Summer camp can be a time of lasting memories. Campfires, swimming, and hanging out with friends can make an experience for children worth remembering for a lifetime. While it’s tough to recapture that magic, there are plenty of movies about camp to relive some nostalgia. From joyful comedies to nightmare slashers, here are the best summer camp movies to treasure just as much as those campfire stories. There are options for kids and adults because summer can also be a time for grown-ups to be young at heart.
Wes Anderson directed this charming coming-of-age tale revolving around a boy scout troop (The Khaki Scouts) attending a camp on a remote island. Khaki Scout Sam and resident Suzy find themselves as outsiders who aim to venture independently. While they set off to live a life away from their parents and peers, the whole island scrambles to find them while a storm looms closer. Similar to Anderson’s other movies, there’s dry humor and wondrous beauty in how he shoots his films with color backdrops and plenty of stunning wide shots. Moonrise Kingdom is also worth watching for his usual all-star troupe of actors (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban) among the stellar young cast.
As one of the only films about a fat camp, Heavyweights throws a rebellious dose of comedy on top of what feels like the most demeaning summer camp. A group of overweight kids is sent to a camp to lose weight. When they learn that the lead counselor Tony Perkins (Ben Stiller) is abusing the campers with harsh and hypocritical diets, the campers soon strike back and take over the camp for themselves. Directed by Steven Brill (The Mighty Ducks) and a script co-written surprisingly by Judd Apatow, this cult-classic movie feels just as inspiring today as it did in the 1990s. It’s fun to compare Ben Stiller to a similar character he played in Dodgeball.
As the sequel to The Addams Family movie, Addams Family Values finds more fun things for the absurd family to do. The siblings Wednesday and Pugsly are sent off to a overnight camp against their will by a vindictive nanny. While at the camp, they experience the horrors of the wealthy campers and counselors that look down on the misfits. Fed up with the artificial happiness forced down their throats, Wednesday takes charge by staging the most chaotic Thanksgiving play ever. Somewhere between horror and comedy, Addams Family Values portrays an absurd summer camp experience as delightful as the other stories of Gomez and Morticia having a baby and Fester getting married.
4. SpaceCamp (1986)
Not all camps have to end up in the woods, some of them end up in space. That’s exactly what happened when a summer camp accidentally sent its four teenage campers into space. To get back to Earth, they’ll have to go through the ultimate team-building exercise by figuring out how to pilot the spacecraft they’ve boarded. Although poorly timed for being released soon after the tragedy of the exploding Challenger shuttle, the film has since gone on to have an affectionate cult following for the exciting adventure, special effects, and sentient robot.
When it comes to worst-case scenarios for summer camps, none are worse than that of Camp Crystal Lake on Friday the 13th. The camp’s lake was where the boy Jason Vorhees passed due to the carelessness of the camp counselors. Years later, the camp becomes dangerous as night leads to mysterious accidents. As the first entry in the long-running horror series, Friday the 13th holds up for its depiction of a typical camp experience that quickly turns into a slasher with some of the most memorable moments in the series. Director Sean S. Cunningham loaded this horror with some haunting imagery. You’ll never look at the lakes the same way again.
Camp Takota has an interesting take on the camp movie genre since it focuses on the issues with the adult counselors rather than the young campers.
A struggling writer named Elise’s personal and professional life has fallen apart, so she decides to become a counselor at the summer camp she attended as a child. Once there, things don’t go very smoothly as she continues to face romantic problems, and the camp itself faces a complete change in direction if Elise and the other counselors can’t rally together to save it.
Camp Takota has more of a dramatic bent than the other camp movies on this list, so if you want a a movie that speaks to you as an adult, it might be worth a watch.
The epitome of the summer camp movie, Meatballs, may not have any surprises for the modern viewer, but it has to be given credit for its influence on the movies that came after it.
Bill Murray plays a camp counselor who befriends a young counselor-in-training and guides the other trainees in competition against a wealthier rival camp. The usual camp pranks, romances, and rivalries occur, but Bill Murray’s typically zany performance keeps things entertaining.
Another entry for the younger crowd, but the timelessness of the Peanuts characters make it enjoyable for the whole family. Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, has the Peanuts gang heading to camp to win a raft race against a bunch of bullies.
There are some of the usual trappings with the rival campers being a big one, but it’s more of a Charlie Brown adventure than a camp one. Still, he and his friends learn important lessons about self-esteem and standing up for themselves.
