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Plugged In to Nature, Wired to World

Pre-Pitched Tents, High-Tech Gear Aim to Entice Internet Generation

The idea of roughing it has taken on a new meaning as amenities such as camp butlers and air mattresses with built-in MP3 players become increasingly common in the woods. Hardcore campers derisively call it "glamping" -- as in a camping experience short on hardship, but long on "glamour."
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The idea of "roughing it" has taken on a new meaning.

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The Coleman outdoors company sells air mattresses with built-in alarm clocks and night lights and tents outfitted with "integrated lighting systems" and auto-roll windows. For those who can't bear to be unplugged for any length of time, DirecTV has a portable satellite, and Kampgrounds of America offers wireless Internet at most of its campsites.

And for a small fee, employees at Montgomery County's Little Bennett Regional Park will set up a fully furnished campsite, complete with tent that sleeps four, chairs, propane stove and lantern. Marshmallows are optional.

With fewer people participating in outdoor activities, retailers and park officials are doing everything they can to coax them into the great outdoors. Hard-core campers may sniff at the level of hand-holding -- air mattresses equipped with built-in speakers for MP3 players -- but some environmentalists and outdoors advocates applaud the efforts. That's because they worry that a population more familiar with Google than the Grand Canyon ultimately could hurt conservation efforts.

"We're out of balance,'' said Cheryl Charles, an environmental educator. "A lot of young parents and teachers didn't grow up with nature-based experiences. We're not against technology. But when kids spend so much time hooked to [an] electronic umbilical cord -- things have to change."

In 1988, there were 282 million visits to national parks. By 2008, the number had dropped to a little less than 275 million, according to statistics from the National Park Service. Researchers Oliver R.W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic found that the drop in outdoor activity coincides with the increase in time people spend on their computers. In 1987, the average person spent zero hours on the Internet. By 2003, it was 174 hours.

"We may be seeing evidence of a fundamental shift away from people's appreciation of nature to 'videophilia,' which we here define as 'the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media,' " the pair said in a 2008 study that examined trends in outdoor recreation.

Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods," who with Charles co-founded the Children & Nature Network, which promotes outdoor activity for families, dubbed the phenomenon "nature deficit disorder."

To compete, retailers and park officials are scrambling to make camping and other outdoor activities easier and more comfortable.

That's why outdoor outfitter Gander Mountain offers a portable battery-operated mosquito repellant system in forest-friendly camouflage colors. For added privacy, the outdoor-gear store REI sells tents that can be divided into multiple rooms. This summer, rangers at Shenandoah National Park offered weekend seminars for camping rookies on how to pitch a tent, build a campfire and plan a proper camp-friendly menu.

Some say such plush amenities go against the true spirit of the outdoors. It's not camping, some sniff, but "glamping" -- as in a camping experience short on hardship but long on glamour.

Retailers say it's the reality of the market.

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