Roughing it has a new feel these days

With July lurching toward a sweaty finale, the traditional summer camping season–Memorial Day to Labor Day–is two-thirds over. But that’s old-school thinking. These days the “season” runs from the end of April through October, partly because what were once known as shoulder seasons have become more temperate, partly because “summer” itself doesn’t mean what it once did. Thanks to the decline of family farming on one hand and the ubiquity of air conditioning on the other, schools here in rural Virginia are back in session next week, smack in the middle of what once were referred to as the “dog days” of summer.

So in truth, we’re at about the midpoint of this year’s great outdoor exodus–and it’s looking increasingly grim. Despite the unexpected gift of swooning gasoline prices, which broadened the range of possible destinations, most indicators are that camping in 2022 is more crowded, more expensive and more difficult to secure than in the past.

The most obvious damper is the environment itself, which in addition to scorching much of the country with such high temperatures that being outdoors becomes an endurance test, continues to exacerbate wildfire dangers. For the year through today, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been 38,724 fires that have burned 5.6 million acres–up from 37,009 fires last year to date, burning 3.4 million acres. Most such fires are relatively small, but at this very moment there are 73 active fires that have already consumed more than 3 million acres; only four are contained.

The good news, at least in the short term and for people not residing in Alaska, is that the great majority of that damage is occurring in our northernmost state, with minimal damage to lives or personal property. California and Colorado, on the other hand, have been relatively unscathed thus far, defying more dire predictions made in the past few months, the fires in and next to Yosemite notwithstanding. But that “good news” simply means the can has been kicked down the road. Indeed, California’s most destructive fires tend to occur in September and October.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the hydrologic spectrum, forecasts for Atlantic hurricane activity remain steady, despite a slow start to a season that technically began June 1. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is still predicting 6 to 10 hurricanes this season, 3 to 6 of which will be rated major, with sustained winds of more than 111 mph–the seventh consecutive above-average hurricane season. Colorado State meteorologists are giving 75% odds that at least one of those major storms will hit the United States, but even off-shore hurricanes can bring major rain damage well inland.

Extreme weather has both indirect and direct effects on campers, from making the air unbreathable because of wildfire smoke to turning campsites into barren wastelands. California, for example, has announced it will be closing Portola Redwoods State Park for overnight use starting next Friday because of the drought and resulting loss of water to the grounds. The park’s 55 family sites, four group sites and a backpacking trail camp will remain closed for the rest of the season.

Other campgrounds not yet touched by environmental threats, however, are curtailing their services or shuttering altogether because of labor shortages. The U.S. Forest Service, for example, announced this week that it is ceasing to take reservations at three campgrounds in the Deschutes National Forest, Oregon, because of a lack of staff. Although sites will remain available on a first-come, first-served basis, visitors are being asked to pack out their garbage and being advised that the campgrounds will be getting only undefined “periodic toilet service,” neither of which augurs well.

At Glacier National Park, as another example, staffing at just 50% of the norm has meant some well-known campgrounds have not opened at all. Similar short-staffing can be found all across the country, at both federal and state levels, with similar results. In Massachusetts, unionized employees have been complaining about unsafe conditions due to understaffing. “Just in my location itself I’ve got 235 campsites,” an AFSCME local president told the local NBC affiliate a few weeks ago. “I should have 30 people including year-round and seasonal and I’m trying to function with 16.”

The labor shortage is not peculiar to the campground industry–it’s endemic to both the hospitality and recreation industries overall. The shocking lack of lifeguards is already widely recognized, with public pools closed or open only for sharply reduced hours at precisely the time of year they’re most in demand. The American Lifeguard Association says a third of all U.S. pools are being affected by staff shortages–some, such as the community pool in Easthampton, Mass., unable to open for the third year in a row.

And to the extent that more deep-pocketed hotels can serve as a proxy for the scantily researched RV park and campground industry, there’s a long way to go before increased staffing will match growing demand. By the end of this year, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, hotel employment will still be 16% below pre-pandemic levels; 97% of hotels say they are experiencing a staffing shortage, 49% “severely” so. RV park operators will nod their heads knowingly at those numbers.

Between meteorological punishment on one hand and inadequate human support on the other, those heading out into the great outdoors this year may discover they’re “roughing it” in completely unexpected ways.

