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In the Natural State, camping has always been a major form of recreation, and BT Jones, park interpreter at Petit Jean State Park, said it seems more people are trying it out during the pandemic, given that outdoor activities remain relatively low risk.
For those who are planning a camping trip to a state park for the first time, here are some tips from Jones and Tom Foster, facility manager at Petit Jean State Park.
Decide what activities you’re interested in
Different state parks offer different things to do, so before picking a park it’s best for campers to decide what activities they’re most interested in.
Some have swimming, fishing and kayaking opportunities while others may have hiking and mountain biking trails. Many offer multiple options.
The state parks system offers a “Park Finder” on its website to filter by activity and lodging type, so prospective visitors can choose one that meets their interests.
Consider what kind of campsite suits your needs
State parks offer several different kinds of campsites. Class AAA and AA campsites have water plus electrical and sewer hookups ideal for RVs, though Jones said tent campers can also use the sites.
Class A and Class B sites have water and electrical hookups, while Class C sites may have water or electrical hookups but not both.
Class D sites do not offer water or electrical hookups. They also may require visitors to hike into the site and not be accessible by car.
Another factor to consider when choosing a campsite is bath house accessibility. Jones said at Petit Jean there are bath houses with toilets and showers accessible to all campers (there are no Class D campsites at the park).
Most higher-grade campsites in the state parks should have access to such facilities.
A final factor to consider is whether the campsite has a grill, fire pit or other options for cooking.
Jones said once someone knows what they want for their trip, they should book a site well in advance of their stay because parks tend to fill up quickly. Reservations can be made online.
Make a list and pack
Jones said a key to a good weekend is to plan ahead.
“You're here to enjoy the weekend, so try to pre-plan as much as possible and just be ready to enjoy the place and the park when you're here,” Jones said.
He said sunscreen, bug spray and a first-aid kit are essential. He also recommends preparing for whatever weather is forecast and bringing extra layers of clothing in case it cools off unexpectedly, particularly at night.
If tent camping, Foster said a good sleeping bag is a must.
Jones said if a family is camping for the first time, it’s a good idea to bring comfort items for young children, such as a favorite storybook, to make them more comfortable.
Follow campsite rules and safety guidelines
Foster said people often ask if they need to be afraid of bears, and he said at Petit Jean that’s not much of a concern. It’s often years between bear sightings there.
However, smaller animals coming near people is not uncommon.
To avoid unwanted interactions with raccoons or birds, Jones said it's best to store food in a vehicle or at least in a cooler with a good locking mechanism. For trash, parks have receptacles near most campsites.
Foster said he would also advise visitors while hiking to look where they walk to avoid stepping on any critters, particularly snakes, and they should be aware that ticks or other insects could be present in the park.
“That’s their home,” Foster said. “You're a guest in their house.”
Jones said although parks are friendly, guests should lock up valuables as a precaution.
Because the pandemic is ongoing, Jones said visitors should also observe social distancing and other guidelines at campgrounds.
A final note is to check guidelines for fire-making. For example, Jones said at Petit Jean, they ask visitors traveling from greater than 50 miles away to buy firewood at the park to avoid bringing in emerald ash borers, an insect that can kill ash trees.
Jones said the Boy Scout motto is one of the best things to keep in mind while camping: be prepared. That means understanding you are out in the woods and knowing how to stay safe.
Foster echoed the motto and said it is especially important while hiking. He said visitors should stay on trails and always be cautious.
“You do have to be mindful of where you're at,” Foster said. “You are in the wild.”