Going Green at Camp

Danny Sudman
March 2020
Solar panel installation

What if every camp in America united behind a new model for sustainability to lead a national movement for pro-environmental change?

“Going Green” is a vague and intimidating term. We all know we need to do more to live sustainably, but how? Thousands of sustainability solutions could benefit your camp. But where should you start? How should you prioritize? How much time will it take? How much will it cost?

The answers to these questions are challenging, because they can vary greatly based on your motivation for pursuing sustainability. Before breaking these challenges down into manageable pieces, let’s look at some of the common motivators for going green.

Saving Money

From no-cost to large-scale green practices, minimizing the excessive use of food, water, and energy can result in savings that benefit your bottom line.

That’s not to say it won’t cost you upfront in time and/or money to realize those savings. But even the simple act of getting your campers to take shorter showers or turn the lights off when they leave a room can add up. It’s also possible to get a substantial return on investment (ROI) from large-scale projects such as installing solar panels. Payback periods on these projects depend on multiple factors such as federal, state, local, and utility incentives; average electricity costs; and the amount of sun your panels get over time.

Modeling Green Behavior Change

The camp community is doing great work to help build 21st-century learning skills like creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. The skills we learn at camp are crucial to address the huge environmental challenges facing our planet. By modeling sustainability at your camp, your campers and staff will develop the confidence and innovative approaches to take on environmental challenges when they return home. The camp community is well positioned to inspire green behavior change as one of the outcomes of attending camp.

Nurturing Healthy Campers and Staff

It’s no coincidence that what’s good for the earth is good for your body. Using less toxic cleaning products reduces toxins in the environment and in our bodies. Eating organic foods results in better farming practices and less preservatives in our bodies. Walking or biking reduces carbon emissions while getting us moving and keeping us fit. These are just a few examples of how going green can result in healthier campers and staff.

Reducing Your Environmental Impact

Humans impact the physical environment in many ways: pollution, overpopulation, burning fossil fuels, and deforestation. Changes like these have triggered climate change, soil erosion, poor air quality, and undrinkable water. Implementing green policies and practical solutions can help offset your environmental impact at your camp and inspire campers and staff to reduce their environmental impact when they return home.

Green Branding

Your impact on the world matters to both your staff and the camper families sending their kids to your programs. People want now more than ever before to better understand what steps you are taking to practice good stewardship of our planet. Going green will allow you to walk the walk and talk the talk to help establish your camp as one that cares about the planet and teaches campers to be better stewards of the environment.

I’ve found that one or more of these benefits resonate with every camp professional I have spoken with along my path to help the camp community lead in becoming a model for sustainability. Maybe you have a love for the natural environment and want to protect it, or maybe your board members want to see your camp go green. Whatever your motivation, greening your camp doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process when you are pragmatic and intentional about leveraging the potential benefits.

As a former camp director, I’m aware of all the effort it takes to run a safe, fun, and intentional camp program, which doesn’t always leave time to make sustainability a priority. To realize the benefits of sustainability and shift the priority, you must clearly understand the resources, challenges, and opportunities of your unique camp. By defining and organizing these factors, you can be intentional about building a framework of sustainability that makes sense for your organization.

Consider for a moment that you’re using LEGOs to represent the building blocks for a model of sustainability at your camp.

Dump all your sustainability resources, challenges, and opportunities on the table. How will you organize them? What are the goals, objectives, and outcomes of what you are building? Who will help you plan, construct, and manage your model? How will this model benefit your campers and staff?

Sustainability is not always easy to define or understand, because it can mean and look differently to everyone. If sustainability were easy, we would all be doing it. But as my camp director would often tell our staff, “We do hard things at camp.”

Modeling sustainability at your camp will take some work, but the benefits of the examples you set for your campers and staff are well worth it. To cut out as many hurdles as possible, following are five steps any camp can take to begin building their model of sustainability.

Step 1: Create a Green Team

To accomplish complex tasks, we need a good team. As a team-building facilitator, I often use traditional team-building activities to inspire teams to understand the impact they can have when it comes to leading sustainable change at their camps.

Planning and collaboration are key when pursuing the benefits of sustainability at your camp. Green efforts are often led by a well-intentioned staff member who is passionate about sustainability and takes the reins to implement a green action. Great, but this approach happens in isolation from the organization’s mission and goals, which can hinder the initiative’s long-term impact and success.

In forming a green team, you bring together key decision makers to start (or continue) the conversation about what sustainability means and can look like at your camp. It’s not sustainable to sink your time and money into actions that do not fit within your mission or benefit your campers and staff. Use your time wisely to collaborate with your team to plan and implement intentional and impactful actions.

Give it a try. Put together a list of program staff, administrative staff, support staff, board members, and other key stakeholders at your camp to invite into the conversation. Send out an email to schedule a meeting and use the following questions to guide a conversation about sustainability at your camp.

  • What does sustainability mean to you?
  • What are we already doing at camp that you would consider “sustainable”?
  • How does sustainability fit into the mission of our organization?
  • In what ways will modeling sustainability benefit our camp, campers, camper families, etc.?
  • What are the “low-hanging fruits,” the green actions we can implement with limited time, money, and other resources?
  • What individuals or organizations could we bring in to support our green efforts?
  • How can we include campers in leading green actions at camp and when they return home?