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RV parks on the firing line, literally

The Oak Fire in Mariposa County, California, now at 17,000 acres and rapidly growing, started just 10 days after a public hearing in which the state’s RV park and campground operators complained about the lack of affordable fire insurance. The California FAIR Plan (for “Fair Access to Insurance Requirements”) was established to ensure that property owners would still be able to buy basic fire insurance when commercial policies are either too expensive or simply unavailable. But what do you do when your lifeboat also is being swamped?

Described by the fire battalion chief as “really unprecedented” because of the speed with which it is ravaging the landscape, the Oak Fire underscores the degree to which insuring against fire losses in California is as problematic as insuring against hurricane damage on the Carolinas’ Outer Banks. You know the storms are coming, you know they’re getting bigger and more frequent and more destructive with each passing year, and if you’re an insurer you know with utter certainty that they’re going to bleed you dry. No surprise, then, that California’s private insurers have been jacking up their premiums by 20% to 40% a year or more-or not underwriting new policies at all.

That’s where the FAIR Plan is supposed to step in, with the state’s private insurers holding down premium costs by pooling their risks and providing barebones coverage. FAIR is not intended to replace regular insurance policies: it’s a safety net, an insurer of last resort. But even a safety net is not immune to the same risks that make insurance unaffordable in the first place, which means that the FAIR Plan’s premiums also have been skyrocketing, even as the coverage it offers has become skimpier.

So the July 13 public hearing quickly became a platform of grievance for the California Outdoor Hospitality Association (COHA), representing the state’s privately owned RV parks and campgrounds. COHA chair Dyana Kelley complained that unaffordable insurance rates would put campgrounds, RV parks and hotels out of business while driving up the cost of travel throughout California, chasing tourists to other states. Moreover, the coverage provided by the FAIR Plan is too limited, covering only four of the 11 specific insurance risks or perils found in a typical property policy.

Okay. Arguable points all, if still leaving unaddressed the question of who gets dunned for the higher costs COHA would like to see the FAIR Plan absorb–costs, if the private sector bows out, that would have to be covered by taxpayers. But then Kelley added a twist that amounted to little more than a naked grab. “As an industry, we are being tasked with expansion,” she told the hearing, as if the state’s campground operators were on some kind of holy mission. “We have more camping consumers than we have accommodations, yet one of the greatest barriers to entry into our industry is the ability to obtain insurance with appropriate coverage at reasonable rates.”

Actually, no. One of the greatest barriers to entry is a tinderbox of a landscape that makes “business as usual” a fond memory, never mind expanding that business to put even more people–those beloved tourists–and campground infrastructure in harm’s way. What Kelley and her constituents are suggesting is tantamount to building in a floodplain or on an eroding shoreline, then complaining that they just can’t afford to pay for the insurance coverage that they inevitably will need. Maybe don’t build there in the first place?

The question of what to do about existing campgrounds and RV parks that are on the firing line–some in place for decades–is a thorny one, and deserving of reasoned analysis and decision-making. But it has to start with an understanding that much has changed in those decades, and that insisting on more of the same is a non-starter. No one is “tasking” the industry to expand; if anything, it should be contracting. While there’s still time.

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‘Active shooters’ at campgrounds?

Here’s how much the cultural landscape has shifted: the Campground Owners of New York is promoting a five-page “Active Shooter Policy & Prevention” set of guidelines for its members, who operate private campgrounds and RV parks. New York’s state motto is Excelsior! which translates from the Latin as “ever upward.”

Well, maybe at one time.

A press release about this guidance came out last week, just days ahead of a preliminary report from the Texas House of Representatives that excoriated nearly two dozen police agencies for their botched response to a shooting at the Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde. By the numbers: 376 law enforcement officers stood by at a scene in which 19 students and two teachers were killed by one very disturbed individual.

That was on Sunday. Yesterday, Tuesday, marked the start of the penalty trial of the Florida shooter who killed 17 people at Parkland’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, four years ago. And today, July 20, marks the ten-year anniversary of the opening of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado, chosen by another deranged young man as the setting for a massacre in which he gunned down 12. The day began with a midnight vigil and continued with a city-wide outpouring of anguish, still vivid after a decade of loss.

That’s the backdrop for the CONY release, which urges park and campground operators to hold active shooter training sessions and to develop policies and procedures to protect campground staff during active shooter “events.” As the guidelines, prepared by the Towne Law Firm of Albany, observe, “there may be legal liability should an employee be injured in an active shooter event” in the absence of a “well-rounded active shooter event policy.”

