Camp Quest's mission statement declares that the camp is "dedicated to improving the human condition through rational inquiry, critical and creative thinking, scientific method, self-respect, ethics, competency, democracy, free speech, and the separation of religion and government guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States". The camp intended goal is to offer a space where children who are already nonreligious can feel comfortable and accepted. The UK branch of Camp Quest stated in 2009 that the point of their camp was "not a case of being told what to think about concepts such as God, just how to think" about such concepts.
The camp's logo is based on an idea of Edwin Kagin and the original artwork of his daughter, Kathryn. The letters "C" and "Q" are combined into a sort of infinity symbol. The letters "CQ" are usually accompanied by the Morse Code for those letters, CQ being code shorthand for "Does anybody want to talk?". The name Quest is actually an acronym for Question, Understand, Explore, Search, Test. The camp's slogan is, "Camp Quest. It's beyond belief!"
The camp's programs introduce campers between the age of 8 and 17 to the history and ideas of freethought. Campers also learn about a variety of science topics, critical thinking, philosophy (including ethics), world religions, and mythology.
Most of the camp's activities include traditional summer camp events: campfires, singing, crafts, games, swimming, canoeing, nature hikes, woods lore, and ropes courses. Other activities are less typical for summer camps, such as drama, rocketry, code breaking, crop circle design and construction, and history outings.
One camp tradition involves making the claim that two invisible unicorns inhabit Camp Quest. Campers are told that these beings cannot be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted, and that they cannot do harm, do not eat, and leave no mark. An ancient book handed down for untold generations offers proof that the unicorns exist, though no one is allowed to see this book. Any camper who can prove that the unicorns do not exist will win a godless one-hundred dollar bill (issued before 1957, the year the U.S. Congress mandated that "In God We Trust" be printed on American fiat currency.) Since first offering this challenge in August 1996, the prize remains unclaimed. The camp's stated point of the challenge is that it is designed to help the children learn to think critically and rationally.
In November 1995, a meeting was hosted by the Council For Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH, now the Council for Secular Humanism), focusing on ways to promote secular humanism. A member of the Free Inquiry Group of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky (FIG), attorney and Eagle Scout Edwin Kagin, presented the idea for a secular summer camp to counter the exclusion of nontheists from the Boy Scouts of America. Though many participants were skeptical of the feasibility, and a few opposed it in principle, Paul Kurtz encouraged Kagin and FIG to create the camp.
The first camp began August 11, 1996, as a project of FIG, with Kagin as camp director. Twenty campers attended the first Camp Quest. For the first two years the camp was held at a facility owned by the Bullitsburg Baptist Assembly in Boone County, Kentucky. Despite minor complaints from both Camp Quest and the Baptist group, the sessions went smoothly.
For the camp's third year, FIG had decided to relocate to a nearby YMCA camp in Ohio, Camp Kern. The Northern Kentucky Baptist Association then sought the legal right to restrict the use of their campgrounds based on religious beliefs. At their request, then-Kentucky Representative Tom Kerr sponsored legislation (House Bill 70) exempting religious organizations from the common anti-discrimination requirements of public accommodation laws. That bill passed over the governor's veto in 2000.
In 2002, Camp Quest moved to its third location, another YMCA-owned facility, Camp Campbell Gard, which is located in Hamilton, Ohio, approximately 40 miles north of Cincinnati. That same year, the organization incorporated under the name Camp Quest, Inc., an independent educational non-profit organization, with Fred Edwords as its first president.
Camp Quest, Inc. now serves as an umbrella group for all Camp Quest affiliates in North America. Edwin Kagin, with his wife Helen, continued as co-directors of the original Camp Quest, now known as Camp Quest Ohio or Camp Quest Classic, at its Ohio location until their retirement after the summer of 2005. August Brunsman IV assumed the position of Camp Director at that time; he is also Executive Director of the Secular Student Alliance. That same year, Amanda Metskas became president of Camp Quest, Inc. In 2007, Camp Quest Ohio moved to 4-H Camp Graham in Clarksville, Ohio, its current location.
The first affiliated group to begin operating a second Camp Quest summer camp session was the Rationalists of East Tennessee, which hosted its first camp session in Tennessee under the name Camp Quest of the Smoky Mountains in 2002. Other Camp Quest affiliates in North America, and dates of their inaugural camp sessions, include: Camp Quest Minnesota in 2004, Camp Quest Ontario in 2005, Camp Quest of Michigan in 2006, Camp Quest West (located in California) in 2006, overseas partner Camp Quest UK in 2009, Camp Quest Texas in 2010, and Camp Quest Chesapeake (located in Virginia), Camp Quest Montana, and Camp Quest South Carolina in 2011, Camp Quest NorthWest (in Washington State) and Camp Quest Oklahoma in 2012, Camp Quest Arizona, Camp Quest Kansas City, and overseas partner Camp Quest Schweiz in 2013, and Camp Quest Colorado and Camp Quest New England in 2014.
