NY Times: More Americans Are Camping

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June 22, 2009 by   - () Leave a Comment

Carla and Jim Boerman of Walworth, N.Y., have been campers for nearly two decades, starting when their twin daughters, who are now in college, were just 18 months old. Their family has stayed in Yellowstone and Yosemite, and they've sampled campgrounds in New York and neighboring states, graduating from popups to small travel trailers to a 30-foot fifth-wheel. Last year, the Boermans went on 18 camping trips, for a total of 50 nights under the stars. 

But this year, Carla Boerman, a school secretary, has noticed something new: campgrounds are fuller, and booking reservations has gotten trickier, according to the New York Times. "Even if you're calling months in advance, you might not get the exact campsite you want," she said, "or you might have to adjust your dates." 

Although it's still early in the season, there are already signs that more Americans will be vacationing in campgrounds this summer. Bookings are up at many parks – in some cases by as much as 30%. And some campgrounds were filled on weekends even before Memorial Day, the traditional kickoff of the camping season. 

Many in the camping community believe that the bad economy is causing this sudden interest in the great outdoors, with people who are worried about finances forgoing a stay at a fancy resort or a trip overseas in favor of a sojourn in the woods that can cost 10 bucks a night. Gas prices that are significantly lower than last summer's (albeit rising) may also be affecting decisions to hit the road. 

Suzi Dow, who with her husband, Fred Dow, writes guides to United States Forest Service campgrounds, said that back in April, traffic to their website,, reached 300,000 hits a day, a rate they don't normally see until summer, and the queries were decidedly more family-focused. 

"In the past, young people, singles, were writing to us saying, 'Hey, I want to go to Glacier National Park and want to do it in two weeks,'" Suzi Dow said. "Now we're hearing from families who want to know where to go so their 10-year-old son can go fishing and 13-year-old daughter can have hot showers." 

Although certain parks have always been magnets, camping in general has been declining for a generation, according to the National Park Service. In 1980, there were 3.93 million overnight tent stays at Park Service properties, including the country's 58 national parks, which contain 861 campgrounds ranging from primitive (pit toilets) to modern (hot showers); last year, 2.95 million stays were registered. 

General visitation is down, too, prompting the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, whose department includes the Park Service, to announce that 147 of its sites would waive entrance fees this past weekend and two other weekends this summer (July 18-19, and Aug. 15-16). 

"I'm optimistic," said David Barna, the chief of public affairs for the National Park Service, whose budget this year increased to $2.5 billion from $2.4 billion last year. This does not count $741 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, some of which will go toward campground upgrades like restroom remodeling and the resurfacing of access roads later this year. "Typically, when the economy is not in good shape that bodes well for the park service," Barna said. 

Indeed, bookings at the 141 national park campgrounds in the National Recreation Reservation Service were up 9% from January through March 26 over the same period last year. The reservations are handled by ReserveAmerica, a private company, through the Web site and at (877) 444-6777 (a fee of $10 is added). 

Although many experienced campers booked five and six months ago, when many national park campsites went on sale, the good news for latecomers is that there is still plenty of room at campgrounds that take reservations, particularly during midweek, when demand is lower. 

Cancellations do occur, and first-come-first-served campgrounds abound. (Arrive in the morning, when the previous night's campers are checking out.) 

In addition to Park Service properties, there are 5,800 campgrounds in national forests and grasslands, not to mention campgrounds in state parks and, Woodall's Campground Management notes, some 8,000 privately owned campgrounds.

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