The image I have of camping is shaped by wonderful memories of a tent flapping in the wind so we were episodically exposed to the elements in the Negev desert; keeping out the rain during a “Journeys” Rendezvous with Native American tribes (held interestingly in a college campus in Massachusetts); on a mountain top in Nepal, watching as the world turned from black to blue to red to orange with the rising sun, and the seemingly vacant valley filled with sound like a noisy schoolyard; on the Cape Cod Canal, and at a campground on the east end of Long Island (movie nights!); in a rented RV on Sebago Lake where I canoed as a camper and, thinking back even earlier, to my childhood, and many, many wonderful canoe trips during my summer camp years in Maine (freshly picked blueberries for pancakes!).
But now, that image needs to be adjusted to include luxury cabins and WiFi, organized activities for children, ziplining and ropes courses, even diamond prospecting and scores of other amenities and experiences previously unimagined.
It is no wonder that the demographics for camping – and the popularity – have grown exponentially.
Leading the charge is Kampgrounds of America (better known as KOA), a network of independently owned franchisees, who, like Holiday Inn, have to adhere to standards and inspections.
What hasn’t changed, though, is how camping sets the stage for experiences that forge bonds among siblings, families, with nature, and spurs personal growth and self-confidence that comes from meeting new challenges.
KOA hosted a presentation to release the findings of the first of its kind study of attitudes and behaviors of Americans for camping – which points to both the massive growth and potential for growth of the camping industry, and also a panel discussion on ways to making camping and outdoor recreation pursuits even more desirable.
Camping isn’t just au courant because of the embrace of technology, but it also fits into the social and cultural changes afoot – a counterweight, as it were, to the pressures and patterns of urbanized/suburbanized lifestyles. If anything, camping affords the opportunity for families to truly be together, focus on each other, and get back to basics – nature, the outdoors, relative uncluttered simplicity.
But increasingly (and seemingly antithetically), camping means embracing technology, not turning off and tuning out entirely. Technology – WiFi – is the third most “in demand” amenity when it comes to camping, ranking even higher than access to a camping store/general store.
There is increasing diversity of campers. Since 2011, the percentage of multi-cultural campers (Asian, Hispanics, African Americans) has doubled – from 12% to 23% – which is a direct reflection of the demographic changes in the American population.
Another new trend is toward multigenerational camping: In large part , baby boomers are the grandparents, growing in numbers, are healthier, living longer, more active – camping more active way to spend vacation.
Also, there is growing recognition of the family “value” of camping – “hearts are winning out over wallets.” Camping isn’t necessarily embraced because it is a cheap alternative to commercial hotels and resorts, but for its intrinsic value. “Instead of thinking of camping as cost-effective, there is more attention on the emotional benefits of time together.” That is another way of saying there is more luxury-style camping, or “glamping,” with high-end cabins and lodges, for example. (Or in the case of Tripology Adventures, which sets up luxury safari-style camps with showers and toilets as you travel by 4×4 off-road vehicle in remote places like Kyrgyzstan, Namibia and on the sand dunes of Morocco, this is the only way to explore these places, www.tripologyadventures.com).
Rainer Jenss, former National Geographic editor and president and founder of the Family Travel Association, moderated the panel that included KOA CEO Jim Rogers, PCMag.com lead mobile analyst Sascha Segan and family relationships specialist Dr. Robyn Silverman.
While bringing technology into pristine nature may seem sacrilegious, Segan noted, “There are ways to restrict and make healthier the use of technology, but 2 ways that portable technology can make the camping experience a lot friendlier for people who don’t camp a lot – security and access to information.
“We live in a society where children’s roaming, and ability to travel has been highly restricted – not like when we were kids and could roam the neighborhood, the woods. We had skills, which society doesn’t think is okay to have anymore. Cell phones are great for children’s security and locating – Philip ATT , gizmo pal, Verizon. These are limited cell phone based devices that kids can wear or carry, let’s them contact parents and be located. It gives gives parents sense of security to let them roam further and be more adventurous.
“Standard cell phones have that capability too (like life360.com). Families can be a group when traveling and camping, then can spread out – teens can wander, but parents can know where they are and message them to come back.
