Deluxe cabin at KOA Kampground in Williamsburg VA

Deluxe cabin at KOA Kampground in Williamsburg VA (Jeff Dow photo)

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Toilet paper or cellphone?

Younger campers say having a smartphone on a camping trip is nearly as important as toilet paper, according to the 2015 North American Camping Report. I’m guessing your kids would agree and, depending on their age, might even say their smartphone is more important. What about you?

If you thought camping meant getting away from technology, think again. According to this new report, citing research conducted by the Cairn Consulting Group and sponsored by Kampgrounds of America (KOA), access to free Wi-Fi ranks among the top three most important camping amenities, right behind clean bathrooms and kid-friendly campgrounds. Nearly all campers bring their cellphones and half of all campers report going online at least once a day.

The report also suggests that campers are using social media to share their experiences in real time rather than waiting until they get home. That’s especially true for teens, said Dr. Robyn Silverman, a child and teen development specialist, who spoke on a Camping in the City panel in New York recently about this new research and how camping has changed.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Jim Rogers, chairman and CEO of KOA, the world’s largest public family campgrounds. “We need to get kids outdoors,” he added, “and it’s precious for them to communicate that they are having fun.”

Certainly we know why we should get kids outdoors more — for their health, for them to appreciate the importance of conserving the environment, for the learning opportunities in the natural world and perhaps most important, to get them away from their overscheduled lives. Let’s not forget the opportunity to create some stellar family memories.

To that end, President Obama has just announced the new Every Kid in a Park initiative designed to get more families outdoors by providing every fourth-grader in the country a free pass to explore national parks, national forests and wildlife refuges throughout the 2015-16 season.

Gathering around the campfire for 'smores

Gathering around the campfire for ‘smores (Jeff Dow photo)

It’s also encouraging that more families from many walks of life are finding their way to campgrounds. For example, nearly one in four campers today are African-American, Asian or Hispanic — the number nearly doubling in the last two years — demographic groups that have not traditionally camped out in large numbers.

For those new to camping, “We’re making it easier to go from the backyard to the back country,” said Jim Rogers. A growing number of campgrounds offer cabins that can sleep as many as eight, swimming pools, organized activities and, of course, Wi-Fi. Families are also forsaking tents for RVs and campers — a lot easier with young kids, families in campgrounds have told me again and again.

It’s also a lot easier — and more appealing — to leave work for the weekend and head to a fully-equipped cabin than it is to pitch a tent after dark, suggested Sam Shevat, whose wife’s family has long run the Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA in New York State on West Canada Creek.

That’s one reason the new study suggests people plan to camp more. Lower gas prices are also playing a role. The majority of campers plan to spend more nights camping this year and almost half plan to take more than one trip.

Families forsaking tents for RVs and campers

Families forsaking tents for RVs and campers

No wonder, since many believe the experience will not only enable them to reconnect with nature, but also with each other. Campers believe camping improves family relationships and perhaps most important, kids are enthusiastic about going. We all know nothing will derail a family trip faster than grumpy kids!

But we need to accept that in 2015, kids won’t be willing to part from their devices, even on a camping trip.

“For teens, their life and their cyber-life are one,” Dr. Silverman explained. If they aren’t able to share their experience with their friends, “it is as if it’s not happening.”

When they do share the experience, Silverman said, and their friends respond, it’s validation for them that what they are doing is fun!

So if you thought taking the kids camping was a way to get everyone unplugged 24/7, think again. The key, Dr. Silverman said, “is that you are in control of the device. Your devices aren’t controlling the family!”

That means before going to that national park or campground you need to have the how-much-time conversation with the kids, as well as the talk on how-much-we-can-spend-on-souvenirs. And you need to stick to the program! Maybe it’s an hour at breakfast or an hour when you get back from your hike. Maybe it’s longer, especially if it rains. (Devices can save the day when it rains.)

Consider also that technology can help you on the trail, suggested Sascha Segan, the lead mobile analyst for, who also spoke on the panel. I used to tell my kids to “hug a tree,” if we got separated on the trail and wait for us to return. Now, Segan said, apps like WAVE and LIFE360 can help parents keep tabs on the kids. Let’s not forget the importance of a compass app — or a flashlight on your phone.

“Take a picture of a bird or bug and use technology like Google Image search or Google Translate to identify the species. Look up the words to a campfire song on YouTube, Segan suggested. There are National Geographic apps that serve as guides to the national parks and Audubon Guides apps that can help you identify birds, wildflowers and animal sounds. Let the kids be in charge of telling you the name of the pink flower or yellow bird you saw on the trail. Who can identify the most leaves? Flowers? Animal tracks?

“Think of your devices as a way to enhance your knowledge of nature,” Segan said.

Just put them down long enough to talk to each other. And have a s ’more for me.

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