Camping During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Is it Safe?

Parks and campgrounds across the country have begun to reopen, but the CDC is still telling us to stay home as much as possible, leaving many wondering if it’s actually safe or responsible to camp during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Camping During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Is it Safe?

Camping during the coronavirus pandemic is going to look different.

Courtesy of Unsplash

After weeks of national park shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, outdoor spaces across the country are starting to reopen. And with the warm weather rolling in, campers are itching to get out into the wilderness and escape the stress and strangeness of the coronavirus pandemic, even just for a little while. After all, camping has always been a way to get away from it all, whether that’s the bustle of a city, the little stressors of daily life, or simply the never-ending news cycle.

But while we’ve gotten the hang of social distancing while recreating outside, and we’re learning how to go to beaches and local parks during a pandemic, camping is still a bit of a question mark. You would think that an activity that promotes isolation deep in the wilderness would be almost as good as a self-quarantine, but in reality, most people aren’t backcountry camping. They’re staying at campsites with other people, and passing through vulnerable small towns to get there. At the same time, campgrounds and public lands are implementing new safety protocols in order to slowly and responsibly reopen.

So which is it? Is camping during the COVID-19 pandemic unsafe, or is it possible to go camping while properly protecting yourself and others? Like many big questions right now, there is no definitive “yes” or “no” answer. The answer is an extremely unsatisfying “we don’t really know.”

The CDC has neither prohibited nor okayed camping

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) still says that staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick. While it doesn’t specifically advise against RV travel or camping, in its travel-specific recommendations, the organization notes that car travel (by far the most popular way to travel to a park or campground) often necessitates stops at gas stations, supermarkets, or restaurants, or for bathroom breaks—all of which can put you and your traveling companions at risk for transmission.

Traveling to a campsite increases risk, camping near home is safer

The truth is, the farther you travel from home, the more you put yourself and others at risk. Sure, you could get all of your supplies at home, fill up your gas tank down the street from your house, and plan to head straight for your destination without stopping. But inevitably, you will have to stop. An unplanned bathroom break here, a forgotten bag of ice there. And then there are the unplanned events—flat tires, car trouble, medical emergencies—which may put you in contact with people outside your local community, despite your best efforts.

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But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to sleep under a roof for the forseeable future. It just means that the safest way to camp right now is to stay close to home—and by “close to home,” we mean stay in your county. Local campgrounds might not have the same appeal as the campgrounds of your favorite national park, but when you’re staring up at the stars while huddled around a campfire, it’s easy to forget that you’re only 20 minutes away from your front door. Better yet? Your local county campsites—or local private sites like a KOA or a Hipcamp—are more likely to be open than the bigger ones. Many national and state park campgrounds remain closed—according to Campendium, an online campsite resource, 24 out of 50 state park campgrounds systems are currently closed or are open to state residents only.

You’ll need to follow new rules

No matter where you end up camping (if you end up camping), things are going to look different, and if you want to be a safe camper, it’s going to be your responsibility to research and understand the guidelines, ordinances, and restrictions in place. And that includes everything from reservations to safety procedures. In Colorado, for example, the state park system is taking reservations, and camping is once again by reservation only, as it was before. But while most of the state’s campgrounds are open, visitor centers, playgrounds, picnic areas, group areas, designated swim areas, and yurts and cabins remain closed.

All campgrounds and public lands require social-distancing practices, and some have even restructured their campsites or restricted their capacity to aid in this. Unfortunately, that means now is not the time to initiate a campfire sing-along with the neighbors.

Some campgrounds require masks, some only require them indoors, some don’t require them at all. Trash receptacles and bathroom facilities in your campground may be closed, so you may have to pack out your own waste.

You may even have to self-quarantine if you choose to travel to another state. For example, visitors from New York to Arkansas state parks are advised to self-quarantine by the Arkansas Department of Health.

Safe camping will mean taking new things into consideration

You could be the most prepared COVID-19 camper, bringing all your food plus cleaning supplies, staying close to home, and maintaining that six-foot social-distancing bubble. But you won’t be the only person at the campground, and you won’t be able to control your neighbor’s actions.

We can’t think of camping as a way to isolate right now—you’ll almost certainly be in contact with other people. So before you decide to go, do as the CDC recommends before any kind of travel: Think about how your trip could impact the communities you’ll pass through and your own upon your return, and consider whether the people you’re traveling with or that you live with are at higher risk of getting infected.

Now may not be the best time to take the big camping trip of your dreams, but you can still pull out the old sleeping bag. And there’s never been a better time to plan next year’s trip—many campsites are already taking reservations.

>>Next: What Are the Rules for Booking Summer Vacation Rentals?

Maggie Fuller is a San Francisco–based but globally oriented writer driven to provoke multicultural worldviews as a multimedia journalist. She covers sustainability, responsible travel, and outdoor adventure.
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