COVID-19 Camping in the Pacific Northwest: Planning and Safety Tips

One by one, I reluctantly canceled all our trips this summer, from a coastal resort weekend to a San Francisco road trip to a flight to Southeast Alaska. There was one that I kept on the calendar, though, a car camping trip in the Oregon Cascades. While the thought of camping during COVID-19 left us with some concerns and did not feel like much of a vacation when all the precaution was taken in, when I told the kids we were going camping, they brightened. My son even started packing months in advance.

Leaving your home and traveling anywhere during a pandemic, even with the best planning, poses risk. Intermingling with others outside of your immediate family, clearly, also involves risk. If you are risk-averse you must remain within your own home and within your own family at all times. That said, considering the options still on the table, car camping is considered a relatively low-risk activity. Within our circle of friends and family members, most people we know are expanding their “pods” as well as their radius, because they are finding it essential to their mental and physical health. Fresh air, exercise, and a change of scene have been game-changers for us in terms of navigating this new normal positively.

General Planning Tips for a Camping Trip 

  • Prepare a camping inventory. If you don’t already have one, make one, you will thank yourself later. After years of camping where I always forgot something important, I created a master list in a Google Sheet, and I simply print it each year and do a pre-trip inventory check. You can subcategorize to your heart’s content, and even laminate it. (I’m sure there are fancier apps for this but this works for me, especially since we are often without cell service where we are going.)
  • Reserve six months in advance for the best campgrounds. (Our campground had been booked before the pandemic.) If you want to camp next year, make a note in your calendar right now for January 2021, to book a camp for summer 2021! Otherwise, there are still many “first come, first served” sites worth considering in the Northwest during weekdays and other off-peak times, so there is likely to be something available.
  • Choose less popular campgrounds, and/or avoid peak times or weekends if you can. (We did not follow this tip, because we booked before the pandemic.) Our campground was relatively close to the popular vacation destination of Bend, Oregon, and we were concerned about how many day-trippers would flood the area. Luckily, the campground was small (15 sites), and only offered a vault toilet and no group picnicking areas. Although there were a fair number of people enjoying the lake for the day, it was not as popular as other areas with more amenities and bigger group sites, and that proved beneficial while social distancing.
  • Choose campgrounds that are within a shorter drive. Much as I want to road trip farther away – perhaps up to Banff, Alberta (Canada), or down to Big Sur, California – I recognize that now is not the year. Discover (or rediscover) the beauty of your own region.
  • Choose large sites or book more than one for added privacy and space. Our friends booked a spacious double site right up against the Deschutes headwaters.
  • If you plan to meet up with others, make sure your group is small, and that you are all in agreement about COVID-19 pod requirements. For the safest experience, mingle with your immediate family only, or create a “quarantine pod” with another family that you trust provided you can all agree and communicate openly. More about forming a quarantine pod here.
  • Research camp amenities and COVID-19 in general in the area you plan to travel. For example, we found out that the potable water was out before our arrival, and we brought canisters and researched where to get water nearby ahead of time so that we were not in a bind. Luckily it was fixed by the time we camped.
  • Purchase and bring as many of your supplies as you can. If, in the past, you popped into various local shops for ice, firewood, etc., consider hauling everything in this year.
  • After the trip, take notes of items you wished you had but didn’t, for an even better trip next year. (On the way home I update my “frequently forgotten” note in my iPhone. Last year I wrote: Get better marshmallows! Trader Joe’s version, it would seem, pales in comparison to Kraft.)
  • Last but not least: Bring all necessary COVID-19 protective supplies for your family. Suggestions include face masks, hand soap, hand wipes (If you can find them! I couldn’t, so I brought a large bucket of doggie paw wipes, which I decided was better than nothing), paper towels, bucket toilet, toilet paper, and sanitizer (at least 70% alcohol).

Preparing for a Safe Road Trip to Your Camping Destination 

  • Service your vehicle and fill up your gas tank. Check oil, tire pressure, etc. Clean your car (inside and out) before the trip. It will be trashed by the time you come home, and it’s nice to have a clean ride for the first leg.
  • Review your route, and bring all necessary supplies to keep your family happy on the road. Suggestions include snacks, drinks, hand sanitizer (70% alcohol), masks, and gloves (if needed for gas pumps).
  • Plan for rest stop breaks at safe locations you know are open. Click here for a good list of rest stops, and here for general pandemic road trip safety tips. 

COVID-19 Safety Tips at the Campground

  • Reconsider your toileting options. Camping bathrooms, in the best of circumstances, leave much to be desired. If using a shared restroom during COVID-19 is a concern, which it was for our group, invest in a bucket toilet, and avoid shared restrooms entirely. In general, there have been concerns about “toilet plume,” so chose a campground with a vault toilet if you do not plan to bring your own. Admittedly, the bucket toilet situation was not ideal, but neither is stumbling in the dark to a public restroom during a global pandemic. We found it easy to use and easy to keep clean. 
  • Disinfect regularly! This is very, very, hard while camping. We found ourselves needing to do extra juggling with simple things like collecting water or filling up water bottles, making sure to not touch the shared faucet and then our dishes, and bringing sanitizer to use in between touching the faucet.
  • Avoid crowded areas, and don’t let your guard down about getting too close to other people. One thing I have noticed is that when people head outdoors, they relax, which is generally a good thing but not if you forget about COVID-19 protocols.

With a little planning and preparation, car camping is a fun and relatively safe family activity in the Pacific Northwest this summer, and it was a positive decision for our family after many disappointments and being homebound for months. So pick a beautiful campsite and go car camping! You’ll be glad you did.

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