These days, camping isn't just pitching a tent in the wilderness on a long hike, or stopping at a campground far from home on a road trip.
Instead, for many leisure travelers, camping nowadays may involve driving just a few miles from home to spend the night in a cabin with a roof, bathroom, beds and electricity, or taking the kids to a place that offers activities and entertainment like scavenger hunts or sports competitions.
Jolene Baxman organizes an annual two-night trip for a dozen mothers and their kids to a Kampgrounds of America 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 percent 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 percent 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.
In Ohio, the Lazy River at Granville campground, 25 miles from Columbus, offers activities and entertainment ranging from a zipline to magic shows to arts and crafts. For those who bring laptops and TV sets, there is wireless Internet and cable service. One of the most popular attractions at Lazy River is the "bug lady," a local woman who takes visitors on a walk in the woods, where she points out bugs. "She's the Pied Piper of bugs," said Mark Kasper, owner of Lazy River. "She just entrances her audience."
Kasper observed that when he was young, "you'd go to the state park and watch a presentation with a ranger and a movie. Now it's different. We try to have everything the modern-day person wants, and yet you're away from the city."
Jeff Crider, spokesman for the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, 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 teepees 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.
'A little bit of luxury'
Dawn Tosner, of Valley Stream, N.Y., has been going to the KOA in Herkimer, N.Y., for 15 years. "When we first started, we went tent camping," she said. "We gradually started using the cabins." Last year, joined by friends, she tried an upgraded cabin with all the comforts of home, including a bathtub, stove and TV.
"It's a little bit of luxury while still enjoying the outdoors," she said. "When you go tent camping, you have to bring everything with you — sleeping bags, all the utensils, supplies. You pack up the whole car. With the cabins, you don't need to bring as much stuff. You have more time to spend enjoying the trip."
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.
On the other end of the scale, a backpacker's favorite is a lightweight tent called the REI Quarterdome that weighs just a hair under 4 pounds. "It's open and airy, with easy setup, packs well and is really comfortable for two people," said Coe. REI also offers lightweight sleeping pads, hammocks and butterfly chairs.
At Cabela's, the hunting, fishing and outdoor gear store, a new generation of lightweight, streamlined, easy-to-use "survival" kits is "a growing gear category among campers, including not only hardcore backpackers but also more leisurely family campers," according to spokeswoman Kristin Lauver. Gerber Bear Grylls Survival kits, for example, include fire-starting items and emergency supplies, with a basic kit weighing just 4.2 ounces ($23) and the ultimate version just 9.4 ounces ($50). The kits include fire starter, waterproof matches, snare wire, and a knife, with tools, fishing and sewing supplies and a survival blanket among the added goodies in the ultimate kit.
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.