As Earth Day nears, experts discuss new trends in camping technology and conservation

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published April 15, 2015

 Opulent tents are one of the signature amenities of glamping, a new concept gaining popularity overseas.

Opulent tents are one of the signature amenities of glamping, a new concept gaining popularity overseas.

Photo provided by Brad Carlson

METRO DETROIT — Ain’t progress grand? Our phones rarely keep us tethered to the wall anymore. Thanks to email, our messages are as fast as lightning and don’t require a stamp. With MP3 players, we don’t have to wait for the radio disc jockey to play our favorite tune.

With so many changes in our everyday lives, it only makes sense that other activities we’re used to — like camping — would evolve with the times, too.

According to Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, camping is still one of our state’s most popular — and most profitable — outdoor activities. Each year, nature lovers spend between $700 million and $800 million on camping trips in the Great Lakes State, and that just includes the cost of the campsite and food. Add in essential retail items like tents and equipment, along with activities once you’re there, and you’re well into the billions, Olson said.

“It’s a big deal. The state park system we manage has over 14,000 campsites in the state park, plus another 1,100 rustic sites in the state forest. We have more than 1 million camp (reservations) in a year, so the revenue generated is sizable and brings people and families to all corners of the state,” he said.

But Michigan’s outdoor tourism industry has long been one of the state’s biggest draws. What’s a little different, Olson said, is how visitors are choosing to experience the outdoors compared to just a decade ago.

“We’ve seen where the bigger RVs were the trend for a while. Now we’re seeing two trends: trailers that are light and can be towed, and the lodges and cabins,” said Olson.

Though Michiganders with RVs are still out aplenty at Michigan’s campgrounds each summer, Olson said many visitors are looking for an easier experience when they head to a state park, and existing structures seem to fit the bill.

Lodges, cabins and smaller, rustic cabins are in popular demand these days, he said. Guests can make reservations for a unit of their choice and enjoy the comforts of a stable, homelike dwelling in the middle of the wilderness.

“They’re not having to stay in a tent where it might rain on them, and they don’t have to bring all their gear. It’s a simpler way to get outdoors — that’s the trend,” he said.

Many of the cabins around the state are former homes of park supervisors that have been repurposed into cabins that can be rented. In addition to those units, many yurts — circular, structurally sound tent-like structures — have been erected around Michigan to be rented.

Guests who aren’t interested in roughing it out in the elements would certainly enjoy the cabin experience over tent camping, both for the gear they don’t have to bring and for the gear they’re now able to take along.

“People with (electronic) devices would be able to have those capabilities to plug in,” Olson said, adding that even traditional campsites have increased their electrical capabilities in recent years to keep up with technology demands.

“People want higher amperage to use those devices, and many (dwellings) even have air conditioners. It does create an energy demand. The old grounds had predominantly 30-amp services. Now (in most places) they’re 50 amps.”

Camping used to be about the thrill of getting back to our primitive roots. Now, many families seem to want to have an experience in nature with all the comforts of home. But if you ask Brad Carlson, we can probably do even better than that. He and his wife are working on opening an eco-resort in the Grand Traverse Bay area of Michigan that they believe could be the future of camping.

“My wife and I and our family have always enjoyed camping. But — and I think partly because of our age — we get a little tired because typical campgrounds are so crowded. We asked, ‘Why do people do this? Wouldn’t it be great if you had some space where you felt like you were out in the woods by yourself?’” said Carlson.

After some research, the family discovered a concept that originated in Europe and has long been gaining steam in safari regions, and more recently, in nature destinations in the U.S. It’s called glamping, a word to describe glamorous camping, with all the amenities you’d find at a luxury hotel out in the open air.

Right now, Carlson is gauging interest in such a resort — to be called Bella Solviva — by crowdfunding the first few accommodation sites. The money raised would go directly toward donors’ reservation costs once the property is up and running, which he suspects could be as soon as June.

“We wanted to offer a level of service for those who wouldn’t normally camp,” he said, noting that guests could choose from a luxury treehouse, a boxcar, safari tents, cabins, vintage RVs, bed-and-breakfast suites, or even decommissioned airliners as their accommodations.

Visitors could choose from hiking and biking on the resort’s trails, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing as weather permits, or indulge in some horseback riding, since Carlson said he hopes it will be an equestrian destination.

If you don’t consider yourself a camper yet, your mind might be changed when you hear about the opulent bathroom facilities, full laundry and dry cleaning services, free ice and firewood, the fitness center, and the clubhouse. Don’t forget about the catered food and meal options, too. To boot, everything at Bella Solviva, Carlson said, would be eco-friendly, working off the grid on solar and wind power and recycling nearly everything, leaving zero eco-footprint.

“We’ve put a tremendous amount of research into this, and there’s really nothing like this in the Midwest,” he said. “You pretty much have to get to Montana to get what we’re looking for, which is a high-end, beautiful experience.”

But Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, said you don’t have to wait to be at a fancy resort to enjoy nature in an eco-friendly way. Whether you’re packing up a huge RV or tucking some items carefully into a backpack, planning is key when vacationing in the great outdoors.

“In this age where everything is single-serve, it makes it easy to take things with you. But convenience and cleanliness aren’t always the same thing,” said O’Brien.

She explained that often when families bring food and beverages on trips, the amount of packing involved is excessive. From plastic bags and wrappers to single-serve coffee cups, single servings make for a lot of waste. Not only does that waste sometimes not end up in the recycling bin, she said, sometimes it might not make it in a bin at all and instead ends up on the forest floor.

“I know teeny tiny waste is a huge problem these days. If you have a juice box, for instance, the tiny straw on that juice box has a tiny plastic wrapper that is almost invisible once it’s off the box. But it ends up somewhere, and it contributes to the plastic problem we’re having in our waterways.”

O’Brien’s suggestion is to buy in bulk whenever possible and use reusable serving containers instead of single-serve packages. For instance, one large bag of carrots divided into containers is less wasteful than several small snack-size bags of carrots.

And when you have recyclable items, of course, make sure they make it to an appropriate container, even if that means bringing them back home with you when the trip is through. Though state government is making strides to place more convenient recycling locations around the state for travelers, the effort won’t be noticeable for a few years yet.

“The (pop) bottle deposit bill was really a litter prevention effort way back when. But what happened was the face of litter changed. Now it’s not pop cans on the ground — it’s fast food containers and cigarette butts,” she said. “What that says is we can provide incentive for people to clean up, but it still lies on the individual to take responsibility for the waste they’re producing.”