Go play outside: New York makes it free for new campers

ALBANY, N.Y. — Folks who'd like to try camping at New York parks are getting the chance to do it this summer for free, courtesy of the state.

New York launched a first-time camper program this summer, offering all the gear necessary for a weekend adventure, including a brand-new six-person tent, sleeping bags and pads, camp chairs, lanterns and towels that participants are free to keep.

But you had to act fast — the 40 slots over eight summer weekends were scooped up within 25 minutes.

"They provided every single thing we would need, including firewood," said Lisha McKoy, a Brooklyn actor who camped with her 3-year-old daughter and three other adults. "A guide helped us set up camp, and they had activities like hiking, fishing, fire-building. It was incredible."

The goal is to nurture a new generation of campers and boost outdoor recreation, which generates nearly $34 billion in consumer spending annually in New York, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

"We see it as a way of demystifying camping and promoting our campgrounds as a low-cost vacation opportunity," said Laura DiBetta, who oversees outdoor recreation at the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

While the state administers the program, the money for the gear came out of a camping promotion fund provided by the parks reservation service ReserveAmerica under its state contract. The funds also pay for brochures and advertising to promote state campgrounds.

Even though the cost is relatively low — about $300 per camping gear kit — some critics question the need for the state to be involved in such a program.

"It may make someone feel good, but it's overly generous and clearly unfair to the taxpayers of the state," said Michael Long, chairman of the Conservative Party of New York state.

New York's program indeed appears to be more generous than those administered by other states, which rents gear packages at relatively low cost. Georgia charges $50 for two nights, Minnesota $60 for one night and $85 for two, and Texas $65 a night but the gear package doesn't include sleeping bags.

Proponents say it's in the best interest of all citizens to encourage outdoor recreation for its demonstrated physical and emotional health benefits.

"Learn to camp programs started coming out on the heels of Richard Louv's book, 'Last Child in the Woods,'" said Dominic Bravo, president of America's State Parks and director of Wyoming's park system. Louv's 2005 best-seller about screen-obsessed youth suffering from "nature deficit disorder" launched an international movement to connect kids with the great outdoors.

America's State parks launched a nationwide "Let's Camp America" program this year to promote camping in more than 10,000 state parks in 50 states.

It's not that campgrounds are hurting for customers. According to Kampgrounds of America Inc.'s 2017 camping report, there are 75 million camping households in the U.S. and 3.4 million households became new campers over the last three years.

But Louv said "learn to camp" programs benefit families that want to introduce their kids to nature but don't know how to start.

"Providing this first experience is essential, particularly given that many parents didn't have that experience as kids," Louv said.

McKoy said she and her wife plan to make camping a monthly pursuit after their state-sponsored camp-out in the Catskills.

"I was apprehensive about camping with a toddler, but they guided us through the entire experience," McKoy said. "I felt very lucky to be able to do it."

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