A breezy Thursday afternoon and Lake Barkley State Resort Park’s wooded, rolling campground is about half-filled. But by tomorrow evening, late arrivals without a reservation could be out of luck. Summer weekend campers sometimes exceed capacity.
Recreational camping is a hugely popular pursuit, attracting more than 45 million Americans annually. Most campers flee to the woods between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Many visit Kentucky, which is a camping-friendly destination.
“Camping is very popular. Our campgrounds are extremely busy, especially when the weather is good,” says Denise Schmittou, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service-managed Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, a 170,000-acre peninsula separating Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.
In 2014, LBL recorded 597,915 campers at its five developed campgrounds. Another 6,475 visitors purchased LBL backcountry camping permits, which allow primitive camping across most of the heavily wooded tract.
Campers also swarm to Kentucky’s state parks. From April through October of last year, the state tourism office tallied 164,548 campers at 31 parks. The reasons for this seasonal outdoor exodus vary, but camping has much going for it.
There’s the relaxed ambiance and controlled adventure of spending a few days outdoors and under the stars.
Camping is a reasonably affordable family outing. Campsite rates vary, but generally range from $15 to $25 per night for a developed site. For that you usually get electricity, water, a fire ring, picnic table and a nice view. Full-service campgrounds also feature restrooms and shower facilities. Some have playgrounds, and a few have swimming pools. Many more have access to a lake with a designated swimming area. Others provide self-service laundries, dump stations and camp stores that likely sell everything from aspirin and shampoo to firewood.
And developed campgrounds—like those found at many federally managed sites and almost all state parks—are well-maintained and supervised. They are safe places, and visitors feel safe. Park rangers and camp hosts are a friendly, comforting presence without being intrusive.
Individual camps range from bare bones to high tech.
My basic camping tools haven’t changed much in the three decades I’ve been occasionally sleeping on the ground: Tent. Sleeping bag. Dutch oven. Iron skillet. Stove. Knife. Hatchet. Fishing (or hunting) gear. With this minimal approach, however, I am now in the minority. Visit any campground and you’ll likely find more self-contained camping units than tents. The hum of air conditioners can drown out the crackle of campfires—especially as June melts into July.
An older-model Ford pickup with Kansas license plates arrives at the neighboring campsite. A man and woman of apparent retirement age emerge. The man waves, nods, speaks a polite greeting and opens the rear of the truck, which is covered with a cap high top, revealing what appears to be a collection of space shuttle leftovers and gear that might have fallen from The Grapes of Wrath’s Joad family truck.
He pulls a contraption from the truck bed, and then extends a pair of side panels that produce a small, room-size frame. Legs and stilt-like extensions unfold. A spring-powered canopy blossoms. Canvas walls and screens roll to the ground. Within minutes, a large shelter has grown almost magically from the Ford’s tailgate.
I walk over to say hello but am mainly curious about the camping rig.
They are Al and Amanda, on the way home from a trip to Georgia, where they were visiting a daughter. For reasons unclear, introductions include only first names. Al is a retired mechanical engineer. He designed and built the fold-out tent, which is actually an extension of the truck and not a stand-alone unit. I learn this within the first minute of our conversation. Understandably proud of his handiwork, Al shows me around.
“A lot of people ask about it,” he says.
The setup includes two roll-up windows and a tie-back door, a kitchen with a two-burner propane stove and a small, white gas-powered catalytic heater, which probably won’t be needed on a June night in Kentucky.
A couple of folding metal steps hang from the tailgate.
“We sleep in the back,” Amanda says.
“These fold down to make the bed,” Al explains, adding that two plywood panels will fold down and cover the truck’s bed to support a self-inflating air mattress and sleeping bags.
He explains how the system works in matter-of-fact mechanical terms. Basically, hinged springs.
“It’s really fairly simple,” he says. “Five-minute setup. It has a floor, but we’re leaving tomorrow and it’s not going to rain, so I probably won’t use it.”
To reserve a campsite at a Kentucky State Park, go to parks.ky.gov or phone 1-888-459-7275.
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