The Golf Cart

By Chris Thurber

Sift through old camp photos or leaf through camp history books and you’ll see all kinds of iconic images: swimmers in full-body bathing suits, campers without lifejackets paddling wooden canoes, staff members wearing North American Indian headdresses, rugged post-and-beam lodges, and rock-ringed campfire circles. The images portray camp tradition and charm at their old-school best.

Fast forward to images you might see this summer, and you’ll notice more comfortable bathing suits, lifejackets on every boater, worn vestiges of Indian tradition, and the same sturdy lodges and campfire circles that were built in the 1920s and ‘30s. You’re also likely to notice one or more golf carts. What’s that?  Yes, golf carts. Hmm. Since when did directors of day- and resident camps play so much golf?

And there, with one sarcastic question, I may have just alienated three-quarters of my clients … indeed three-quarters of all Camp Business readers and potential clients. Yikes! That frantic clicking sound you hear is me, trying to hit the backspace key faster than … wait a minute. This article has already gone to press? OK, well then, let me at least provide some fair and balanced treatment of the whole golf cart issue.

What’s Not To Like
First, let me play the easiest card for you. It’s the card you might not admit you’re holding, but here we go: Golf carts are truckloads of fun. C’mon. Who wouldn’t want to bomb around on a sprightly set of weenie wheels? (I know. They even make ones that look like futuristic bugs with headlight eyes.) Everyone has fun in these things. Need proof? Go to any amusement park, and what will you see? People paying to ride go-carts and bumper cars. Make no mistake: Since the days of soap-box derbies, people have delighted in riding around in putt-putt mobiles. But hey, I have no beef with fun. It’s what camp is all about. Golf Cart Aficionados: one, Chris the Curmudgeon: zero.

All right, let’s get serious.  (Not really. What fun would that be?) How many camp directors could, with a straight face, honestly speak the following sentence to their entire staff and clientele: “To be the best camp director I can be, I must ride a golf cart around camp each day.” Right. I hear the rejoinder echoing across the soccer field already: “I don’t need a golf cart to be my best, but it helps.” Fair enough, but it begs the question: How does it help?

On a continent dealing with an obesity crisis, where more and more children develop diabetes every day, what example should camp directors be setting in an industry purportedly committed to children, nature, and physical activity? Oh, and did I mention being green? The image of the camp director or senior staff member riding a golf cart around camp is akin to the dentist sucking on a lollipop while cleaning your teeth.

In The Name Of Safety
And now I hear the simultaneous creak of thousands of chairs, as directors and senior staff who once thought they shared all my views lean back and prepare to play their trump card: “Chris, we need the golf cart for safety.” Womp! There it is. The “S” word: SAFETY. Who among us would dare argue with safety concerns? Me.

I’ve had a few near-death experiences in my life, but none as frequent or vivid as riding with camp directors on golf carts during my early summer tours to provide staff-training workshops. Speed hath no limits for a camp director in a golf cart. “No, no,” claim the cart junkies. “We never claimed the golf carts themselves were safe, (no seatbelts, poor traction, flimsy roll bars), but being able to get quickly from one end of camp to the other increases safety. In case there’s a problem, we can be there right away.” Here I concede that most golf carts go faster than most camp directors can run, but unsafe driving of a marginally safe vehicle may not justify all that speed. And if all your staff members are trained in first-aid and CPR, I’m not convinced that a camp director needs to be on ambulance duty.

The truth is, if golf carts were used only to get senior staff to the site of an accident, I might not object to their use. But there are so many areas in so many camps that aren’t accessible by golf cart that it’s a moot point.  A well-trained staff with a few walkie-talkies can deftly handle almost any camp emergency.

My real objection to golf carts, though, is to their routine use, as an alternative to walking. What then, is the value of walking? Well, now I can wax philosophical and practical at the same time.

If you look closely at some of those old camp photos, you’ll notice … yes, there it is … camp directors and senior staff mingling among the campers and front-line staff. They’re observing, talking, supervising, and laughing among their clients and employees. They’re part of camp life. And that’s harder to do on a golf cart than on your feet.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the Strategy Director at Camp Belknap. He is a psychologist, author, and professional educator who co-authored The Summer Camp Handbook and co-founded Reach him via his website,