But with this explosion in popularity comes a greater responsibility to care for nature.
My family wants to go camping this weekend, so I spent some time last night trying to find a campsite at a nearby provincial park. To my astonishment, there wasn't a single available site, until I realized I was looking at the RV section. Once I switched to non-electrical, radio-free camping, there were dozens of empty spots to choose from.
This was a curious revelation for me. It supports what I've noticed already -- that RVs and tent-trailers seem to be exploding in popularity. They squat in driveways all over town, are hauled by trucks everywhere I go, and, as revealed by the online booking site, are filling campgrounds, even in the off-season.
As someone who loves camping, it makes me happy to see people getting outside and enjoying nature, especially if they have small kids who will benefit greatly from spending time outdoors. But, as with any activity that becomes enormously popular in a short amount of time, there are reasonable concerns about the effect that so much camping could have on the natural environment.
Aaron Gulley raises this point in an article for Outside, titled "Is #VanLife Ruining Camping?" Specifically, he refers to the trend in young people buying RVs and living out of them for prolonged periods of time, while driving all over the western U.S. They camp on public lands and beaches and post stunning photos on Instagram with the hashtag 'vanlife'. It looks beautiful and idyllic, but Gulley, who lives with his partner in an Airstream, worries about the effect of so many visitors on nature. He describes feeling "crowded in the backcountry," with dozens of other vans filling up spaces that used to be empty.
Even Bob Wheeler, the aptly-named president of Airstream and co-chair of the RV Industry Association, which is obviously doing very well with the uptick in interest, has expressed doubts:
"We’re very concerned about the number and quality of campgrounds. Infrastructure hasn’t kept up with growth, and good locations are getting harder to get.”
The KOA camping report for 2018 says that more than 6 million American households have taken up camping since 2014, with a 64 percent increase among avid campers who go out three or more times a year. Gulley writes that both 2016 and 2017 saw nearly 331 million people entering U.S. national parks, which is the highest number of annual visitors ever recorded.
In light of this, it's important to talk about how to ensure camping has the least possible impact on the environment. Getting out into nature is important and worthwhile, but only if it's not causing harm or leaving behind a space that's less attractive than it was to begin with.
The first thing I'd ask many new or wannabe campers is, "What about tenting?" I think a lot of people shrug off tenting as a no-go option, but it's actually quite wonderful. If you invest in a high-end, waterproof tent and a good tarp for shelter, you'll be tens of thousands of dollars ahead, just as dry, and you can store it in a closet.
I'd also encourage people to be minimalists when it comes to their RV or trailer size. Think of the fuel required to haul, the electricity and water required to operate, and the space occupied by a huge trailer. Don't assume you need to carry your house on your back; get away from your house! Keep it small and simple. Consider dry camping -- using your RV without hooking up to utilities. Wheeler says more people are doing this, which is good, because it takes some of the burden off national forests and public lands.
Finally, as glorious as the notion of wilderness may be, realize that it is a finite resource. Do your part to preserve it by staying in designated campgrounds and not creating new campsites. Familiarize yourself with the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace. These are:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel & camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
"I’m not saying the sky is falling. The American West, with its vast space and huge swathes of public lands, still has so much open space if you’re willing to look. But it’s important for all of us to realize that’s not an endless commodity. The carving up of places like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the increase of land leases to oil and gas corporations, and the gating of public property by private property owners are all changing our access to open space right now. But public lands are just as vulnerable to irresponsible use as they are to the whims of oil and gas companies."