If Friday the 13th has you pining for more horror films set at summer camp, one of the more notable films is Sleepaway Camp. Camp Arawak becomes a horror campground when mysterious things start to occur along the bunk beds and shower stalls. As the stabbings increase, the mystery grows deeper. Like Friday the 13th, the film went onto a long series with six entries. The first film remains iconic for the wickedness, mystery, and one of the most controversial endings of any slasher films.
10. Party Camp (1987)
A romance blooms at Camp Chipmunk when camp counselor Jerry Riviera finds himself falling for the lovely Heather Morris. While he tries to win her heart, he’ll also have to deal with many misfit campers. Given that Jerry loves to party, he finds a way for the campers to come out of their shells and rebel against authority by transforming the camp into an exciting party that goes against the schedule of events. If you’re in the mood for wild 1980s comedies at camp, this is the perfect throwback to that era.
11. Summer Camp Nightmare (1986)
Based on the novel The Butterfly Revolution by William Butler, the movie is a thriller where the most dangerous element isn’t some slasher in the woods but the campers in their bunks. An all-boys camp finds itself infatuated with a nearby girls' camp but also must contend with a camp director who is far too strict. This leads to a mutiny where the campers take over and forge their summer of leadership and rebellion. Despite what the title may imply, this is not a horror summer camp movie but more of a thrilling war picture where youth conquers over authoritarians.
In an interesting twist, Camp Nowhere is about a group of kids who don’t want to go to their typical dull summer camps. Instead, they convince their parents to send them all to the same one, which just so happens to be one that they made up themselves. They use the money their parents paid for the camp to buy supplies and blackmail a drama teacher (played by the ever-lovable Christopher Lloyd) into helping. As you would expect, chaos occurs, and the kids learn life lessons while having wild, improbable fun. It’s a fun movie if a little on the silly side.
13. Camp (2003)
This movie focuses more on musical performances than traditional activities. However, Camp still has a theme of misfits learning to be themselves. Taking place at a theater camp, the movie follows the lives of several young talents, all dealing with their own issues and self-esteem. Guiding them is a composer who’s depressed by the state of his own career. It’s a little sticky-sweet sometimes, but the performances carry Camp to a higher level. It’s a bit of a “Who’s Who” of future stars since the cast includes a pre-Oscar nomination Anna Kendrick, multiple Tony nominee Robin de Jesus, and Sasha Allen of season four of The Voice.
As one of the most classic and constantly-rented movies from the video store, Ernest Goes to Camp takes Jim Varney’s iconic dope of a character and places him as a janitor at Kamp Kikakee. Despite the camp being one for juvenile delinquents, Ernest keeps up his festive spirits among the many misfits who constantly play pranks on him. He’ll need that energy to save the camp from developers who want to knock it down. The film is a slapstick classic for Varney’s willingness to get a laugh with everything from his falling off ladders to elaborate barbeque contraptions.
Lindsay Lohan might have won her way into America’s heart with the 1998 version of The Parent Trap, but the role of twins separated at birth and reunited at summer camp was first brought to life by Hayley Mills in 1961.
Only about half of the movie takes place at camp, but those segments are some of the most memorable. It’s not only when the identical twin sisters develop their charming bond, but it’s when the film can put its visual effects on display.
It was nominated for an Academy Award for film editing due to its efforts to make Haley Mills appear to be two different people. It may be a little dated for young audiences today, but it’s still got a lot of charm.
The Rainbow Tribe falls somewhere in between being a movie strictly for kids and one for adults. There’s a misfit group of campers that get up to a lot of slapstick mischief. But there’s also themes revolving around adult issues. The kids try to help their counselor, while the counselor tries to guide them. The messages may be a little heavy-handed and sentimental, even for a summer camp movie, but The Rainbow Tribe delivers on the genre’s promise of camp activities in the great outdoors and many pranks.
The most recent movie on this list skews more toward younger audiences, which means its heartfelt tone might be a little too sentimental for some. It’s a pretty classic camp movie in which a young boy and his brother try to make friends at camp while navigating bullies and potential love interests.
If you’re looking for something to show kids struggling with self-esteem that has given them a positive outlook, Camp Cool Kids fits the bill.
On the slightly more adult side of things although not much more mature, we have Daddy Day Camp. Instead of focusing on kids at camp, the summer shenanigans of this movie revolve around the two dads who try to build and run a camp with no knowledge of how to do so.
It’s a mix of screwball, slobs-vs-snobs, and some gross-out humor. While only having a 1% on Rotten Tomatoes, it did make back its budget about three times over so there’s an audience for it somewhere out there.