The Camping Boom Of 2020 Takes Many Forms, But There’s Nothing Quite Like Going Off The Grid


Camping is perhaps the ultimate form of socially distant travel and recreation. It’s literally an escape from civilization, which is precisely how COVID-19 spreads. If there’s one silver lining to the tragedy that is this global pandemic, it’s that so many people discovered the treasures we have, as a country, in our National Parks and shared outdoor spaces through the simple act of camping.

The numbers and demand for camping speak for themselves. Equipment is backordered for months. RVs and camp trailers have long waiting lists, and used models are exceeding the price of new ones. Interstate 15 in Utah during the summer of 2020 seemed to have as many campers as passenger cars…and my family was one of them.

I started tent camping with my dad when I was about 12 years old. Our first trip was to the Adirondacks in upstate New York. The memories are as vivid as any from my childhood. Soon after, our family graduated to a Coleman popup trailer, and we’d go to Old Orchard Beach, Maine, for two weeks each summer. This was a specific type of camping experience—a camp resort with a pool, hot tub, lake, general store, multiple restaurants and a social club for the kids. We’d bring our bikes and skateboards, and it was an annual party with friends we only knew from these two weeks of camping.

When I was in college at the University of Arizona, I started a mountain bike outfitter (Arizona Off-Road Adventures) with a good friend and business partner. Between leading multi-day tours and doing research for other ones, we camped more than 100 days per year. Destinations ranged from the immediate mountains surrounding Tucson to Sedona, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, the White Mountains and various spots along the Mexican border. Like that first trip with my father, I can recall these trips in especially vivid detail. There’s just something about camping that creates high-def memories.

As we emerged from the pandemic lockdown in the spring of 2020, our friends invited us to join them on a camping trip to Bryce Canyon National Park, which is a four-hour drive south of Park City, Utah, where we live. However, this invitation to go camping could mean many things, as the world of camping is so broad and nuanced. Do we need an RV? Do we need a reservation? Do we need a high-clearance vehicle? Do we need sleeping bags and a stove? What is the toilet situation?

That trip started our journey as a camping family. Through some research, experience and debate, we decided on a specific type of camp experience that is ideal for us. But there are plenty of ways to escape our homes and enjoy the outdoors. From the basics of tent camping to the luxuries of RV life and the cult of overlanding, these are the seven major camping categories. There’s truly something for everyone.

1. Car Camping: This is the most basic and economical type of camping. Starting with a tent that can accommodate the whole crew, you load up the car, truck or SUV with all of your camping essentials. It’s minimum viable camping with a sleeping bag, mattress, cooler, stove and cooking utensils. Everything else can be bought at the grocery store. More than likely you’ll want to go to a proper campground (see below) that offers amenities like toilets, fresh water, picnic tables, fire rings and trash bins.

2. Backpacking & Bikepacking: The purest form of camping (and the most hardcore) is to load up your backpack with super-light equipment, head into the wilderness by foot and set up camp at various points along your route. The level of difficulty increases significantly when you add rock climbing or backcountry skiing to the equation. The two-wheeled version is called bikepacking, where you use racks and/or a trailer to tow your gear. As a cycling discipline, this has experienced a boom in recent years due to the advent of modern gravel bikes. For the most part, though, these types of camping are not compatible with small children. As long as the goal is for them to have fun.

3. Glamping: As the name implies, this is camping for non-campers. It requires no gear, and there is very little effort involved. You just show up to El Capitan Canyon outside of Santa Barbara, California; Under Canvas near Moab, Utah; or Conestoga Ranch on the shores of Bear Lake, Utah. Everything from shelter and bedding to food, fire wood and lattes are taken care of for you. This multi-billion-dollar camping segment is growing by 12.5% annually and has likely accelerated through the pandemic. Truth be told, this is how our family started out when the kids were really young. Glamping is fun and efficient. And it can be the gateway drug to more authentic and remote camping experiences.

4. RV Camping: This is the most visible breed of camper. You can’t miss them driving on the freeways and backroads, as some of these vehicles rival the size of Greyhound buses. There are really two types of RV: those you drive and those you tow. It’s a bit like glamping in that the level of comfort can mimic that of a luxury home. But you have the flexibility to go anywhere the highways will take you. The vast majority of RV camping takes place in a proper campground, where you benefit from water and electricity hookups…not to mention dump stations and friendly camp hosts. Certain classes of RV, such as converted Sprinter vans and high-clearance trailers, offer more flexibility in being able to handle dirt roads, where you can access more remote camping spots. And there is a sub-species of RV camper—the OHV RV camper—that tows dirt bikes, side-by-sides and other dirt toys, such that camping is oriented around this type of recreation.

