Travel isn’t the same this summer. Whether avoiding COVID-19 hot spots, or trips canceled because of restrictions on traveling to other countries, we’re not traveling the way we usually do. One relatively frugal travel option has become more attractive to the masses: camping. One-third of leisure travelers who have not camped before are now interested in trying it, according to the 2020 North American Camping Report.
I can see why. No need to be shoved into an airplane cocktail of everyone else’s germs. No worries about whether the beachfront rental was really cleaned after four other families used it. And camping means freedom, right? Hit the open road to drive you and/or your family to vistas and mountains and plains in your own socially distant bubble on a trip that will be sure to suck the angst and terror out of your souls, right? Even if you’re only driving to a nearby campground, packing up a tent and some sleeping bags screams adventure and safety at the same time.
To which, I say: Godspeed. Because most of the time, camping sucks.
Take it from me. In 2017, I lived out of my Jeep and a tent on a quest to see the 18 states I hadn’t been to. Camping made the trip financially possible, but I spent most of that time hot, dirty, tired, and in desperate need of a shower. (If you think you’ll get around all this by renting an RV, have you ever seen a dump station? Good luck.)
And unless you’re venturing far enough out to camp on public lands (which are free but have no water and no toilets), camping is crowded too. Thinking of touring the national parks? So is everyone else. On May 24, Zion National Park closed access at 6:30 a.m. because of crowds. Opting for private campsites instead? In Indiana, I chose a spot on a lakeshore that seemed nice enough, but I realized too late that it was so cheap because the lake’s owners let people fish overnight. I haven’t slept in a Wal-Mart parking lot yet — the last resort for a camper without a campsite — but I did pull in and out of a public lands campsite in Utah when I realized that, at 7 p.m., the temperature was still stuck at 100 degrees. I kept driving until I hit Grand Junction, Colo., and a Holiday Inn Express where I paid dearly for the privilege of air-conditioning and a bed. I cried in the shower because I was tired of so much fun outdoor adventure. And then I ordered takeout.
I’m lucky, too, that when I camp, my misery is all my own. Yes, I sleep with a can of Raid next to my head and a knife under my inflatable pillow, but when I sweated out a summer night on top of a sleeping bag in a campground in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, I dealt with only one body’s heat, not two. In Grand Teton National Park, it wasn’t my kids embarrassing me by ramming into the tent of that nice lady who just wanted a good night’s sleep (though I was the one rammed into). In New Mexico, I wasn’t seeking out the company of a woman 15 years older than me because after three days, I was already annoyed with my road-trip companion (and also: he hoped I had beer because his fake ID had been confiscated three states ago).
And then there’s the food (nonperishable and non-great), the coffee (tepid, and instant unless you can find some sludge from the always open pot at a gas station), duffel bags bursting with undone laundry, batteries that die, chargers that don’t work, phones that don’t get service even when chargers do, campfires that don’t light or that blow smoke in your face or aren’t allowed at all because of uncontrolled wildfires in that state. Then because you can’t cook or even heat water, you’re stuck eating into yet another bag of chocolate-less trail mix because you learned that lesson (the one about melting) in Flagstaff, where your car’s spark plug also blew — on a Sunday, in a town with only one garage open. And then there’s the ever potential harm that could be wrought by mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks, snakes, bears, poison ivy, poison oak, and, as a fun new addition in 2017, plague-infected prairie dogs. Have you ever weathered a thunderstorm under two sheets of nylon held up by plastic poles? I have. It’s not the exciting kind of terrifying.
Of course there are moments of brilliance, such as when I climbed up and down a mountain at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah and rewarded myself with the best apricots I’d ever tasted, picked from the park’s own orchard, or when I had my morning coffee with two deer for company in New Mexico, or when, in Wyoming, I unzipped myself from my tent to use the bathroom (again) and was almost knocked flat by a sky full of more stars than I thought one sky could hold.
My 2017 road trip — the one where I cried in that hotel room in Grand Junction -- ended early when I adopted a dog in Idaho. I thought I’d camp with her on the way back to New Jersey, but even though her previous residence was a field, I didn’t want to make her sleep on the ground, and I didn’t want to sleep on the ground anymore either.
Still: Now we’re both restless, so I’m still hoping to pack up the dog and the tent and hit the road. I’ll wait until September, though, when all the amateur campers have cleared out, the campsites I want are more readily available, and the heat’s turned off at night.
But I’ve saved a bundle of Holiday Inn points this time, just in case.