Well, yes. Trust a bunch of lawyers to bring up the pesky legal liability issue. But a “well-rounded” active shooter policy? What exactly does that mean? Was the Uvalde shooting response flawed by a lack of roundedness–for weren’t there abundant policies already in place for just such an occasion? Maybe a campground operator could do a better job of it?

The law firm’s guidance on the matter, unfortunately, is a predictable mish-mash of common-sense advice (report suspicious activity) and nonsensical prescriptions (do background checks on campers to determine “if they are connected to any violent crimes or incidents”–and then?) that may provide some legal cover, but certainly won’t withstand an assault by someone armed with semiautomatic weapons and a death wish. This is the same kind of wistful thinking that propelled a generation of children in the 50s and 60s to use their school desks as shelter from nuclear weapons.

It’s also the sort of thinking that underscores how our society’s default position when confronted with a threat (global warming is another example) is to prepare for the worst outcome–as if that were possible–instead of making the difficult choices needed to confront it directly. Rather than press the politically difficult battle of banning assault weapons, or requiring extensive background checks and licensing for gun ownership, let’s just practice the “run, hide, fight” scenario that apparently is coming, ready or not. Give up on root causes and just negotiate the consequences.

Sadly, the other thing CONY and the Towne Law Firm are communicating is that there’s no escape. Society’s every ill will follow you, regardless of where you go. Even “the great outdoors,” it turns out, is not immune to the tragedy of the commons as we’ve now redefined it.

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Manchin, scorpions do what they do

Just a bit more than five weeks ago, the RV Industry Association demonstrated either its hypocrisy or its gullibility by presenting its “National Legislative Award” to Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The association justified this astonishing misstep by claiming that Manchin “recognizes that investments in outdoor recreation are vital to our economic, emotional and societal well-being,” those “investments” devoted largely to the “recreation” half of the “outdoor recreation” dyad.

The “outdoor” half? Not so much.

Indeed, as I posted June 10, Manchin arguably is the one person most directly responsible for torpedoing this country’s efforts to combat global warming and the calamitous climate change it is causing. That he would undermine any efforts at breaking our fealty to carbon-based energy sources is only to be expected, given the significant extent to which Manchin’s political and personal fortunes are tied to coal, gas and oil interests. No one playing with a scorpion should be surprised when it stings.

What is surprising is the cringe-inducing meekness with which the Democrats have tiptoed around Manchin’s constantly shifting rationale for being an obstructionist, avoiding confrontation for fear of giving offense, meekly giving up on one proposed initiative after another in a vain attempt to win an acquiescence that was never forthcoming.

Two days ago, Manchin abruptly made official what any objective observer would have concluded several months ago: he will not support any funding for climate or energy programs, nor support raising taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations to pay for such programs. As “explained” by a spokeswoman, “Senator Manchin believes it’s time for leaders to put political agendas aside, re-evaluate and adjust to the economic realities the country faces to avoid taking steps that add fuel to the inflation fire.”

Instead, thanks to a man who represents a state of 1.8 million people in a country of 320 million who overwhelmingly support climate change policies, we’ll continue adding real fuel to the fire in the sky.

Texas is baking in a record heat wave that incidentally is producing the worst smog pollution in at least a decade, which makes “outdoor recreation” an oxymoron. The entire western expanse of the country is a tinder box, producing not only a bumper crop of wildland fires but further depleting already record-low water supplies in a process called aridification, a/k/a drought on steroids. And it’s not just the U.S. Glaciers are collapsing in Italy and Kyrgyzstan, Britain has issued its first-ever heat red alert for this coming Monday and Tuesday, and wildfires are breaking out across southern Europe, forcing thousands to evacuate.

Dealing with a crisis of such proportions is not a “political agenda,” as Manchin’s spokeswoman would have it–it’s a matter of life and death. That a member of what’s mistakenly been called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” should ignore such a self-evident reality is tragic. That the RVIA and similar self-serving organizations would act as his cheerleaders is contemptible.

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Some say the world will end in fire

Camping and fire go together like–well, like marshmallows and chocolate and graham crackers. There is something both romantic and primal about a campfire crackling in the dark, sparks rising toward the stars, the smell of woodsmoke drifting on the night air.

Yet fire and RVs don’t play well together, as underscored Monday, when a two-alarm fire in Oakland, California, engulfed cars and RVs in a homeless encampment under Interstate 880, near the Bay Bridge. The encampment, which spans two-dozen city blocks and has approximately 300 residents, has had dozens of blazes in the past year; an April fire killed one and displaced five. Among the hazards confronting firefighters were exploding propane canisters, and RVs in general are notoriously flammable because of their lightweight construction and heavy reliance on petrochemical materials.

