Illustration by Marjainez

What are your summer vacation plans? Are you jetting off to some exotic beach resort with your family or friends? If so, I will be insanely jealous when I see the 467 pictures you took while there. But if not, don’t worry, I’ve become a bit of an expert at creating my own paradise on the cheap, and I also hit up my fellow Rookie staffers for tales of their own near-arrests adventures to provide you with a list of activities that will keep you so entertained that you’ll forget that you’ve been wanting to go to Hawaii ever since you were 10 and your aunt brought you back those amazing parrot earrings.

The Essentials

  • Start by setting the mood with music. The early days of summer are great for making playlists and mix CDs. You can put together a Pandora station of tropical island music—I suggest Martin Denny and Harry Belafonte. I’m having a classic-rock summer, so mine would include “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC and “Crazy on You” by Heart. Figure out a theme: every vacation needs songs to remember it by, and this will be the soundtrack to your summer 2012.
  • Nothing says paradise like icy treats. Last year I got this for my birthday. It makes slushees and snow cones and is pretty much the best thing ever. But if you have a blender, you can make smoothies, and there are lots of books like this one, so try a new concoction every single day if you want to.
  • Hit the thrift store to round out your summer wardrobe. Or, if you’re looking for a project, deconstruct some T-shirts that you already own.

Turn your home into a private resort.

1. Sometimes you don’t want to leave the comfort of your own home. For those of you who are lucky enough to have a backyard or a friend with one: it’s time to create a backyard resort. You can totally do this by yourself as long as you have a lounge chair and a baby pool, but it’s more fun if you get as many of your friends involved as possible. The person with the best yard should host. (Best might mean biggest or it might mean prettiest, depending on whether you’re going for a spa or water-park vibe.) Ransack your garage/basement/attic/storage bins for lounge chairs, sprinklers, squirt guns, pink flamingo decorations, tiki torches, etc. (If someone has an inflatable water slide, you have hit the mother lode.) Browse the dollar store for more. You may even consider checking out sales at places like Kmart for inflatable pools, coolers, umbrellas, and other summer tchotchkes. If you don’t have a backyard, you can still do these things on a smaller scale. Consider rooftops, public courtyards, patios, and parks. The water slide can’t come with, but the lawn chairs and a makeshift picnic basket can.

2. When it gets super hot, turn to the air-conditioned loveliness inside your home. Build a fort and hunker down with some classic ’80s summer movies like Dirty Dancing, Shag, and One Crazy Summer. Phoebe says starts the season with an annual viewing of Jaws, which has sequels, and anything with sequels, no matter how bad they get, can make for an awesome day. Since I don’t do well with extreme temperatures, whenever I hear about an impending heat wave, I rush to the library and check out a week’s worth of books and hole up in the coldest part of the house. I recommend Francesca Lia Block’s entire body of work. You might have heard of her by now.

3. On pleasant summer nights, build a bonfire. Sometimes local beaches or parks have fire pits for public use, or maybe you or one of your friends has one in your backyard. I have a brick patio and used some spare bricks to build one. The smell of the fire is reason enough to do it, but it gets even better when you add s’mores, games, and late-night conversations. Just be sure to practice safe fire building!

Be a local.

1. If you don’t have outdoor access, look into a nearby public pool. I used to get a summer pass and spend every sunny day at mine. Also: Super Soaker and/or water balloon wars! You can have water fights in your backyard, but it’s more fun to venture out into the neighborhood or go to a park. Then you can really sneak-attack. Just try not to hit any innocent bystanders.

2. Summer is a good opportunity for exploration. Get out there and see your town for the first time (sorta). Spend a day downtown, going in and out of all of the shops. Go off the beaten path and look for things like abandoned railroad tracks (Tara said she found some in L.A.), cemeteries (Rachael recommends headstone rubbings), or whatever it is the tourists do that you’ve maybe never done, because of all the tourists.

3. Speaking of movies, summer is the perfect time to escape into a cool theater. If you’re sunburned and suffering from heat exhaustion, watching a loooong blockbuster like The Avengers or Prometheus is a great way to kill a few hours. And there are more exotic options, too. I found a drive-in theater about an hour from my house in Illinois, and I try to get a car full of people together at least once a summer to go. Also worth investigating: free movies—or theater-in-the-park. In Chicago, they do movies by the lake, and in my suburb, you can watch movies in a nearby pool! There is really nothing like free outdoor entertainment that you can bring your own snacks to…

4. Except maybe outdoor entertainment that you and your friends personally selected. If nobody has one (and they are pretty expensive), rent a projector and use a wall or throw up a sheet somewhere and watch one of your favorite flicks on the big screen. One place you might be able to find a projector is the local library. Many of them don’t carry just books anymore. My librarian friends tell me that at some libraries, you can check out things like ice cream makers.

5. If you feel like you’ve seen everything in walking distance but you don’t have a car or a license, grab your bike and scope out your local paths and trails. There is this amazing network of bike trails near me called the Illinois Prairie Path. It stretches across more than 60 miles. See if there’s something similar in your neck of the woods.

