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Monday, July 6, 2020

How camping became the social distancing activity of the summer

A family parks a camping van in the woods. People are planning road trips to national parks or public campgrounds to get out of the house, while still remaining socially distanced from others. | Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

After months indoors, people are renting RVs, cabins, and fancy tents to spend time in nature.

During the first wave of strict coronavirus lockdowns in late March, the only outings most Americans could look forward to with some degree of certainty were cautious trips to the grocery store. Slowly but surely, those fortunate enough to work or quarantine at home began adapting to life indoors: People learned new hobbies, redecorated their homes, dyed their hair, attended lots of virtual events on Zoom, and even planned mini staycations.

Now, as the weather warms up, Americans are eager to get back outdoors as most states at least partially reopen, despite the concerning uptick in coronavirus cases. Tired of the confines of home and its familiarity, many are gravitating toward nature — planning road trips and reserving RVs to national parks and campgrounds, or booking short-term stays at tiny cabins and luxury tents away from society. People crave the experience of travel, but there’s an increased interest in private spaces and areas where they can get away from others.

Travelers naturally want a greater sense of control, especially in the midst of a pandemic, said Alan Katz, an epidemiology professor at the University of Hawaii. And as such, many are seeking out socially distant leisure options that appear to prioritize hygiene and overall well-being, while spending time alone or with those in their social cluster.

In recent years, young travelers have been drawn to camping (or, occasionally, luxury camping with added amenities, also known as “glamping”) in greater numbers, but these outdoorsy activities have new appeal in a world where we’re encouraged to remain 6 feet apart.

“Nature allows you to social distance without thinking about it,” said Josh Lesnick, president and COO of Collective Retreats, a luxury camping company. “The ability to be just outdoors surrounded by fresh air in a safe environment, and not too prescribed where you feel like you’re in a bleach box, I think that’s what people are looking for.”

From what health experts know about the coronavirus, outdoor spaces appear to present a much lower risk than indoors in terms of transmission. Plus, being close to nature allows for a refreshing change in pace and scenery for those accustomed to the drudgery of daily work and life.

Since stay-at-home orders started easing in May, tourists have been flocking to national parks in droves, worrying local community members who fear the sudden influx of people could lead to an increase in Covid-19 cases. According to RVshare, a peer-to-peer RV rental company, among the most popular destinations for renters this year are Yellowstone, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. State campgrounds are also anticipating crowds, with some preparing to reach capacity during holiday weekends.

Car rental companies are seeing an uptick in reservations, too, especially in urban hot spots like New York City. RV reservations for the July Fourth weekend skyrocketed, and overall, RVshare has seen “booking levels of three times last summer and a 1,600 percent increase in bookings since early April,” a spokesperson for the company told Vox in an email.

It’s not just RVs and campgrounds that are seeing unprecedented levels of interest. Travel companies in the outdoor hospitality space — which usually caters to more urban, upwardly mobile travelers — are receiving an overwhelming number of bookings. It could be that people are itching to leave dense cities, even if for a brief period of time. Plus, there are simply fewer vacation options available with activities that are socially distant; places like family-friendly resorts and amusement parks have either closed down or could be deemed unsafe for wary travelers. Camping trips, then, seem to be a much safer choice, especially if hotel-like amenities (such as showers, clean tents or cabins, and comfy beds) are involved.

Upon first glance at the Instagram page for Getaway, the travel startup is peak cozycore, featuring a grid of warm, yellow-toned photos, comfy white sheets and blankets, and an expansive view of the great outdoors. The company offers an array of small, cozy cabins in the woods for short-term rentals, located a few hours outside major cities, and appears designed to cater to young professionals in urban areas. Many outposts are close to being sold out in July and August, according to co-founder Jon Staff.

“We saw a huge jump in bookings, about 400 percent, right when Trump announced the Europe travel ban in March,” Staff said. “We did have a bunch of cancellations when the stay-at-home orders came out, but many people did opt for short-term bookings when their vacations or work conferences got canceled, so it was balanced out.”

It “just so happened” that Staff and Getaway co-founder Pete Davis created a socially distant business. “We just kind of got lucky that Getaway was well-suited for this moment,” he said. “Our cabins have always been 100 to 150 feet apart. There’s no check-in desk. We have no bar or restaurant.”

Sara Fopiano, who stayed at Getaway’s Boston outpost, told me she was initially hesitant to move forward with the trip during the pandemic, despite booking back in January. However, the socially distant nature of the cabins reassured her. “I really appreciated the fact that the check-in and -out [process] was completely contactless, so we did not cross paths with anyone at the outpost,” Fopiano said.

That choice could be much more reassuring than, say, staying at a typical hotel or an Airbnb, where guests might be more likely to bump into strangers in enclosed spaces. The appearance of openness and isolation could be liberating — and help grant worried guests like Fopiano some peace of mind.

“We don’t have hallways, and our lobbies are like yards,” Collective Retreats’s Lesnick said. Collective Retreats is more geared toward visitors with the means to pay for the luxury of hotel amenities in an outdoor setting. The experience is similar to that of a public campsite but without the shared spaces (like bathrooms), Lesnick said, and the retreats are close enough to travel to by car from a major city.

At the start of the pandemic, experts predicted the coronavirus could fundamentally change travel as we know it — by affecting flight affordability, how we share public and private spaces, and the measures needed to ensure a trip is safe. These predictions also highlighted how people, in search of comfort and security, might pay more for it.

Ideally, spending time in nature should cost you relatively little. But in pandemic times, those who are willing and able to fork over extra money can experience nature with the added comfort and cleanliness you might not get at a regular campground. At Collective Retreats, for example, some locations employ private chefs, and guests are able to order food service from their respective tents.

The broad increase in leisure travel, especially around the Memorial Day and July Fourth weekends, suggests that people are starting to feel confident enough to venture away from home. Plus, those who are traveling likely have disposable income, secure jobs, or vacation benefits. But that doesn’t necessarily means they’re not taking the pandemic seriously, Katz, the epidemiologist, said.

While Katz admits that people “are notoriously bad at assessing risks,” it seems travelers are actively attempting to scope out socially distant options.

“Travel has always been about the reward of the destination,” Katz told me. “If the risk is high in that area and is broadcasted as such, travel to that destination will fall off by both car and air.”

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