The camping public and fire don’t play well together, either. As the RVs in Oakland were going up in toxic smoke, less than 200 miles to the east, a wildfire was threatening the largest grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park. By last night, the Washburn Fire had consumed more than 3,500 acres of forest, and increasingly adverse weather conditions had reduced its containment from 22% to 17%. Although a definitive cause for the fire has not been established, park officials said it almost definitely was the result of “human activity.”

In Utah, meanwhile, numerous forest fires were raging across more than 13,000 acres combined–with 23 of the 26 fires started between last Friday and Sunday caused by, yes, human activity. Four people were arrested and accused of starting the largest conflagration, the Halfway Hill blaze, which by early this week had churned through more than 10,000 acres. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the four had been camping, started a fire at a campsite, then “left abruptly” when they saw it “erupt and spread rapidly.” They didn’t bother reporting the incident to anyone.

Fire officials across the western states have been warning for months that 2022 was shaping up as a banner year for wildland fires, with fires becoming more intense and more frequent. Yet despite the obvious dangers, the camping public has been turning out in near-record numbers, often with little observable recognition of the increased risks–and too often without modifying behavior that might offset those risks. The predictable result is more charred wilderness, more threats to manmade structures in the urban-wilderness interface and more smoke-filled air affecting human health for hundreds of miles downwind.

But there are two other consequences that aren’t getting enough recognition. One is that as with any prolonged battle, the front-line soldiers–the firefighters–are getting burned out, pun not intended. Yet even as seasoned firefighters drop out, as reported this week by the Colorado Sun, fire agencies across the country are seeing fewer people applying for firefighting positions to replenish the ranks. That can’t end well.

A second, more troubling–because of its long-term implications–consequence is the tainting of drinking water with PFAS “forever chemicals,” found in firefighting foams often used against wildfires. Although still in the early testing stages, more than 100 city and town water systems across Colorado apparently have PFAS levels exceeding recently revised EPA-recommended guidelines. The city of Frisco, about 55 miles west of Denver, has warned its 3,000 residents that their water has 1,000 times the standard, nevertheless adding that this is “a concern, not a crisis.”

The “concern”? That PFAS chemicals threaten human health with compromised immune systems, increases in cholesterol, decreases in infant birth weights, decreases in liver function, thyroid problems and high blood pressure during pregnancies, the Colorado Sun reported. The chemicals also interfere with vaccines, decreasing their effectiveness. In short, in trying to save the landscape we’re creating threats to our own well-being. Heads I win, tails you lose.

What all of the above suggests is the need for a deep rethink of what it means to go camping, of RVing and of appropriate behavior in the “great outdoors,” which is looking increasingly diminished. At the very least, it’s time to pack up the marshmallows and crackers and to look at the stars rather than at a campfire’s sparks.

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Luxury and rustic camping, part 2

If “the intersection between luxury and rustic camping,” detailed in my last post, doesn’t strike you as absurd, consider the following real-world example of just how looney-tunes this can become :

For the past couple of years, a proposal to build a 57-site glamping campground on the Gallatin River in southwest Montana has been bumping along despite vociferous local opposition. The problem? The proposed 16-acre Riverbend Glamping Resort is being planned for a mile-long spit of land that sits between two channels of the river, all of it either in or surrounded by the floodway. The locals think that’s nuts. As one wrote to local officials: “You know the land is going to flood. I know it is going to flood. . . . Anyone with the sense god gave geese knows this is going to flood.”

Then there are the gas, fiber-optic and sewage lines that have to be drilled under the Gallatin, just so glampers can relax in one of a shifting mix of safari tents, teepees, Airstreams or Conestoga “wagons,” the last bearing the same relationship to real prairie schooners as a Norwegian cruise liner has to the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria. The locals aren’t wild about that, either, as they contemplate the possibility of line breaks and river contamination.

And if the mix of accommodations sounds a bit indefinite, that’s because the project itself seems to be a work in progress–something else that gets local juices flowing. To date, it’s not clear if a comprehensive proposal has ever been submitted for public review. Permit applications have been filed piecemeal, one for drilling under the river, a different one to build gravel site pads on the site. Fresh details emerge sporadically, such as plans for a second well–drilled right in the floodway–incidentally included in an unrelated filing. Planning restrictions seem irrelevant, including the provision in the Galatin Gateway Community Plan that new development “should be designed to avoid the flood plain and to provide a setback from the river.”

