Q: I'm not necessarily a camping person, so I need some convincing.
A: Look at it as the ultimate way to take a break from civilization and focus on simpler pleasures—marshmallows melted to smoky perfection, air fresher than you thought possible, laughing with the people around you. Besides, more and more, camping doesn't mean roughing it. Yes, there are still plenty of primitive sites in parks and forest areas—no toilets, provisions, or rangers for miles—and they're cheap (often $20 or less per night). But today's typical private campground, where tent sites fall in the $25 to $40 range, has a pool, a kids' play area, bike rentals, ice-cream socials, outdoor movie nights, and a supply store. Along with tent and RV sites, there may be cottages, yurts, or simple cabins equipped with cots and, most important, roofs that don't leak. In fact, the fastest-growing style of lodging at the KOA chain, which has 475 campgrounds across North America, is the Kamping Lodge, a rectangular home away from home with a kitchen, running water, and air-conditioning that sleeps up to six (koa.com, from $85 a night). Everybody seems to want in on the back-to-nature concept—even the rich folks. The Resort at Paws Up in Montana, for instance, charges upward of $820 a night for canvas tents with king-size beds, terry-cloth robes, a private bathroom with heated floors, and access to a butler and chef (pawsup.com).
Q: What's the best way to find the right campground for my family?
A: Generations of campers have sworn by Woodall's, a directory that's been listing and rating North American campgrounds for seven decades. Woodall's still sells 10 printed compendiums (from $4.95), but the bulk of information for some 12,000 locations—including prices, activities, and ratings for cleanliness and service—is available via Woodall's smartphone app (free for download at iTunes). The forums at woodalls.com are also gold mines, with sections on everything from campfire recipes and pet etiquette to traveling with Jet Skis. To find and book campsites in national parks and forest areas, as well as ranger-led tours and backcountry permits, head to recreation.gov. The website is packed with photos, descriptions, real-time vacancy info, and detailed maps.
Q: How do I pick the perfect campsite within the campground?
A: Before selecting (or just getting assigned) a campsite at random, think about what kind of experience you want. If you're a social animal, or your kids (or spouse) need frequent use of the restrooms, you probably won't like the campground's quiet far end (there's always one). On the other hand, it's not smart to pick a spot too close to the action. "One place you don't want is the one closest to the restrooms, as the steady flow of traffic will be disturbing. The smell can be a problem, too," says Kurt Repanshek, founder of nationalparkstraveler.com, a news and trip-planning site dedicated to America's national parks. Reviewing the campground map is helpful, Repanshek says, but not as good as checking it out in person; maps don't always show vegetation, and while a spot near a pond or stream may seem ideal, it may become wetter with dew. Also, if it's not obvious, "look for even ground that has little to no tree roots or rocks," says Kaitlyn Reimer, cofounder of camptrip.com, an online resource with tips, packing lists, and campground and gear reviews. "Make sure the site doesn't have an anthill on it either, or you'll be sharing your bed with tiny invaders." Finally, take a look up: "Steer clear of dead, standing trees and broken limbs that could come down on you in a storm," Repanshek says.
Q: So what gear is really essential?
A: The camping standards are standard for a reason: Tarps, rope or cords, a first-aid kit, waterproof matches, a whistle, and a Swiss Army knife or multi-tool inevitably come in handy. Flashlights are always on the must-bring list, but "headlamps are better," Repanshek says, "since they're hands-free." Also, you'll want a waterproof tent-surprisingly, not all are, and even a brief shower can saturate a poorly made tent. No campsite is as soft as a bed, and a roll-out sleeping pad is key for avoiding the need for a chiropractor the next day. You could buy a special camping pillow, but a balled-up fleece does the trick, too. As for a sleeping bag, one rated to be warm if it's 30 degrees or above should suffice, while anything rated for colder temps is probably overkill. Remember to air out your bags pre-trip; they can get sickeningly musty when stuffed in a closet for months. Finally, if you're camping in bear country, it's smart to shell out the $60 or so for a bear-proof food canister. Bears can sniff out edible morsels through car windows and sealed coolers, so if the rules say to use a bear-proof canister or to store food at least 10 feet above the ground (special poles will be provided to do the job), take heed. These aren't merely "suggestions"—they're designed to keep you, your fellow campers, and the wildlife safe.
The Ultimate Castaway Experience
Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles west of Key West, Fla., is accessible only by seaplane or boat (yankeefreedom.com, $180 for round-trip ferry). In addition to beaches, coral reefs, 80-degree waters, and a walled 19th-century military fort, the park has a handful of first-come, first-served campsites (nps.gov/drto, $3 fee per person per night). Grills, picnic tables, and toilets are available, but campers must bring their own shelter, water, and food and haul away their trash-not a bad trade-off for sleeping among palm trees on a protected tropical island.
A Hike-In-Only Lodge
Northern Georgia's Amicalola Falls State Park is home to the Southeast's tallest waterfalls, the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, and a brilliant option for folks who love the outdoors but not sleeping on the ground. Len Foote Hike Inn is a 20-room lodge accessible via a five-mile hike from the top of the falls. All rooms are private and equipped with bunk beds and electric lighting but, to suit the unplugged atmosphere, no outlets. (Guests are asked to leave cell phones behind, too.) You'll also find linens, hot showers, family-style breakfasts and dinners, wood-burning stoves, and Adirondack chairs facing the mountains. hike-inn.com, from $70 per person.
Camping Almost Too Nice to Be Camping
Lots of RV parks and campgrounds have swimming pools. But a spa and a nine-hole golf course? The Springs at Borrego, in a 600,000-acre park two hours east of San Diego, has both—as well as a dog park, tennis courts, and an "astronomy park," which hosts stargazing events beneath the desert sky with dinner and drinks. springsatborrego.com, $249 for two-night package with RV site and two 60-minute massages.
Rooms With a View
The U.S. Forest Service operates hundreds of mountaintop wildfire lookout towers across the country. These days, many of these lookouts—which are especially prevalent in the West and Pacific Northwest—now serve as simple, scenic lodging options. Bald Knob Lookout, in Oregon's Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, is a 16' x 16' cabin built atop a 20-foot wooden tower, with nothing but forests and valleys for miles around. While guests get a roof overhead, along with a propane stove, a mini fridge, propane lights, and a futon bed, there's no denying this is still roughing it: The only restroom is an outhouse 100 feet from the tower, and you'll have to BYO sleeping bags and water. recreation.gov, $35 per night for up to four people.
Yosemite, No Tents or Cooking Required
Yosemite National Park's rugged terrain is tough enough to navigate without a backpack full of camping gear. To lighten the load, bed down at one of the park's High Sierra Camps, which are outfitted with canvas tents (dorm-style beds and wood-burning stoves included) and are spaced a hikeable six to 10 miles apart. Breakfast and dinner are included, and a few (but not all) sites have hot showers. yosemitepark.com, $151 per adult per night.
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