Step 2: Green Camps Conservation Policy

Once you have assembled a green team and have defined what sustainability means to your organization, the next step is to create conservation policies. Don’t let the term “policy” be a deterrent. These policies will help set expectations for the role campers and staff can play in supporting a culture of sustainability at your camp.

At the end of the day, your goal is to inspire green behavior change because that is what creates a culture to support and build upon your green efforts at camp and when campers return home. You can install LED light bulbs, start a compost system, and put aerators in faucets, but that’s only half the battle. If campers and staff don’t turn off the lights, separate their food waste, or turn off the water when they brush their teeth, you have missed the mark.

Start with a few simple policies and a statement that describes your organization’s commitment to sustainability. Here’s an example:

{Camp Name}’s Conservation Policies:

  • Turn off the lights if you’re the last one out.
  • Turn off the water when you brush your teeth.
  • Take what you can eat and eat what you take.

{Camp Name}’s Commitment to Sustainability:

{Camp Name} is committed to the conservation of energy, water, and resources we use in the operation of our facility and program. We have assembled a green team with the objective of creating a framework for sustainable development and a culture that promotes our conservation efforts. To inspire green behavior change at {Camp Name}, we will educate our campers and staff about our conservation policies and the roles they will play in supporting our sustainability efforts.

Step 3: Green Audit

Audit surveys can provide great insight into the green actions you are already practicing and opportunities to improve your efforts. As you collect data from around camp and answer questions about your sustainability actions, you can learn a lot about the areas that would most benefit from implementing green actions. These are the “low-hanging fruits” of sustainability.

Many camp professionals are wary of pursuing sustainability due to the financial burden they believe is associated with such a task. Yes, some actions do require an upfront investment of money and/or time, and some will not ever result in savings. However, with a little research and some simple calculators, you can estimate potential savings and other impacts of taking green actions.

For example, use the following formula to calculate the energy cost of a light bulb:

(Power in watts/1000) × hours operating × cost per kWh = Total energy cost
For this example, we’ll use a 100-watt light bulb that is operated 2,920 hours a year (8 hours a day), with the utility cost of electricity at .12 per kWh (average cost in US).

The total cost to operate this light bulb for a year is: (100/1000) x 2,920 x .12 = $35.04.

How many light bulbs do you have at your camp facility? What are their wattages? How can you educate your campers and staff to turn off lights when they leave a room? How much would your cost go down if you installed motion sensors?

Asking questions like these is one of the many aspects of a green audit that will help you begin to realize the savings opportunities and the highest-impact areas of sustainability to pursue at your camp.

The best way to estimate your potential savings is to set baselines of your current energy and water consumption. This will help you set realistic goals and expectations for the outcomes of taking green actions. Anyone can say, “We want to save water this summer.” But saying, “We want to reduce our water consumption by 5 percent this summer” will quantify the reduction in water you need to achieve to meet your goals and measure your success.

Step 4: Implement Green Actions

At this point you’ve done a lot of homework to discover which green actions are best suited for the time, money, staff, research, and other factors you’re willing to invest in sustainability. So, choose one and give it a try. I strongly recommend creating several proposals for the actions your green team has selected. This will give you something tangible to discuss with your green team and other decision makers in the organization. It will also encourage your green team to answer the hard questions that will inevitably come up when you present your proposal. How much will this cost? Who will oversee maintaining it? How will your campers and staff benefit?

Step 5: Share

Jameson Ranch Camp’s wood fire stone oven heats up water to clean dishes while cooking a delicious meal. The Eco-Center at Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center features one of the largest straw bale walled structures in the US. The composting program at Catalina Island Camps diverts 20,000 pounds of food waste from the landfill each year and engages campers through every step of the process.

Consider the value of sharing the experiences of implementing green actions to demonstrate what sustainability means, looks like, and the role it can play in the camp community.

We know that carbon levels are at an all-time high, and any chance we have for recovery is only through collective action. The camp community is well positioned to adopt sustainability across its built environment, in its operations, and in its educational and recreational activities with campers young and old.

Together we can lead a national movement to empower individuals to implement green practices that offer high environmental, social, and economic value.


Danny Sudman is the founder and executive director of Green Camps. Growing up, Danny spent 16 summers at YMCA Camp Hanes in North Carolina, first as a camper and later as a camp counselor. After receiving his BA in Sociology from North Carolina State University, he went on to join the leadership team at Catalina Island Camps, where he managed the challenge course program and served as an environmental educator. While on the island, he completed the Catalina Environmental Leadership Program, an initiative of Jean Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. Danny founded Green Camps in 2014, believing 100 percent in the extraordinary ability of camp to inspire the next generation of eco-leaders. Danny is an active member of the American Camp Association and the Association of Environmental and Outdoor Educators. His service to the camp community was recognized in 2011 with the Rising Star Award and in 2014 with the Paul Somers Golden Acorn.

Photo courtesy of Danny Sudman.