The Minter family cars weren’t even out of Weston Bend State Park when Tessa, 8, and Isaac, 6, began begging for a return trip.
A single day of catching bugs and completing scavenger hunts as part of Missouri State Parks’ Learn2 Camp program wasn’t enough for nature’s newly initiated. They wanted another night to roast marshmallows and belt out “I’ve Been Workin’ On The Railroad” around a campfire, and soon.
That’s exactly what Missouri State Parks wants to hear.
Camping permit sales in Missouri’s parks dropped 13 percent between 2000 and 2013, the most recent year for which camping statistics were available. National parks have been weathering a decline in overnight stays since the 1980s as visitors have opted for the comfort of nearby motels.
The Learn2 Camp program works to ease families that haven’t camped before into the outdoors by bringing them out to a park for a weekend and providing equipment and structured activities, said Stephanie Deidrick, a division information officer at the Department of Natural Resources.
“We hope that by showing them things like, ‘How to pitch a tent’ or ‘How to cook over a campfire,’ families will be more likely to camp on their own in the future,” Deidrick said.
Deidrick said the five-year-old initiative was not necessarily a response to lagging numbers of overnight campers. But she did say that getting kids into camping early can increase the chances they’ll camp as adults.
The program was exactly what Kelly Minter had hoped for when she applied.
She and her husband, Ron, already had acquiesced to their kids’ longtime pleas for a camping trip and scheduled one to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park for the end of June.
Kelly Minter had camped with her family as a child, but she conceded summer options like Oceans of Fun had been more appealing than the labor of preparing a campsite.
And after the camping trip was scheduled, she worried that she and her husband’s various “theories” on starting a fire or setting up a tent wouldn’t match reality.
This year’s Learn2 Camp last weekend at Weston Bend provided the perfect test run.
With the help of park employees, Ron Minter figured out how to put up the massive 6-person tent that had been gathering dust in the garage. Isaac and Tessa learned how to identify various trees, insects and animal tracks. Kelly Minter is hoping instructions on using kindling to start a campfire will replace Ron’s penchant for lighter fluid and starter logs.
“I think we might be camping more,” Kelly Minter said with a laugh.
One other family was chosen to spend the night with the Minters last Saturday, and any dent the program makes on an overall decline will likely be small.
Although 40.1 million Americans went camping in 2013, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s most recent American Camper Report, that was about 424,000 fewer than in 2012 and 6.1 million fewer than in 2009.
National parks hosted nearly 11.9 million nights under the stars in 1981, according to the National Park Service. That number had shrunk to 8.8 million by 2000, a 26 percent difference.
National Parks Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson said the way Americans experience parks has changed significantly in the last 30 years — attendance numbers reached an all-time high last year.
Visitors now have more overnight options, including staying in nearby towns.
“We’ve seen a great change in what a gateway community looks like in the last thirty years or so,” Olson said. “They have a lot more in the way of services for visitors, like motel rooms and seats in restaurants. Some people love to spend the night near national parks and then get up and go after breakfast in the morning.”
Famous parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite are still full every weekend and require making reservations well in advance, Olson said, but camping numbers may never get back to the highs of the 1980s.
Any decline in camping may be more tied to Americans spending less time away from work than a lack of access to equipment and training.
In the 2014 American Camper survey, 71 percent of respondents cited “more free time or vacation time” as a reason that they would continue camping, far more than any other reason.
But the Learn2 Camp program does try to take advantage of one favorable statistic.
Among campers in 2013, 85 percent took their first trip before they turned 16. After that pivotal age, a person’s likeliood of going camping decreases significantly.
And the Department of Natural Resources is well aware of that fact.
“If we expose families with children to camping when they’re younger, it starts an outdoor legacy for them that we hope will continue for generations,” Deidrick said.
Chi Kim, who came to Weston Bend with her husband and three children, agreed. She grew up camping in Colorado.
“I think you are passing on a legacy by coming out here and getting them into camping and the outdoors. Just like anything else, you’ve got to expose them to it and teach them about it.”
The modern blitz of distractions has a simple solution, Kim said.
“It all depends on your priorities, like whether you prize getting outdoors and connecting with your family or you prioritize other things.”