UPDATED ON JULY 8, 2020
Camping is a quintessential rite of summer. The quality of sleep and the public restrooms may leave a lot to be desired, but the chance to be among the trees and see the stars, power down your phone and share stories around a flickering fire far outweigh its inconveniences—especially in a pandemic. This year, camping may very well be the safest way to take a group vacation, given the low risk of outdoor transmission. It’s certainly the cheapest way to travel, a bonus when many people are operating on an austerity budget. The only concern, or at least one sizable risk, is the shared bathroom part.
The challenge of keeping a communal restroom sterile and safe is one of the reasons Kent Johnson did not want to open his popular glamping campground, Camp Rockaway, this summer. The fact that guests would also be interacting with staff after a day at a likely crowded Jacob Riis Park—which opens for swimming on July 1 along with other NYC beaches—gave him pause, too. “As much as we want people to reconnect with nature, the risk just seemed too high,” he said. Two other new campgrounds he intended to open this summer, one in Fort Tilden and another upstate near Saratoga Springs, will also be closed until 2021.
In his opinion, the safest way to camp this summer would be to backpack in a state park like Harriman, where you can hike in and camp in designated areas. Normally the lean-tos in the park are available to sleep in on a first-come basis, but this year the park requires people to pitch tents 300 feet from them. It sounds easy enough, until you factor in the ultralight equipment you’d need, filtering your own water, bear proofing your food and packing everything in and out.
The only thing that comes close to the solitary nature of backpacking—without requiring any of the experience or gear—is a service like Tentrr. Similar to an Airbnb for campsites, the five-year-old service is a boon for people who don’t already own camping equipment, or who live in cramped apartments where there is no room to store a tent. This year it has partnered with state parks in Maine, Utah and Michigan to manage campsites in public campgrounds, but it primarily partners with private landowners. It provides hosts with wooden platforms, canvas tents and queen beds to install on their property, as well as a portable (and personal) “Tentrr loo.” As far as camping experiences go, it’s as reclusive as you can get without backpacking, with sites often situated on acres of land far from any other campsite or home. Which is perfect for these socially distanced times.
“We’re finding that people are opting for Tentrr sites because the only people they’ll see are the ones they bring with them,” said Anna Sides, Tentrr’s senior director of supply and demand. Summer is naturally their busy season, and their growth has been exponential over the last five years, so it’s hard to trace their bookings to the pandemic or people’s desire to conveniently camp outdoors. “We’re seeing 800% more bookings,” said Sides, “but we also have three times the number of campsites from last year, and we’re in about 40 more states.”
Though it is becoming more of a presence around the country, as is its competitor, Hipcamp, most of the NYC-based company’s properties are in the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. Cathy Ballone runs one of the most coveted Tentrr sites upstate on a property that was once a zoo in Catskill, NY. Called The Old Game Farm, it houses four Tentrr sites and a boutique inn that Tentrr guests can access, now that upstate has entered Phase 3, in case they need to use a shared kitchen, coffee station or communal bathroom—all of which will be frequently sanitized in light of Covid. Ballone says she’s not necessarily busier right now than in years past, but her Tentrr sites are being booked further in advance than usual.
“We have other people coming to stay who wouldn’t have normally chosen Tentrr in the past,” said Ballone. “They’re looking to get out of their homes, they don’t want to expose themselves [to Covid], and they want to get back into nature…I imagine as we get further in the summer we are going to be jam-packed.”
Her four sites can sleep up to 14 people, but each one is spread out over hundreds of acres of land, so Ballone’s campground will never feel crowded. Nor will state campgrounds this summer. As of July 6, all of New York state parks are allowing new reservations, and all state parks are operating at reduced capacity, leaving day-use visitors at risk of being turned away if there are too many campers inside the park. Among the other precautions the parks are taking are periodic bathroom closures for increased cleaning throughout the day and hiring Social Distancing Ambassadors to ensure everyone is staying within the new distancing guidelines.
There will be quite a few changes at one of my favorite campgrounds, AMC Harriman, too. Along with increased cleaning of communal areas like bathrooms, the dining hall will operate in shifts, and families will have to sign up for a block of time to swim or paddle in the pond. Now that I essentially have no other travel plans this summer, after canceling a family trip to South Carolina because of their Covid spike, I’ll abide by almost any restriction or inconvenience for a chance to be outdoors with friends and away from my home—even if it means a terrible night’s sleep.