Cushy Campsites Tame The Great Outdoors
By Peter A. McKay
The campground at Little Bennett Regional Park in Clarksburg has three bathhouses, volleyball courts and a nature center, and each of its 91 numbered campsites has picnic furniture and a grill.
For campers who are driving recreational vehicles or who just can't do without television -- even for one night outdoors -- there are electrical outlets at 25 sites.
"This isn't real camping," said camper Devon Gartenhaus, 18, of Bethesda. "This is tourist camping."
Yet locals are doing it. Camp managers say Washington area residents are staying at local campgrounds this summer almost as often as out-of-towners. They say camping's allure lies in its proximity, its low cost and amenities such as swimming pools, children's rides and even 18-hole golf courses at parks where the goal is to attract families who otherwise wouldn't consider camping.
"Camping is sleeping someplace outdoors, but it's what you do to fill your day that often sells the idea to children," said Merni Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Park Authority, which operates two campgrounds.
To enable his twin 8-year-old sons and their friend to listen to the radio while they camped, Montgomery County police Sgt. Larry Jerman got a campsite with an electrical outlet on a recent trip to Little Bennett.
It was their second trip to the campground, and Jerman said they would return because of Little Bennett's conveniences and nearness to their Damascus neighborhood.
Jerman said camping gives him the chance to spend time with his sons uninterrupted by the bustle of home life, and he lets them just relax, be noisy, stay up late and eat canned pasta and chili dogs -- things their mother, who stayed home, won't allow.
"He says we can do anything we want," Eric Jerman said. "Cause we're men," his friend Cory Mey, 8, quickly chimes in. Jerman's campsite cost $16 a night, which is about average for local campgrounds. Campsites without electrical outlets cost $12 at Little Bennett. As with many public campgrounds, county residents pay a little less than nonresidents.
Since many public campgrounds are sections of parks, they offer access to attractions other than camping, said Paula Finkbeiner, associate publisher of Campers Monthly, which covers camping in the mid-Atlantic region.
Campers at Watkins Regional Park in Upper Marlboro can use playgrounds, sports fields, walking trails and a miniature train ride, said camp manager Calvin Savoy.
Public grounds also have more concessions and amenities previously available only at private facilities, Finkbeiner said. For example, Fitzgerald said Burke Lake Park in Fairfax has an ice cream parlor and an 18-hole golf course.
Other features are simpler but still go a long way toward making outdoor living more convenient. Campsites at Little Bennett and other local campgrounds have square "tent pads" of crushed stone that make setting up tents much easier.
Gartenhaus and her boyfriend, Christopher Dutton, 17, set up their tent within minutes of arriving at Little Bennett recently. Dutton pushed the small tent stakes into the crushed stone easily.
"Honey, no shoes in the tent, okay?" Gartenhaus said, establishing ground rules immediately after the last stake was in place.
Of course, even with added conveniences, some campgrounds don't please everyone. The staff at Little Bennett remembers some of the more offbeat criticism and questions they've gotten in recent years.
There was the woman who called to ask if the camp has bugs. And the guy who complained that he had to walk too far to reach the camp's hiking trail.
Then there was the smartly dressed couple in the red Mercedes-Benz who checked in one evening at the park station, drove into the campgrounds and returned a few minutes later, looking for the park's "tent man" to help them set up. "I told them, This is a self-service camp,' " Ranger Rick Coherd said.
Many campers also forget mundane items, said Colleen Wilcoxon, Little Bennett's campground manager. She said first-timers in particular should remember to bring things such as cups, flashlights, batteries, water, paper plates and forks.
"And they should probably practice putting the tent up in the back yard before they come out here," she added with a laugh.
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