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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