WiFi can also be useful in the “restoration of lost knowledge. There used to be all this knowledge about nature which isn’t that common any more, especially for urban/suburban people. But now, you can take a picture of a tree, a bird and Google the image to identify it; look up words to a campfire song, look up video of people singing the campfire song so you can replicate with your kids. (Did you know there are 900 versions of ‘Itzy Bitzy Spider’?)
“Rather than look at devices for video games and Instagram, look at them as a way to enhance knowledge that should be great tools when out in nature.
Other apps that come to play let you get guided tours of national parks, such as Just Ahead, a(GPS-powered mobile app turns smartphones into hands-free audio tour, www.justahead.com/), and ParksByNature Network, LLC (PBN) developed the technology Pocket Ranger®, a smartphone outdoor mobile guide application as a resource for state park systems and fish and wildlife agencies across the country, that provides advanced GPS mapping features, detailed species information, news, advisories and weather alerts, social networking and photo sharing, and cache-able map tiles for offline use (www.pocketranger.com).
“Parents can set healthy limits on tech when camping,” says Dr. Robyn Silverman. “The key is to make sure you are in control of device, device not in control of family.
“You can decide what is appropriate use of devices – who, what, where. Where are you going to use the device? Back at the campground, on your way to campground? Make sure everyone in agreement. If they are bringing something that will connect them with the world at large, there are safety considerations (Don’t tell everyone where they are going, that they have left the house empty and not going back for 4 days.)
“When is it appropriate to share photos, call a friend, or text a friend? You may designate a time in the morning, an hour when they can do what they like with tech , or after the day is through, at 5 pm, while dinner is cooking, and the kids can upload photos. For teenagers, sharing their photos and what is going on in their lives is not just an extra, or fun, but is a core part of their lives – cyber life and their life is no longer separate, but one life they are living. When they are not able to share their experience with their friends through words and images, it is as if it’s not really happening. It’s validity to share – feeling that there is something special about what they are doing. It allows for interaction. So imagine a child or teenager uploading photos from the day onto Instagram – an amazing bush with a heart flower, amazing insect, a goofy sister – next morning, they get the reactions, and it says to them ‘It’s cool. I want to know about it. I want to do it too.’ So let them, but let them understand there is a specific time.”
“Most KOAs provide WiFi but it isn’t as easy as for a hotel. We have 20 to 100 acres and everyone wants instant catch. We’re sensitive to it, and responding to guest need.”
But there is also a direct benefit to the campground, in having people share their experiences. “It’s fantastic for the business, for youth to get their friends excited. We can use tech to communicate the fun back to another audience.
By all accounts, though, camping is extremely popular: the study shows that 44 % of Americans camp regularly, and 25% do it annually. A lot of segments in the travel industry would love 1 in 4.”
“I don’t think the world knows that figure,” Rogers notes. “Camping involves a lot of different types of accommodations – tent (54%), RVs (30%). The rest are deluxe cabins – they don’t need equipment, they can show up and have a deluxe cabin (no different than a Marriott) – that sleeps up to 6. There are 2500 of these deluxe cabins and 4000 log cabins with electricity. It makes it easier for people to go camping.
“We’re in outdoor hospitality business. It’s easier to go from backyard to back country.”
Staff are there to show how to get firewood, deliver pancakes, host winetasting at night, and tie die during the day. There are movie nights – even floating screens in swimming pools. “Activities at campgrounds are phenomenal.”
Camping can help families build bonds, Silverman says. “The idea of just getting away with the family, uninterrupted time, or controlled interruptions getting away from the daily grind, the latest drama, tv, being just with the people in front of you.”
The preparation for a camping trip also provides a vehicle for bonding.
“The family can sit down and have a discussion about what everyone wants out of it: What would you like to do, see, or happen? At the end of the camping trip, what is one thing or two things you hope we have done?
Then, at the campground, it continues: collecting sticks and building a fire together becomes a group activity; enjoying what is cooked, like baked apples, smores, hot dogs. “Children remember these as amazing times – what do you do around campfire – singing, telling stories, scary or nostalgic. Dad, Mom get to talk about when they were young, or jumped into the lake. This helps ground a family. We all lead such busy lives now. Being away from all the activities, the over-scheduling, the peer pressure – this is a time to plug in – with walks, looking at stars, talking and connecting with family and remembering that the only noise you need to hear is child’s voice and you can really listen to each other, time to teach and learn about world around you – what’s going on in your child’s head. This is a time to bond that is different from any other time –because there is nothing out there but you.”
