We had a really nice weekend camping.  We went with several other families, so there were a total of five kids, with ours the youngest at five and eight, and the oldest being twelve.  We went out to Wolf Gap, which is right on the border between Virginia and West Virginia.

I was impressed at how well the boys did hiking, since last year they were pretty whiny on a much shorter hike.  There was one section where you really needed to climb up some rocks, and both boys made it with only a few helping hands.  (They needed a bit more assistance on the downhill there.)  D whined a fair bit on the way up, but then raced down ahead of us trying to keep up on the way down.  N was a trooper for most of the time, but was clearly wiped by the end.

Other than the hike, the boys mostly spent the time obsessively poking the fire.  There were enough adults there that we were able to take turns supervising them, and no one got set on fire.  The kids all thought we should have a fire going at all times, so we told them they were responsible for collecting enough firewood to make that happen, and the older kids even each took a turn with the saw.  The adults were able to actually have some conversations, as well as reading, and staring into the fire.  We all ate far too many roasted marshmallows.

This was car camping [e.g. we could drive right to the campsite, but we slept in tents, not the car] so we were able to bring a ridiculous amount of supplies.  We had folding chairs and tables, a two burner stove, big tents, beer and soda, barbecued chicken, watermelon, coffee w/ cream, you name it.  This is the sort of camping that I did with my family when I was growing up, but as an adult I somewhere along the way decided that I only wanted to do backcountry camping, where you only have what you're willing to carry.  That's obviously not going to happen with the boys until they're old enough to carry their own gear, but this weekend made me realize that it's some sort of stupid snobbery to think that car camping isn't worth doing.

The two burner stove that my friends brought is pretty much identical to the one my parents bought at Sears 40 years ago, and a quick online search shows that Coleman still makes pretty much the identical model.  I remembered that when I was little we were able to buy the fuel for the stove at gas stations, which makes me think that car camping must have been far more popular then than it is now.* We hypothesized that it's been driven out by the combination of:

  • Camping as a cheap way to travel has been driven out by cheap motels and low-fare air travel.
  • Those who do travel and camp mostly use RVs.  (When did RVs get popular?)
  • Now that air conditioning is so ubiquitous, not to mention television and the internet, not so many people are interested in sitting in the woods and getting eaten by mosquitoes.  (My boys did complain about our not letting them bring their DSs.)
  • Those who do still camp are more likely to be the hard core folks who want to backpack and not car camp.

*I'm not entirely sure that's true — it looks like white gas was used for things other than just camping stoves and lanterns.

What do you think — has car camping declined?  Will it make a comeback in the recession?  Do you do it?  What's the one piece of gear that you couldn't live without?

Ok, I found some statistics from the outdoor industry foundation.  I think this is the trade group of the people who sell gear.  It's a little hard to read, but I think they're saying that 49 million Americans went car camping at least once in 2004, down 18 percent from 1998, and 13 million Americans went backpacking at least once in 2004, down 23 percent from 1998.  If anyone can find longer-term trends, I'd love to see them.

20 Responses to “Camping”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    The National Park Service has statistics on usage of its campgrounds. Systemwide the number of tent campers has been remarkably steady for the last 30 years (1979 3.4 million, 2003 3.3 million) with a surge in the early 90s and a decline in the last 4 years (2.9 million in 2008).
    Yes, I have gone car camping with my children. Once I went car camping with 3 girlfriends, no husbands; we had two kids each. The kids were ages 2-6. We were pretty apprehensive but it turned out great. The kids wore each other out so much that they slept 10 hrs w/o a peep! — We had tents, but the kids slept in blankets. Sleeping bags are too slippery & too hot for little ones. That’s my Hot Tip.

