Hard times make camping an even bigger holiday draw

Corah Dahl of Beverly and Rhonda Spaulding of Springfield relaxed with their dogs at Wompatuck State Park in Hingham, which is one of the many campsites in the region expected to see an influx of newcomers this summer. Corah Dahl of Beverly and Rhonda Spaulding of Springfield relaxed with their dogs at Wompatuck State Park in Hingham, which is one of the many campsites in the region expected to see an influx of newcomers this summer. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / May 23, 2009

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They sleep on cushy air mattresses and wake up to steaming espresso. Or they shun the tent-and-campfire scene altogether for a heated cabin, complete with cable and Internet access, sometimes near a pool and mini-mart.

Look out outdoorsmen, here come the tenderfeet, neophyte campers tromping through New England campgrounds like they're hotel lobbies.

"Some don't know how to set up a tent, light a fire, anything," said Gregg Pitman, executive director of the New Hampshire Campground Owners Association. "But they're chomping at the bit to be here."

With the recession forcing more vacationing families to rough it, at least relatively speaking, campgrounds are enjoying a surge in popularity, coaxing cost-conscious travelers away from hotels and rental homes. Campsites throughout New England - from remote, rustic parks to amenity-filled resorts - say they are experiencing a rush on reservations as city slickers typically bound for bed-and-breakfasts look for more modest accommodations.

"We're already booking for next Memorial Day," said Heather Cestaro, manager of Sweetwater Forest, a private family campground in Brewster. "And we are seeing a lot of new faces."

As the camping season kicks off in earnest this weekend, Cestaro and other campsite managers are bracing for an influx of inexperienced campers. Many, like a swimmer inching into a cold lake, will ease into the outdoor life by staying at a campground like Sweetwater that offers hot showers, cable television, a mini-golf course, and a general store. All for $224 a week for a family of four.

"We have a lot of people who call up and tell us it's their first time," Cestaro said. "We put them a bit closer to the bathrooms and playgrounds. But not too close. We want them to feel like it's a getaway."

In Massachusetts, reservations at the state's 28 campgrounds are up 20 percent over last year and private campgrounds have seen a similar rise, said Paula Carroll, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Campground Owners. Nationally, camping reservations are up about 12 percent over last year, according to ReserveAmerica, a leading reservation service.

Outdoor gear stores such as REI also report increased sales of family tents and sleeping bags. Managers at Eastern Mountain Sports outlets said sales of a new discount package - a four-person tent with two sleeping bags and camping pads - have been brisk.

"It certainly costs less than a hotel or B&B," said Travis Reik, assistant manager at the Eastern Mountain Sports store on Boylston Street. "And you can use it year after year."

At Wompatuck State Park in Hingham yesterday afternoon, Rosanna Fantasia was giddy over her first camping trip. Fond of hotels, and nice ones, the 38-year-old self-described "newbie" was looking forward to spending her first night under the stars.

"We're kind of roughing it!" the Everett resident said in amazement. "This is a complete switch for me."

In preparation for her weekend excursion with a group of friends, Fantasia bought an airbed, an LED lantern, and lots of bug spray. Still, the bugs were winning.

"I just have to become one with the bug," she said in Zen-like fashion.

Still, trading a cozy inn for a pup tent isn't easy, and many newcomers search for a middle ground that might provide a softer landing - literally. In response to growing demand, campsites are building more cabins, often with individual bathrooms.

Pawtuckaway State Park in Nottingham, N.H., just opened five new cabins, and Yogi Bear's Jellystone Camp Resort in Ashland, N.H., a resort that advertises "all the adventure of the outdoors without sacrificing the most important comforts of home," added four.

"I wish I had 20 more of them," said Michael DeRienzo, the resort's manager. "It's amazing how many people want to have all the amenities of home. They ask us all the time if we have cable. I tease them, 'Hey, you're camping!' But I guess they're just easing into it."

Accustomed to air conditioning and ice machines at hotels, few campers can go cold turkey, even those who are quitting their expensive ways.

"People seem to be scaling back, but you have some people who don't want to rough it," Carroll said. "A lot of your first-timers are used to going to a hotel with a lot of amenities. The campgrounds are trying to duplicate that."

At campgrounds that are sticking with the tried-and-true - a small clearing with a picnic table and small charcoal grill - it's the campers who are bringing their creature comforts to the back woods. At Wompatuck, which was gearing up for a packed holiday weekend, RVs and campers far outnumbered tents.

"I started with the tent, but then I upgraded," said Rhonda Spaulding, a 36-year-old Springfield resident, smiling as she looked at her pop-up camper. "Shower, TV, microwave, it's so much easier. Honestly, I don't miss it at all."

A few sites down, Tom Donahue was enjoying a relaxing morning with his 8-year-old son T.J. outside the family's 27-foot camper. He used to tent it, but isn't nostalgic for those days.

"You get pretty spoiled, pretty fast," said Donahue, an auto mechanic from Spencer.

A big park like Wompatuck is perfect, he said. It's close enough to town for easy supply runs but remote enough to feel far away from it all. Donahue, 42, said he can't afford pricey vacations, and loves the peace of the outdoors. So he takes to the state parks, home comforts in tow.

"Most are under $20 a night," he said. "When I get a long weekend like this, I'm gone."

Michelle Curtis, a 37-year-old from Dorchester who has been camping her whole life, dismisses the "plug-in" campers, saying they are missing the point. The newcomers, she said yesterday near her tent at Wompatuck, are easy to spot.

"They don't know what kindling is," she said. "Sometimes you see them in snow gear when it's 65 degrees."

Even those benefiting from the retreat to the woods wonder whether something is being lost.

"There are people at the pool with their laptops," said Pitman, of the New Hampshire Campground Owners Association. "Hard to think they're getting away."

David Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Hingham.

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