Coronavirus has wreaked havoc over the past year, infecting 106.8 million people and killing 2.3 million worldwide – with 27.1 million of those cases and 466,000 of the deaths coming from the United States. By any measure things have been disrupted.
How COVID-19 will ultimately affect 2021 is unknown. But a few things are evident. Corona fatigue is real. People are ready to get out and on the move. And for more than 50 million Americans, that likely means a camping trip.
Camping – be it via a tent in the backcountry or a hard-sided camper parked in full-facility campsite that mirrors many comforts of home – is a relatively pandemic friendly activity.
As is the case with most activities, things will be different at America’s campgrounds this year. If you plan on camping this year, campground and park officials at both the state and national level have some advice. If you take nothing else from this article, let it be this: Plan early and reserve a camping spot as soon as possible, taking advantage of the fact that many federal and state campgrounds accept reservations – and some even require them.
“Summer holiday weekends are the busiest and we encourage folks to make reservations as soon as possible to secure their spot,” said Scott Simpson, division director for South Dakota state parks and recreation.
Shane Bertsch, the district park supervisor for the Lewis & Clark Recreation Area along the Missouri River near Yankton, South Dakota, and one of the region’s most popular camping destinations, was even more direct.
“Memorial Day weekend reservations are not open until 90 days before arrival which would make Feb. 27 the earliest date you could make reservations for the Friday of Memorial Day weekend,” said Bertsch.
The park recorded a record number of campers in 2020, which Bertsch partly attributed to COVID fatigue. He does not anticipate a slowdown. “As soon as the Memorial Day weekend reservations are open, we will have sold all campsites within one week. We recommend that reservations should be made as far in advance as possible.”
Katlyn Svendsen, the media relations manager South Dakota Tourism said that their Kampground of America (KOA) corporate partners are reporting strong 2021 camping reservations numbers. Because Memorial Day and July 4 holidays are nearly booked up at some sites, she recommends that camping reservations be made “sooner than later.”
“That tells a pretty compelling story for what we’re looking at with consumer behavior and aligns well with what our research is telling us about how consumers are looking at behavior into 2021,” Svendsen said. “Camping, road trips, RVs, and an interest in getting out this summer is going to be strong.”
Mount Rushmore’s home state is a surprisingly popular camping destination, but it is hardly the only one.
Camping is also popular at the 522,42-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park which straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina border and is the country’s most-visited national park.
Reservations are required at the park’s 10 developed campgrounds. Park spokesperson Dana Soehn directs campers to Recreation.gov, a surprisingly user-friendly site for online reservations and up-to-date campsite availability information. The site also serves as a gateway for camping reservations at thousands of federal properties.
Soehn’s advice echoes that of Simpson, Bertsch and Svendsen: Plan early; reserve early.
“All the Smokies campsites are now available through online reservations only,” she said. “It’s important to be prepared.”
Example: The Memorial Day weekend is generally considered the unofficial start to the summer camping season. The Cade Cove Campground is one of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s most popular camping spots. The 159-site full facility campground is open all year for 2021 except for December.
An online check of available campsites for the Memorial Day weekend of May 28-30 (Friday through Sunday nights) revealed only 44 sites available for the three-day holiday weekend. The same online search revealed that the slightly more rustic and secluded 16-site Abram’s Creek (tent only) campground had a dozen available spots for the same three-day period.
Two times zone and 2,200 miles away, the early camping reservation pattern is being repeated, though be it for slightly different time frame.
Summer camping is not recommended at Death Valley National Park, located on the California-Nevada border, where the sweltering, triple-digit heat is both uncomfortable and unsafe.
For those who do want to spend the night among Death Valley’s 3 million rugged acres of rock, sand, a below-sea-level floor and towering mountains, advanced planning is needed.
Furnace Creek is the only Death Valley NP campground where reservations are accepted but only from mid-October to mid-April. If you were hoping to reserve a spot for the current season, you’re probably too late. Furnace Creek Campground is “over 99.5%” booked through April 15, according to park management assistant Abby Wines. She added that numerous sites are still available at the park’s first-come, first-serve campgrounds.
Rachel Hopper, visitor services and outreach sections manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Parks and Trails Division, also advises campers to plan ahead when possible. Occupation and reservation rates in her state vary by park but for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, nearly 77% of her state’s drive-in electric sites and already booked with more than three months to go.
Last year, the Minnesota DNR trimmed its 365-day advance campground reservation window to 120 days.
“Specific types of units tend to be more popular than others,” Hopper said via email. “Also, specific state parks tend to be more popular. Some parks campgrounds are already 100% full for entire weeks in the spring.”
According to the website Pitchup.com, which bills itself as the world’s largest booking website for outdoor accommodations, which includes camping and glamping, advanced bookings for 2021 are up 39% compared to the same time in 2020, another indications that camping popularity is spiking and another reason to reserve a spot early.
“With camping’s newfound popularity last year as people sought safe, open-air activities, travel industry professionals are encouraging camping enthusiasts and newbies alike to begin planning now for their summertime adventures,” according to Pitchup.com founder Dan Yates.
In South Dakota, as in other parts of the country, 2020 was a record camping year. A slowdown is not expected.
“All indications show that people will continue taking advantage of the outdoors,” Simpson concluded. “We expect to see great numbers return in 2021.”
Reserve early. Here’s how:
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Death Valley National Park
National Park Service and other federal properties
Minnesota Department of Natural Resource
Gary Garth has camped, fished, hiked, canoed, kayaked, hunted and occasionally been lost in most states and a few countries. More at www.garygarth.net.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Camping: Here’s how far ahead you need to book spring, summer trips