Kathy Petrick swore off camping after a disastrous childhood experience. But as an adult she has trekked to 27 state parks in eight years, visiting every campground that offers the relative comfort of modern camper cabins.
“I’m trying to give my son an appreciation for all of the natural beauty in Minnesota,” said Petrick, who lives with her 13-year-old in Chanhassen.
Petrick is one of a growing number of people fueling a statewide upswing in camping that has been building for more than five years.
Reasons for the boost include a greater interest in inexpensive local vacations and longer seasons of mild temperatures. But there also is a growing awareness of the emotional and physical benefits of being outside.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in Minnesota state parks visitation, both day users and campers, in the last five to seven years and so we’re pretty excited,” said Erika Rivers, director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Trails Division. “It’s something we’re seeing pretty consistently throughout the nation.”
From 2012 to 2016, Minnesota state parks saw a 30 percent increase in yearly pass sales — the system’s biggest revenue generator — and a 21 percent increase in overnight stays, according to officials.
Several metro-area counties with park campgrounds noted similar gains. A campground at Baker Park Reserve in Maple Plain, part of the Three Rivers Park District, drew 10,000 more visitors in 2016 than in 2011, a 14 percent surge, said Tom Knisely, district spokesman. Anoka and Dakota county officials said they have also seen growth.
“The numbers are encouraging,” said Dan McElroy, executive vice president of the Minnesota Resort and Campground Association. “I haven’t been able to talk to my members because they’re so darn busy.”
Today’s camping enthusiast — a category that includes millennials, extended family groups and caravans of gal pals — seeks different amenities than previous generations. Many prefer snoozing in yurts and camper cabins rather than tents and want Wi-Fi to check their e-mail while roasting marshmallows.
Some campgrounds eagerly accommodate their customers’ wants. Others are constrained by the challenge of maintaining the facilities that they already have.
A need to unplug
This year’s industry report, funded by Kampgrounds of America (KOA), offered good news for the camping industry: A million new households have gone camping in each year since 2014. The report cited millennials as driving the trend.
“Millennials and Generation X want to be more physically active perhaps than their parents and grandparents, and they equate camping with being physically active,” McElroy said.
Intergenerational family members camping together also is on the rise, he said.
And women camp with female friends more often, said Cara Schulz of Burnsville, who wrote a book on luxury camping called “Martinis and Marshmallows.”
People want to take vacations that are inexpensive and convenient, and there are many close-to-home campgrounds in the metro area, Schulz said.
State parks charge $15 to $23 per night for standard sites, while the cost at county parks typically ranges from $15 to $37. Camper cabins can run $55 to $75 per night.
On July 1, state park fees went up for the first time in a decade, from $5 to $7 for one-day permits and from $25 to $35 for year-round vehicle permits. The hikes will fund park maintenance and other needs.
Another factor fueling the camping boom is the public’s knowledge of nature’s benefits. Being outdoors can heal people physically and also calm the brain, said Jean Larson, who manages a therapy program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
“We have a connection to nature — it’s in our DNA,” Larson said.
Stephanie Kubes, 30, said she has camped out 10 times over the last year, taking her 4-year-old on overnight jaunts to state and regional parks. She uses that time to put down her smartphone and focus on the simple things, she said.
“The more we sleep outside, she just seems more balanced,” Kubes said of her daughter, Elliott. “And so do I.”
Yurts and Wi-Fi
Many campers today are willing to pay more for unique accommodations or creature comforts. The trend toward “glamping” — glamorous camping — contributes to the demand.
Eight yurts — round canvas tents with bunk beds, wood floors and wood stoves — have been recently installed at three state parks. They fill up fast, said Pat Arndt, communication and outreach manager for State Parks and Trails.
Dakota County tapped into the appetite for sleeker shelters by building three modern-looking camper cabins at Whitetail Woods Regional Park near Rosemount.
“They’ve just been unbelievably popular,” said Beth Landahl, visitor services manager for Dakota County Parks. “We take reservations a year and a half ahead of time.”
Many campers want internet access, she said, so Wi-Fi is available at Lebanon Hills in Eagan and Whitetail Woods, and it’s coming next year to Lake Byllesby Regional Park in Cannon Falls.
Dakota County, which is still developing its park system, plans to build 20 more camper cabins at Lebanon Hills, including two or three in the next couple years. County staffers also are considering more amenities at Lake Byllesby, Landahl said.
While some parks try to adjust to the new demands, others stick to the basics.
In response to rising use, Anoka County revamped its electrical hookup sites at the Rice Creek campground from 2012 to 2013. But the park system has no plans to add Wi-Fi despite requests, said Andy Soltvedt, Anoka County Parks’ marketing director.
The state park system is trying to balance campers’ wants with maintaining aging facilities. Many of its campgrounds were built decades ago during previous periods of camping fever, after World War II and the late 1960s through early ’70s, Rivers said. There’s more rehabbing underway than new campgrounds, she said.
“These campgrounds are 40 to 80 years old. We have to just repair stuff that’s sort of in crisis mode or critical mode,” Rivers said.
But the state is creating a few new digs. Campgrounds under construction at Whitewater State Park in Winona County and Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park on the Iron Range both have sites planned with electricity, bathrooms, shelters and spots for tents and recreational vehicles.
Such areas are “an explicit recognition” that families are increasingly camping with extended family members, she said, and the fact that various ages have differing needs.
Like any activity, the popularity of camping comes and goes in waves.
“We’re sure enjoying the uptrend,” Rivers said. “Our campgrounds, especially on weekends, are just really vibrant, fun places to be.”