Camping is an experience that’s been redefined regularly, especially in the past century since the first RVs started wheeling out into the American countryside.
Just a few decades ago, most people would define camping as the heading out to sleep under the stars, sheltered perhaps by a tarp, in a tent or at least in some sort of camping vehicle out in the woods, on a mountain or along a stream or beach.
That’s changed, especially for city folks, where camping may not even require getting out of town.
Riverside State Park’s Bowl and Pitcher Campground is on the west edge of Spokane’s city limits, yet roughly 50 percent of the clientele at the park’s four campgrounds are locals, said Chris Guidotti, park manager.
More than half of those staying with Kampgrounds of America say they were at home the
night before arriving at the campground, according to KOA CEO Jim Rogers. That’s a 25 percent increase over seven years.
Rogers says work demands, kids’ schedules, high gas prices and other concerns are all contributing to the trend. “They just want to stay within reach and go away for shorter time periods,” he said.
And if there are no good hiking or biking trails nearby, many commercial campgrounds have rooms with treadmills, weights and exercise bikes.
The low cost of camping compared to staying in motels or lodges is an attraction that hasn’t changed with trends to more amenities, relatively speaking. Sites at developed campgrounds in California can be found for $30, but you’ll look hard to find a motel room at that price.
The most obvious trend in recent decades are the options and amusements available at developed campgrounds.
While hiking, horse riding, playing in the river and mountain biking are popular activities at Riverside State Park, more people are showing interest in renting canoes, kayaks and other craft. “We’re looking into adding stand-up paddle boards to our rentals at the Nine Mile Resort next year, said Cherie Gwinn, park spokeswoman.
The Camp Dakota Campground at Scotts Mills, Ore., takes a giant leap from traditional camping activities, offering paintball courses, ropes courses, disc golf and ziplines.
Consider Jordan Lester, who was told that he could plan the destination for the family’s summer camping vacation to celebrate his eighth birthday. He searched KOAs online and picked one on the coast that backs up to a wide, salty-aired beach.
In three days he had watched a movie at the outdoor theater, made s’mores by the campfire, tie-dyed T-shirts, rented a banana bike, played miniature golf, hit the arcade several times and made repeat visits to the air-inflated jumping pillow.
“He thinks this is awesome,” his mother said.
Parents think so, too, for more practical reasons. Loud parties are not tolerated at KOAs. The grounds are safe and clean.
Activities abound. The showers are hot (if not quite immaculate). And entry is affordable. During three days at the coastal KOA, the Dunn family had not left the grounds, except to hit the beach.
“We even had better food at the cafe here than we did in town,” Lester said.
Even if you’ve never stayed in a KOA, you’ve undoubtedly passed one of the 475 spread through 43 states and Canada.
The chain’s roots can be traced to 1962, when, legend has it, Billings businessman Dave Drum noticed cars streaming toward Seattle’s World’s Fair. Sensing opportunity, the company says, “Drum quickly constructed a campground on his land that offered hot showers, clean restrooms, a small store and a patch of grass – all for $1.75 a night.”
Still operating in that vein, KOA today does to camping what it also does to spelling: mold something recognizable into a fun, easy and slightly absurd experience. When does camping include air hockey and pizza delivered to your tent? When you’re at a KOA.
You can pitch a tent, park your camper, rent a bare-bones cabin (air conditioning, no running water) or stay in a deluxe cabin (air conditioning and running water).
The grounds can neighbor oceans, state parks, mountain ranges or redwood forests. Some people come to KOAs for a night, and some stay long enough to fill their front yards with toys, folding chairs and satellite dishes.
While there is something comfortable and family-oriented about KOAs, they’re humble enough that drinking white Russians from plastic cups while mini-golfing a pebble-strewn 10-hole course still feels appropriate.
Kamp Dels, a private campground in Waterville, Minn., has amenities ranging from golf to horseback riding and even a petting zoo.
The differences between KOAs and “woods” camping are clear the moment you arrive. At some KOAs, wi-fi is available to all campsites so you can check the Internet from your tent. The main lodge doubles as the convenience store (KOA red wine, anyone?) and gift shop (perhaps a KOA stuffed bear?).
Another trend is the addition of cabins to the campground scene, if you can actually call that camping.
Rogers also said KOAs have seen a 25 percent increase in the use of roofed accommodations at their campgrounds. “It’s attracting a whole new breed of campers, people we haven’t seen before,” he said.
Starting this year, Riverside State Park is renting a former ranger’s residence at Bowl and Pitcher. “It has four queen-size beds so it’s perfect for some families,” Gwin said.
Campgrounds are investing in everything from yurts and furnished teepees to cottages and cabins.
Kamp Dels Campground in Waterville, Minn., has amenities ranging from golf to horseback riding and even a petting zoo.
Jeff Crider, spokesman for the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, says “more and more campgrounds across the country are offering organized activities that could range from nature walks to special themed weekend events like holiday events or Father’s Day events.
You can still find plenty of campgrounds that offer a natural setting and a nice environment for kayaking, fishing, or river tubing, but what the parks are finding is that more and more families want things to do.
Indeed, if you’re camping where stores provide everything you need, including firewood, fish, berries, amusements are necessary.