10 Things I Learned At Summer Camp


There’s more to summer camp than s’mores and Capture the Flag: C.F. O’Rourke lists the ways camp made him into the man he is today.


I spent 9 summers of my youth under the great white pines of New Hampshire on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. It was a place called Belknap, and it made good boys better, and taught us “boys in the woods” everything we needed to know to become a man. I learned almost every life lesson I have ever needed at camp. Here are the 10 most valuable things I learned in those 9 summers under the pines.

 10) How to build a shelter and a fire.

There are few skills I am prouder of than the ability to build a series of survival shelters and build a fire without a match. I honestly hope to never have to use these skills in my life. I hope when I am out in the woods I am prepared enough to not have to sleep in a lean-to and make my warmth with a bow drill. But, if I had to, I could. There is a sense of pride that comes from that self reliance. To know you can survive (at least for a while) with nothing but your wits.


9) How to shoot a gun.

At age 9, I learned to use a .22 caliber rifle. I learned gun safety, the mechanics of the weapon and I learned to have a respect for the responsibility of holding a firearm. Shooting a gun is never, ever to be taken lightly. I learned that a gun is not a tool to assert power. I learned in those summers that shooting a gun was about honing a skill, patience, silence and focus.

8) How to write a letter.

The most amazing part of summer camp was its simplicity. We did not have phones. We did not have AIM (the coolest form of communication). If we wanted to communicate with our family and friends in the world outside of our paradise, we took pen to paper. I would write letters to Mom and Dad telling them about hiking Mount Washington. I would write Grammy and Pa telling them about the bass I hooked by Conlon Lodge. When I got older I would write to girls from home.

Writing letters is a skill that I use every day of my life in my big boy job. Before she passed away last October, I would always write letters to my grandmother, exchanging articles we read in the paper, or talking about how to make it through the hard parts of life. Every boy should have to put down their phone or their iPad every so often and pick up a pen and paper. Take the time, think about what you want say, and write a letter to someone you love. Those letters will last a lifetime and will mean the world to whoever receives them.

7) Play Fair.

Like most boys, we were always playing games in the summer. We played traditional games like baseball, lacrosse, soccer, basketball. We played card games in the cabin. We played table games after meal time. But the games we loved the best were the games we made up ourselves. We played Bizzouiball, towerball, rock-hockey, donutball,  ruben and stump. Making up your own games requires you to make up rules. Rules like, “No shooting in the crease,”  or “The player on the first board must jump off before making a pass.” And the one rule that always exists in every Belknap game “Play fair. Foul Play is treachery.” Some games were about playing to win, and others were just about playing to play. Either way, we always played fair.

No matter what game you are playing in life, whether it has official rules or just a code of conduct — play fair! It will make the game better for everyone.

6) Always sing loud.

Campfire songs are always a big part of the camping experience. One guitar, and a small few leading the tunes. We would sing stupid kid songs like “The Grand Old Duke of York” and “Father Abraham”. We would sing songs that were 100 years old and written by our boys and unique to our campfire. We would sing our favorite folk tunes like “Country Roads” from John Denver, “Circle Game” from Joni Mitchell and “One Tin Soldier” by the Original Caste. We would sing the best songs of the 90’s that we all loved, like Dave Matthews Band, Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” or a round of “Bouncin’ ‘round the room” from Phish. No matter what we sang, we sang it loud!

In our lives, we often listen to music alone with headphones. The only time we sing out loud is in the car (alone), or the shower when our roommates are not around. Last week, I sat with a few friends on a late night. It started with a little quiet drumming on the counter, but before we knew it, we were singing, and singing loudly. Music is meant to be shared. Dont be afraid to share it.

5) Appreciate the beauty of quiet

Camp was always alive with boys swimming in the lake, running around or playing games. There was always music playing from someones cabin at all times and we lived by sound of a bugle call. Our days were full. Always on the move. Always go, go, go! But every day was full of moments for silence, and reflection. Reflect on the blessings of our lives. Reflect on the day we had and how much we valued every breath in our lungs, because every second under those pines we were alive. Every night, we would lay in our bunks, and at 9:00 PM we would listen as we heard the sound of “Taps” carrying across the fields and the grove chapel. I learned to appreciate the beautiful sound of quiet, a chance for absolute peace with nothing but the sound of 24 of the most beautiful notes ever played on a bugle.

