Camping remained popular U.S. activity in 2012.

Despite omnipresent forest fires in the West that rousted countless campers, record drought across much of the U.S. that dried up recreational lakes, ponds and rivers and a late-summer hurricane in the Gulf, the summer camping season that limped along in many areas seemed to finish on a positive note.

That’s one take on how business is evolving, based on anecdotal reports from a number of trusted Woodall’s Campground Management sources.

The two biggest names in camping, Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) and Leisure Systems Inc. (LSI), franchisor of the Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, each reported seasonal upturns.

Advanced reservations for the 2012 Labor Day Weekend holiday were about 2.5 percent ahead of the same period in 2011 according to KOA, the world’s largest system of family-oriented campgrounds.

In fact, KOA was running more than 2 percent ahead of 2011 year-to-date in the number of short-term camper nights in the system as the summer ended.

Pat Hittmeier

“Even with the unusual camping patterns caused by a Wednesday, July 4th holiday, we continue to have a very strong summer camping season,” said KOA President Pat Hittmeier. “Campers continue to show their love for our Deluxe Camping Cabins, which were up nearly 17 percent in camper nights last week alone. Our campground owners continue to add Deluxe Cabins and other amenities to their inventories, and that is exactly what our campers are looking for.”

KOA’s advanced reservations for the rest of the summer were still running more than 5.5 percent ahead of the same period in 2011.

Overall, on a same-campground basis, revenues are up about 4.5 percent over 2011, he said.

Meanwhile, at LSI, same-park revenue was up a little over 9 percent through the end of August compared to the same time last year, reported Rob Schutter Jr., LSI president and COO. Occupancy was up around 4 percent.

Rob Schutter Jr.

Like at KOA, “rental units continued to be the main driving force behind the increased occupancies at the parks,” Schutter said, showing a 12 percent increase in park model lodge and cabin occupancies over last year.

Parks that offer RV rentals, typically travel trailers, reported a whopping 80 percent increase over a year ago, he added.

Mike Papp

Mixed Bag from Across the U.S.

Across the country come these reports:

Officials and campground owners point to the warm, dry summer and the ever-struggling economy for reasons why camping continues to thrive in New York state. State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Spokesman Dan Keefe said camping reservations are up 5 percent from last year, the Utica Observer-Dispatch reported.

“The economy is still tough, so people are looking for affordable options, and our state parks provide that,” Keefe said. “It’s a timeless thing to do in the summer.”

Mike Papp, chairman of Campground Owners of New York (CONY) and owner of West Canada Creek Campsites in Poland, said across the state campground attendance has increased.

Along with great weather and a goal to save money, Papp said more amenities at campgrounds have made camping more attractive.

“In the old days, if you had a swimming pool you were on top of the game,” he said. “Now it’s Wi-Fi, bounce pillows, splash parks. It’s a lot more than just camping and a pool.”

In the Mid-Atlantic region, numbers were up as well.

The Virginian-Pilot reported that lodging revenues this year are on track to break a record set last year, the city of Virginia Beach announced.

Lodging revenue, which is the key indicator of the city’s tourism industry, is up 13 percent in the first half of 2012 over last year, city officials said.

Visitors spent $118 million through June to stay at hotels, vacation home rentals and campgrounds, compared with $104 million in the same period last year.

In 2011, lodging revenues totaled $279 million, a one-year record.

Virginia Beach’s uptick mirrors Outer Banks statistics released earlier that showed more people are visiting the barrier islands. Gross receipt figures there showed occupancy increased by 18 percent and meals by 9 percent.

In Branson, Mo., tourism tax receipts from campgrounds are up almost 30 percent for this year, the Branson Tri-Lakes News reported.

Lenny Ammerman, general manager of Treasure Lake Resort, said they’ve seen a 7 percent increase so far in 2012.

“A lot of it has to do with gas prices, believe it or not,” Ammerman said. “I think people are traveling more locally, instead of taking long trips. And they’re staying longer.”

It appears to be a Tri-Lakes Area trend, as Table Rock State Park Superintendent Carl Bonnell reported campground attendance numbers are up this year for the park, as well.

Texas Parks Do Very Well

In Texas, the nation’s largest campground market, campground operators say they’ve had a good summer camping season, fueled by travelers as well as increasing business activity.

“All over Texas, our members are telling us their year-to-date business levels have surpassed last year’s figures,” said Brian Schaeffer, executive director and CEO of the Texas Association of Campground Owners (TACO).

Gwen Craig, co-owner of Rayford Crossing RV Resort in Spring, in the Woodlands area north of Houston, is a case in point.

“We had our best summer ever,” she said. “Lots of people just vacationing, lots of people selling houses, building new ones. Lots of people moving to the area. Lots and lots of new RVers.”

