Active Outdoors: Roadside Camping 101
Roadside Crawford Notch. Our home away from home for one night in the Dry River Campground in Crawford Notch State Park. Our room with a view cost just $25 for the night. Flush toilets and showers were a short walk away. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Hutopia. If you don’t have your own tent, don’t worry. More and more roadside campgrounds are offering “cabin tents” for rent like this “Hutopia” in Saguenay National Park in Quebec. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Good Morning: Marilyn Donnelly smiling after a comfortable night in a tent at the roadside Dry River Campground in New hamnpshire’s Crawford Notch State Park. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Campsite Kitchen; The venerable Coleman 2-burner stove has been a staple of roadside campsite kitchens for decades. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com)
Okay, 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. And one of my sons lived all of last summer in a tent, by choice, preferring it to the stuffy confines of an apartment. That apple, apparently, didn’t fall far from the tree.
Seriously, 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 that includes flush toilets, sinks with hot running water and 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.
In the same general area, we could have stayed at the two White Mountain National Forest campgrounds (Hancock and Blackberry Crossing) that stay open all year, or the Campton campground that opens in early May. The other WMNF campgrounds all open in time for Memorial Day.
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. See below for a resource list.
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 national forests, though some commercial campgrounds offer separate “tent only” sections. It just seems to us that tent campers are quieter and 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 in the morning. We didn’t mind that intrusion one bit!
Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
One-night roadside 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 that has an inflatable support system (you literally pump it up) – in the backyard before we took it camping. I highly recommend you do the same with any unfamiliar tent.
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 black fly or mosquito to be seen. That won’t be the case in a week or two. Dinner that night was burgers grilled over a 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, wishing we’d been able to stay another night. That’s the way a camping getaway should be.
Roadside campground resources
New Hampshire: state park campgrounds (nhstateparks.org/experience/camping); White Mountain National Forest (fs.usda.gov/activity/whitemountain/recreation/camping-cabins); private campgrounds (ucampnh.com). There’s also a wonderful campsite run by the AMC at Cardigan Mountain (outdoors.org/lodging/cardigan/cardigan-campsites.cfm).
Massachusetts: state park campgrounds (mass.gov/dcr/recreate/interactiveCamping.htm); private campgrounds (campmass.com). Two places especially worth noting not on these lists are the Tully Lake Campground run by The Trustees of Reservations (thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/places-to-stay/tully-lake-campground) and the campsites at Zoar Outdoor (zoaroutdoor.com/camp.htm).
Vermont: state park campgrounds (vtstateparks.com/htm/camping.htm); Green Mountain National Forest (fs.usda.gov/activity/greenmountain/recreation/camping-cabins), private campgrounds (campvermont.com).
Quebec: National/Provincial Parks (sepaq.com/hebergement/camping/camping-tente.dot).
Car camping lite
More common in Canada but slowly invading the U.S. are fixed “cabin tents” in roadside campsites that 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.
I know of cabin tents (sometimes called “Hutopias) at several parks in Quebec, at the Adirondack Mountain Club’s 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 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)