Some evenings would take a short hike with the 9 other boys in our cabin and our Leader to a section of camp known as Outpost Beach. It was a short walk through the woods, but far enough to feel like you were really out in the serene wilderness. We would gather on that beach and light a fire. We would sing and tell stories and talk about what we loved and who we wanted to be. We would watch the sun set. The sky and the lake would light up in the same deep reds and oranges. Once the sun was gone and the stars took over the sky, we fell silent to listen to the sound of the world around us. We would watch the fire and listen to it pop and breathe the smell of the smoke deep into our lungs. We would look up at the stars as we listened to the loon calls echo across the lake. We sat in total silence until we heard those familiar sounds of “Taps.”


To this day, when the world gets out of hand and the craziness of life seems too much, I close my eyes and picture those nights on Outpost beach. We are all so over stimulated. Take a minute, close your eyes, take a hike or sit at the beach. Be at peace with quiet.

4) Don’t hold back your emotions.

Most of the feelings I shared at camp were feelings of pure joy. But, there were times that hurt. When I was 12 or so, a thunderstorm rolled in at night. It was the first summer my brother decided to not come to camp that year and stayed home to get his first job. I got homesick one night and started to cry. The kid in the bunk next to me heard my sniffling between the loud thunderclaps. Rather than ignore it, he sat upright in his bunk, put his feet on the floor and asked me what was wrong. He talked me through all the reasons I loved my family, but also the reasons I loved camp. “There is no reason to be homesick,” he said. “I know you miss your brother, but we are your brothers too.”

In a place full of all boys and young men, you would assume there would be a hyper masculine culture that would shame you for being emotional, scared, or afraid. Not here. For whatever reason, we learned from one another to love and support each other and share our feelings. That lesson alone has made me a better man.

3) Be Kind. Do at least one act of unbargaining service each day

Each day, we were encouraged to do something for the betterment of the camp. It was not a requirement, no one checked in on us to see what we did. But the culture of the place encouraged you to “do at least on act of unbargaining service each day.” Do something good for someone, your community, your world. Don’t do it in hopes for an exchange of favors. Do something important and positive for the sake of knowing that for that one brief moment, you made the world a better, safer, more friendly or cleaner place.

2) Be Helpful. Do your share of the work.

After breakfast, we would have “Camp Duties.” We would be charged with cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the lodges, cleaning the dining hall or stacking wood by the fire pits. We did our camp duties every morning, in part because we had to, but also because if we didn’t, what would happen to the place we love? Who would care for it?

We all live in community and in an overall society. If we do not do our part to clean it or preserve it, who will? We can’t place blame on a failing society if we don’t do our own share of the work to make it better.

1) Be Joyful. Seek the Joy of being alive.

Fill your lungs with air. You are alive. No matter where you are or what you do, seek the joy of being alive.

About C.F. O’Rourke

CF O’Rourke is the co-creator and co-editor of Bald & Bearded : Writings for the Modern Man along with Adam T. Schick.  Originally a New Jersey native, he currently lives in Newport, RI.  He is a graduate of Wittenberg University in Ohio where he studied African History. He spends his days as a non-profit fundraiser and his free time reading and writing about issues like self, masculinity, and identity.  He has a dog named Guinness and a deep love for family and friends.



This article originally appeared on The Bald and Bearded Blog.

Photo credit: Peter Blanchard/flickr

About Bald and Bearded

Bald & Bearded began in April 2014 as a collaboration between Conor O'Rourke and Adam Schick who both wondered what it meant to be a young man in today's world. What started out as an idea for a blog about MANLY things (beards, flannel shirts, red meat) quickly evolved into a space where discussions were had about being a male feminist, how to disconnect from worldly distractions, the harmful types of media directed towards young men today, and even about watching golf with our dads or our new favorite CD. Just as what it means to be a man today is an ever changing discussion, so is our blog. We thrive on challenging ourselves and others to think deeply about issues that are important to us and we are always looking to add more voices to these discussions.


  1. That was cool. Great read.

  2. Some of my best memories from growing up were from my dinner camp. I now follow my old YMCA camp on Facebook and I love how seemingly unchanged it is. It’s all about the simplicity of friendship and nature.

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