Suddenly, camping is all the rage.
Just ask Ryan Fliss of The Dyrt, a popular camping trip planning website, who says that traffic to the site is up 400 percent from the summer of 2019. Kampgrounds of America (KOA) reports that 20 percent of its users are first-time campers. With many countries keeping their borders closed to Americans as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the United States, and social distancing remaining a priority, Americans yearning to get out of their homes for safe summer travels are discovering—or rediscovering—the joys of playing, eating, and sleeping in the outdoors.
If you’re new to camping—or usually prefer resort beds to sleeping bags—these tips will help ease you into close encounters with nature that will bring discovery, joy, and a sense of accomplishment. You might even see a shooting star.
Where to camp
Why it matters: Location—whether in a national park or recreation area—can make or break a camping trip. “As you add requirements, location gets more important. What I mean by that is if I have a family and a dog coming on the trip, they all need to be comfortable and safe,” says Fliss. Some campgrounds require reservations in advance, but plenty allow for walk-ins.
Think less popular: Most reservations for campsites in the National Park Service (NPS) are made through Recreation.gov. But with some national parks experiencing record-breaking tourism, think about giving a little love to lesser-visited spots. Lake Clark, North Cascades, and Great Basin all have low visitation numbers when compared to their popular neighbors—Denali, Mount Rainier, and Zion, respectively, though it is worth noting that even the most popular of national parks are experiencing a drop in numbers right now. Other NPS lands with campsites include national monuments, preserves, and recreation areas, among others. National forests, which are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, also offer spots to stay.
10. Virgin Islands National Park
This pristine tropical reserve—covering almost two-thirds of St. John, plus 5,650 acres underwater—saw 133,398 visitors in 2019. Leisure travel to the Virgin Islands has been closed and reopened several times throughout 2020. Virgin Islands National Park is currently open to local visitors, who are asked to practice social distancing, even on park beaches.
Use maps: When looking at a map of a big-name park, zoom out and look around to find other places nearby. For example, near Great Smoky Mountains—which has consistently been the most visited national park, with a total of 12.5 million visitors in 2019—is Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Its views and spaces are almost identical, if a little less mountainous, but with only a fraction of the visitors.
Explore alternatives: To find state parks, turn to each state’s Department of Parks and Recreation website. ReserveAmerica is another great resource to find potential spots, while KOA can assist with private campsites.
Stay local: Consider exploring your own backyard. Hipcamp, an Airbnb-like website that helps people book camping stays, found that people using its site are traveling significantly closer to home than this time last year; it’s seeing around a 40 percent reduction in the distance people are traveling.
Go wild: With wild camping, also known as dispersed camping, you can just hunker down at some sweet spot, usually without a permit, fee, or reservation. While some national parks and forests do have a few spaces that allow for wild camping, areas overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are the best bet. People can camp for up to 14 days within a 28 consecutive-day period on BLM’s public lands.
What to bring
The basics: The right tent for you should take in two main considerations: sizing and season rating. Sizing is usually based on how many people a tent can sleep, and if comfort is the goal, bigger is always better. Season ratings indicate in what seasons the tent works best, and most are generally three-season tents, which means you can use them in the spring, summer, and fall. A four-season tent will cover the winter, with extra weather protection and heat retention.
A sleeping bag has the same considerations as a tent. Three-season bags are suitable for hot and cold temperatures and are identifiable by their temperature rating, which will display a range of 15 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Sleeping pads, which are just cushioned pads, can be used in conjunction with a sleeping bag to provide extra comfort and insulation, but can also be used on their own as a bed.
Small but essential: Don’t forget a flashlight or headlight, batteries, a lighter (for a campfire), a first-aid kit, bug repellent, sunscreen, and extra clothing. If you're backpacking or overlanding, bring printed maps as a backup for digital mapping apps.
Leave no trace: We want to leave places better than we found them, so it’s crucial to avoid littering and to take any trash out. You never know what the trash-bin situation is at the campsite, especially if you go the wild route, so bring your own trash bags.
The same principle applies to restroom needs. If there are no physical restroom locations, never go in small bodies of water and always make sure to deposit any human waste in a cathole 6 to 8 inches deep, about 200 feet away from water, campgrounds, and trails (cover the cathole when finished). Some retailers, ranging from your local discount store to REI offer travel-sized waste bags that you can use to go anywhere.
