- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2011

These days, camping isn’t just pitching a tent in the wilderness on a long hike or stopping at a campground far from home on a road trip.

Instead, for many leisure travelers, camping may involve driving just a few miles from home to spend the night in a cabin with a roof, bathroom, beds and electricity or taking the children to a place that offers activities and entertainment such as scavenger hunts or sports competitions.

Jolene Baxman organizes an annual two-night trip for a dozen mothers and their children to a KOA (Kampgrounds of America Inc.) facility in Petaluma, Calif., a mere five miles from where she lives. But they don’t pitch tents. They rent a lodge with a bathroom, indoor shower, kitchenette, microwave, barbecue grill, and, of course, beds. The moms take turns relaxing and making meals; the children swim and bike. At night, they sing around a campfire and toast marshmallows.

“It’s not far from our homes, but it feels like we’re camping,” Mrs. Baxman said. “We’re out in the woods; it’s very beautiful - lush trees, and you don’t hear any cars around. We’re not in a tent, but it’s camping to us.”

More than half of those staying with KOA say they were at home the night before arriving at the campground, according to KOA CEO Jim Rogers. That’s a 25 percent increase over seven years.

Mr. Rogers said work demands, children’s schedules, high gas prices and other concerns are all contributing to the trend. “They just want to stay within reach and go away for shorter time periods,” he said.

Mr. Rogers also said KOAs have seen a 25 percent increase in the use of roofed accommodations at their campgrounds. “It’s attracting a whole new breed of campers, people we haven’t seen before,” he said.

In Ohio, the Lazy River at Granville campground, 25 miles from Columbus, offers activities and entertainment ranging from a zip line to magic shows to arts and crafts. For those who bring laptops and TV sets, there are wireless Internet and cable service. One of the most popular attractions at Lazy River is the “bug lady,” a local woman who takes visitors on a walk in the woods, where she points out bugs.

“She’s the Pied Piper of bugs,” said Mark Kasper, owner of Lazy River. “She just entrances her audience.”

Mr. Kasper observed that when he was young, “you’d go to the state park and watch a presentation with a ranger and a movie. Now it’s different. We try to have everything the modern-day person wants, and yet you’re away from the city.”

Jeff Crider, spokesman for the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, said, “More and more campgrounds across the country are offering organized activities that could range from nature walks to special themed weekend events like holiday events or Father’s Day events. You can still find plenty of campgrounds that offer a natural setting and a nice environment for kayaking, fishing or river tubing, but what the parks are finding is that more and more families want things to do. And fun activities are a way to get children away from computers and iPods and do something as a family.”

In addition, campgrounds that offer these types of activities find that people will stay longer - three or four days instead of just a weekend.

Mr. Crider said accommodations also are changing. Campgrounds are investing in everything from yurts and furnished tepees to cottages and cabins. A KOA in Herkimer, N.Y., just opened three furnished cabins for rent that are powered by solar panels, with a backup propane generator.

“If they can provide rental accommodations, then they can make camping accessible to everyone. It isn’t just people who like to rough it in a tent or who have an RV,” Mr. Crider said.

Dawn Tosner of Valley Stream, N.Y., has been going to the KOA in Herkimer for 15 years. “When we first started, we went tent camping,” she said. “We gradually started using the cabins.”

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