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Archive for Monday, June 11, 2007

Car and camper

Most load up trunks instead of backpacks before heading to the great outdoors

June 11, 2007

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Participants of the time-honored tradition of sleeping out in the great outdoors typically fall into one of two, well, camps: traditional campers and car campers.

And while there is no real hard and fast definition that separates one from the other, they still are pretty easy to differentiate.

"I define car camping basically as fitting whatever you can fit into your SUV or trunk, driving to a camping spot and throwing it out and staying there," said Andrew Shank, hardgoods specialist at Sunflower Outdoor and Bike. "The alternative is camping or backpacking, where everything is smaller and lighter and you're generally taking everything with you."

Far more folks participate in the former.

In Kansas - as well as nationally - there are more car campers than campers.

A recent survey found 8.2 percent of Kansans, or 168,796 people, have gone camping. The numbers skyrocket to 23.3 percent, or 479,628 people, who have gone car camping.

For the purpose of the survey, camping was defined as an overnight trip spent more than a quarter mile from the participant's parked vehicle, while car camping fell within that quarter-mile cutoff.

Why are so many more people camping lite?

"I'd say it's definitely lack of availability," Shank said. "To get anywhere close to backpacking in this area, you're talking about at least a two-hour drive. For the majority of the population, that's just not realistic. That's the biggest difference."

So much of the state's land is privately owned, it's difficult truly to set out on a traditional primitive-camping venture of a respectable length.

Compare that to, say, our neighbor to the west. Colorado campers can go for weeks without running into a "No Trespassing" sign.

All the comforts of home

Comfort also tips the scales in favor of car camping.

Primitive campers are limited by what they can haul themselves. Car campers can use whatever they can stuff into or lash onto their vehicles.

Car campers can alight in established campgrounds with fire pits, running water, trash and rest room facilities and even electricity.

"One of the advantages of car camping is comfort, or the amenities," Shank said. "You can take your blow-up air mattress, a cooler stocked with beer and ice, listen to your car radio or take along a stereo. Generally, you can build a campfire. A lot of places, like Colorado, you're hearing more about forest fires, and traditional backpacking is becoming illegal."

That's not to say car camping trumps traditional in every way.

In fact, many traditional campers tend to look down on car campers.

"A huge advantage to backpacking is getting away from people," Shank said. "Going to Clinton Lake, listening to other peoples' conversations : personally, I'd rather stay home than go to Clinton.

"The flip side is, I definitely do a lot of car camping myself, more than backpacking. On the flip side of going to Clinton Lake or whatever, with so much land in Kansas being privately owned, everybody knows somebody who has a piece of ground even two hours out of town. If you're thinking about going camping this weekend, you can find alternatives."

In some ways, car camping simply is a compromise between the desire to get out there and the inability to turn every venture into a week-long adventure.

"A lot of it is time constraints," Shank said. "It's a time crunch. A lot of people can make time to go out to Clinton Lake, but they can't make time for the alternative."

'Good if you have kids'

For newbies or families with young children car camping may be the only way.

"We get customers where it's a boyfriend trying to convince his girlfriend that camping is fun," Shank said. "And car camping's good if you have kids, especially younger kids not able to carry their own gear or who maybe don't like the idea of sleeping outside. We get fathers and mothers in here who start out sleeping in their back yard, then maybe they go out to Clinton Lake as the next step."

And car camping has the edge in affordability.

It's cheaper to drive to a nearby park than plan an excursion even as close as Colorado. And while a car camper can get by with a cheap, basic tent-and-bag setup, backpacking's lighter-weight gear more than makes up in price what it lacks in weight.

"A lot of the difference, really, is financial," Shank said. "To get the gear to go backpacking, you're looking at a bigger base expense, rather that just a basic tent and sleeping bag."

Where to go

Popular close car-camping destinations include Clinton, Perry and Lone Star lakes, which over several campgrounds with a variety of amenities.

For car-camping veterans wanting to take it to the next step, Shank says there are a couple of relatively nearby camping destinations.

Among them are the Elk City Reservoir, near Independence, which is about a three-hour drive from Lawrence, and Buffalo River in Arkansas, which is nearly twice as far away.

"The best place I know nearby is Elk City Reservoir," Shank said. "It's an out-and-back backpacking loop. I haven't seen the trail, but it's seven to 10 miles out, seven to 10 miles back. I used to work in an outdoors shop in Wichita, and I knew people there getting ready for a trip to Colorado who would go to Elk City to test out their gear.

"And one place on my list of places to go where I haven't made it yet is Buffalo River. It was the first nationally protected river in America. That's definitely a place for customers looking for places to go that are somewhat close. It's a six- to seven-hour drive to get down there, but it's realistic for people."

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