Without an end to coronavirus in sight, Americans have embraced outdoor activities to regain some sense of normalcy during the pandemic — and travelers have turned to camping in record numbers.
Campspot saw 2020 spring reservations increase 1,000 percent compared to 2019. Hipcamp, which is basically the Airbnb of campsites, has more than doubled its growth in the number of people visiting its website year over year. NOLS, a nonprofit outdoor education school, has also seen an uptick of customers for its classes, like backpacking and wilderness medicine, since the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“As an instructor, I’m thinking people have been inside for a very long time. They want to go out and do something real,” says Marco Johnson, a NOLS senior faculty member based in Wyoming. “They want to connect with the outdoors again.”
Outdoor adventures proved alluring in the spring and summer, but with temperatures beginning to drop, will travelers want to camp during the fall? For those who want to give it a shot, camping experts have advice.
Camping is the ultimate leaf-peeping opportunity
Kevin Long, CEO of the camping app the Dyrt, says he and his wife don’t actually start their camping season until the fall, partly because of the beautiful foliage.
For the best foliage camping trips, Long recommends checking out the Rocky Mountains, Washington state, Sierra Nevada, Northeast, Great Lake region and New York in early October; the Pacific Northwest and Mid-Atlantic in mid-to-late October; and the South and Southwest in late October, early November.
“There are some places that are absolutely lovely in the fall,” Johnson says. “For instance, you might choose fall [camping] time in New England or that part of the Northeast simply because it’s going to be absolutely stunning with the colors changing.”
Travelers can also refer to the Dyrt’s camping foliage map to plan a leaf-peeping trip, or the SmokyMountains.com foliage prediction map that allows users to toggle between weeks to see what stage the trees’ colors are across the country.
Take advantage of fall camping discounts
The other reason Long and his wife are such fans of fall camping is the discounts on camp spots. Although he says camping is not as expensive as a lot of travel experiences, the post-Labor Day price drops are substantial.
“National parks, national forests, private campgrounds — almost everybody reduces their prices after Labor Day to get that fall crowd in,” Long says.
Call your local gear shop for packing tips
Fall camping can be picture perfect in some parts of the country, or miserable in others. Johnson says campers need to prepare for the climate as they pack for a trip. Take into account whether snow or heavy rain is a risk, or what temperature swings may be like, so you can feel comfortable on the adventure.
To get the best advice for your trip, Johnson recommends calling a camping gear shop near your planned campsite before you go.
“The big national chains, like REI, are a wealth of information, but local stores — besides supporting the local economy — those people have phenomenal backgrounds of the local area,” Johnson says.
Campers can call to ask about fall weather patterns, hiking trails, desirable campsites and other points of interest.
Bring some extra tarps and warm layers
Between rain and colder temperatures, you will probably need more layers for a fall camping trip than you would for one in the summer. To prepare for Pacific Northwest rain in the fall, Long packs extra tarps to hang over trees to provide more campsite coverage.
“Sometimes you just want to make sure you’re safe and dry in case you get a little rain or drizzle. Having a couple of big tarps to throw up makes a really big difference,” he says.
For clothes, Long recommends campers check out NW Alpine. “It’s pretty much the only gear I use,” he says. “It’s maybe a little bit less known, but it’s extremely high quality, extremely light and extremely warm.”
You know who else is out gallivanting in the outdoors during the fall? Fat bears. Johnson says campers in bear-inhabited regions need to practice bear safety year-round.
Some campsites will provide bear boxes for visitors to protect food overnight. If that’s not available, Johnson recommends hanging food from a tree. Growing up in the Adirondack Mountains near the Canadian border, Johnson became accustomed to hanging his food when camping. “And in grizzly country, when you’re in the back country, you do similar things,” he says.
Campers should aim to have their food bag hang a minimum of 10 feet off the ground and four feet away from the tree itself so a bear can’t climb up and grab it. Johnson says campers can also use small portable electric fences to protect their food from critters. Avoid storing food in your car, as those beefy bears are more than capable of ripping the door off your vehicle to get whatever snacks are inside.
Be extremely cautious with fire safety
Even if you think the hottest time of year is over, observe strict fire safety when camping during the fall.
“Whether you’re at a campground or you’re in the backcountry, wildfires are still happening in the fall; people have to be aware of that,” Long says. “Putting fires completely dead out is really important for the fall, and a lot of people overlook that.”
How do you know a fire is truly out? Long recommends not only pouring water over your campfire, but also stirring up the ashes after each douse. Repeat the process until you are sure the fire is dead.
“There should be no smoke coming out of that fire. If there is, then repeat that process again,” Long says. “What you don’t want to do is just throw the dirt over top. It sort of looks good, but actually it’s almost like an oven baking in there.”