On balance, then, local residents see little upside and a whole lot of down. As adjacent landowner Kris Kruid claimed in her written objections, the proposal threatens to transform “a pristine, natural, blue-ribbon trout stream with a healthy ecosystem of plant and wildlife to a polluted, trash-filled waterway . . . and bank degradation from uneducated trespassers trampling the fragile riparian habitat.” Others bemoaned the impact of such development on the island’s beaver, whitetail deer and bald eagles–the kinds of attractions trumpeted in an ad campaign for the project that asserted, “tourists visit Montana to experience our natural beauty.”

Hogwash, wrote Scott Bosse in an op-ed piece in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. It’s “obvious” that the developer’s “primary motive is to make money off tourists who are willing to shell out a few hundred bucks a night to camp in a high hazard zone on a storied river.”

That was in February, when public comments on the gravel pads application were closed. In early April, the Gallatin County Commission unanimously decided that the project could move forward, with some stipulations. And on June 13 and 14 the Gallatin reached its highest flood stage since the record-setting flood of 1997, cresting at 6.7 feet above normal, nearly 9,000 cubic feet a second of water tearing down both channels of the river and covering much of the island that splits them.

During the public hearings, the glampground’s developer had responded to concerns about flooding by pointing to his planned use of Conestoga wagons. Utilities to the wagons would have quick shut-off couplers, permitting rapid relocation to higher ground. “The whole thing can be done with one staff member in under four hours,” he was quoted by the Chronicle. “We’re talking about less than four minutes for each wagon.”

That seems like an optimistic timetable, but being rousted in the middle of the night so your covered wagon can be hauled out of a river is the very definition of “rustic” and sure to be a hit with the glamping crowd. Now if only there were some way to throw in a buffalo stampede . . . .

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‘Luxury and rustic camping’–really?

KOA is marking its 60th anniversary this summer, long enough to become the camping industry’s big dog. Over those six decades it has grown from a string of mom-and-pop campgrounds in the country’s northern tier into a web of 540 RV parks, campgrounds and glamping parks across the United States and Canada, 40 of which are company-owned and the rest owned by franchisees. KOA is big enough and has been around long enough, in other words, that when it speaks about the state of the industry, others lean in to listen.

All of which has made Toby O’Rourke, the company’s president and CEO, a much sought-after speaker within RVing circles. Sometimes she appears at events with a ream of statistics gleaned from KOA’s ongoing market research–statistics compiled in response to the questions KOA feels are important. Sometimes she simply talks about the industry’s future, telling reporters how she sees the industry evolving and how she envisions KOA responding. Because of her position, and because she’s smart and articulate, O’Rourke’s analysis and pronouncements carry extra heft. And because KOA is such a dominant presence in the industry, when it banks either left or right, the industry overall tends to do likewise.

There is a self-fulfilling quality to all of this, making it doubly important for anyone reading the industry to understand O’Rourke’s inherent biases and assumptions. It helps to know, for example, that O’Rourke’s initial position with KOA was as its digital marketing director–a position promoting the brand via the internet and other forms of digital communication. If the world can be divided into the concrete and the abstract, camping–at least as we have known it until now– can be filed in the “concrete” category; digital marketing falls squarely within the abstract world.

Maybe that’s why, in an interview with CEO Magazine this past December, O”Rourke could declare that she’s “very passionate about the intersection between luxury and rustic camping, and where we can go with that as a company.” The statement is dissonant on its face, as if someone were to say they were passionate about the beauty found in squalor–possible, perhaps, but only in the most abstract sense. If there is an intersection between luxury and rustic camping, it involves completely nullifying the meaning of “rustic.” It means pivoting away from the concrete world to a conceptual one.

Is that too abstract? How’s this for a concrete spin on things: a couple of months ago, speaking at an “RV Park Industry Power Breakfast” in Indiana, O’Rourke acknowledged there aren’t enough campsites to meet demand, but explained that it would be hugely expensive to do so–$17,000 to $18,000 per site to expand an existing campground, $45,000 to $55,000 per site when building a new park.

No one, apparently, questioned those numbers. No one, it seems, wondered why a new RV site was being priced at the same level as a new RV. No one asked O’Rourke what all that money would be buying, and if there wasn’t a “value menu” or “economy option” as an alternative to the blue-ribbon specials KOA has been funding. And those dollar amounts, let’s be clear, undoubtedly are what KOA–and Blue Water, and Northgate, and LSI and all the other industry behemoths–are spending, creating O’Rourke’s intersection between luxury and ersatz rustic: paved RV patios and path lighting, water parks and jacuzzis, glamping tents with en suite bathrooms. Under their influence, the whole industry is moving in the same direction.