  2. RSB Says:

    In the interest of full disclosure, I am the person who dragged Liz around in what she calls “car camping”. I can’t remember ever doing that as an activity on itself. We camped in the style that she describes as means of staying IN the National Parks, Forests, and Seashores as we traveled around the country. It seemed then, and still seems to be a great way to experience the parks. Having a base within the parks, rather than in a motel village miles away more than compensated for any discomforts and Liz and her sibs were better behaved in a tent than in a motel. For urban dwellers (at least the parental version) the experience with the kids in the parks was magical and when one of her sibs described the night sky in the Wind River Range as “looking just like the planetarium”, I thought it could not get better. Even in the 70’s we were something of an outlier since the majority of the users of the campsites were trailer campers and RV users.

  3. Andrea Says:

    But Jennifer, the population of the country has gone way up since 1979; a total number holding steady means a smaller proportion going camping.
    Most usage stats that I am aware of across all forms of outdoor recreation show a decline. This is tragic to me. It’s cheap, it’s healthy, it’s educational, it’s documented to be great for our psychological and emotional well-being, and it’s the best way anyone’s found to get people to care about their local environment. And yet it’s getting harder and harder to get people to take part.
    I haven’t gone camping yet w/ Frances, though I want to, because of the initial cost of getting all the gear. But we go to cottages and we go hiking and throw rocks in the creek. I don’t think I’ve ever gone car camping.

  4. Parke Wilde Says:

    Hooray camping season! Your weekend sounds just like ours. Family friends with kids, to keep our kids occupied and happy hour after hour, while we sit around and sip sangria and cook better than we do at home (check). Braver hiking with kids than we expected, including climbs steep enough to make the parents’ hearts skip a beat as the kids keep a fast pace on the return trip (check). Looking forward to backcountry camping in another year or two (check). We enjoyed Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of NH this time. Looking forward to a good summer?

  5. Jennifer Says:

    Hi Andrea! Yes, you’re right, of course. —- The National Parks are a subset of all available campgrounds. In Oregon there are a bazillion campgrounds but the Park Service only manages four of them (three of which I did not know existed before today, even though I’ve camped in this state about once a year & spend a lot of time outside). I couldn’t find statistics on campground usage from the Forest Service.

  6. wendy Says:

    I used to backpack before the back got cranky. Now I tent camp – husband and I did before kids and did every year probably until last year when the summer went by and we realized we hadn’t tent camped once. We intend to go at least once this summer though.
    While the industry may be seeing a decline (and part of the problem may be so much competition from other summer activities)our favorite destination campgrounds (Indiana Dunes for instance) are booked months in advance – so they aren’t hurting.

  7. Lee Says:

    Your post makes me so jealous. We’ve never tried car camping with kids but are itching to. Andrea, there are outdoor organizations in my area that will rent you all of your gear very cheaply ($10 for a tent) which you may want to consider looking into (and you don’t have to store the stuff.

  8. Elizabeth Says:

    Since my terminology seems to have confused people… by “car camping” I mean camping in a tent, but someplace where you drive right up to the campsite and don’t have to carry your gear any real distance. Not camping in the car itself. As distinct from both backcountry camping and RV camping.

  9. Amy Says:

    In California, state park campground reservations are up 18% for June over last year, for what it’s worth.
    Most families we know camp at least once a year, and some much more often than that. It seems like the people who do it are the people who grew up doing it, like you, Elizabeth. Plus, once people get the gear, they feel the need to use it.

  10. bj Says:

    I’m a fan of hotels with showers myself. But, a cousin once convinced us to go “car camping” with her family (when our kids were 2&4). She what do you call it — planned/equipped the trip for us; we drove out, and had a delightful one night camping trip, camping next to a stream, in the mountains, with a starry night sky. It was lovely (but, a lot of work for her).

  11. Jean B. in SC Says:

    I do think that tent camping will make a comeback in this recession. State and National Parks are booked for the summer already at higher rates than they have been in the recent past. Some people are digging out equipment they’ve let languish for years, and others are buying tents, etc., for the first time.
    Anyway, I enjoyed this post and the responses to it. Your boys sound a lot like mine; he can’t leave the fire alone, either– so we make him responsible for it, and he is, literally, a happy camper! We are mostly car campers, BTW, and love it.

