When Matt and Tracy Hawkins opened the Spur Campground two years ago on 20 acres in Piedmont, S.D., they tried to make it a destination in itself, rather than just a place to sleep, the Rapid City Journal reported.
“I just tried to do as many things as possible that I thought would be fun,” Matt Hawkins said. “You can do Mount Rushmore, you can do Custer State Park, but what do you do when you get back?”
Visitors can play on the playground, throw horseshoes, watch a movie on the outdoor screen, have a beer in the bar or play sand volleyball.
Then they can sleep in an air-conditioned cabin.
“You can get the camping atmosphere for people who don’t want to be in all the elements,” Hawkins said.
The Spur isn’t just for out-of-state vacationers. Locals are regular guests, as well, on the sand volleyball leagues or at weekly motorcycle and classic car shows. Hawkins has booked several birthday parties and recently hosted an Air Force private party for 600.
In an uncertain economy, campgrounds are proving a popular vacation destination. Even a luxury cabin is more affordable than a cheap hotel room.
“We also tried to keep our prices way down,” Hawkins said. “People shop on price sometimes. We tried to create as many amenities as possible at the same time keeping our price down.”
Cabins are $24.95 a night and tent sites are $15.
Lori Engel, manager of the Heartland RV Park in Hermosa, agreed that people are looking for a deal. She said their 16 air-conditioned cabins are booked solid through July, at $39.95 a night.
“Our cabins are really getting hit this year,” she said.
But tent sites are also popular, at just $14.95. Engel said people are leaving campers at home and driving their cars to camp.
“I believe people are looking for the less expensive route,” Engel said. “Some may have their own camping units. But due to gas prices I believe, and working situations, more of them are looking to just drive a car and come out to stay in a tent or cabin.”
Campers these days include those who aren’t taking long trips – they’re families heading just a few miles from home for some time away.
Jolene Baxman organizes an annual two-night trip for a dozen mothers and their kids to a Kampgrounds of America (KOA) facility in Petaluma, Calif., a mere 5 miles from where she lives. But they don’t pitch tents. They rent a lodge with a bathroom, indoor shower, kitchenette, microwave, barbecue grill, and, of course, beds. The moms take turns relaxing and making meals; the kids swim and bike. At night, they sing around a campfire and toast marshmallows.
“It’s not far from our homes, but it feels like we’re camping,”Baxman said. “We’re out in the woods; it’s very beautiful — lush trees and you don’t hear any cars around. We’re not in a tent, but it’s camping to us.”
More than half of those staying with Kampgrounds of America say they were at home the night before arriving at the campground, according to KOA CEO Jim Rogers. That’s a 25% increase over seven years.
Rogers says work demands, kids’ schedules, high gas prices and other concerns are all contributing to the trend.
“They just want to stay within reach and go away for shorter time periods,” he said.
Rogers also said KOAs have seen a 25% increase in the use of roofed accommodations at their campgrounds.
“It’s attracting a whole new breed of campers, people we haven’t seen before,” he said.
Jeff Crider, spokesman for the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), says “more and more campgrounds across the country are offering organized activities that could range from nature walks to special themed weekend events like holiday events or Father’s Day events. You can still find plenty of campgrounds that offer a natural setting and a nice environment for kayaking, fishing or river tubing, but what the parks are finding is that more and more families want things to do. And fun activities are a way to get kids away from computers and iPods and do something as a family.”
In addition, campgrounds that offer these types of activities find that people will stay longer — three or four days instead of just a weekend.
Crider said accommodations are also changing. Campgrounds are investing in everything from yurts and furnished tipis to cottages and cabins. A KOA in Herkimer, N.Y., just opened three furnished cabins for rent that are powered by solar panels, with a backup propane generator.
“If they can provide rental accommodations, then they can make camping accessible to everyone. It isn’t just people who like to rough it in a tent or who have an RV,” Crider said.
Even those who go the traditional route of sleeping on the ground may be spending time in a tent that has multiple rooms, with separate quarters that can be used for the kids or as a screened-in porch for chairs.
REI, the outdoor gear and apparel retailer, has seen an increase in overall sales for family camping tents. “Some of these tents are sized so four to eight people can sleep in them,” said REI spokeswoman Courtney Coe. “They have a room divider that allows separate places for parents and kids to sleep comfortably, and a screened room for families to set chairs up in at night to play cards and get away from the bugs. You can also zip on an optional garage vestibule to give your family more storage space.”
An eight-person model new for this year, the REI Kingdom 8, sells for $489, but Coe pointed out that some customers buy the bigger tent just for the space, even though only two or three people intend to use it.
There are about 14,000 campgrounds in North America, Crider said, including national parks, with about 8,000 of the campgrounds privately owned and operated. KOAs exist in 475 locations.