5. Campground Camping: This category isn’t so much about the type of camping you do but rather the type of camper you are. Formal campgrounds, such as those run by state parks, the National Park Service (NPS), the United States Forest Service (USFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and private operators alike, offer both structure and peace of mind. They provide basic amenities, which can include warm showers and a general store. You can make reservations in advance, and they are often booked six months out. However, for all this planning and effort, the sites themselves are often closer to one another than your next-door neighbors at home. Indeed, the noise can be worse than a second-level apartment in New York City. Not to mention the smell if you’re camped anywhere close to the toilets. These are the big trade-offs of campground camping, whether in a tent, trailer or RV. Are you a campground person or a non-campground person? When I proposed to my 13-year-old that we might stay at a campground, her quick response was, “Campgrounds suck!” So that’s her choice. Indeed, there’s no bigger question in deciding the type of camp experience you want.

6. Overlanding: As both a type of camping and a distinct subculture, overlanding is truly its own thing. The equipment is defined by specialized tents, such as those from Thule and Overland Vehicle Systems, that mount to rooftop racks of highly capable off-road vehicles like the Toyota Tacoma or Jeep Wrangler. The whole point is to use these vehicles, which are often modified for aggressive off-roading, to go where most campers cannot and then to have a relatively plush experience that goes far beyond car camping. So you’ll have integrated stoves that slide out from the truck bed; there is storage capacity for plenty of drinking water; and refrigerators that run off dedicated 12-volt batteries. It’s a highly complex system to construct, starting with the base vehicle, which essentially becomes an RV that can go anywhere. It makes camping deep in the backcountry quite comfortable and even simple, thanks to the way overlanding camp gear can be easily packed and unpacked.

7. Off-Grid Camping: This is the term I use for the type of camping we do and the type of camping family we’ve become. It’s also known as primitive camping, dispersed camping, dry camping and backcountry camping. The primary distinction is that it does not take place in a formal campground. Off-grid camp sites are widely available throughout public lands administered by the USFS and BLM. Camping is permitted in most areas for a maximum of 14 consecutive days, unless otherwise prohibited. Popular sites are denoted with makeshift fire rings, though USFS and BLM camping is pretty much wherever you find it. There are no amenities. You bring everything you need and pack out everything you bring.

Unlike car camping, going off grid requires much more in terms of equipment. And unlike RV camping, it requires a more versatile platform. We opted for a unique type of popup camp trailer—the Air Opus 4 Off-Road—which is designed for serious off-road terrain. Plus, there is plenty of additional equipment to complete an off-grid camping system that supports a family of four. Unlike overlanding, though, where driving and camping are the true end goals, off-grid camping (by my definition) is also a means to other recreational pursuits…namely, mountain biking, standup paddle boarding (SUP), off-road driving and other outdoor sports. This means we need to haul more than just camping gear. We also need our vehicle to be independent of the camping setup (as opposed to an integral part of it). In other words, we set up a basecamp and then use our vehicle to explore the area, to drive to the trailhead or to shuttle up river for a float on the SUPs.

The goals of off-grid camping are to be comfortable and yet isolated from society. To be deeply immersed in Nature with just your family and perhaps a few close friends. It’s to go beyond the reach of cell phone towers, forcing a digital vacation, and to create lasting memories for our kids. Frankly, I didn’t anticipate the degree to which my kids would embrace off-grid camping, such that it’s become their preferred type of vacation. Truly, they’d rather camp in Moab than stay at the Four Seasons in Maui. They feel more at home and more fulfilled by vacationing in the wilderness. Why? I’m not exactly sure. My guess is that camping is more suited to a child’s psyche than the trappings of modern civilization.

I first noticed this phenomenon in our move from Los Angeles to Park City four years ago. I assumed that my kids, who were six- and nine-years-old at the time, would only appreciate this privilege—that of growing up in a small mountain town, where the power of Nature is omnipresent—when looking back on it as adults. But I was wrong. The further removed they become from cities and the weight of civilization, the happier they seemed. What I observed from our move to the mountains is being repeated in our newfound passion for off-grid camping. And it makes perfect sense. They are not just our children. They are children of the earth. When we get off the grid for a few days at a time, it’s an opportunity for them to connect—indeed, to reconnect—with their true origins and to revert to a more natural state, one they instinctively know but to which they’ve been largely deprived.



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