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Camping in the Pandemic: Finding Campsites and Open Restrooms in a Time of Limited Capacity | Frommer's welcomia / Shutterstock

Camping in the Pandemic: Finding Campsites and Open Restrooms in a Time of Limited Capacity

Camping in 2020 is different than in previous years. Campers must consider closures, constrained capacity, and new safety measures. Make sure you find sites and facilities as you travel. 

MAY 28, 2020

All the travel pros and industry insiders predict that camping will be big this summer.

RV rentals are up by as much as 1,000%, according to some companies. And the folks at the campground-finding site The Dyrt tell us that downloads of the paid version of their mobile app have spiked by an astonishing 2,800% in the last few weeks. 

But you probably knew intuitively that camping would be alluring for Americans who spent the spring stuck in isolation, right? 

Many of us long to be outside again, yet we still need to keep our distance from others for health reasons. Many of us are also skittish about venturing too far from home, especially if that involves getting on a plane. And with the economy in tatters, we're all looking for cheap leisure activities. 

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Camping seems to fit the bill in every regard. 

But before you head off into the wilderness, there are some things you need to know about how camping in 2020 will be different than in previous years—from navigating campground closures to planning ahead to reserve spots in a time of increased demand and lowered capacity. 

Your motto should be that of any good Boy Scout or of any criminal mastermind plotting a jewel heist: Be prepared

Not Everything Is Available

Though most state and national parks closed to visitors during the height of pandemic lockdowns, you may be surprised to learn that many independently owned campgrounds have remained in business the whole time.

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“Most of our campgrounds stayed open,” says Toby O’Rourke, CEO of KOA, the network of more than 500 commercial campgrounds across the United States and Canada. “We worked with the states to make sure [our sites] were deemed essential for long-term RVers—people who live at campgrounds—as well as traveling nurses and other medical staff.”

Recreational amenities were temporarily shut down across the board, however, and those have only recently begun to return—with restrictions, depending on state and local regulations.

Still, because neither lockdowns nor reopenings were mandated on a federal level in the U.S., you’ll have to undertake a focused search to find available sites. Here's how to get started. 

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Resources

One place to go for comprehensive info is The Dyrt, a kind of Yelp for camping that has reviews and photos of more than 44,000 publicly and privately owned campgrounds.

Those listings are user-generated, but the site’s staffers are also maintaining what The Dyrt’s cofounder and CEO Kevin Long describes as the “mothership” of all tracking tools—a state-by-state compendium of campground closures, openings, restrictions, and service reductions. 

“Our team spends hours on this thing,” Long says, “constantly keeping it up to date by looking at all the government sites and cross-referencing with info we’re getting from our user base. Park rangers and campground owners are also letting us know what’s happening because they want their stuff updated.”

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You can use the tracker to search public and private parks by state or browse national parks alphabetically.

Other handy resources for a more targeted look at openings and closings: 

KOA’s website posts a list of its closed campgrounds and expected reopening dates. 

Our own regularly updated rundown of reopenings at the major national parks includes info about campgrounds when available. Fair warning: At this time, many popular national parks are open for daytime hours only—meaning at those, camping may not be an option. 

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And don’t forget to consult your state’s official website for state parks to find important info on campground closures and restrictions there. Search online for your state’s name + “state parks.” The page’s URL will likely end in “.gov.”  

Finding a Camping Spot Despite Limited Capacity

State and local regulations also determine how many people are allowed at a campground and which public areas and facilities can be open. 

Capacity may be limited to discourage large crowds. New Mexico's first phase of reopening, for example, capped all lodging (which includes campgrounds) at 25%, while New Hampshire allows up to 50%. Other localities require using every other campsite to ensure plenty of distancing. 

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The combination of sudden high demand and limited supply due to closed campgrounds and capacity restrictions raises an important question: Will there be enough spots to accommodate all these would-be campers?

The Dyrt’s Long thinks there should be enough sites to go around, but he does recommend having a backup plan in case your first choice is fully booked. His company’s research has found that in a typical year, “45% of campers don’t reserve in advance”—they simply head to a region and snag a spot when they arrive. 

This year, you might want to rethink that strategy. “It’s always great if you can book ahead,” Long says, or if “people want to check it out for themselves first, make a list of three different campgrounds in a specific area and decide which one to hunker down at.” 

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Be sure to write out detailed driving instructions to each spot since Wi-Fi service can be spotty on the road and you may not be able to look up directions on your phone—unless, as Long hastens to add, you download The Dyrt app's paid, “pro” version, which lets you access maps and reviews offline for a yearly fee of $29. 

If you don’t want to do that, this is the part where making reservations ahead of time (at least a month in advance for the best results) and planning for contingencies could really pay off.

Government-owned campgrounds are likely to fill up first. It’ll help your chances to be flexible with dates and locations, and to consider unconventional options like stays on farmland and other private properties, which can be located via sites like Hipcamp

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Other Restrictions and Safety Measures

Though regulations vary by location, KOA’s O’Rourke tells us that at most commercial campgrounds, “group gathering spaces like playgrounds and pools are closed or limited based on gathering-size requirements.” Those usually are limited to groups of 10 people, and also apply to campgrounds at state and national parks, if they happen to be open. 

And—crucially—O’Rourke says, “In a lot of cases, we can’t open the bathrooms yet.” 

Obviously, a lack of publicly available showers and toilets makes sleeping in a tent an unappealing notion for all but the stoutest outdoorsy types. 

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That’s one reason why experts expect to see an uptick in RV rentals this summer—motor homes have their own bathrooms and food prep areas, which come with hygiene and social distancing benefits as well.

Click here for our guide to renting an RV, and click here for an analysis of how safe these vehicles will keep you in the summer of Covid-19.

The limited bathroom situation doesn’t mean that using a tent is out entirely, especially as the summer wears on and restrictions loosen further. 

But it’s a good idea to check the websites of state and national parks for bathroom info, or, if you’re staying at a commercial campground, call or email the owner ahead of time and ask about the plumbing. The same goes for campsites on private land.

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This year would be a good time to look into the purchase of a portable camping toilet and shower. If you camp in a region where bears live, bone up on strategies for the safe storage of your food if you can't find a campground with bear-proof lockers. 

Other changes you'll see at public and commercial parks are in line with health and safety measures elsewhere: contactless check-in, rangers and staff members wearing masks, and plastic dividers at stores and concessions—when they're open. At national parks in particular, many concessions, which tend to be operated by third-party vendors, may be closed.

But O'Rourke reports that the stores at KOA sites are open. “If you forget something," she says, "you can pick up your marshmallows.”

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That would be an oversight we don’t even want to contemplate. 

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