In praise of camp sum­mers

Pan­demic has caused a huge surge in the rental and pur­chase of re­cre­ational ve­hi­cles, along with an em­brace of the mo­bile life

Chicago Sun-Times - - OUTDOORS - dbow­man@sun­times.com @Bow­manout­side DALE BOW­MAN

There’s a camp­ground, rather pe­cu­liarly, in down­town Gibson City in Ford County along Route 9. We pass it sev­eral times a year on our way to the whim­si­cal Har­vest Moon Twin Drive-In.

The camp­ground has been busy. One night my wife and our daugh­ter thought it was packed to ca­pac­ity. This year, this 2020, is dif­fer­ent.

Some­thing is hap­pen­ing with peo­ple, camp­ing and RVs dur­ing the pan­demic. Part is re­lated to school­ing and work­ing re­motely, part to stay­ca­tions and part to safety.

The Point Grove Camp­ground, at the con­flu­ence of the Iroquois and Kanka­kee rivers in Aroma Park, is far busier than usual.

“We usu­ally have a cou­ple of elec­tric sites open here or there, but this year ev­ery elec­tric site was taken from as soon as we opened through the La­bor Day hol­i­day,” emailed Vicki Winn, one of the hosts. “Our prim­i­tive sites were also pretty full. Lots of campers elected to use those sites and run gen­er­a­tors for their campers. Lots more tent campers, too.”

Whether the im­pacts last or are short-term will not be known un­til af­ter the pan­demic.

“A dealer sur­vey re­leased this month sug­gests re­tail growth in the mid-thir­ties per­cent range in Au­gust — sim­i­lar to July 2020,” emailed Phil In­gras­sia, pres­i­dent of Na­tional RV Deal­ers As­so­ci­a­tion (RVDA). “Dealer in­ven­to­ries are down to 20 to 30 per­cent of where they usu­ally are at this time.” That means units are fly­ing off the lots. As to rentals, he replied, “Rental agen­cies are re­port­ing big in­creases — but we don’t have good data on that be­cause it’s hard to mea­sure on a month-to-month ba­sis.”

The RV In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion re­ported “the high­est July ship­ment num­bers in four decades” on to­tal RV ship­ments of 43,035 units, up 53.5% from 28,044 in July 2019. Tow­able RVs to­taled 39,160 units for the month, up 56.6% from last July.

At the be­gin­ning of Septem­ber, Ken Wil­son, long­time fish­ing guide on Lake Shel­byville, said, “You see all kinds of new campers. Mil­len­nals are buy­ing Class Cs [mo­torhomes] and they are home school­ing out of the RV. They can do their lessons in the campers while the par­ents work re­motely.”

He said it’s pos­si­ble to make a cir­cuit of camp­grounds around Rend Lake, Lake Shel­byville and Car­lyle Lake. Work­ing and good Wi-Fi are keys. That may ex­plain why Rachel Tor­bert, deputy direc­tor for the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources, emailed, “Our staff aren’t aware of more peo­ple work­ing/re­mote learn­ing while camp­ing.”

I love our state parks, but Wi-Fi ac­ces­si­bil­ity at many is lim­ited or nonex­is­tent. I say that as some­body who has camped and worked re­motely for many years.

“The ad­van­tage of stay­ing at a pri­vate camp­ground, most al­ready have ex­cel­lent WiFi,” said David Basler, RVDA vice pres­i­dent.

Wal­ter Free­man is ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Illi­nois Camp­ground As­so­ci­a­tion. He and his wife, Karen, own the Ben­ton KOA.

“Camp­grounds are see­ing more kids and peo­ple re­quest­ing the Wi-Fi,” Free­man said. “There have al­ways been peo­ple work­ing re­motely. But our num­bers are up and our longterm num­bers are up.”

He thinks those rent­ing month-to-month are prob­a­bly up 50%.

“We are hear­ing from all parts of the coun­try that they are see­ing an in­flux of peo­ple,” Basler said. “[Most of] our camp­grounds close be­tween La­bor Day and the first of Novem­ber, but many of them are think­ing of ex­tend­ing their [sea­son].”

Free­man pointed out the ap­peal of the safety of RV travel, so­cial dis­tanc­ing in­her­ent in camp­ing and the fact that peo­ple camp­ing don’t need to rely on public fa­cil­i­ties.

“The other thing is no­body wants to be in a plane,” Free­man said. “The safe way to travel is in an RV, then you’re not in a ho­tel room. Peo­ple would rather travel that way and they can bring chil­dren.

“We’re see­ing more on stay­ca­tions, we’re see­ing a lot more of that.”

Free­man’s KOA is open year-round, but he said many sea­sonal parks in Illi­nois are ex­tend­ing their sea­son. In part that is to make up for spring re­stric­tions but also be­cause of de­mand.

When asked what he would sug­gest for new RV campers, Free­man said, “Ad­just your ex­pec­ta­tions. You are camp­ing, you are not in the com­fort of your home. Make sure you have a camp­ground with Wi-Fi, work­ing WiFi, and the ameni­ties you need. If the kids are with you, the Wi-Fi is go­ing to be im­por­tant.

“No. 1, just en­joy it while you can.” ✶

DALE BOW­MAN/SUN-TIMES

Point Grove Camp­ground at the con­flu­ence of the Iroquois and Kanka­kee rivers in Aroma Park is filled with campers.

DALE BOW­MAN/SUN-TIMES

Con­sid­er­ing the trends dur­ing the pan­demic, ex­pec­ta­tions for RVs (these were at the Boat Show in Jan­uary) should be high if out­door shows are al­lowed to be held.

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