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The New Art of State Park Camping


Updated August 10th, 2020

The fire crackled quietly as I threw the last of the kindling and leaves on top of the wood. For an April night it was pretty warm. Our first state park camping trip of the year was getting off to a good start. The blue glow of Heidi's cellphone cast a long shadow on the teen's face.

"Roughing It" in the Modern Age

Trying to talk my daughter into leaving the phone at home was pointless, even though there wasn't a stable Internet signal to latch onto out here. She had brought her battery bank and downloaded a selection of Youtube videos specifically for the trip. Teens telling other teens scary stories--ghost revenge tales and paranormal events. Hardly appropriate for a night in the middle of nowhere.

We have been state park camping for nearly a dozen years, with mixed results. Heidi used to love hiking the mile-long trail from our camping spot to the lodge, where there was an old iron playground and basketball court. We would meet people there from all over the Eastern U.S., a population of outdoor enthusiasts who still saw the value of fresh air and sleeping under the stars.

History of Government Parks

The government first saw a need to establish areas of protected wilderness when it made a two-million-acre section of Montana and Wyoming into the first national park. Yellowstone was the first of its kind, but in the next hundred years many states joined the national effort. Now, there are thousands of state parks scattered throughout the United States.

The Emergence of the American Campground

Many people prefer to set up their camper or tent at one of the many state campgrounds designated for that purpose. But I always felt that campgrounds were too formal. I mean, access to electric and a private restroom? How does that put us back in nature?

The first few years that we went camping as a family we made camping reservations, so we could park in the campground without being ticketed. Plus it gave us a "way out" of the trip if Heidi got scared and wanted to go home.

Evolution of In-the-Rough Camping

One thing I learned over the years of state park camping with a child was to keep one foot in the modern world, even if you plan to rough it in the wilderness. Make sure you have some modern amenities, like headache medicine, toilet paper and extra clothing. Before catching on to that advice I often found myself in the middle of nowhere with a child who wouldn't use the bathroom and was always froze to death.

Glamping and the "New" Sport of Camping

As we entered the state park camping area this year, it was hard to avoid noticing the new luxury-sized RVs parked in the first three lots of the campground. I asked the ranger what they were for and was met with an enthusiastic marketing spiel and an offer of a free night. My daughter, at fifteen, salivated next to me, clearly interested. I shook my head and shared a glance with my husband.

Apparently, glamping is the new way to camp. Also known as glamorous camping, people who make camping reservations at some campgrounds have the option of staying in a camper, cabin, or tent decked out with amenities you would expect to find at a resort hotel, including queen-sized beds, a wood or gas heating stove and a private bath with warm water. Really? Is this what camping has come to?

A Lesson in Reality

We didn't fall for the marketing ploy. We set off down the trail to our regular camping spot, some two miles away from the state park camping grounds. It was shady and moist. The tent stakes went into the ground easily and it took only minutes to set the two-room tent up in our normal spot. Once it was raised, I walked along the edges to push the tent onto the ground.

We zipped the windows open to let the mild spring breeze flow through the tent. Then we each grabbed our sleeping bags and placed them on the floor of the tent. Heidi laid hers out in the second room, dropped to the floor and pulled her phone out of her jacket pocket. For the next five minutes I listened to the warbled tune playing through her headphones.

Back to Nature?

I won't say I had an epiphany at that point, but I did realize, while watching my daughter get lost in her phone, that we might as well be glamping. No, we didn't have electric. But where was the dirt under our feet? The old-fashioned campfire for roasting marshmallows and hot dogs? The little propane stove in the corner stared back at me, teasing me with its double-burner.

It didn't take long for us to move our sleeping bags outside. Heidi shot me a quick glare as she dragged her sleeping bag to the other side of the wood we'd piled to build the fire. It didn't take long for the dry wood to catch, and less than a half hour later we found some sticks and stuck the hot dogs on the ends, lowering them carefully into the fire.

Camping on a Good Night

I have made many compromises with my daughter just to keep her interested in our seasonal state park camping trips. She's allowed to bring her phone and a battery bank, but once they both die they are put away for the remainder of the trip. Since our camping reservations usually extend to a week or more, the phone is not an issue for long.

I still have trouble with the idea of glamping--it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But in a society of ever-present technology, there has to be a compromise between the old-fashioned notion of camping and what we expect to be able to do now. Give me a sleeping bag, a crackling fire and a clear night and I'm happy.

For more info about camping, click here.


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