Camp Quest has also expanded outside North America. Camp Quest UK launched in the United Kingdom in 2009, set up by Samantha Stein. The 2009 camp received a £495 donation from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. CQUK also received support from the British Humanist Association and many private donators. The prize for the 'Invisible Unicorn Challenge' was changed to a £10 note (all Bank of England £10 notes bear the image of Charles Darwin), which is autographed by Richard Dawkins. This prize also remains unclaimed. In 2010 Camp Quest Ireland held a two-day day session to kick off their program. Camp Quest Norway launched in 2011.
In August 2016, Matt Wilbourn, co-founder of the Muskogee Atheist Community in Oklahoma donated $100 to the Murrow Indian Children's Home which was soliciting donations for their annual fundraising drive. On the donation form Wilbourn wrote that the donation came from the Muskogee Atheist Community. A few hours later, Wilbourn received a phone call from the Children's Home informing him that they would have to refuse the $100 donation as "accepting money from atheists (and giving them credit for it as they do with all their donations) would 'go against everything they believe in'". Wilbourn then offered the Home $250 which they refused again. Then Wilbourn set up a GoFundMe site asking for donations for the Home, within two days over $28,000 was raised by atheists as well as Christians. Wilbourn again offered the Children's Home the $28,000 and they again refused and mailed a one-hundred dollar bill back to Wilbourn. Wilbourn promised that he would find a way to give five-thousand dollars to the Children's Home with the remainder to go to Camp Quest Oklahoma. A local church offered to make the $5,000 donation to the Home in the church's name but with the money coming from the Atheist Community. The Home refused that. Wilbourn tried to pay $5,000 to the Home's electric or water bill, but without the account number he was unable to do so. Eventually Wilbourn donated the entire amount (after GoFundMe fees) of $25,667.80 to Camp Quest of OK. Immediately after refusing the atheist's donation, Mehta posted a Facebook post from the social services rep for the Murrow Home. That post stated that "We are extremely behind of funds... I am asking for y'all to just consider donating something. Anything."
Oklahoma's Camp Quest director, Cindy Cooper issued a statement detailing what they planned on doing with the funds. Five-thousand dollars will go to Camp Quest national. The remaining money will be used to "expand and improve our camp programs and increase the number of financial aid recipients". They will be focusing on a special program that teaches children how to code. Camp Quest stated that 30% of their camp attendees receive some form of financial aid, and this donation will assist many students "for years to come".Camp Quest Arizona held its first session in June 2013.
Camp Quest Chesapeake has scheduled its inaugural camp session for July 2011.
Camp Quest Colorado held its first session in July 2014.
Camp Quest Kansas City held its first session in June 2013.
Camp Quest of Michigan was incorporated in 2003 and, after several setbacks, held its first camp in August 2006.
Camp Quest of Minnesota held its first session in July 2004.
Camp Quest Montana has scheduled its inaugural family camp for July 30 to August 6, 2011.
Camp Quest New England held its first session in July 2014.
Camp Quest NorthWest held its first session in August 2012.
Camp Quest Ohio, the original location for Camp Quest, held its first camp in 1996 in Kentucky. In 1998, it moved its location to Ohio.
Camp Quest Oklahoma held its first session in June 2012.
Camp Quest Smoky Mountains, a project of the Rationalists of East Tennessee, held its first camp in 2002.
Camp Quest South Carolina has scheduled its inaugural family camp for October 2011.
Camp Quest Texas held its first session in August 2010.
Camp Quest West, a project of the Atheist Alliance International, held its first session near Sacramento, California, in July 2006.
Camp Quest UK held its first session in July 2009 .
Camp Quest Schweiz held its first session in August 2013 in Switzerland.
Comedy Central's The Colbert Report made a satirical reference to Camp Quest as a threat to America's security and moral identity in the "Threat Down" section of the show:
I'm talking about Camp Quest, a network of summer camps dedicated to sunny day fun from a strict atheist and agnostic perspective. As their catch phrase says, "It's beyond belief!" Though Camp Quest provides regular camp activities like hiking and horseback riding, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, children also "learn about the canons of rational thought, critical thinking and scientific inquiry." And in one activity, "[Campers] must try to prove that invisible unicorns, as a metaphor for God, don’t exist." The campers are also given other untenable philosophical challenges, like proving tetherball is fun. Well Camp Quest, here's another activity. How about canoeing on a lake of hellfire for all eternity!