  12. Jackie Says:

    I never went camping as a kid, but am trying to do it with my own kids. The big switch came for me after a cross-country road trip I took with two friends in grad school, where we sent the majority of the nights car-camping at KOA sites across the country. It was an incredible, amazing experience, and I’m determined for my girls to have some times like that. I’ve taken them car-camping once, two or so years ago, with a friend and her two girls in Assateague. It was the perfect camping experience, and my girls still talk about it.
    This summer my sister and I are going to take the girls car-camping a few times, I hope. We’re drawing up dates and sites and already have most of the gear we’ll need. I’m excited!

  13. amy Says:

    I think camping will be popular this year, too. I haven’t done it in years — was a pushover for the 90s backpacking craze, had some good hikes, killed my back. The tent now comes in handy for backyard sleepovers.

  14. alwen Says:

    When I was a kid through late teenager, we did a ton of car camping – we called it “tent camping”.
    My husband and I went tent camping on our honeymoon. We even did it with a dog and a small baby.
    Right now we are taking short (4 to 5 day) driving vacations & staying in motels. Our property is big enough that in the summer we can carry the pop-up tent out into the clearing with the fire pit and camp on our own property. Once a year we have people over and they are invited to camp.

  15. lisa Says:

    We backpack-and carried my daughter and gear up the mountain the first time when she was 23mos. But we also car camp in that we set the tent up within 20ft of the car-but rarely in developed campgrounds. We camp in national forests and blm lands, where you can camp anywhere. It’s quieter, no fees, etc.
    And, though we might be considered on the edge of hard core (believe me, we are rejected by the real hard core), we spend a minimum amount on equipment-most of what we have, I bought in college. And I have a food dehydrator, so we don’t have to buy any of the $10/bag stuff.
    We’re taking our new son on his first hiking trip tomorrow!

  16. trishka Says:

    i have to say that i absolutely <3 car camping. except here we call it "beer camping" because of the ability to bring beer along. or in the case of my husband and me, "wine camping". truth be told ::shhhhhh:: i prefer it to backpacking. but then i'm used to small quiet remote sparsely populated campgrounds with considerate users, noone blasting stereos or generators or bright lights until late. backpacking has its merits, but i have trouble getting enough to eat over a couple of days to compensate for all the calories burned carting gear around. plus, filtering water is kind of a pain. car camping is just so much more, you know, convenient.

  17. Jody Says:

    We are doing some camping in late July that violates two rules I once said were non-negotiable: it’s in bear country, and the campground has no showers.
    I realize that “real” campers head into the backcountry but I long ago decided that I was willing to forego my bobo credentials in return for clean hair every morning and a wide variety of car-stored food. There was an SUV commercial in the mid-90s that featured two couples camping on the edge of a canyon, one of whom pulled everything including a jacuzzi out of the back of their vehicle, and I aspired to be those people. I love camping but I see no reason to go overboard with the whole “roughing it” category. My first host family in Australia camped for two weeks at the beach in an RV and I thought that was a lovely way to experience the ocean.
    Why I agreed to this silly plan to camp in a campground that had 11K visitors last July, but has NO SHOWERS and imposes bear regulations, still mystifies me.

  18. Jody Says:

    On the numbers-camping thing: does anyone know if there has been much growth in the capacity at state and national park campgrounds? The lack of growth in the numbers may be partially related to a fixed upper limit on capacity during the peak months.
    That having been said, our experience in state parks has been that there are always plenty of spaces available, especially on the weekdays. And even in Great Smoky National Park, I only booked our site last week, and 50% of the spaces in the largest campgrounds were still available for the last week in July.

  19. daviddock84 Says:

    I think camping will be popular this year, too.Camping: the art of getting closer to nature while getting farther away from the nearest cold beverage, hot shower and flush toilet.
    camper trailer

  20. Jean B. in SC Says:

    Hi. I have a blog at where I feature people’s posts about camping, and I would like to send my readers your way. Of course I would give you credit for quotes and would link back to your site.
    Thanks for considering this,
    Jean B. in SC
    (BTW, we car camp and love every bug-infested minute of it!)

Leave a Reply

1 + nine =