Well, almost all. Every now and then a smaller voice emerges amid the cacophony, such as the announcement last week by the Newman family–Tom and Marilyn, as well as son Jayson and daughter-in-law Rachel–that they are building a 49-site RV park in La Prairie, Wisconsin. Scheduled to open next May, each site will have a picnic table, fire ring and 50-amp service, but drinking water will be available only from “scattered hydrants,” while black and grey water will have to be hauled to a dump station (although there will be “dry privies spaced out around the park”). For recreation, there are nature trails and shore fishing, not to mention bird watching and “beautiful views.”

Using O’Rourke’s figures, this would be a $2.45 million facility. With more emphasis on the “rustic” and less on the “luxury” end of the scale, I’m betting the Two Rivers RV Park and Campground will come in considerably under less than half that amount–perhaps as little as a fourth–but it will be an outlier. Dave Drum, KOA’s founder, would have found himself entirely at home in such a modest setting (check out this photo for an early KOA, with campers saddled up in front of a pickup camper; that’s rustic), but six decades later his company has moved the needle past anything he would have recognized.

It’s all part of what O’Rourke told CEO Magazine reflects her efforts at “bringing a lot of camping into the modern age.”

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‘Camping’ in a post-Roe era

“Camping” has long been a muddled term, describing everything from tents pitched on a sidewalk to hikers in the backcountry to pop-up trailers sitting side-by-side with six-figure motor coaches in an RV park. Then glamping came along, adding to the confusion by throwing teepees, yurts and faux-Conestoga wagons into the mix.

And now we can thank the the U.S. Supreme Court for really making a hash of things.

Go online and look for the “USA Camping Resource Center” and you won’t learn anything about water filters, s’mores or topo maps. You may, however, end up on the home page of a Facebook group created to “pool resources to make sure everyone who needs to go camping can do so in a safe way. We will serve as a hub to inform people about political actions and activities as well as direct people in need of camping to organizations that can help them. Please invite any friends who love to go camping.”

If that isn’t entirely clear, the page goes on to lay out a few ground rules, starting with “Don’t be a jerk, and don’t step on rights: This group supports the rights of an individual to choose whether or not they want to go camping. Any comments that minimize or are unsupportive of that right will result in an immediate ban. Civility is required at all times.” There are 10 rules altogether, including, notably, number seven: “We cannot give or receive medical advice. This includes recommending ‘natural’ or ‘alternative’ medicine, teas, etc. Do not promote DIY camping in any form!”

Getting the idea that maybe there’s more to this camping than meets the eye?

Indeed, the resource center’s more than 30,000 members are a testament to the fact that we now live in an Orwellian society in which people–in this case, pregnant women–have to worry about leaving potentially incriminating virtual footprints in their computers. Search terms like “abortion” or “pregnancy termination,” for instance, are now as problematic as “terrorist cookbook” or “ghost guns” in providing evidence of intent to commit a newly-defined crime. Better to use coded language, a modern-day take on such verbal sleight-of-hand as the Underground Railroad’s counsel to “follow the drinking gourd.”

In just the past week, a virtual explosion of posts on social media has offered to take people “camping.” The offers are made by people horrified by the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the attendant wave of state “trigger laws” criminalizing a medical procedure that had been legal for half a century–people wishing to extend a helping hand to suddenly isolated, desperate women who want or need to terminate their pregnancies. As encapsulated in one widely repeated post, “If you are a person who suddenly finds yourself with a need to go camping in another state friendly towards camping, just know that I will happily drive you, support you, and not talk about the camping trip to anyone ever.”

Not all abortion-rights supporters are happy with this development, worrying that offering to house strangers isn’t as helpful as connecting them with established abortion rights networks that have better training and resources. Planned Parenthood Toronto–where abortion remains legal–for example, is urging support for existing networks rather than creating new ones, warning that the ad hoc camping movement is susceptible to surveillance and infiltration.

“Real” campers–the ones who still think it’s all about getting out into nature–may likewise be unsettled by this turn of events, if only because of the confusion that may ensue for those who aren’t paying attention. But think of this version of camping as also putting us back in touch with nature–human nature. Human nature at its worst when it causes such fear, panic and desperation among the most vulnerable of us. And human nature at its best when it evokes such outpourings of support, love and solidarity.

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