Camping Quandaries

Arriving to camp after six hours in the car is always a relaxing experience. It’s three minutes to nine o’clock on the eastern edge of Missouri, and I’m looking forward to stretching, eating, and getting horizontal post-haste. After a requisite full-body exhale of relief, I crack the car door – and am instantly assaulted by a cacophony of sound. I reel, and it takes me a few seconds to realize what the hubbub’s all about. Cicadas. Many, many decibels’ worth of cicadas. 

Their song is a physical presence in the night, and the thought of just closing the door again flits across my mind. But we’re in their territory now, and while I’m unsure their yelling will cease, it is a yelling we’ll have to get used to. And we do, eventually. Well, at least until it’s time to sleep. Then there’s that one asshole who wants to buzz/shriek out of rhythm with everyone else, and it keeps me up until I stuff my aging earplugs in my ears. They’re not super effective anymore, but they dim the noise enough that I can sleep.

It’s not these kinds of camp issues that really bother me anymore – such experiences are a patina distinguishing the fifty-six evenings we’ve spent outside since we started this gig from one another. Rather, what bothers me about car camping in a tent so much, particularly in the region we’re in, is the dearth of opportunities that exist – and, when they do exist, the sheer cost of taking advantage of them.

you are but a thumb-sized mental cost, little buddy – one I’ll humbly pay for squatting in your house.

We had an “oh shit we left this too long” moment a while back on the western shore of Lake Superior. It’s a gorgeous area, and understandably popular, what with all the water everywhere. It was a Monday night, though, so we figured we’d be able to find somewhere in the numerous parks and wild areas to camp, but everything was full. We were directed to a city campground just outside of Two Harbors, Minnesota, and pulled in to take a look.

The campground was on the shore of Lake Superior, I’ll give it that, with water access and everything. But it also was on the metaphorical shore of the busy two-lane highway, which wasn’t exactly what you’d call quiet. The developed sites, with electricity and water for RVs, were squeezed in on top of one another, with barely any room to stretch and a questionable amount of privacy between them. The campground designer then apparently played Afterthought Tetris to toss some primitive sites in there as well.

All the primitive sites – where you’d normally camp in a tent in a place like this – were tossed into places where a developed site couldn’t feasibly exist, and for good reason – the trees or massive root systems swallowing the site, the abominably slanted land, or the fact that they weren’t actually big enough to fit our four-person tent, let alone exist outside it. The three sites that weren’t plagued with one or more of these issues were in literal spitting distance of the highway, and all of them required you park in a space a fair bit away to quite far away from your actual campsite.

Plus, every single one of those primitive sites was $28.90 per night1.

It’d be one thing if these sites were the ones we had to choose from for dispersed camping. And by “dispersed”, I mean free, in that first-come-first-served, generally away from roads, with a lot of privacy kind of way. Much can be forgiven in terms of quality or cleanliness or nearby-ish neighbors drag racing down the gravel roads at 2am under such conditions.

not sure who looks at this (free) campground in Hoosier National Forest, Indiana and thinks “drag racing”, but maybe that’s just me

But to pay daily what ends up amounting to $867 per 30-day month for a 5×5 patch of root system to sleep put your tent on, that doesn’t have water or electricity to charge your things or even a place to park your car – that’s ludicrous to me2.

One of the things the outdoors community likes to crow about is how accessible being outdoors is. And they’re right, in a way. It is free just to go outside wherever you are, and it’s free to camp if you take advantage of dispersed camping. But when you add in getting time off work if you don’t have a set schedule, plus gas to get out of your immediate surroundings to that more-natural place, plus the gear, even second-hand, if you don’t already have it, plus the entrance fee (sometimes per person) or car fee places charge, plus the camping fee or backcountry permit fee if there’s no dispersed camping nearby – all of it adds up. And while any number of these costs can be avoided – depending on where you are and how you recreate – for people already on a shoestring budget, cutting corners where they can, getting out on a dayhike someplace natural can be impossible to manage, let alone getting out to camp.

I’m not saying our outdoor spaces don’t need the money, particularly in places that have to deal with the impacts camping brings. They do, and in a serious way. But closing off practical access to wild spaces, and particularly to public lands – land that every single person in this country has a right to access – by putting financial barriers to access in place doesn’t seem to me to be the right way to go about funding them.

One solution to the funding shortfall that’s being tossed around at the federal level is the privatization of camping in national parks3. Privatization simply means that these campgrounds, currently run on a not-for-profit basis, will become for-profit, and as such, the tendency will be to attempt to squeeze every dime out of the people visiting, stacking people on top of each other in terrible campsites to maximize profits. Sure, they’ll have to find a balance between getting paid and filling to capacity as often as possible, but if the campsite outside of Two Harbors is any indication, they won’t have much trouble. Prices will increase to whatever the wealthier part of the market will bear, with the potential to close off camping in national parks to little ol’ tent campers like me.

Sure, there are other places to camp, or there can be, depending on where you are. And most of them are significantly cheaper than Two Harbors, ranging from free on the extreme end to an average of about $16 a night, in my experience, when you pay. But there won’t necessarily always be. If the system “works” – which can be defined through a range of different metrics, not all of them interested in the public good – this could easily spread to other federal lands or to state lands or parks.

Wilson State Park, Kansas

And then, where will campers be?

Starting Subaru Mileage: 8235   •  Ending Subaru Mileage: 10,131  •  (Two) Week(s’) Mileage: 1896
Notable Accomplishments, Bits, and Camps:  Actually wrote – I’ll try to be better about that  •  Camped at Wilson State Park, the only park in Kansas with a mountain biking trail rated Epic by IMBA  •  Won’t see Colorado again until 2018

[1] The developed sites ranged from $35.48-42.14 per night.

[2] The developed sites, because I wanted to know, would be $1064.40-1264.2 per 30-day month. While I don’t know much about RV camping prices, this is the general price range of a one-bedroom apartment in the Front Range, and as such seems potentially inflated to me. Could be it’s normal, though.

[3] This article, dated June 11, 2017, is the most in-depth article I could find; there are other articles of varying length that discuss the issue in positive and negative tones.

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