PITTSFIELD

By the end of this month, a true ritual in this area will begin once again -- summer camp.

Organized summer camp has deep roots in New England. It dates back to 1861, according to summer campandhandbook.com, and it's also a big business. According to the American Camp Association, summer camping has a direct economic impact of $3.2 billion in the Northeast, and provides a direct spending impact of $417,304 in Massachusetts, where there are 864 camps.

Numbers specific to the Berkshires were unavailable but the county has at least 25 camps that are accredited by the ACA, and at least an equal number that are not, according to Bette Bussel, the executive director of ACA New England.

So why do we bring this up?

Summer camp may be a big business, but for those who want to send their children to one, camps are also affordable if you know where to look. Here are some facts to consider:

Although the average camp costs $500 per week, according to the ACA, there are a wide range of prices, and a wide range of choices. In New England, day camps can average at least $750 a week, but Bussel said in the Berkshires the prices are mostly in the $225 to $500 a week range.

There are also a whole series of camps run by organizations like 4-H, the YMCA, and the Girl Scouts, that are on the less expensive side. According to the ACA, the experience at those camps can be equal to the more expensive options because those organizations have been operating camps for many years.

Looking for a bargain?

Camps run by nonprofits generally cost between $700 to $1,000 per week. That's a substantial savings over the $1,400 to $1,500 a week range that privately operated camps normally average, according to Bussel.

In the Berkshires, prices for overnight camps generally range between $1,000 and $1,500 per week, according to Bussel. There's even one camp with no fee -- the Madden Open Heart Camp in Great Barrington, which is for youngsters with heart ailments.

So how do you choose the right camp?

"The real difference is in who runs them," Bussel said. "The real key thing in choosing a camp, and choosing the right camp, is finding the one that's right for the child and the family.

"It really depends on your child," she said. "Some have more flexibility in program choice. Some are more
athletic."

When is the best time to look for a camp?

"Start as early as you can," Bussel said. "We suggest that parents who are considering next summer to go to camp now. It's really a good time to go because you can actually tour the camp and see what the feel is."

Most camps open for the summer by the end of this month, but if you think it's too late to send your child to camp this year think again.

"It's not too late," Bussel said. "There's certainly some camps that are full, but others are not totally full, and there are availabilities during the summer. It's never to late to apply."

If your summer schedule is flexible, there's a chance to realize even more savings. Some weeks at camp are less expensive than others, and camps often offer discounts for certain weeks, particularly those at the beginning and the end of the summer.

Camps also offer financial aid, known as "camperships". But those funds become harder to obtain the closer it gets to the opening of camp season.

"Almost every camp, even the independents, offers some form of financial assistance," Bussel said. "But it's harder to find now than it is in December."

The Internal Revenue Service can also help. According to the ACA, you may qualify for a tax break if you send a child age 12 and under to day camp, because it is considered a qualified expense for the child and a dependent care tax credit. Depending on your income, parents can claim up to $3,000 in unremibursed expenses for a child per year. For additional information, visit www.irs.gov/taxtopics/ tc602.html.

Happy camping.