The Sun-Smart Camp

When you send your child off to camp, you want to make sure that he or she is well taken care of and protected — and that means protected from the sun, too. Find out what to look for and what to ask when choosing a sun-safe camp.

Sun Safe CampToday, when children head to summer camp, there's more to worry about than horseback-riding accidents, bee stings, and capsized canoes. We know enough now to worry equally about the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Over 90 percent of all skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun.

Fortunately, there's much that parents can do to keep sun damage from spoiling an otherwise fantastic summer.

Going with a Sun-Smart Camp

When you ask camp directors about safety precautions, don't forget sun safety. Find out what systems are in place to protect children from overexposure and sunburn. For example:

  • Are counselors trained in sun safety? UV protection should be a regular part of training. "We impress on counselors that they basically have a parental role in making sure campers are protected," says Michael Humes, director of a particularly sun-safe camp called Regis-Applejack in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.
  • When are outdoor activities scheduled? Most should be scheduled for early morning or late afternoon. UV is most intense from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and those hours should generally be spent in shaded areas or inside.
  • Are campers urged to wear protective clothing? Historically, campers wore only a T-shirt, shorts, and perhaps a baseball cap. We now know that's not enough. "We ask campers and staff to wear broad-brimmed hats, which protect more of the face than baseball caps do," says Humes. The Skin Cancer Foundation also advises wearing a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and UV-protective sunglasses. And wearing a T-shirt when swimming is a smart idea.
  • Are campers directed to apply sunscreen before going outside? A broad-spectrum SPF 15+ sunscreen needs to be used regularly. For extended outdoor activity, or if your child will be swimming, use a water-resistant or very water-resistant broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30+. Campers and staff should be instructed to bring it from home, apply it 30 minutes before outdoor activities, and reapply an ounce (two tablespoons) every two hours and right after swimming or sweating heavily. The camp also should have a supply.
  • What shade is available? Since even conscientious camps have some activities outdoors between 10 and 4, shade should be easily accessible. At Camp Regis-Applejack, campers' cabins lie among tall pine trees, and the athletic fields, beach, and tennis court are all tree-lined.

What Else You Can Do

Rather than leaving all responsibility to the camp, parents should stay involved in their children's sun protection, even from afar. Some suggestions:

  • Keep communicating. If your child comes home from day camp burned or reddish, alert the camp. If children are at sleepaway camp, send them letters with gentle reminders about sun safety. A drawing often works for young kids. Show the sun's beams coming down on a child, and use the caption, 'I'm glad I have my sunscreen on.'
  • See for yourself. On visitors' days, check out the camp's layout and routines, and judge how well sun safety is being practiced. Discuss your reactions with the director and counselors.
  • Make recommendations. Suggest places where trees, deck umbrellas, tents, or gazebos could be added for extra shade. Point out activities that could be relocated to shaded areas or held when the sun is less intense. Ask the camp to post signs about the dangers of UV overexposure.

Camps are much more enlightened today about the importance of UV protection, so directors shouldn't consider it intrusive if you express your concerns or offer advice. They may even be grateful to you for helping them better carry out the camp's stated sun-safety practices. Ultimately, the camp's interest should be the same as yours — the children's well-being.