Allan Hughes of Traders Village RV Park in Grand Prairie attributed the improvement in part to milder summer weather.

“Last summer was brutal,” he said, noting that northern Texas suffered 71 days in a row of 100 degree plus days. This summer, however, the weather was much better. So much nicer, in fact, that Hughes saw more tent campers than normal this year.

People also weren’t as affected by fuel prices. “We didn’t have that as an issue,” Hughes said.

Joe Moore, general manager of The Vineyards Campground and Cabins in Grapevine, near the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, said he was surprised by the strength of the 2012 camping season.

“We’re seeing a 10 to 15 percent increase over last year’s revenues,” he said, with RV sites increasing by 10 percent while revenue from the park’s new park model cabin rentals increased by 15 percent.

Moore added that advance reservations for cabins at The Vineyards remain strong. “We’re very strong over the next three or four months. We have a lot of requests or long-term stays at the campground, more so than in the past. We’re hoping it stays strong.”

Some Vineyards campers, in fact, are booking their sites nearly a year in advance. “We only have a handful of reservations left for July 4th next year,” Moore said.

Weather was also improved in the Texas Hill Country, where campgrounds catered to tubing, rafting and kayaking enthusiasts.

“We had the best summer we’ve ever had,” said Doug Shearer of Parkview Riverside RV Park in Concan.

He attributed the strong business levels to the abundance of water. “The river was in the best shape we’ve had in about five years,” he said.

Drought gripped portions of the U.S. through much of the summer. This snapshot of the drought was taken in mid-September.

Drought-Stricken Areas Suffer

The drought, which gripped much of the country throughout the camping season, was blamed for sagging camping numbers in some areas.

For example, some Black Hills campground operators in South Dakota said their businesses have been hurt by the ban on campfires and charcoal grills imposed during this summer’s drought.

Doug Carrick of Wolf Camp in Keystone told The Associated Press that camping isn’t really camping without a campfire. He says the ban has hurt tent camping, recreational vehicle camping and sales in the campground’s store.

Bruce Briesemeister, owner of Kemp’s Kamp near Mount Rushmore, also said the number of tent campers has dropped in the past six weeks because they cannot cook meals or have campfires.

Forest Fires Crimp Camping

Forest fires forced campground evacuations during the summer across the West, notably in Colorado, California, Utah and Idaho. The fires in June in Colorado got the most ink, as campgrounds near Estes Park and Colorado Springs faced fire threats.

Thousands of campers and visitors were routed from the Angeles National Forest in Southern California as a fire broke out on Sept. 2.

Through the end of August, the National Interagency Fire Center reported more than 44,000 fires, which was down from the 10-year average of more than 55,000. However, the area burned topped 7.3 million acres, compared with the 10-year average of 5.77 million acres. The largest blaze, known as the Rush Fire, scorched more than 300,000 acres in Bureau of Land Management property in Northern California.

Heat, drought and fire danger led Chickasaw National Recreation Area officials in eastern Oklahoma to temporarily close the Guy Sandy Campground and the multi-use area of the park from Veterans Lake to Cedar Blue Road in mid-August.

On the flip side, with hundreds of eastern Oklahoma families homeless from wildfires, some good Samaritans in Green Country west of Tulsa reached out to make sure everyone had a cool place to sleep. CrossTimbers Marina and the city of Mannford organized a trailer gathering. They asked folks to temporarily donate RVs to fire victims who lost their homes, KOTV-TV, Tulsa, reported.

The drive began Wednesday Aug. 15 and many Oklahomans answered the call.

Bears came closer to civilization in summer season 2012.

Bear Activity Way Up

Meanwhile, CBS News noted that hungry bears rummaged through garbage, ripped through screens and crawled into cars in search of sustenance as hot weather nationwide shriveled up their normal summer diet of greens and berries.

Bears even broke into candy stores in New York state and Colorado. The U.S. Forest Service closed two Colorado campgrounds at the end of July because of bears raiding picnic baskets and coolers.

Weather-related bear problems are nothing new, as natural food supplies vary from year to year depending on rainfall and other factors. But biologists say this summer was a particularly busy one.

A fatal bear mauling occurred in Alaska, and three people were injured by a rogue bear in Arizona.

Perry Will with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department told the Vail Daily this year was shaping up to be similar to 2002, when another severe drought brought an unusual number of bears into neighborhoods. Several cities in the Vail Valley reported increased bear sightings.

The Yeoman Park Campground southeast of Eagle was closed to “soft-sided” shelters, including tents and canvas-walled pop-up campers, because of a habituated bear that was roaming the area. – Steve