These days, campsites are way too hard to find, but new resources can help you find a spot to pitch a tent on privately owned land.
Real quick, what are you doing six months from now? Don’t know? Me neither. Maybe I’ll be hunkered down, praying six inches from an air purifier because of a new pandemic, or maybe it’ll be a perfectly normal day and I’ll watch Adult Swim in my slippers until I work up the nerve to type some words out on a keyboard.
The point is, six months from now is the future. I can’t predict the future, which makes it really freaking hard to go camping these days. Our parks and forests are so crowded right now. If you don’t book your campsite on public land when reservations are released on Recreation.gov half a year in advance, then you’re not getting that campsite. In my neck of the woods, there are actual traffic jams on highways exiting Pisgah National Forest on Sunday afternoons, as the masses flee the campgrounds to head back home.
It’s worse than waiting in line for a beer at a music festival. Credit the pandemic and our cultural shift from 9-to-5 office drones to working-from-home vagabonds. Couple that with the CDC recommending fresh air, and car camping became the perfect fit.
And it’s not just my favorite campgrounds in Pisgah that are crowded. The Dyrt, a website that lists open campsites, completed a study of camping habits in the U.S. and found that more than eight million people camped for the first time in 2021. The result? The study also found that it was three times harder to book a campsite than previous years.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m excited all these people have discovered camping. Sleeping in a tent in the wild for the first time is life-changing stuff, right up there with seeing “The Big Lebowski” for the first time. I think we’d be a healthier society if everyone spent a few nights out in the woods in a tent on a regular basis, so I see the booked campgrounds and crowded trailheads as a sign that Americans are moving in the right direction.
But I’m also a selfish asshole who just wants to take his kids camping. Technically, I could plan ahead and book a campsite six months in advance, but the majority of our camping has traditionally been last minute. As in, nobody’s playing sports ball this weekend? Let’s go camping. That kind of impromptu, carpe diem adventure is over. At least, it’s over on public land. Fortunately, pitching a tent on your neighbor’s property has never been easier.
I camped on private land all the time when I was a teenager. My friends and I would drive to the end of some farm, pitch an old school canvas tent that slept 17 and dare each other to walk through the fire, while keeping an eye out for the angry farmer looking to kick us off his land. That’s what you did when you lived in a small town surrounded by farms. I don’t think I camped legally until I moved west after college.
In America, what I’m talking about is called “trespassing.” It’s a Class I misdemeanor and punishable by up to 120 days in jail. No kidding. In certain European countries, though, it’s called “the right to roam,” and it’s perfectly acceptable, if not encouraged.
Yes, there are certain forward-thinking countries out there that have a more loosey goosey view of private property and actually allow any citizen to hike or camp for a certain amount of time on private land in the countryside. Most countries in Europe adhered to the “right to roam” laws until modern history. Today, it’s down to a handful of Nordic countries that keep the hobo camping rights alive. In Sweden and Norway, you can basically walk and pitch a tent anywhere you want, as long as you’re not a jerk about it.
This is a curious loophole in the private property/trespassing dynamic, particularly for those of us who live in the Southern Appalachians, where a whopping 80 percent of land is privately owned. It gets worse when you break it down by state. Just 17 percent of Virginia is public land, and just 14.6 percent of North Carolina. Compare that to Utah, where 75 percent of the land is public, or Nevada, where almost 88 percent of all land is set aside for the masses. But at least we don’t live in Rhode Island, where only 1.5 percent of all the land is public.
No wonder the campgrounds around here are crowded: there are millions of us trying to camp in the same 55 spots.
Obviously, we couldn’t sustain the freewheeling “right to roam” style of camping that Nordic countries enjoy in America, because we are a country of gun-toting, fence-loving, no-trespass sign-hanging proponents of “don’t touch my stuff-ism.” I get it. It would be weird if some rando pitched a tent in my backyard without asking.
But something cool has happened in recent years that blends our version of capitalism with the Nordic ideal of “right to roam.” It’s called Hipcamp. And Tentrr. And The Dyrt. These are websites designed to help connect private landowners who have land to spare with campers in need of a tent site. Think of it as Tinder, but for car campers. And because of these websites dedicated to opening private land up to the paying public, there are thousands of “new” campsites available, and most of them can be reserved on the fly.
On a bike trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas, I used Hipcamp to reserve a campsite on the edge of a cemetery within walking distance of a great bar. Closer to home, I’ve taken my family camping on a high-elevation bald similar to the uber-popular Max Patch, but we had the whole thing to ourselves. I’m currently eyeing a spot on Tentrr next to a trout stream within pedaling distance of some great mountain biking. The farmers even sell eggs to campers.
It’s possible that people will stop camping and go back to whatever they used to do before the pandemic (shopping in malls and sleeping indoors?), but I’d like to think that camping is a hard habit to give up. Those eight million new campers will hopefully convince eight million more people to give it a try, and soon, my favorite sites on private land will become as hard to book as the public campsites I love.
That’s okay, because hopefully more landowners will partner with the likes of Hipcamp and Tentrr and open up corners of their farms and ranches to the tent-toting masses. A “right to roam” might be out of reach for us in America, but a “right to camp occasionally over there in that dedicated site if you book in advance and sign this contract that says you won’t be a jerk” is totally plausible.
And then, maybe I can take my family camping without predicting the future.
Photo by Graham Averill