In 50 years, the operators of Sea Pirate Campground in West Creek had never seen numbers like they saw in 2020. Despite the season’s slow start due to COVID-19 shutdowns, Sea Pirate had its best year ever. “Even with not being able to fully open until July when we went to full capacity, we still ended up with more camper nights than any season we’ve ever had,” said Matt Benn, who owns Sea Pirate with his sister.
“Last year, it seemed like the overall consensus was that camping was open and a lot of the other style of vacations were closed down. Our target market expanded because the people that would normally go to a resort were now looking at any type [of vacation]. We had a huge influx of campers, and of trailers that had never been driven before they pulled into one of our sites,” Benn said.
This year, he added, business is even better. Through October, 85% of weekend sites are booked as of May 13.
The story is similar all over, for all different types of campgrounds. A spokesperson for the campground at Sandy Hook in Gateway National Recreation Area, which has 20 campsites, said half of their rentals for the entire summer got booked within two days of the reservation portal opening. Kymer’s Camping Resort owner Karen Kymer in Branchville said that weekend spots are hard to come by at hers and any campground, especially RV campers in big 40-foot rigs.
Caryn Shinske, public information officer for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said that 4,765 state park campsites statewide were occupied from April 1 to May 12 this year compared to 3,595 occupied statewide from the same period in 2019. After camping reopened last June at a select number of state parks, sites would sell out two to three weeks ahead of time compared with one to two weeks ahead of time in previous years.
Camping participation grew 28% in 2020 as 7.9 million first-timers nationwide slept in the woods, according to the Outdoor Industry Association report The New Outdoor Participant: COVID and Beyond, released March 31. Americans flocked to fresh air activities to get exercise and stay healthy (62%) but also to simply get out of the house (62%), the report found.
To support their new (or newly intensified) hobby, folks invested in new stuff. NPD Group Executive Director and Sports Industry Analyst Dirk Sorenson told NJBIZ that almost every outdoor living category grew in the high double-digits.
“Overall, outdoor accessories including categories such as car racks and coolers experienced growth of 12% last year; the camping category – in which The NPD Group tracks the sale of products like tents, camp furniture, and sleeping bags – grew 33%,” Sorenson said.
One standout trend was the purchase of items to create and enjoy the warmth and fruits of a quintessential camping pastime: a campfire. Campfire equipment was up 150% in the 12 months ending March 2021 compared to the same timeframe a year prior. Outdoor cookware appliances grew 78%, camping tables were up 64%, and saws were up 57%.
NPD data showed growth in both technical camping supplies like backpacking tents as well as the heavier, basic tents often used by folks camping at campgrounds or near their cars. Sorenson projects retail sales on camping supplies will be lower in 2022 than 2020 or 2021, but not because folks are leaving the woods behind. They’re just making use of the supplies they purchased this year and last.
“The trend to get outdoors seems to be widespread … We believe this is the beginning of a long-term period of growth for outdoor activity,” Sorenson said.
Some individuals have chosen to get in on the COVID-19 camping boom by offering up their own land as private, single-group campgrounds through the AirBnB-like platform HipCamp. Compared to before the pandemic, HipCamp hosts have received three times more bookings. Renting out the flattest spot in your yard can be a lucrative venture, a spokesperson told NJBIZ: New Jersey hosts could make upwards of $3,000 monthly doing so, and some hosts elsewhere make over $100,000 a year hosting full time.
Liz Klak, a HipCamp host in Pittstown, started renting out a flat spot in the woods behind her house in October and had several bookings throughout the winter. Klak, who markets her HipCamp as LGBTQ+ friendly (“Everyone should feel welcome in the woods!” she said), was turned on to HipCamp by a friend who lists her Sevenoaks Farm in Pennsylvania on HipCamp when that friend realized Klak needed some mortgage assistance.
Since then, she’s hosted a slew of happy campers. Well, except maybe one.
“A girl messaged me very excited to take her partner for their first time camping … I was also excited for them both! I remember their headlights coming in in my yard at about 3 a.m. and then I fell back asleep and they were gone. One brand new Ozark [Trail] 3-person tent [was] stuffed in the trash with its receipt! … I was very curious what the hell happened!” Klak said. “After further investigation, one pole was broken on the tent so I suppose that was the catalyst.”
But some things just take practice. Folks who sleep in tents or hammocks might need to tackle setting up camp a time or two to get the hang of it, and in the RV camping realm, newbies might not understand how to hook up a water line and a sewer line or get their generator up and running. Kymer has found herself coaching new RV owners on how to best back into campsites. New Jersey Campground Owners & Outdoor Lodging Association Executive Director Joann Delveccio noted, though, that campground owners and camping neighbors are usually more than willing to help someone’s struggling.
“We’re welcoming them with open arms, because people want to be outdoors,” she said.