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Summer vacation plans fall through? Don’t forget camping or renting an RV

In the time of social distancing, you can still soak up some fresh air, even it means camping out in the yard or living room.

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My family is going camping this summer, counting on the boundless expanse of the great outdoors to cure our collective case of COVID-related cabin fever.

It’s not that we’re super outdoorsy. There was a time when I carried an entire campsite in my backpack, but that was long before I had an 8-year-old daughter and a 44-year-old back. Now we’re very much car campers, driving right up to a campsite with a trunkful of gear, including a tent, air mattresses, coolers of food and beer, and other luxuries that would make a real mountaineer scoff.

But whatever conveniences it takes for your family to be comfortable, it’s worth packing them — there’s something truly special about spending entire days and nights at a time outside. The last time we camped, I was pleasantly shocked to see just how quickly our city kid turned feral. And with in-person summer camp likely out of the question, it’s on us to get her exploring the little miracles of nature.

States have been slow to open up campgrounds to nonessential visitors, so your options may be limited early on. New Hampshire, for instance, re-opened some campgrounds in May, but only to in-state residents and at 50 percent capacity. And, as of press time, Massachusetts state campgrounds were set to open on July 1 at reduced capacity, while some family-run properties were already reopening (so check before heading out). Tent camping is an ideal social distancing getaway if you’re not in a group. There are no elevators, no crowded lobbies—just acres of fresh air and forest. At Nickerson State Park in Brewster, the 418 campsites are spread out over 1,900 acres, an area nearly 40 times the size of Boston Common.


Most private campgrounds in the Northeast have already adopted contact-free check-in, says Cyndy Zbierski, executive director of the Northeast Campground Association. Campers will also be able to order things like firewood, a bag of marshmallows, or food by text message, she adds, “and have that food delivered directly to the picnic table of the campsite.”


Pools, playgrounds, and other common areas may remain closed throughout the season, Zbierski says, so she recommends calling ahead to see what rules or restrictions are in place. It’s also a good idea—under any circumstances, but especially this summer—to reserve a site early and to bring some of your own fun, whether that’s a cornhole game, kayak, or Frisbee.

One COVID-era complication to tent camping is the shared restrooms. But let’s be honest, it’s not like personal hygiene has been a priority the past couple of months; you can go without a shower for a couple of days. And teaching your kids to use a public bathroom without coming into contact with any surface is a life skill they’ll be able to use at bus stations, rest stops, and dive bars for years to come.

Keeping things rustic also offers the opportunity for a hard reset on your family’s escalating vacation expectations. Think about the first trip you took after the wretched February of 2015: wherever you went, you were probably just overjoyed not to be walled in by 8 feet of snow. Likewise, no matter what you do to escape coronavirus house arrest, it’s going to feel amazing. Why not get that feeling for $30 a night, and allow your family to appreciate the simpler joys of summer, like fishing or swimming in a lake, sitting around a crackling campfire, and gazing up at the Milky Way?


When next summer rolls around, your family may surprise you and ask to do it again. After all, it’s not often as a kid that you’re allowed to stay up late, run around in the dark, play with fire, and gorge on gooey marshmallows.

Set up camp in the yard (or living room)

If you’re longing to get out of the house, but not ready to commit to a camping trip, start by spending a low-stakes night in the backyard. Pitch a tent and pack all the usual supplies, like bug spray, flashlights, snacks and drinks, and sleeping bags. But heck, you can bring anything else you want, too — because your house is right there.

Spend the evening roasting marshmallows by the fire pit if you have one, or simply scouting the sky for shooting stars (you’ll have the best luck during the mid-August Perseid meteor shower). And if, sometime after midnight, the kids get spooked, or your back starts to complain . . . you can all just shuffle up to your own beds.

No yard? No problem. There’s nothing to stop you from pitching a tent in the living or dining room. (Just don’t hammer the stakes into the floor — and it’s probably best to pass on a campfire!) Kill the lights, cue up a playlist with sounds of the nighttime forest, and tell some ghost stories by lantern light. No tent, either? Time for a family room fort — flat sheets work better than blankets, since they’re big and lightweight. The best part of all? No bug spray required.


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Traveling by recreational vehicle affords a level of freedom and self-containment that’s always been appealing, says Jeremy Puglisi, who coauthored the book See You at the Campground, and co-hosts The RV Atlas podcast with his wife, Stephanie. But it feels “like a real godsend” this year, he adds, given the many travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19.

In their RV, the Puglisis and their three kids can pack and cook their own food instead of relying on restaurants or takeout, and use their own bathroom, even at highway rest stops. “It’s kind of like our vacation home, but we can take it wherever we want it,” Puglisi says. What’s more, campgrounds are perfectly suited for this summer of social distancing. “There’s room between sites, you don’t have to get too close to anybody — you don’t have to go inside at all even.”

The Puglisis just returned from their first RV trip of the season, to a campground on Lake George in upstate New York. “While the pool was closed, Mother Nature was open,” he says. They spent the Memorial Day weekend swimming, hiking, and biking. “There were so many of the normal things that we could do that it didn’t bother us that there were a few things we couldn’t do.”

Puglisi recommends renting an RV prior to purchasing one, to make sure you enjoy it before committing tens of thousands of dollars. At traditional RV rental companies, such as Cruise America, you’ll mostly find manageable Class C models. “If you’ve rented a U-Haul and moved your family’s furniture, you can drive a Class C motor home,” Puglisi says. There’s more variety available on the two major peer-to-peer sites, Outdoorsy and RVshare, where reservations have reportedly spiked 450 percent and 1,000 percent, respectively, in recent months. Like Airbnb, these platforms let individual RV owners rent out their vehicles, from pop-up campers and travel trailers to luxury Class A motor homes, which can run up to 40-feet long.


Besides being easier to manage, modest-sized motor homes are a better choice for visiting scenic state and national parks. “The sites are smaller at those types of campgrounds, because they were built in the 1950s and ’60s,” Puglisi says. They may not have full hookups, either — electric, sewage, and water connections — the way privately owned campgrounds do. But most RVs can function on a battery and water pump, and every campground has a dumping station for sewage, he notes.

Among Puglisi’s favorite campgrounds in New England are Nickerson State Park in Brewster and the more RV-oriented Atlantic Oaks in Eastham. Both connect to the Cape Cod Rail Trail, “So you can ride your bike from your RV up to the National Seashore,” he says. But wherever you go, camping is a great way to get the kids away from screens and other distractions of 21st-century childhood. And the kids love it, too. “We talk about these trips all winter long,” Puglisi says. “The best memories we’ve ever made as a family are in the RV.”


Jon Gorey is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.