Why Camp Friends Are the Best Friends

closeup shot of friends roasting marshmallows over the bonfire with wooden skewer sticks autumn camping and camp food preparing outdoors, sitting around warm fire
Why Camp Friends Are the Best FriendsYana Iskayeva

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The internet got a wonderful gift this spring when 16-year-old Romy Mars, the daughter of filmmaker Sofia Coppola and rock musician Thomas Mars, broke her parents’ rule against public social media posts and released a TikTok video. In it she announced she would be making a cooking video (pasta with vodka sauce, which never materialized, in part due to Mars’s inability to distinguish among onion, garlic, and shallot). Why the defiance? The teen had nothing left to lose, she explained, since she was already grounded—for attempting to use her parents’ credit card to charter a helicopter to take her to meet a camp friend for dinner.

It’s impossible to imagine any better argument for parental limits on social media than the frenzy that ensued. Despite the fact that the video was almost immediately deleted, it spread like wildfire through the internet, spurring coverage on CNN and in the New York Times and eliciting reactions ranging from amusement to disdain. But for a select group of people who either watched or heard about the clip, there was something else lurking beneath the judgmental chuckles at the folly of a supremely privileged teen. For the campers among us, there was recognition.

“Competition exists at Keewaydin, of course,” the entertainment titan and longtime Disney chief Michael Eisner wrote in his 2005 memoir Camp, which ascribes most of his success to his summers at the aforementioned Vermont retreat for boys,“but nobody fails summer camp, a nice respite from winters of fortune or misfortune at school.” Even if Mars’s helicopter shenanigans didn’t elicit a “been there, done that” level of empathy, any of us who spent summers at overnight camp can relate to a kid’s sudden and strong urge to flee everyday life—with its attendant academic pressures and social hierarchies— for the comfort of people with whom, for a stretch each summer, we fell into easy, sibling-style rhythms.

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vacationers at the pine grove motel seated in a circle, having a sing along photo by eric bardcorbis via getty images
“Nobody fails summer camp, a nice respite from winters of fortune or misfortune at school,” wrote Michael Eisner.Aladdin Color Inc

“I never take girls trips, but I would absolutely share a hotel room with someone I went to camp with,” says Rachel Posner, who spent her childhood summers at Point O’Pines, an all-girls camp in the Adirondacks that many of her old summer pals send their own daughters to today. (Posner has sons; they go to nearby Brant Lake Camp.) Tara Heyderman, who works for Camp Specialist, which advises families on which camps would be the best fit for their children, understands this logic. “Your best friends from camp know you better than anyone else in the world,” she says.

It doesn’t end there. “The term ‘camp friends,’ ” Heyderman goes on,“really refers to any person you were at camp with at the same time, from people roughly eight years older than you to people eight years younger than you. From the moment you realize someone was part of your camp experience, whether you overlapped for one summer or 10, you have an immediate kinship.”

“I don’t get the whole camp friends deal,” one media macher told me when the Romy Mars video was making its rounds,“but I wish I did.” This person admitted that, having never attended sleepaway camp, she has long been jealous of the connections it fosters—connections that, she has noticed, seem to follow people through life and pay social and professional dividends.

1930s three teen girls wearing camp shorts shirts running from tents while holding towels wash basins photo by h armstrong robertsclassicstockgetty images
“I never take girls trips, but I would absolutely share a hotel room with someone I went to camp with,” says Rachel Posner.H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc

It’s what Lindsay Brooke Weiss realized she wanted for her own children. She never went to overnight camp herself, but when the fashion influencer (known on social media as @Cocoincashmere) arrived as a freshman at Cornell in 1999, she quickly became best friends with a girl who had spent summers at a venerable Maine girls camp. “It felt like my friend knew everyone—everywhere we went there was someone she knew from camp, or someone a camp friend had connected her with. It just seemed so special to find familiarity over and over among a sea of strangers, and it was a bond I wanted for my own kids.” Weiss’s daughter is now in her third summer at the same camp that the college best friend attended a generation ago.

“At a lot of the boys camps especially, this network aspect is part of the sales pitch up front,” Heyderman says. “The term they use is brotherhood—when you come here, you are then part of a brotherhood that’s for life.”

“If someone reaches out to me who went to my camp, regardless of their age or whether we really knew each other, I always take their call, make a call on their behalf, help them get to the right doctor, or help their kid find an internship,” says Posner, a former M&A attorney who is now chief growth officer at the advisory firm Kroll. “And in my own career, which is very network-driven, having a crew of professional women that I knew since we were kids sleeping in a bunk together has been very powerful for me.”

a group of young jewish people stand, linked, in a circle, at a jewish summer camp in saratoga, california
“It’s the shared history that keeps us tethered, the decades-old jokes, the arguments over who really made out with whom...”David H. Wells

One camp adviser, who asked to remain anonymous, notes that for some prospective families finding a camp that boasts a particularly influential roster of families is a major criterion. “There are clients who are absolutely looking for what they see as an elite, private school crowd,” she says. “But there are others who are terrified of that. They won’t consider the camps where a significant number of parents are arriving at visiting day via private jet.”

The truly camp-obsessed will tell you that the real benefits of the camp friend phenomenon are intangible anyway.“Sure, the kid with the blond buzzcut who spent all his time lurking in the camp music studio became a record label exec who invited me to be his plus-one at sold-out shows when we reconnected in our early twenties, and the girl who snuck in cigarettes for us to smoke on the other side of the lake is now running a philanthropy and invites me to her gorgeous home to hear geniuses speak,” says an alumnus of a well- known arts camp in the Northeast. “But it’s the shared history that keeps us tethered, the decades-old jokes, the arguments over who really made out with whom, the collective memory of ourselves during a seminal time in our childhoods that make them better than new friends.”

When you really break it down, most camp devotees will tell you that the connections with others are really just an added benefit, a cherry on top of the fundamental crux of the camp experience: the evolution of one- self.“There were all the advertised activities—water-skiing, horseback riding, archery,” Rich Cohen wrote in a moving essay about camp for the Wall Street Journal last summer. “But even better were the things that can never be described: the sense of remoteness and freedom, of dwelling in a land beyond the jurisdiction of helicoptering parents, of being left to settle your own feuds, fight your own fights, solve your own problems. Independence. Becoming an adult.”

Perhaps therein lies another defense of young Romy Mars. After all, what is more adult than booking your own travel?

This story appears in the Summer 2023 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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