the camps are out there, everywhere. Some offer traditional choices such as horseback riding, boating, nature lore, swimming, and arts and crafts while others have added lacrosse, scuba diving, drama, in-line skating, and aerobics to their programs. Kids with special needs can also find camps to suit them that also have the fun of nature, sports, and, of course, friendships. The following books may be helpful in finding the right camp for your kid:

Guide to ACA-accredited Camps from the American Camping Association.
A version of this is also available online at

Peterson's Summer Programs for Kids and Teenagers.
A large up-to-date directory from the publishers of the popular college guides.

The Summer Camp Handbook: Everything You Need to Find, Choose, and Get Ready for Overnight Camp--And Skip the Homesickness by Christopher A. Thurber and Jon C. Malinowski.
One of the many great resources on our Parents' Shelf.

Summer Fun: The Parents' Complete Guide to Day Camps, Overnight Camps, Specialty Camps, and Teen Tours by Marian Edelman Borden.
Lots of options here to help you find the right fit for your camper.

Everyone can enjoy a summer camp experience. In addition to the standard directories, The Directory for Exceptional Children contains a listing of educational and training programs throughout the country for children who face physical or emotional challenges. Many of these will offer a summer session or can give a referral to a nearby program. Another good source for specialized camps is the public school system's Parent Resource Centers. Online, has listings of camps as well as a treasure trove of other useful information for parents of special needs kids.

Once you've picked the camp, it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty of preparation.

Getting the Gear

The packing list will vary depending on what kind of facilities the camp has, and most will provide one well in advance. You could be quartered in anything from snug cabins with bunks to a b.y.o.t. (bring your own tent) situation. Just as a general precaution though, think about where the camp is located. It can get a little chilly in the mountains at night, even in summertime. Rainstorms will likely happen whether or not they're predicted, so some kind of rain gear is good thing to have.

Likewise, heavy hiking may necessitate the purchase of actual hiking boots. And, by all means, get the boots professionally fitted and broken in before hitting the trail. Throw some moleskin (available at most pharmacies) into the pack. It protects much better against incipient blisters than the regular adhesive strips you might use at home. Because of rain, you may want to bring not one but two pairs of sports shoes. The first should be a pair you were going to throw out soon anyhow. These will be perfect for scrambling through small, rocky streams and getting soaked in the bottom of a canoe. The better pair will be good for changing into back in camp but are probably not worth the trouble for daytime campers. Long pants (see next section) are crucial for woodland walking. The American Camping Association has good tips for making the experience enjoyable for first-timers.

They Eat Your Flesh and Suck Your Blood

Insects are going to be a problem almost anywhere. Figure on packing enough repellent to last the entire time and also maybe a stick to share with a friend. Most common in our area are chiggers, ticks, and mosquitoes. Chigger mites are only 1/20 of an inch long, so small that the only way to tell if an area is infested with them is to ask the afflicted where they've been. They're most common in early summer or late spring, in weeds and berry patches(!). Chiggers do not suck blood or burrow into their victims. Their saliva dissolves the skin, making it easier for them to lap up. The hard bump you feel is the feeding tube or stylostome, made up of partially digested skin cells. Click here for more details on these tiny nasties and how to avoid them.

As has much been reported these past few years, mosquitoes can carry West Nile Virus, a potentially fatal condition. Tiny deer ticks can carry Lyme disease which can be extremely debilitating. All in all, the creepy crawlies are plenty of good reason for dousing yourself with repellent before hitting the trail. It's wise also to know what poison ivy and poison oak look like. Not being familiar with them can result in extreme itchiness. And do keep in mind that if you start poking under old logs and underbrush, they are favorite homes for snakes and stinging insects. Did I mention spiders? Many are cute and harmless--perfectly okay for studying in their natural state. But be aware of the Brown Recluse and Black Widow, two of our area's poisonous arachnids. They like dark, abandoned places-- trees, old buildings, etc. They won't come looking for you, but you should be wary when entering their territory.

Going to Blazes

Now a word about sunlight. True, it's good for you in reasonable amounts, and tans look nice and all that, but the blazing sun on a heartbreakingly merciless day of blue sky coupled with a 10-mile hike can make you sick, both immediately and in the long run. Yes, indeed, you should wear a hat, carry water, and use sunscreen. Some sunscreen products are combined with insect repellent so you only have to do one treatment. Short term effects of too much sun can be heat exhaustion and a nasty burn.

If you start to feel dizzy, exhausted, have a headache, rapid pulse, rapid breathing, or muscle cramps, tell your counselor immediately! If not treated, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, also known as sunstroke. Confusion, hot and flushed skin, no sweating, a high body temperature, and passing out are all signs of this potentially fatal condition. One way to cut the chances of getting heat exhaustion and heatstroke is to drink enough water to make sure your body has what it needs to perspire and cool you down naturally. Extreme sunburn (fluid-filled blisters, fever, or extreme pain) should be treated by a physician. Even if you're not prone to heat exhaustion, longterm exposure to the sun can cause different kinds of skin cancers that may only appear years later.

For those coming from air-conditioned homes, roughing it in the woods can be a tough transition. But after a few days with the right precautions, the body will adjust to the steady daytime heat, and the cooler nightime temperatures will bring a welcome relief.

Like blisters and heat exhaustion, a little boredom is hard to avoid at summer camp, and it's better to be ready in advance than suffer needlessly. There may be down time when absolutely nothing is happening, it's sticky hot, and you're supposed to be "resting" anyway. That's the time to bring out some Chinese jacks, a paperback, a deck of cards, or a sketch pad. Most camps frown on anything remotely high-tech, and you don't want to get that Gameboy messed up in all the humidity, right? Encourage campers to not bring any fun stuff that's irreplacable. Accidents happen, especially in close quarters.

Summer Camp Quick List

Parks and Recreation Department Camps
These day camps are open to all, but local residents get a small price break and first chance for sign-up.

Fredericksburg Parks and Recreation

King George County Parks and Recreation

Spotsylvania County Parks and Recreation

Stafford County Parks and Recreation

Westmoreland County Parks and Recreation

Other Local Camps*

Bayberry Riding Camp
9110 Brock Rd.
Spotsylvania, VA 22553
(540) 972-2605

Hazelwild Farm Camp
Harrison Road
Fredericksburg VA
(540) 891-7101

Rappahannock Area YMCA
Has locations in Spotsylvania and southern Stafford

*Please email to recommend additional listings!

Nationwide Resources

National Camp Association: Camp Advisory Service

Peterson's Summer Camps and Opportunities

Special Needs Camps '09