And campgrounds also forge a community. says Jim Rogers. “In a hotel, can you imagine knocking on someone’s door? At a campground, you share within minutes.”
“All those things you’re trying to fight against can be alleviated by going camping – camping and being outdoors enormous benefits to children – countless studies that being out in nature can be very healthy, not just physical – important, exercising, walking, getting out, climbing trees, getting in water – but also in cognitive, social-emotional way. The child is being exposed to a new place, exploring like kids used to do – can walk up to a tree – lichen, – engage on a different level.”
Campgrounds offer many other activities and experiences – like ziplining, ropes courses. You can look through the KOA book to see what activities and experiences each campground affords. “These are the sort of experiences that bring you together…. Conquering your own fears, a parent saying ‘I didn’t know you could do that, now I know you are courageous and I admire you.'”
Silverman notes that many people still don’t appreciate all that modern campgrounds (really more like camping resorts) offer, and recommends just “dipping your toe in – you don’t have to commit to a full vacation of camping, but you can make it a piece of a vacation that incorporates an entirely different lifestyle.”
“The 2015 camping experience is not the 1985 camping experience,” says Sascha Segan. “Many families who are deciding not to camp may be thinking of the 1985 experience – whether it’s the cabins, free WiFi, staff to help you erect the tent, it’s a very different experience than National Lampoon vacations.”
One of the more unusual KOA Campgrounds is Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, in upstate New York, on the Erie Canal, where you not only can prospect for diamonds (actually quartz crystals), but stay in luxurious themed solar-powered cabins, an Astronomy Lodge that even has an elevated observatory and telescope and, the newest, Professor Gadget’s Robotics Lodge that features working robotic components to educate and entertain. Here, experience Upstate New York’s largest jewelry store, museum, a fossil-and-gemstone sluicing area, “Randy” the authentic dinosaur skull and a new activity center. Enjoy a canal boat ride with Lil’ Diamond III at the Herkimer Marina. Go through a lock that lifts you up and down 20 feet on the Erie Canal. Visit nearby Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame. Alongside KOA’s campsites, West Canada Creek offers trout and fun for canoeists, tubers and kayakers. Dine at KOA’s on-site cafe, pavilion or Crystal Chandelier Restaurant. Join in the many activities during Herkimer Diamond Mines’ 60th anniversary. Herkimer Diamond KOA also offers group programs, such as a Rock & Gem Camp. (4626 State Route 28, Herkimer, NY 13350, P: 315.891.7355, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.herkimerdiamond.com).
Imagine going to sleep to the sound of gibbons whooping and lions roaring. Lion Country Safari, the drive-through safari and amusement park in West Palm Beach, Florida, actually has a KOA on its grounds. When you camp here, you’ll feel like you’re on an adventure in the African bush. This full-service campground has 233 sites including Cabins, pull thru sites and tent sites. There’s also a pavilion for groups, a large playground, a resort-size pool, shuffleboard, volleyball, basketball and a dog park (561-793-9797 or 800-562-9115, www.lioncountrysafari.com, www.koa.com/where/fl/09310/)
The Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch is a premier family campground in the heart of the Black Hills, affording easy access to visit nearby majestic Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial. It’s also close to Custer State Park and Harney Peak. KOA’s Fun Zone (Memorial – Labor Day) entertains with two heated pools, two spas, waterslide, splash pad, Jumping Pillow and mini golf. and a 25-foot climbing wall. This campground also offers Wi-Fi Hotspots, bike rentals, golf cart/ATV rentals, guided horseback rides, gold panning, paddleboats and chuckwagon dinners. Enjoy horse-drawn hayrides, nightly movies and live entertainment three nights/week. Scavenger hunts, crafts and inflatables keep kids busy. Have breakfast at the pancake tent, lunch at the snack bar and dinner at KOA’s full-service restaurant. Hop on KOA’s nightly shuttle to the lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore. (12620 Highway 244, Hill City, SD 57745, Reserve: 800-562-8503, Info: 605-574-2525, www.mountrushmorekoa.com)
Kampgrounds of America, with 485 locations in North America, is celebrating its 53rd Anniversary in 2015. For more information and trip-planning tools, go to www.KOA.com.
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