With more people than ever taking to the woods, we need to rethink how we spend time on public lands
Last fall, while cruising central Colorado, Jen and I decided to spend a week at one of our favorite sites outside Salida. The spot, a dispersed camping area on BLM land where we’ve stayed numerous times over the years, has a dozen or so pull-throughs tucked among the piñon pines on a rib of scratchy desert. It’s a quiet reprieve with big views over muscly mountains. But on this visit, dozens of Sprinter vans and trailers crowded the place. There were one or two free spaces, but we didn’t feel like contending with the loud music, late-night conversations, and clamor of this camping subdivision.
These days, it feels as though we see more trailers on the roads—yep, that includes me and Jen in our four-year-old Airstream. We find fewer empty campsites and have greater difficulty booking reservations in state and national parks. As it turns out, more people are indeed heading to the woods. According to a new study funded by KOA, more than 6 million North American households have taken up camping since 2014, with the largest increases (64 percent) among avid campers who go out three or more times a year. Almost 331 million people entered U.S. national parks in 2017, on par with 2016 for the highest number of annual visitors ever recorded.
Likewise, the RV Industry Association (RVIA) says that sales of recreational vehicles are at an all-time high, with more than 504,600 units shipped in 2017, up 17.2 percent from 2016 and 213 percent over the previous decade. “The industry has had growth in the high single digits and low double digits since the  recession,” says Bob Wheeler, co-chair of the RVIA and president of Airstream. “Then last year saw a very big jump.”
Baby boomers, 10,000 of whom reach retirement age every single day, are among the biggest forces behind that growth. After acknowledging the deluge of retirees, Wheeler also cited the success of advocacy organizations like GoRVing.com, as well as the gathering millennial market—Airstream has seen a spike in younger owners following the release of its Nest model—as two major factors.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s another factor at play, one that speaks to Wheeler’s reflections on the success of marketing and the growth of the youth segment: social media. Every outlet, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to Outside, has covered the #vanlife movement, whose eponymous Instagram hashtag has 3.1 million posts. That number doesn’t include the ad nauseum permutations (#projectvanlife, #sprintervanlife, #vanlifewithkids).
Glorious photos of perfect adventure rigs in stunning places are so pervasive that you could be forgiven for thinking that a van on the beach is now more sought after than a house on the water. The comments are as telling as the photos. “You guys are so inspiring,” says one commenter. “I need this life,” writes another. And then my favorite, simply “#lifenvy.” The campgrounds are filling up, in part, because those who use them are selling them so well.
Even Wheeler, whose company is thriving because of the growth, is worried that existing campground infrastructure won’t be able to handle it. “We’re very concerned about the number and quality of campgrounds,” he says. “Infrastructure hasn’t kept up with growth, and good locations are getting harder to get.” Then, as if searching for the silver lining, he continues, “We’re definitely seeing a shift toward people who want to dry camp in national forests or other public lands, which should take off some of the pressure.”
That’s why the Salida experience made me take note. It was one of the first times we’ve really felt crowded in the backcountry, and it made me wonder: Will finding a good campsite on public land soon become as difficult as trying to get into managed sites in parks?
We got a glimpse of what this future might look like recently in Sedona, where we met a #vanlifer named Chris. (That’s not his real name.) Though the redrock valley hemming in the town means public lands open to camping are sparse, Chris and his partner have managed to eke out a few spots where they can park while they hold down full-time seasonal jobs. Because of the 14-day limit on BLM and Forest Service camping, the couple has to move every few weeks, and authorities have rousted them early a few times, partly because the areas where they were camping had become so overcrowded that it was hard for rangers to monitor one group from another. Last I saw him, in March, Chris had found an amazing new site completely off the radar. Understandably, he wouldn’t share the location. Meanwhile, he said that he worried how long public camping in Sedona would remain viable. He’d heard the Forest Service was considering getting rid of dispersed camping altogether because of the strain it was putting on the land.
I’m not saying the sky is falling. The American West, with its vast space and huge swathes of public lands, still has so much open space if you’re willing to look. But it’s important for all of us to realize that’s not an endless commodity. The carving up of places like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the increase of land leases to oil and gas corporations, and the gating of public property by private property owners are all changing our access to open space right now. But public lands are just as vulnerable to irresponsible use as they are to the whims of oil and gas companies.
If you camp in the backcountry, it’s worth being both cognizant of avoiding overcrowding—find a different spot if there are already campers—and cautious of opening up a new campsite if it’s unnecessary. Jen and I will only camp where others have before, and we do our best to not pull out on pristine land, even if it’s legal. Likewise, consider taking a page from Chris’ playbook and don’t share every great spot you visit on social media, at least not with location details. (I recognize the seeming hypocrisy of that statement, though Jen and I are careful about which places we promote and how.)
In Salida, Jen and I fired up OnX, spent some time scouring the nearby land for other spots with promise, and eventually set off. It took another hour or more of driving, but up a disused dirt road farther from town, we eventually discovered another a sweet, shady site where the only noise was the wind in the pines. It’s out there for waiting for you, but no, I’m not going to tell you where it is.