A more welcoming atmosphere combined with the National Park Service’s centennial celebration could pay short- and long-term dividends in national parks, as campers were drawn to more parks in 2016 and say they intend to increase their frequency of camping this year – with national parks again as the top planned destination.
Overall, 3 in 10 U.S. campers said the Park Service’s 100th anniversary got them to visit a park they would not have otherwise, with millennials the most likely to do so, according to the 2017 North American Camping Report, the third annual survey conducted by Cairn Consulting Group and sponsored by Kampgrounds of America. Those responses are consistent with statistics from the National Park Service, which has seen a 24.4 percent increase in campers since 2013 after remaining flat over the previous decade.
“People responded really well to the centennial, and obviously there’s a high appreciation for the National Park System,” said Toby O’Rourke, chief franchise operations officer at Kampgrounds of America.
She noted that KOA was interested in concerns voiced by ethnic groups such as Hispanics and African Americans, who in the past have not felt welcome in national parks. When asked about the atmosphere, those surveyed noted improvement from five years ago.
“Our research this year showed that a third of all campers felt more welcome at national parks than before,” O’Rourke said, “and that skewed in the 45 percent range in Hispanics and African Americans.”
Campers devoted almost 60 percent of their camping nights to public lands and/or campgrounds, and in 2017, national parks (58 percent) and state parks (54 percent) by far lead the way in planned destinations, ahead of beaches (36 percent) and rivers or lakes (35 percent). The numbers suggest that a growing camper population will continue to place higher demands on public lands at the same time that some officials want to roll back national monument designations and policy groups are suggesting to privatize operations at national parks, which face a $12 billion maintenance backlog that includes visitor amenities such as campgrounds.
More broadly, special occasions that could drive camping this year include free entry to all Parks Canada sites as the country celebrates its 150th anniversary and a total solar eclipse that will sweep across the United States on August 21. It has been nearly four decades since the last total eclipse was visible in the continental U.S., and the next won’t occur until 2024.
“We’ve definitely seen reservations coming in for the eclipse, so I think that that’s going to be a really unique event that caters really nice to campgrounds,” O’Rourke said.
Big picture, not only are more people camping, they are doing so more often. In the past three years, the number of campers who take three or more trips in a year has grown 36 percent, while the number of campers taking just one trip a year has dropped 10 percent. And the enthusiasm appears to be driven by younger generations, including millennials (born 1981 to 1997) and generation Z teens (born 1999 to 2003), a group surveyed for the first time this year. While millennials account for 31 percent of the adult population, they make up 38 percent of campers, and more than half say they plan to camp more in 2017.
“The face of camping is changing, if you will. There’s a lot more younger people coming in, a lot more diversity,” O’Rourke said. “What the data would say to me with the increase in frequency is that people are trying it and enjoying it, and then camping more often.”
Access to technology and Wi-Fi while camping also allows people (37 percent) to spend more time outside, taking an average of almost two additional vacation days for camping. But others prefer to take the opportunity to unplug and disconnect.
“Equally, people say it either enhances their camping experience or detracts from their camping experience,” O’Rourke said.
While adults check their email and younger campers post to social media, teens are no more likely to use technology than adult campers.
“My favorite question is we asked them, ‘If you didn’t have access to technology, would you still want to camp?’ and 71 percent said yes. So I was really encouraged by what we’re seeing coming out of the younger generations,” O’Rourke said. “Everyone talks about millennials, but even looking beyond that, I think we’ve got a really nice future outlook about people that are interested in the outdoors.”
Only 6 percent of teen campers said they would not want to camp without access to technology.
Clean bathrooms remain the most important aspect of a camper’s stay, followed by free Wi-Fi, being kid-friendly, and recreation opportunities. Up from previous years, campers suggest that camping has “a great deal of impact” on reducing stress, contributing to their emotional well-being, improving health, and leading a healthier lifestyle. And campgrounds are offering all sorts of amenities, such as swimming pools, climbing walls, and ziplines. In addition, more traditional activities like hiking, kayaking, and mountain biking “are definitely spiking in popularity.
“I think just a lot of things are colliding that are getting people outdoors,” O’Rourke said.
The results are based on 2,934 responses to an online survey, including about 600 from each of four U.S. regions and 508 from Canada. Overall, the sample of U.S. residents has a margin of error of +/- 1.99 percent. The sample of households was statistically balanced to ensure that the results are in line with overall population figures by age, gender, and ethnicity.