What Camping During COVID Is Actually Like

Camping during the COVID-19 pandemic is not only possible, but popular. Here’s how to do it safely.

What Camping During COVID Is Actually Like

The best camping trips start with preparation.

Photo by Studio 1One/Shutterstock

As a lifelong camper, one of the things I’ve found to be true is this: Even when it’s bad, camping is still pretty good. Of course, one of the things you can do to help tilt a camping trip more in the direction of “dream” rather than “disaster” is prepare—and perhaps now more than ever, that preparation is key. On a recent trip, you could say I learned this the hard way.

In late July, my brother and I decided to drive from New York to Minnesota to retrieve some furniture he needed for an upcoming move to Europe. Every step of our two-day road trip was planned: where we’d stop for gas, what we’d eat, how we would interact—if we had to, at all—with people along the way. How far we’d drive that first day was something we’d decide in the moment, based on how we were feeling. As a result, where exactly we’d spend the night was up in the air. Like we’d done so many times before, we threw two tents in the van and took off, figuring we’d find something, somewhere.

Somewhere near South Bend, Indiana, after more than 11 hours of driving, we began to think more closely about stopping for the day. We decided to see if any spots were available at Indiana Dunes National Park, where we’d grown up swimming. Completely booked. What about on the other side of Chicago? We called Chicago Northwest KOA. Booked. More research, more campsites, more calls, all with the same result: full, full, full. Along with it came the creeping realization that we could have (and most definitely should have) done more fact-finding before we were hurtling down the interstate at 80 miles an hour, Googling “campsites near me.”

An hour and a half of research later, northwest of Chicago, we finally found a first-come, first-served forest preserve. Though all of the 89 vehicle camp sites—with water access, parking, and an electrical hook-up—looked to be full, there were “primitive” campsites available, a cheerful camp attendant told us. We drove to the end of the camp, parked, and walked a path into the woods, settling on a campsite that was three sites removed from other campers on either side and that looked out over a field of wildflowers and Queen Anne’s lace.

As the sun dipped over the horizon, we hustled our tents out of their shells and set them up. Before the bugs became unbearable, we sat down at the picnic table and cobbled together a dinner from our cooler: cheese sandwiches, hummus, cantaloupe. We could hear, faintly, the laughter and music from other campgrounds and smell campfire on the wind. But otherwise, it felt worlds away from anyone else there at that place in time and from the bustle and buzz of the city we’d left that morning. It was the first time I’d been away from my New York City neighborhood in four months, and I felt that I could finally exhale.

The day had not been perfect; the stress and tension of trying to find somewhere—anywhere!—to camp a blight on an experience we wouldn’t soon recreate. But as my brother and I dove into our tents and zipped ourselves away, I was comforted knowing that we were finally safe, fed, settled. That we were camping together like we used to. That he was so close, since he’d soon be 3,600 miles across an ocean away.

Early the next morning, we repeated the motions in reverse, breaking down our tents and zipping up our bags in silence as the sun rose and the crickets chirped. We packed up our trash and walked around our campsite, ensuring we hadn’t left anything behind. Then we walked through dewy grass back to the car, the campground quiet in its slumber, and got ready to do it all over again.

Here’s what I learned on my last trip:

Book in advance—and be flexible.

Obvious, maybe, but finding a place to camp when the mood strikes (guilty) is exceedingly more difficult during the pandemic, thanks to increased interest in camping, fewer open campgrounds, and others limiting capacity to accommodate social distancing. The good news: Although most places are filling up, many state parks and other sites allow free cancellation up to 48 hours before. Research—and read the fine print. Keep monitoring the campsite before your arrival, and switch to a more remote site if the sites near you fill up. If the campsite reaches a capacity that’s uncomfortable for you, consider moving your trip to another date.

Sleep in your own tent.

Sure, tents have all sorts of open flaps and screens for ventilation, but if you’re camping with someone outside of your immediate bubble, be sure to sleep in separate tents. Keep the tents at least six feet apart, and maintain social distance. (The National Park Service has formalized this request and asks the public to be “our partner in adopting social distancing practices when visiting parks.”) While sunlight, wind, and temperature can all reduce COVID’s transmissibility and infectivity, the risk outdoors “hasn’t been definitively measured,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, told Vox.

Pack your own hygiene gear.

Before your trip, discuss whether or not you’ll use public restrooms. Whether the answer is yes or no, plan ahead and BYO hygiene gear: toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, hand soap, water, paper towels, and paper soap sheets to use in a pinch. (Check out our detailed, downloadable camping checklist.) Scientists have found that flushing a toilet “generates a cloud of aerosol droplets that rises nearly three feet,” according to the New York Times, but the bigger risk from public restrooms is sharing a poorly ventilated space with a number of people. Your best bet, should public restrooms be given the thumbs-up from people in your traveling party, is to “wait outside until it’s free, wear your trusty mask, wash and dry your hands well, and, if you can, put the lid down when you flush,” reports National Geographic.

Bring your own food, firewood, and water.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “The risk of infection by the virus from food products, food packaging, or bags is thought to be very low.” Still, it’s worth packing your own food and firewood: Many camp stores are closed or have reduced hours, and as with public restrooms, you’ll want to avoid being in shared spaces with people outside of your immediate party. (Take precautions when sharing food with other parties not in your immediate family: set dishes on a common table, and be sure to maintain social distancing and wear masks when dishing up.) Though hand pumps and water stations were running at our campsite, my brother and I had brought our own multi-gallon water dispenser, which we used for drinking and washing up. (The water stations were also almost always busy, so we chose a campground far from the action.) If you’re planning to visit a frontcountry campground, freeze some gallons of water to help keep your food cold, then melt them when you need more water for drinking, cooking, or cleaning.

Leave no trace.

This is a hallmark rule of camping but made even more important during coronavirus times, when many campgrounds have locked up their dumpsters or have more limited staff to empty recycling receptacles. Bring your own trash bags and carry out whatever you brought in. (Burning trash, per the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, is “generally not acceptable under any circumstances.”)

Wear a mask.

Before you set up camp, set rules with your travel party about when and where to wear a mask. My brother and I took off our masks at our campsite, which was more than 100 feet away from the next closest campers, but put them on any time we left to retrieve or return something to our car or had to interact with a camp attendant. Although states (and even campsites across states) have different policies around mask-wearing, masks have proven to be one of the most effective deterrents in containing the spread of COVID-19. Lucky for you, we’ve got a list of masks we love.

>> Next: The Best Campsites Near Major U.S. Cities

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
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