Camping during coronavirus: Is it safe?

By Forrest Brown, CNN | Posted - Jun. 12, 2020 at 11:02 a.m.

NEW YORK (CNN) — This is usually the time of year that campers are out in full force — from bare-bones backpackers to folks who roll RV-style — all enjoying what nature and summer have to offer.

But 2020 is unlike any other year in our lifetimes. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it seems like every travel-related decision is a calculus of risk — be it going to a restaurant or buying a plane ticket.

And camping is no exception.

So how has the pandemic affected camping this year? And if you decide to take a camping trip now that things are opening back up, what do you need to know before you go?

Canceled camping trips this spring

In the early stages of the pandemic, less was known about the transmission of COVID-19. As a result, people canceled or postponed trips as the country entered full lockdown mode.

CNN Travel talked with three families — two in Georgia and one in Virginia — who love to camp but who all had to cancel their spring trips, either because facilities closed or because of their own concerns about the pandemic.

State and national parks across America closed or restricted activities this spring.

For instance, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon had to close temporarily and then offered only phased reopenings in May. And campgrounds at Yellowstone were still closed in mid-June.

Things are starting to open back up — but in patchwork fashion, very much depending on the location.

Private places such as Kampgrounds of America had to close some spots and put limits on others, in compliance with local and state regulations. But most KOAs are open now.

With a few limited exceptions, state parks in Arizona are open, and that includes their campgrounds (even as the state is dealing with an influx of patients with COVID-19 at hospitals).

Georgia, one of the first states to reopen its economy, is allowing camping at its state parks. But visitors will find restrictions — swimming pools and playgrounds will be closed all summer, for instance.

Michigan, which has opened up more cautiously, plans to allow camping at its state parks on June 22. California has started a very cautious, case-by-case reopening of camp sites at its state parks.

It's a similar situation in Europe. There is no uniformity as to where or whether camping sites will reopen.

According to ACSI, an organization that specializes in camping information for Europe, campsites in Belgium were set to open on June 8, while Ireland is holding off on opening campsites until July 20.

New Zealand, which acted early on the pandemic, is now almost COVID-19 free. For its citizens, that means full access to huts, campgrounds and toilets as restrictions are lifted. Even so, the government urges its people to remain vigilant — stay home if you're sick and keep up with the hand washing.

A lower risk activity

The good news for campers around the world itching to get some fresh air and sleep under the stars: There is growing consensus that transmission risks are lower outdoors than inside.

Claudia Finkelstein, an associate professor of family medicine at Michigan State University, pointed out in a recent article featured on CNN: "The final word on outdoor recreation? Of course, go out and be active. It's important for your mental and physical health. But, choose wisely, be prepared and stay safe."

The news site MLive recently spoke with four public health specialists in Michigan who rated 36 activities by their estimated level of risk. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest risk level, camping came in at a relatively low 3. That was on par with golfing and getting groceries.

For comparison, they rated playing tennis at just a 1 and going to gyms and amusement parks at an 8.

Day camping

Debi Gouge, a small-business owner and art instructor in Wythe County, Virginia, has longtime love of camping.

"Nature and camping have always been a place where I reconnect and refresh myself. Being out there breathing the air, and enjoying the beauty of the trees and the wind blowing though them is what I love," she said. "Also, it inspires me to create and paint."

So the pandemic has hit Debi, husband Tim Gouge and their nine dogs hard. She's had to be particularly cautious about staying virus-free because of a lifelong kidney condition.

"I have been very stressed these last few months," Gouge said. "Loss of income, not working, the unknown, etc.

"Then my wonderful husband came up with the great idea to give me some peace — day camping. We set up our camper at Claytor Lake, which is within 20 miles of us and spend the days camping, hiking ... cooking out — the works!

"And then we come home late in the evening to sleep since we cannot have a pet sitter right now, and next morning, back to the campground."

She said there there were no worries about social distancing or wearing masks as there was almost no one in the campground.

"It has been wonderful."

Safety tips if you decide to go

There are numerous sources with safety tips if you decide to go camping, whether it's on public or private sites.

The state parks system in Minnesota has an excellent, detailed online guide (PDF). And the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation in Vermont, another state that's a favorite of the outdoors set, has important tips.

Some of the highlights from their detailed suggestions:

— Don't be spontaneous; make plans: Place reservations and buy permits, firewood, ice and other things online or by phone before you get to the campsite.

— Come supplied with cleaning and personal hygiene agents: Arrive with your own soap, surface disinfectants, hand sanitizer, paper towels and toilet paper. This is one area where you shouldn't skimp.

— Social distancing: Set up your campsite — including sleeping, campfire and eating areas — to be as far as possible from nearby campsites that hold people from different households.

— Keep it in the family: Only let those in your household or "social bubble" into your individual campsite or RV.

— Be respectful of the rules: Follow all campground rules and instructions for your own safety and that of others. That might include wearing a face mask in public areas, heeding social distancing signs and leaving furniture such as chairs and picnic tables where you found them.

— Avoid contact sports: For instance, outdoor basketball courts may be open to shoot hoops, but signs prohibiting contact games should be respected.

— Trails: If a trail is marked closed, there's a good reason. Don't go on it.

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