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Summer camp for adults? Bring on the s’mores (and the rum)!

Grownups are longing for simpler times, starry nights, and a little reinvention

By Alix Strauss

Photos by Erik Bardin

On a midsummer Friday night, 40 adults between the ages of 45 and 55 line up on a Manhattan sidewalk, each minimally packed for a weekend experience. Some know one another; some are couples. Others come in groups of four or six; others boldly appear solo, hoping to meet like-minded folks.

Everyone is headed to Club Getaway, an all-inclusive, weekend-long sleep-away camp for grown-ups in Kent, Conn. For the next 48 hours, they will sleep on scratchy mattresses in no-frills bunk beds, clamber onto huge inflatables in a lake, play tennis and tug-of-war, all as part of an increasingly sought-after experience: summer camp for adults.

Across the country, adult summer camps take pains to replicate the lost days of youth, right down to the campfires, s’mores, mess hall meals, and classic activities such as tennis, swimming, archery, volleyball, water skiing, and arts and crafts. Club Getaway adds newer ones as well: paddleboard yoga, pole dancing, Pilates, trapeze, zip line, and a popular “pub hike,” a keg-to-keg journey across the property. What remain the same are the feelings and experiences these adult camps are trying to reclaim: that summer-camp alchemy of group bonding and personal reinvention, made all the more exciting, and sometimes more urgent, when the camper isn’t 14, but 52.

To an onlooker, these campers do indeed appear to be having a good time. But it takes a certain type to sign up. If you’re not ready to be silly, get down and dirty, commit to the activities, bond with strangers, and literally be a happy camper, this isn’t for you. But if you’re ready to drink the bug juice, good news — it’s now infused with rum or vodka, and you no longer need to sneak it into your bunk late at night.

Guests at Club Getaway can participate in activities ranging from riding a water-powered hoverboard to trying out the trapeze.

At Club Getaway, on this particular weekend, many campers say they’re taking comfort in the rituals and routines, and hoping to reclaim something they’ve lost. 

“We’re at a point in our chaotic lives where we’re missing out on the simple life. This is a mental break for me to get out negative energy. I can’t believe I’m having so much fun,” says Lucinda Bullock, a 52-year-old school registrar who has spent the weekend zip-lining and trying her hand at archery. “I’m bonding differently by relating to what everyone is going through. We are all experiencing the same thing. That’s the point.”

Club Getaway is just one of many places promoting nostalgia and personal growth via bus rides, bunk beds, and all-but-mandatory group activities. There is Camp Bonfire in Philadelphia, Camp Rahh in Seattle, Camp Halcyon in Wisconsin, and Camp No Counselors in multiple locations throughout the U.S. Some are alcohol-free or electronic-device-free; others, like Camp Camp, cater to a specific clientele, in this case the LGBTQ community. Other camps are for adults who self-identify as nerds or those with highly specialized interests ­— zombies, say. Some, like Club Getaway, last only for a weekend; others offer four days, a week, or even longer summer stays.

“People are looking for an escape from real life. We live in a connected world where everyone works constantly,” says David Schreiber, the self-titled “Chief Adventure Officer” at Club Getaway, which he and his wife purchased in 2012. “Camp is always connected to childhood. It’s my job to give them 48 hours to reconnect with themselves, to have fun and be goofy, and for the masks to come down that they’re wearing when they arrive.”

Founded in 1976, the 300-acre Club Getaway originally catered to kids. Now it offers a schedule of adult, family, and youth camp programs, with 40-plus activities, in its 89 small, bare-bones, rustic cabins. On the Saturday morning after the bus ride, the camp seems surprisingly quiet, but Schreiber isn’t concerned. After arriving and receiving their bunk assignments the night before, the 200-plus campers — who also came from Boston, New Jersey, and neighboring locations in Connecticut — had attended a welcome happy hour, a group dinner in the Mountain House, and karaoke and dancing in the Road House, which lasted until 2 a.m. Now, some people are doing morning activities, he explains; others are reading by the lake. “Some people are nursing hangovers,” Schreiber says. “It was a rowdy night; everyone was drinking and a having a good time.” A color war, a traditional camp field day competition, will be the first group activity to bring everyone together that afternoon.

All of this fun doesn’t come for free, of course. At Club Getaway, prices run from $479 per person for a quad-sleeping cabin to $850 per person for a double bunk with a drink package. If you want to ride the bus to camp, that’s another $69. This group of campers, which signed up for a Gen-X-themed weekend, varies in affluence, ethnicity, education, even coolness factor. Some could pay the fees easily; for some, the cost was a stretch.

Campers are split into four teams for the color war.

Either way, many say they’ve looked forward to returning to the kind of place they felt safe, free, and happy as children.

“I have terrific memories of camp. The friends I made were so important. I was a color war captain, and so was my husband,” says Ellen Judson, a 53-year-old marketer from New Jersey. “It’s like that here. Everyone is friendly. There’s no stress, no judgment.” Judson learned to horseback ride and water ski at summer camp as a kid. Now she yearns to do both again: “They bring me back to a time in my life when I was happy.”