COVID-19 protection: “Follow the same rules about the distancing, the wearing of face coverings, etcetera, so that you are [safe],” says Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University and the founder and director of ICAP, a global health program. Even if you’re with people from your same household, bring masks, hand sanitizer, and antimicrobial wipes. Masks are imperative if you’re planning on going hiking on trails where you might come into contact with other people.
Budget: A camping trip can run the gamut from cheap to expensive, depending on the gear and where you’re planning on camping. Campsites that require reservations or fees can run as low as $5 a night but can also go well over $60. Gear in itself is an investment, but it doesn’t have to be. Companies like Outdoors Geek and Arrive Outdoors offer rentals on almost every kind of camping item, from tents to sleeping bags to cookware. “It makes it so much easier to know what gear you need, don't need, like and don't like when you've tried it first,” says Fliss. “And if you don’t enjoy yourself, you don't have to buy gear.”
What to eat
The basics: If you’re planning on making food on-site that requires a heat source, then you’ll need to decide whether you’re going to use a campfire or a campstove, and there are several things to keep in mind if going with the latter. Some areas have campfire restrictions or ban them entirely, while others have grills for public use, though you’ll have to bring your own fuel. As for cookware, pots, pans, plates, and utensils are other things that you might have to bring along depending on what you plan on eating. Bring what cookware you can from home and purchase recyclable versions of what you can’t.
No-fuss cooking: You don’t have to cook while camping if you don’t want to, and can just as easily bring sandwiches from home. Another option is to avoid grocery shopping altogether and purchase meal kits that are geared toward campers, like the ones from REI and Patagonia Provisions, with dishes such as red bean chili and green lentil soup.
Who to bring
Why it matters: With the current state of the pandemic, campers need to choose their companions wisely. “If it’s a unit that’s been together, like a family unit or a small unit of people [in the same household], I think that’s advisable,” says El-Sadr. “Using the same [health] principles we’ve used all along would still apply, but I think it would be easier to implement if you are outdoors in a camping context.”
Family time: As schools in the U.S. had to rapidly pivot to online learning, it meant that kids who normally had a large portion of their day free from screens now spent the majority of their day on them—for both school and leisure. Camping promotes electronics-free time in nature, and planning out some activities with them in advance will keep kids invested and interested in the experience.
Camping with friends: Camping with people who don’t live in the same household can still be done, but campers need to take more precautions. “I would wear a mask and try to stay six feet apart while you’re around a campfire and not be in a tent with somebody that you aren’t quarantining with,” says Colleen Hanrahan, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University and an editor at the university’s Novel Coronavirus Research Compendium, which curates and reviews all scientific evidence about the virus. “It’s not as bad as going to a yoga class with 20 people in the room and breathing heavily or running on the treadmill at the gym [...] but I think that people should not lose sight of [camping] being risky or having some level of risk, even if it’s small.”
How to keep safe
Why it matters: “The highest level of risk [for the virus] is indoors, and being outdoors automatically eliminates that one piece of it,” says Hanrahan, but precautions still need to be taken. Campers should assess how popular a particular place is going to be, as well as the amount and type of exposure to other people they’ll have. Using the data available on the virus to see where cases are rising is crucial to making decisions on where to avoid and where to go.
Stay in touch: Whether or not you’re camping with other people, always let someone know where you’ll be and if you plan on doing any other outdoor activities while camping, such as hiking or swimming. Share your phone’s location with other people, which is a great way for loved ones to check in to see if you’re safe and sound. Always bring a portable battery, which will come in handy if anyone’s cell phone runs out of juice. However, cell phone signals are notoriously weaker the further into nature you go, which can be tricky if you’re using it to navigate. The Google Maps and Gaia GPS apps allow users to download maps to use offline.
Keep your distance: Embrace the outdoors but give wildlife their space. Research a place ahead of time to see whether there are issues with dangerous insects or animal sightings.
Watch the flames: Fire hazards abound when it comes to using open flames in the outdoors. If you’re going somewhere that allows campfires, make sure to read up on fire safety beforehand. Never leave campfires unattended, always keep water nearby to put it out, and make sure it’s completely extinguished before going to sleep.