The Dyrt, a rapidly growing website and mobile app, is possibly the country’s most comprehensive platform for the camping public—which means, in turn, that The Dyrt’s users may comprise the country’s broadest demographic profile of the camping public. So when The Dyrt’s users have their temperature taken, it pays for other industry participants to take notice.
But first, some context. The Dyrt has listings of 44,000 public and private campgrounds and “other properties” that accept RVers and tenters. Last year the site pulled in more than 27 million visitors, more than doubling its 11.8 million visitors in 2020. More than a million of those visitors have been sharing tips and reviews on the site, and this past December, 3,000 of them—selected at random—responded to a far-ranging questionnaire about themselves and their experiences. An additional 2,000 respondents, chosen to be census-representative by age, race, gender and region, also were questioned, by two third-party organizations.
The result, released earlier this month, is the statistically most meaningful picture of what it’s like to go camping in America that the industry has produced to date. Some of its findings are by nature unsurprising—it’s their size or extent that may catch your breath. Other conclusions are disconcerting, to say the least.
Among the highlights:
Camping is on the rise every month of the year, but no more so than in winter, up 40.7% since 2019. Camping is also less and less of just a weekend event, with 70% of campers now taking trips that include weekdays. Some of that growth is fueled by the rise in remote working, with the number of campers toting their laptops with them nearly tripling since 2018. In fact, The Dyrt notes 23.8% of campers worked from a campsite last year.
Harder to book a campground
The inevitable result, as most campers already know: It really has become a lot harder to book a campground. Nearly half of all campers reported difficulty finding available campsites in 2021, including 47% on the West Coast and 48% in the Mountain West and Southwest. At the opposite end of the spectrum, of those trying to book a New England campground, only 37% reported difficulty. Overall, three times as many campers said they had trouble booking a site in 2021 as in 2019.
What or how you camp had a lot to do with how much trouble you had. Tenters had only twice as much difficulty in 2021, at 37%, compared with 18% in 2019. Motorhome and Class C campers, meanwhile, saw their comparable numbers soar to 51% from 14%, while those towing trailers weighed in at 55% and 16%, respectively.
Crowding in the backcountry
Here’s the disconcerting part: Frustrated by the overcrowding at conventional campgrounds, that unprecedented flood of campers is now washing over the backcountry. The number of boondockers looking for “dispersed camping” doubled in just one year, The Dyrt reported, adding that the four most-saved “campgrounds” on its app in 2021 were all dispersed-camping areas: Blue Lakes in Colorado, Edge of the World in Arizona, Shadow Mountain in Wyoming and Alabama Hills, California.
All four, it needs to be noted, have become severely degraded. Alabama Hills, on the eastern slope of the High Sierra and a much-sought-after Hollywood shooting location, had to be closed down late last year because it was trashed so badly. The damage came despite an “Eastern Sierra Dispersed Camping Summit” held the previous February, in which a half-dozen local groups managing public land in the area brainstormed strategies to prevent a repeat of the “carnage” from 2020, to little avail.
AT SHADOW MOUNTAIN, as another example, as many as 400 people can be camped in an area that has only one bathroom back at the road entrance. Forest managers say the area’s occupancy has tripled in five years, from about 30% in 2016 to 91% last year. Human waste is the most obvious resulting problem, but officials also worry about poor food storage habits leading to increased wildlife-human conflicts.
That’s not the kind of information that will turn up in a search of The Dyrt. Nor will The Dyrt’s database account for the growing number of “non-recreational campers,” which is land manager-speak for transient retirees, displaced families and homeless individuals. The western states with the most available land for boondocking also have some of the country’s highest housing costs and among the highest rates of homelessness. People have to live somewhere….
There’s no reason, alas, to think that any of these trends will soften in 2022.
Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park. From the book: “While campers are out to experience fresh air, bucolic surroundings and the easy-going camaraderie of fellow travelers, the people who create that environment are often over-worked, under-paid and stressed out. And to make matters worse, their efforts are too readily dismissed as just ‘renting dirt.'” The fascinating book is available at some bookstores and at Amazon.com.