Is it safe to camp right now? What you should know

When it comes to camping, planning and preparation are paramount — especially in a pandemic.
Camping Safecation SQUARE
Make sure you check CDC recommendations before you travel, and make sure you know the campground’s sanitation protocol for shared spaces like bathrooms.TODAY illustratoin / Getty Images

With so many summer travel plans sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic, folks are widely embracing a more rustic and earthy getaway: camping. A new survey from Expedia found that 85 percent of Americans intend to take a road trip this summer, with the desire to enjoy the outdoors as a top motivator. Meanwhile, The Dyrt, a camping search and review platform is seeing an astronomical spike in interest.

“According to Google Trends data, searches for ‘camping’ are the highest they’ve been since 2011,” Kevin Long, CEO of The Dyrt, told TODAY. “We’re seeing the same increase in The Dyrt app — this was our biggest traffic month in the last seven years of operation.”

Is it safe to go camping?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), getting outdoors is a relatively safe way to remain physically active, get fresh air and reduce stress. Don't travel if you feel ill, have recently tested positive for COVID-19 or know someone who has. Camp and travel with those you live with and continue to follow safe social distancing practices, like staying 6 feet away from others and wearing your mask, on the road and at destination.

After months of lockdown, it’s tempting to just pack a tent and hit the road, but both doctors and camping experts note that planning and preparation are paramount. Here’s what they recommend for a safe camping experience.

Ready to camp? Call ahead — campgrounds are booking up fast

“Campgrounds are filling up quickly — partly because some public lands have been closed to camping,” said Kelly Beasley, co-founder, Camp Addict. “Full-time RVers who normally camp there have been forced to either hunker down somewhere in town, on someone’s property, or in a campground. Additionally, because flying is off of the table for many, people have turned to camping as a way to social distance while on vacation. This has caused an uptick in campground reservations. The key here is to book ahead of time to ensure yourself a spot.”

Caleb Chen, an avid camper who runs the site The VanLife Coach, added another reason to book ahead: “Many campgrounds are instituting physical distancing measures such as ‘every other lot only; to keep things safe during COVID” — so capacity might be limited.

Freshen up on CDC guidelines and know your campsite’s sanitation policies

“If there’s anything constant about the coronavirus situation, it’s that the safety guidelines are constantly getting updated,” says Long. “Make sure you check CDC recommendations before you travel, and make sure you know the campground’s sanitation protocol for shared spaces like bathrooms.”

Don’t fear the toilets (but do bring your own soap)

Speaking of bathrooms, Dr. Shruti Gohil, associate medical director, epidemiology & infection prevention, infectious diseases, at University California, Irvine noted that there’s been speculation over whether ‘toilet plumes’ can cause you to catch COVID-19. At this point in time, “knowing what we know about the virus”, Gohil finds this concern to be highly improbable.

“As a scientist I can’t say it could never happen, but if you look at primary modes of transmission, I would say you can not expect to catch COVID from flushing a toilet,” says Gohil.

Some campgrounds offer simple, no-flush latrines, but if you do have a flush toilet, experts previously told TODAY that the best way to avoid these aerosol plumes is to simply close the lid before flushing.

You might want to opt for campsites with toilets if only to make the experience more convenient, but don’t expect any of these bathrooms to have adequate hygiene supplies. Gohil, a fan of camping herself, reminds vacationers to bring plenty of hand soap — along with toilet paper, paper towels and any other hygiene essentials.

Make your hand hygiene products accessible

Gohil also underscores the importance of bringing portable, easy-to-access hand sanitizer.

“I see people with these huge jugs, and those are fine for refilling, but it’s good to have a small dispenser you can put on your wrist or hook on your belt so that you don’t have to think about it and can always just reach for it,” Gohil said. “Any hand sanitizer will do so long as it contains at least 70 percent alcohol.”

Yes, you’ll need your mask

Ideally you’ll be able to socially distance without much effort when camping, but Dr. Gohil noted that because camping is so popular right now, you might end up closer to crowds than you would have in the past. And so, your mask is a non-negotiable necessity.

“Absolutely wear your mask if you are within six feet of others,” Gohil said. “This is important even if you’re outdoors in the open air.”

Heading to the beach? Stay at least 6 feet from people outside your household on the shore and in the water.

As Elizabeth Andre, associate professor of nature and culture at Northland College pointed out, rural communities “might have limited medical facilities and an aging population”. For this reason alone your mask must be on you at all times so “you don’t accidentally bring sickness into the community.”

New to camping? Here's what to pack

If you've never camped before, the National Parks Service advises hikers and campers to bring masks and hand sanitizer, along with their "10 Essentials" list:

  1. Water
  2. Food and cooking gear
  3. A first aid kit
  4. Sun protection
  5. Clothing, including jackets, rain gear, etc.
  6. Shelter: tent, sleeping gear and supplies
  7. Flashlights and lanterns
  8. Matches, lighters and fire starters
  9. Repair kit and tools
  10. Maps and navigation systems

For even more tips, outdoor retailer REI has a comprehensive checklist of everything you might need to make your camping experience as comfortable and convenient as possible.

Go on this trip — your mental health will thank you

While a totally spontaneous camping trip isn’t recommended, a thoughtfully planned getaway might just be the best thing for your sanity.

“Activities like camping can be therapeutic and beneficial for our physical and mental health,” said Dr. Juli Fraga, a psychologist. “Spending time outdoors can bolster our immune system, lessen symptoms of depression, invoke calm and bolster wellbeing. When we step away from distractions, noise and the go-go busyness of daily life, the body’s nervous system calms down. When we’re no longer in a stressful state, we can focus our attention on the present moment, which can be very meditative.”