6. Another car-free option is the Random Bus Adventure. Buy a day pass and hop on and off at random stops. Leanna did this in San Jose and ended up getting bubble tea for the first time and taking photos of colorful houses in neighborhoods she didn’t even know existed.

Seek adventures of the we’re-obligated-to-caution-you variety.

1. Sneaking into old abandoned houses was a favorite activity of mine, and Anaheed did her fair share of this as well. I liked to pretend I was ghost-hunting, she liked to rummage around in the wreckage. Of course, we have to slap a big “DO AT YOUR OWN RISK” warning on this one, because exploring abandoned places is generally illegal, and there are also sharp, broken things you can step or fall on, especially at night.

2. Another risky but insanely fun activity is night-swimming. I’m jealous of my fellow Rookie staffers who had quarries and beaches they could visit. Leeann described her Rochester, New York quarry hangouts as “pretty magical because it was like a secret beach just for you and your friends.” Lauren loved sneaking onto the lakefront in Minneapolis because “the water is so still, and it’s usually pitch black and peaceful and terrifying and thrilling all at once.” My experience wasn’t nearly as romantic. My friends and I just hopped the fence at the public pool after hours, but it was still pretty amazing to have the whole place to ourselves. Of course, the pool was right behind the fire station. After a couple of people got caught, I got too freaked to do it any more, but my town seemed to realize that this was a void that needed filling and created “teens only” nights at the pool. If you’re not feeling like a total daredevil, maybe you can find one of those.

3. Parks and playgrounds are fun places to hit after dark. The summer I got my driver’s license, my friends and I used to drive from one park to the next, swinging, sliding, climbing on things, and even having little dance parties with portable boom boxes. The cops would kick us out of one place when it closed, and we’d move on to the next park. My town had like a billion parks, so we were able to keep this up for hours. We certainly annoyed the police and sometimes ran as soon as we saw their cars, but it never led to serious trouble. It actually brought back that childhood thrill of refusing to come inside the first time your mom or dad called you.

Take a day trip.

1. Staying in or near your town can get boring, but you don’t need to fly to Jamaica to find paradise. Chances are that, within a few hours’ drive, you’ll find forests or beaches or cabins or lakes or mountains or adorable little artsy towns or neighboring big cities. For me, it was the Indiana Dunes, giant mounds of sand that made me feel like I was exploring another planet. I also found paradise on a canoe trip down a river in rural Illinois and tubing in some pretty decent rapids in Michigan. Jamie liked to visit a dam in Delaware. (She and I both recommend finding lakes and ponds with rope swings.) Leeann made a list of the all the waterfalls within a few hours’ drive of her house in New York and went on multiple trips to visit them. Sonja took a completely unplanned day trip to Vancouver Island. What you might find depends where you are. Check your local paper or websites for articles on “Things to Do This Summer” for ideas!

2. Water parks, amusement parks, fairs, and music festivals make for great day trips. I mean, water parks are like the pool but a trillion times better, and nothing, NOTHING, says summer like a roller coaster ride and funnel cakes and cheesy cover bands. I am planning to attend my very first Renaissance Faire next month in Wisconsin. Jousting! Hair-braiding! And hell yes, I am totally dressing up!

3. Now, unlike the Ren Faire, this next suggestion—camping—is not really my thing, and my fellow Rookies didn’t seem to be the most keen on it either (“Camping? WTF? Haven’t you seen The Blair Witch Project?” says Hazel), but if you are more adventurous than me and your parents are cool with your going off in the woods with your friends for a couple days, yes, you could go camping! Check out local state parks and campgrounds, compare the amenities and costs of different campsites, get your gear, plan your menu—umm, learn how to make yourself bigger in case of bears? (See, this is why I don’t camp!) Here is a guide to enjoying the wilderness and a checklist, if you are a big checklist person. But, also, backyard camping can be just as awesome! In fact, for this girl, who has the world’s teeniest bladder and is the world’s biggest fan of indoor plumbing, backyard camping is ideal. You can still grill food and pitch a tent, but if it starts to rain or you hear critters that you’re just not comfortable with, you can move all activities indoors to your bedroom or basement.

4. Finally, there is the ultimate summer adventure: the road trip. One year a few friends of mine and I lobbied our parents to let us drive from Chicago to San Francisco. Mine were pretty close to saying yes, but they ultimately sided with the other parents in thinking it was too far and our plan was, well, not really a plan and more of a We’ll drive and get there eventually and we promise to call and check in every night sorta thing. Then another friend and I found out about a feminist conference in Philly we really wanted to go to. Because of my previous experience, I knew to come up with a precise itinerary to pitch my folks. I mapped out how many miles we’d drive each day and where we’d stay—one night in Cleveland with a friend, one night in a hotel in Pennsylvania, etc. I arranged it so my parents could talk to the parents of the people I’d be staying with, and I explained how I would pay for it all and what I would get out of the experience using words like “educational” and “life-changing.” AND IT WORKED.

Now go, have fun, explore, enjoy! ♦