Roughing it in a modern age

Many campers, especially youths, are reluctant to leave behind their electronics while enjoying the wilderness.

July 22, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

THURMONT - At a campground in the quiet of the Catoctin Mountains, 11-year-old Michaela Downing rode bikes with her friends and sat with her grandmother under a canopy of tall trees, with a 78-foot waterfall and glistening lake just a short walk away.

But after dinner, instead of telling ghost stories around the campfire or working on crafts as she did when she was younger, Michaela was hoping for screen time with Shrek, Polly Pocket and SpongeBob SquarePants.

"I might play here more than I play at home," said the girl, clad in a SpongeBob T-shirt and pajama pants, of the Game Boy she didn't want to leave Severn without.

The wilderness might seem like the last place you'd find video games, computers and DVDs, but today's young people are used to having electronic media virtually everywhere they go. And campground operators, eager to stop their pool of visitors from shrinking, are struggling with how and whether to accommodate them.

To attract visitors, state parks in California, Texas and Michigan are offering wireless Internet access, and Col. Rick Barton, superintendent of Maryland's 49 state parks, says he's exploring the idea.

"My first reaction ... was never," Barton said. "These places are meant to be a getaway.

"But then it's, `Come on, Rick, people have cell phones. People have gadgets,'" he said. "People have motor homes. They have TV."

Decline in camping

"Car camping" outings - pitching a tent or pop-up with a vehicle nearby - fell nearly 28 percent between 1998 and 2004, from 338 million to 245 million, according to a recent study by the Outdoor Industry Foundation, which represents retailers and nonprofit groups. Backpacking declined 33 percent, from 98 million outings to 66 million. The National Park Service recently reported drops in visits as well.

Kids aren't the only ones who want the comforts of home on camping trips. They're often traveling with Internet-savvy parents and grandparents - baby boomers who often prefer to "camp" in recreational vehicles loaded with amenities.

If people can easily reach the Web while roughing it, Barton says, maybe they'll be more willing to camp and to stay an extra day or two. "Maybe they'll telecommute from their campsite," he said.

Wireless access

Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Camp Resort, a private campground in Williamsport that has already gone wireless, is looking for ways to use that access to let kids use more game systems in cabins, said resort owner Ron Vitkun.

Michael Lee, a spokesman for the Outdoor Industry Foundation, said his group is exploring ways to use technology to hook kids on camping. One example is geocaching, a kind of high-tech treasure hunting that uses handheld global positioning system devices.

"Kids who are used to interfacing with a screen can be doing that in the woods," he said.

At Cunningham Falls' Houck Area campground, where the conditions are still rustic, Geoff and Valerie Price brought a TV with built-in VCR. They didn't think daughter Haylee, 2 1/2 , could survive in the woods without Barney.

"I was in Boy Scouts for many years, and we didn't have the TVs," her father said. "But the little ones, they like it."

A few campsites away, Alex Ashton, 12, had brought a portable PlayStation and several movies on his camping trip with family friends. The Rosedale boy promised the game player was for "just in case it rains, and I'm stuck in a tent or that sort of thing."

Michaela Downing said she rarely gets to play her video games during the school year. So during the summer - high camping season - she wants to take advantage of the relaxed rules.

And sometimes, after all that outdoor activity, Michaela needs a break. Bicycling, for example, is "really tiring," she said.

As electronic diversions have become more popular and more portable, they have been showing up in unexpected places. Youths 8 to 18 spend an average of four hours a day watching TV, videos or DVDs; one hour on a computer, and 50 minutes playing video games, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study released in March. Fifty-five percent in that age group had a handheld video-game player.

Those trends have even forced Scout camps to deal with the issue. They have generally discouraged high-tech toys.

Scout camp rules

Reed Blom, director of camping for the Baltimore Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, said campers at the council's Broad Creek camp in Harford County are encouraged to leave portable electronics at home.

First of all, they can be lost or damaged.

"When you're living in a two-person tent, security's a problem," Blom said. "We're dealing with humidity and moisture now."

Down time, he said, is better spent around the campfire.

"There's good bonding there and learning to deal with each other," he said.

Still, because the rules for each camping group are set by the troop leader, "once in a while, you'll see the kids with their little PlayStations," Blom said.

For those kids, Blom has an ace in the hole: There's no place at camp to recharge the batteries.

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