Communal Camps

Cornhole Tourneys & Collective Parenting: An Inside Look at Campground Culture

“In the campground, no one really cares what political affiliation you have"

We’re dedicating our March features to family travel. Read on for insightful guides to the best road trips for different ages, the best hotels with amenities for children, and the changing face of family trip planning, as well as inspiring stories of traveling with a newborn, family travel post-divorce, the lowdown on family campground culture, and more.

One of my earliest memories is running through a campground with my cousins, barefoot and muddy, weaving among RVs, tents, and travel trailers strung with holiday lights and gaudy decorations. Our parents lounged back at the campsite with their cocktails around the campfire—the unique cultural phenomenon of what I’ve come to refer to as “campground culture” meant that we could play hide-and-seek till dark, catch lightning bugs in pickle jars, and bum a popsicle off of any neighboring campsite, whether we knew the people or not. 

As I became a parent, we knew that we would take our kids camping to experience this unique, carefree culture. Living in Pittsburgh, a few of our first forays into family campgrounds were Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands and Sarah’s Campground, a vintage gem with a 1950’s shake shack on the shores of Lake Erie. It turns out family camping is just as I remembered it. My four kids—ages 10, 8, 8, and 3—can run (mostly) free between activities like snowless snow tubing, sandcastle sculpting contests, or lakeside cornhole tournaments. We experienced Halloween in July one summer, where most campsites put up elaborate spooky decorations during the dead of summer. My kids thought this was hilariously amazing. 

I began to talk to other families we met on our travels and connect with other friends delving into campground life. It turns out while our experience isn’t entirely universal (some families do not like the free-for-all and prefer to keep their children closer), many other families are fully immersed in campground culture. 

Thousand Trails

Courtesy of Thousand Trails

A Home Away From Home

Our friend Stephanie Turkovich and her family of five have a permanent campsite at a family campground in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. The site is akin to a condo, where owners possess an individual unit within the larger complex, so Stephanie's family can leave their travel trailer there full-time. They spend most weekends there, bringing along their four cats and dog and enjoying the laid-back campground life. Her kids bike, play, and make friends every weekend while their parents can relax, knowing they are safe within the campground, which has a security gate (standard for many campgrounds).

"Everyone waves to everyone driving around too—sometimes I forget when we come home that Pittsburgh doesn't do that, so I wave to people who think I'm nuts," she said, laughing.

While I don't think permanent campsite life is suitable for our family, we enjoy seeing all the creative ways people make their campsite special, as many people trick out their place in a myriad of kitschy and fun ways, like building a porch or adding a roof to their RV. Our kids' favorite is a giant RV we encountered with a tent next to it containing a 70" TV and two leather recliners. They created a living room outside to enjoy the summer breeze and a movie. 

'A Country-Wide Neighborhood'

Other families live on the road year-round, stopping at different campsites as they crisscross the globe. Jessica and Dub McCorkle live in their fifth-wheel travel trailer with their three kids and get to experience a variety of campgrounds through Thousand Trails, an 80-plus-strong network of RV resorts and campgrounds in North America.

"We have a membership to Thousand Trails, and a lot of families who travel full-time stay at these parks across the country," said Jessica McCorkle. "It's like a country-wide neighborhood."

The McCorckles have had a few negative experiences with retired folks who don't want raucous kids cramping their style, and their BIPOC friends have experienced racism at campgrounds. Through them, the McCorckles have learned some areas of the country are more welcoming than others. However, McCorkle said that their own bad experiences are few and far between: "For the most part, people at campgrounds usually are on vacation or happy and living their best lives. Everyone is friendly and kind."

The campgrounds work hard to cultivate a place where families can let their kids run freely and enjoy various activities. Randy Berman, a representative for Thousand Trails, says that there is a sense of camaraderie among their guests that comes with being outdoors in a shared camping experience.

"Thousand Trails stands out by bringing a sense of community to the campground with planned activities and events, as well as the onsite amenities that are available for all guests," Berman said. "The amenities provide opportunities for guests to connect with other campers as well." 

Often kids will meet others at one event and end up buddied up with them for the length of the trip. There is something sweet and nostalgic about vacation friends, even if you aren't sure you will see them again. Berman loves to help cultivate these meetups: "From a game of pickleball or mini-golf to coordinated arts and crafts, or even the kids just playing on the playground, when vacationing at Thousand Trails campgrounds, campers enjoy a comfort level that offers a unique experience."

Thousand Trails

Courtesy of Thousand Trails

A Sense of Camaraderie With Other Campers

Our friends Deb and Susan Whitewood take a 27" travel trailer all over the United States—even hauling their previous pop-up camper down to Disney World to stay at Fort Wilderness. Deb told me that while often their family faces challenges and discrimination, for the most part, they haven't seen that at campgrounds.

"In the campground, no one really cares what political affiliation you have: It's more about having good campground etiquette and respecting your neighbors," said Deb Whitewood. "Our multiracial, two-mom family with a special needs child has never experienced anything but kindness and compassion from our camping neighbors. A friendly smile and a wave go a long way towards creating a peaceful camping experience."

The culture of who camps is also changing, and the pandemic forced many folks to find places to socially distance while they traveled. This has increased the diversity of families who visit campgrounds, too.

Amanda Banks is a Black woman who had her first camping experience at a family campground this year. She had reservations and was wary for the exact reason McCorkle talks about. Growing up, she didn't know any Black families who camped, but she wanted a different experience for her kids.

"I only saw one Black face besides my family at the campground. It was very white, and I didn't feel comfortable letting my Black babies out of my sight among older white people. They were nice, but I just didn't feel comfortable," said Banks. "The next day, I saw a white woman wearing a 'Black Lives Matter' shirt, and oddly, that relaxed me. [I] let them play among the kids on the jump pillows while I stood a few feet away on the basketball courts."

Through the course of the trip, she felt herself relax even more. "It was really refreshing just to let them run and play among the trees near the campsite. It rained as well, so we played in mud puddles and the creek. It was absolutely amazing," Banks said. "It was just that feeling of being othered that reserved me from allowing my children to roam. When I go back, I will let them go freely."

I know my kids, like many others, have had few constants the last two years, given the pandemic and constant disruptions to the activities that bring them joy. We are so thankful, though, for the experiences they've had running Lord-of-the-Flies style through the woods with strangers who quickly became friends. Campground culture feels like a precious and healing gem we could cling to through the rest of the turmoil of the world around us.