Active Outdoors: Roadside camping an inexpensive, low-impact getaway


OK, I'll admit it, I've been a bit of an elitist, but I'm working on changing that. Though I've done a lot of it over the years, and have almost always really enjoyed it, I've always sort of looked down my nose at roadside camping, seeing it as somehow less "authentic" than putting a tent into a backpack or kayak and heading away from the road. Stupid attitude, I know.

After all, my first camping experiences were in my backyard (which is, technically, roadside) and I suspect yours were, too. And roadside camping is how I introduced my two sons and my sweetheart, Marilyn, to camping. It must have been a good introduction. She now loves camping in all forms.

If roadside or backyard camping weren't fun, why would any of us have moved on to try adventures farther from the road? Roadside camping is the perfect "starter" experience.

This past weekend, Marilyn and I were up in northern New Hampshire for work. We wanted to extend our stay to give ourselves time for a long ride on our tandem bike and maybe a hike to some waterfalls as well. But we didn't really want to spend a lot of extra money. So we threw a big tent in the car along with pads, sleeping bags and a small stove. Everything but the tent fit into one duffel bag.

For a grand total of $25, we found a very nice site at the Dry River Campground in Crawford Notch State Park, which opens at the end of April and closes the first of December. We were within an easy stroll of the super-clean bathhouse, which includes flush toilets, sinks with hot running water, even coin-operated showers and laundry. Though the campground is right on Route 302, it's set a bit below the road and there isn't much night traffic -- road noise didn't bother us.

There are hundreds of other roadside camping opportunities across New England, northern New York and Quebec. No matter where you live, you'll find places close to you.

Elitist habits die hard and we tend to seek out roadside campgrounds that do not have hookups for RVs and travel trailers. Most of these are in state parks and on national forests, though some commercial campgrounds offer separate "tent" only" sections. It just seems to us that tent campers are quieter, perhaps more attuned to their surroundings than the folks who can step inside a box and shut the door against the world. Again that may be our own prejudices speaking, but we didn't hear any TVs or obtrusive music from other campsites the other night. In fact, the loudest sounds we heard were laughter from around the campfires in other sites, and a Barred Owl that decided to sound off from a tree almost over our heads at 4:10 a.m. We didn't mind that intrusion one bit! Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

A one-night getaway

Our recent campout was as pleasant as could be. We arrived at the campsite in late afternoon. At this time of year, we were pretty certain of finding an open site -- in fact we were told that many of the sites without hookups don't fill up even on high-season weekends.

Setting up the tent and laying out our beds took only a few minutes even with a new tent. I'd practiced setting up this one, a Kelty Mach 4, which has an inflatable support system (you literally pump it up), in the backyard before we took it camping.

Once we had camp set up, we took a stroll along the banks of the Dry River (which wasn't -- dry, that is), then came back to read and relax. This early in the season there wasn't a blackfly or mosquito to be seen. Dinner that night was burgers grilled over an small open fire. There were lots of dead branches lying around this early in the season, but they also sell bundles for $3. Firewood from out of state is prohibited to prevent spreading insect pests.

It was clear and colder than forecast, but we had good sleeping bags and pads and slept comfortably. In New England, especially in spring and fall (when the weather is often nicest) it pays to prepare for chilly nights. We were so cozy and comfortable, we lingered in our sleeping bags until the sun climbed over the hill and peeped into the campsite. Then we packed up and left to take a bike ride before heading home.

Car camping lite

More common in Canada but slowly invading the United States are fixed "cabin tents" in roadside campsites, which give you the experience of sleeping in a tent without having to buy it, tote it and set it up. Some will require you to bring your own bedding and stoves, others will provide them.

I know of cabin tents (sometimes called "Hutopias" at several parks in Quebec, at the Adirondack Mountain Clubís Heart lake Wilderness campground, and at Zoar Outdoor in Charlemont, Mass. If you know of any others, please let me know, I'm compiling a list.

Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine and writes about outdoor sports and travel. email:


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