It’s not just mountain bike trails that suddenly became more crowded during the pandemic. Seeking socially-distanced, outdoor adventures far from rental cars and hotel rooms, thousands flocked to unimproved, dispersed camping spots around the United States beginning in 2020. As a result, some land management agencies including the US Forest Service are implementing new rules and procedures to reduce crowding and improve safety for visitors and wildlife alike.
According to Fox Business, RV sales and rentals boomed during the pandemic. The publication notes that Outdoorsy, a peer-to-peer RV rental service, saw an astounding 4,600% growth between April and October in 2020.
A May 2021 press release from the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests lays bare the negative results of the surge.
“While ‘dispersed’ camping is generally allowed across most of the National Forest, it can have severe impacts, especially when occurring within 100 feet of streams.” The release continues, “Outside of developed campgrounds last summer, National Forest visitors created thousands of new campsites as they pulled off roads and damaged resources, trampling vegetation and compacting soils with tents, campers and vehicles. Visitors built hundreds of new rock campfire rings and negatively impacted municipal water supplies with human waste and trash.” Multiply those effects by the roughly 150 National Forests across the USA, and it’s clear the impact has been significant.
Brandon Stewart has been camping with his van for three years now, and he’s also seen a notable increase in campers while traveling throughout Utah, New Mexico, and Sedona, Arizona.
“During the pandemic the place has transformed into a zoo. The area is flooded with people coming and going day and night. Large RVs and families have really taken over these large areas. But the positive is that most people tend to take care of their waste and the visitors seem very friendly and positive.”
Reet and Julie Singh, founders of TripOutside, have been living on the road in an RV since 2017, generally choosing camping spots on public land close to mountain bike trails. “Places like Sedona and Moab are much busier [in the past year and a half] and also a lot more trashed which breaks our hearts,” says Reet Singh.
As a result of the visitor influx, five areas within the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests are temporarily closed to camping this summer. The closure includes the Vasquez Creek, Maxwell Falls, Rainbow Lakes, Ceran Saint Vrain, and Winiger Ridge areas. Both Vasquez Creek and Little Vasquez Creek in particular are notable for their proximity to the Winter Park mountain bike trail system.
And it’s not just Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) locations that are restricting access. Stewart says he’s seeing the same thing happening other places too.
“Where I’ve seen a tightening in particular is in the towns. There are a ton more signs posted about no overnight parking or long-term parking. Pre-pandemic it was relatively easy to just find a place to park for the night outside of a small mountain town in Colorado. Now those same places I want to revisit or had plans to visit have tightened down on the overnight use.”
Crested Butte is yet another location that’s making changes to how they manage dispersed camping. Formerly informal camping spots are getting official site numbers and amenities. A March press release said “Campers can expect to see new signage along the roadside directing them toward camping areas, camping information, and notifying them when no camping areas lie ahead. The shift to designated camping might mean that the ability to find a place to camp will be more limited than it has been in the past. If you are coming to Crested Butte for the weekend during peak summer season or for any holiday over the summer be sure that you have a backup plan in the event that all the designated sites are full.”
Ironically, Crested Butte is now facing a housing shortage for workers and is looking to expanded camping opportunities as a partial solution. A June 7 town council resolution “removes limits on camping and RV occupancy on private property inside the town limits” according to the Colorado Sun. The resolution is designed to make it easier for seasonal workers to find a place to live during the busy seasons and to relieve some of the demand for short-term vacation rentals. According to the same article, Summit County is looking at possibly establishing new winter camping locations to help ease the housing crisis there.
Just like how people were forced to adapt to online grocery orders and restaurant takeout apps, camping will look much different this year, and many of the changes are likely to become permanent. While not all the changes will be popular, they don’t seem to deter folks like Brandon Stewart.
“Places like Crested Butte are definitely beautiful and I enjoy visiting. Going forward with rules changing I feel like it won’t stop me from going, but I’ll have to probably do more due diligence before going, to know what is allowed and not allowed anymore.”
The new rules will likely have a positive effect on sensitive outdoor environments as well, and even the overall visitor experience. Reid Armstrong, public affairs specialist with the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, says “Our goal is to reduce crowding and improve the overall experience, which will also benefit the wildlife, like mountain goats that call Mount Evans home.” Still, Armstrong acknowledges “It will take some advance planning, and visitors will need to make some extra time to learn about the areas and secure a reservation.”
For Reet Singh, being flexible and adapting to the current environment is all a part of living on the road. In fact, it sounds like he may be looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity to experience new places in new ways. “We will be visiting those places in extreme off seasons, suffer through the cold or heat, and try to enjoy the trails and the towns with fewer crowds. We are also exploring places that are more off the beaten path and riding more backcountry/ remote trails.”