If you plan to send your kids to camp this summer, Laura Whittet of the Bakken Museum has one piece of advice for you: Sign up now. Unlike last year, when camps delayed their starts, cut their offerings or closed their doors entirely, camps are rebounding. In Minnesota, many day, overnight and wilderness camps are gearing up for a full season of operation — albeit with masks, social distancing, pods and other safety measures in place. Some of those safety measures include reducing the number of campers. That means camp rosters are filling fast.

"Registrations are ahead of normal," said Patrick Kindler, executive director of One Heartland, a camp for youths affected by HIV/AIDS, serious illness and homelessness. "We're expecting to hit our limits soon."

Several camps, including those run by Girl Scouts River Valleys, already are booked for the season.

After a year in which kids and teens struggled with disrupted routines, lack of connection, boredom and fewer physical outlets, summer camp is being touted as a way to help them heal rather than just have fun.

"Going to camp has taken on a new importance for kids and their families," said Tracy Nielsen, co-executive director of Leonardo's Basement, a Minneapolis STEM day camp. "Kids are just too happy to be able to work together again — even with masks and distancing."

Breanne Hegg, vice president of programs for Girl Scouts River Valleys, agreed.

"Girls have been craving more connection, more time outside, to have more independence and camp is an opportunity for all of that," she said. "Camp is really needed this year."

Trial by fire

In 2020, only 18% of U.S. overnight camps opened, according to a study by the American Camp Association. North Star Camp for Boys in Hayward, Wis., was one of them.

For owner and director Andy Shlensky, opening was an exercise in fortitude.

"The biggest battle was rethinking everything," he said. "We needed to change the way we do food service, arrivals and departures, even [how to play] Capture the Flag."

Though it was relatively early in the pandemic, Shlensky relied on data from the CDC and advice from medical experts to set up some of the safety measures, which are now considered best practices: asking campers to quarantine and test before arrival, organizing campers into small pods and avoiding large gatherings, from the campfire to the dining hall. The camp also limited registration and held a single seven-week session instead of two four-weekers.

Despite the restrictions, Shlensky called it "an amazing season," in part because there were no COVID-19 outbreaks at the camp. "As many things as we changed," he said, "it was still a fun camp experience."

The YMCA of the North shuttered its overnight camps last year but decided to allow family camps. Although the Y had to reconfigure some camp activities, it came up with clever solutions — such as delivering craft and meal kits to individual families to make together — that the nonprofit organization plans to carry forward.

"We found ways to program activities to turn a problematic situation into a positive one," said Anthony Taylor, senior vice president of equity and outdoors. "This is going to be a successful year."

Safety first

There was just too much uncertainty for One Heartland to open its Willow River overnight camp last year, said Kindler.

But now, with guidelines established by the Minnesota Department of Health and recommendations from the CDC and the American Camp Association, Kindler is confident the camp can operate safely. In addition to masking and distancing, it will reduce capacity to 65% to ensure that campers and staff can stay in their pods.

Other camps around the state have reevaluated everything from the ventilation in buildings and bed spacing to how to identify and respond to suspected cases of COVID-19.

Leonardo's Basement, which is increasing the number of day-camp sessions it held last year, choreographed how kids enter and leave, with staff members meeting campers curbside and escorting them inside to a hand-washing station.

"The rhythm of the day looked different," said Nielsen. "All of the transitions were managed like never before."

North Star Camp for Boys ditched its dining hall, serving food to cabin groups at picnic tables. (In bad weather, the dining hall will serve meals in shifts.) The Girl Scouts are reducing the number of camp sessions to allow for more time to clean and air out cabins. The Y is changing the way campers move around the grounds to avoid crowding.

Outside for good

If possible, camps also are seeking ways to emphasize outdoor activities.

"The one thing people are realizing is that the outdoors may be the only truly safe space," Taylor said.

In addition to safety, Taylor said, being outdoors is being recognized for its ability to help heal.

"This summer, families are seeking the outdoors as a safe space and looking to it as a way to help them care for their kids," he said. "Parents really see this not just for physical well-being but also for mental and emotional well-being because they're in nature."

There's one outdoor-based camp that won't be opening this year. Campers at Laketrails, Base Camp, which operates out of Minnesota's Northwest Angle, would need to cross into Canada to get to the camp.

"We're in a pretty unique situation," said Sue Lemm, director of the wilderness camp. "We can't open until the border does."

The camp also was closed last year, but "so was everybody else," said Lemm. "This year, we're alone, we're struggling."

Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, admits that this is "a fragile year for camps," many of which have been dogged by loss of revenue from being closed or operating at lower capacity and may be facing increased costs for COVID-19 protections and intensive staff training.

The nonprofit association has seen few closings, however, so Rosenberg is hopeful.

"Kids need to be around others in person, face-to-face, mask-to-mask, and kids just haven't had that," he said. "Camp is an opportunity to have a measured independence from their parents, to be nurtured by trained staff, to be physically active in a safe environment. Kids need camps, and camps need kids."

Nielsen of Leonardo's Basement is hopeful, too. She hopes that camps can offer kids the connection and the space for creativity they so badly need.

"Although we're not back to normal," she said, "we're hoping that kids get to play hard and work hard at camp and forget about the things they can't control, like what's normal."