Others say they’re looking to have an iconic experience — and a particular type of human interaction — they never got to try as kids.

“I’ve never been to camp,” says Erin Riddell, 50, who came by herself. “My parents didn’t have the money. But I’m pushing myself socially and physically. It’s easier for me to jump out of a 10-foot-tall tree than it is to meet people.”

“People are able to show up and say, ‘This is who I want to be here.’ You don’t get many chances to be unknown somewhere for a limited time.”

Thus far, Riddell has pole-danced, zip-lined, and even tried the trapeze. “No one talks at wine tastings,” she complains. “I’ve been on dates where they’re on their cell at dinner. You can’t be on your phone and on a zip line at the same time. You’re going to have to interact.”

Penny Harvey, a PhD sociology student at Georgia State University who worked as a camp counselor for seven years, says summer camps serve an important purpose for adolescents and adults — allowing them to escape from their day-to-day personas.

“People are able to show up and say, ‘This is who I want to be here.’ You don’t get many chances to be unknown somewhere for a limited time, and have the opportunity to be at a place where you can reinvent yourself,” says Harvey, whose master’s thesis is entitled, “It’s Camp: Summer Camp Culture, the Renegotiation of Social Norms and Regulation of Gender and Sexuality.”

“Who you try to be that summer doesn’t affect anything in real life, and it will end in five or seven weeks, so it’s this contained social experiment,” Harvey says. “I found people could express who they were without their parents or friends passing judgment.”    

That experience can be a powerful draw for adults — on an intensely compressed timeline.

“Adults want to create those bonds again and recreate a camp family,” Harvey says. They want to feel close connections, forged from experience and annual rituals, “like when everyone cries at the end of camp.”

By 1 p.m., just as Schreiber predicted, all of the campers are seated under a massive canvas tent at wooden picnic tables. Their plastic plates are piled high with an array of food, served buffet-style in an adjoining tented room: pasta, pizza, salad bar, carved meat, and desserts, including an ice cream sundae station. As campers finish lunch, color war team leaders are announced, and the adults come running out waving large colored flags. After a senior camp leader explains the rules, everyone files onto the great lawn and prepares for color war, first with a cheer, then with games: pass the hula hoop, water balloon toss, and other relay race-like activities.

The July heat is unforgiving, making campers’ commitment and passion all the more impressive. There are laughs, confusion, bursting balloons and water exploding upon contact, clapping, yelling, more laughs, and high fives.

The final competition in the color war is a water balloon toss. After every successful catch, the teams take one step back.

Jill Jaclin, a 49-year-old second-timer who came with her husband and two other couples, declares that she’s finally getting an experience she’d yearned for.

“I was never a great overnighter. I went to the wrong camps. But my kids go to camp and love it,” Jaclin says. “I feel like I missed out on having a close connection with people when I was 10 or 11. Going away with people you care about is very bonding.”

Of course, being an older camper has its disadvantages: the increased risk of minor injury; the aftereffects of all of that legal drinking. One camper sprained her ankle late at night and spent most of the weekend on crutches. Another, nursing a hangover after a night of revelry, was attended to by friends armed with Coke and ginger ale. Whatever indignities come with age and decreased alcohol tolerance, though, don’t seem to put a damper on most people’s fun.

Marisa Mahler, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City, has spent the last two summers as co-director of camper care and camp psychologist at Camp Ramah in New York, a summer retreat for kids. With that classic camp experience fresh in her mind, she says, she understands why grown-ups might return to these environments.

“Adults spend 11 hours on some sort of screen or device. They’re craving socialization and an opportunity to play and be silly,” she says. “People need to recharge, rejuvenate, have good self-care.” In daily adult life, she says, “that’s not prioritized because everyone is so stressed and busy. Adult camps help those needs to be met.”

Mahler also highlights the bonus of not having to make plans. “If you’re at camp, it’s all taken care of for you: the cooking, planning, coordinating your evening activities, even where you’re going to sleep. Everything is done for you. That’s part of what you’re paying for,” she says.  

Back at Club Getaway, color war ends, and campers spread out. Some return to their cabins, some continue on the array of activities, and some head out for a slow-paced keg hike. That night the group will dress for the Woodstock-themed happy hour — many donning tie-dyed shirts they made in a morning workshop. Then they will transition to a group dinner, followed by a Roaring Twenties-themed party. “I’m all about creating the camp magic,” says Schreiber. “My team will spend hours and hours setting up this party for the ‘wow’ reveal.”

At midnight, campers roast traditional s’mores in a large fire by the lake. “No one is on their phone,” Schreiber points out. “We want everyone to be engaged and living in the moment and developing connections through those shared experiences. The mask is off now, and by Sunday evening people don’t want to leave.”

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Alix Strauss is a writer based in New York.


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