Most kids cherish their days at summer camp. ¶ Roasting marshmallows over a bonfire, taking the stern of a canoe for the first time, singing round after round of a silly song you'll never forget with your newfound BFFs — it's the stuff of fond and lasting memories. ¶ But to get those memories, you have to go to camp — and that can be a little scary for first-timers. ¶ Kids who have never been to camp worry about how they'll make friends. What'll they do if they get lonely? And what if everybody finds out that they're afraid of the water? Or the mosquitoes, let alone the bears? ¶ And that only scratches the surface of the fears newbies might have. ¶ Luckily, we have the answers to those questions and more. We asked the experts — campers, camp counselors and camp counselors who were once campers. Here are their dos and don'ts for a successful summer camp experience:
Don't make camp the first time for everything.
Newbies will rack up a lot of firsts — first tug-of-war battle, first early morning swim, first time on horseback. But camp doesn't need to be the first night you spend away from home, said Steve Purdum, director of Camp Mishawaka and a former camper at the camp in Grand Rapids, Minn.
To get rid of the fear factor, he suggests that would-be campers try some practice sleepovers. Overnights with your grandparents, aunts and uncles or family friends can ease the anxiety, Purdum said. Start now, and by the time summer rolls around, you'll be ready.
Don't worry about being homesick.
Homesickness isn't a surprise, it's a given, said Eric Dregni, longtime camper, dean of the Italian Concordia Language Village, Lago del Bosco and author of "You're Sending Me Where? Dispatches From Summer Camp."
Most campers, especially younger campers, experience it.
What is surprising is how quickly they get over it.
"Kids arrive at first and they're excited, but then they realize, 'Wait, what am I actually doing here?' " Dregni said. But almost before they realize it, they'll start making friends and stop trying to plot their escape.
Do accept challenges. They're worth it.
Dylan Jackson, an 18-year-old Minnetonka native, has been going to Camp Voyageur in Ely, Minn., for six years, working his way from camper to counselor-in-training. His best piece of advice to campers? Be open to challenges.
"When you're out camping, there are going to be difficult times," he said, "but as challenging as they are, they're just as rewarding."
That includes getting stuck in the mud with a canoe on your shoulders. (It happened to Jackson, who not only got himself out of that scrape, but learned from it — and learned to laugh about it.)
Do go solo, if you can.
Heading to camp with a friend might seem like a good idea. And it can make the first day easier. But Dregni said that you challenge yourself, learn more about yourself and others and even have more fun when you go it alone.
"You'll meet new people and discover more about yourself," he said. "You can get a whole new personality."
Do get to know the adults.
We get it. You go to camp to hang out with other kids. But getting to know the counselors and staff can help first-timers get over that "first day of school" feeling, Purdum said. Of course, camp counselors and staff are trained to make those connections. But you'll feel better if you reach out to them, as well.
You don't have to worry about making connections with other kids. That'll happen.
Do bring sunscreen. Don't worry about much else.
Lots of first-time campers (and their parents) agonize over packing. What if I forget my favorite jacket? My neon sneakers? My Marvel Comics T-shirt?
When he was a camp-goer, Dregni discovered that he didn't need much — besides sunscreen.
Purdum agrees. In fact, he said, taking a keep-it-simple approach to packing can even be fun. "Kids are amazed at what they can get by without," he said.
Do take a timeout when you need one.
Being in close quarters — sometimes really close quarters — with kids you don't know can be stressful. How do you get along, even when the going gets a little tough?
Jackson suggests taking a timeout when you're irritated. And know, too, that disagreements happen, but learning how to get over them helps you form deeper friendships.
Do leave your electronics at home.
Most camps don't allow devices such as phones or laptops. That's just fine with Purdum — and the kids who have attended Camp Mishawaka.
Camp is about human interaction, not texting, he said.
"Kids don't have to worry about their social media accounts when they're at camp," Purdum said. "They develop strong human connections."
Kelsy Ketchum is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.