$56 A Night To Pitch A Tent? Happy Memorial Day Weekend!

tentSince when did camping become expensive? I live in Chicago and have spent a ridiculous amount of time researching places to camp over the Memorial Day weekend in the last two weeks. If I had planned ahead, booking a campsite would be quick and easy but we tend not to plan very far in advance, which makes travel during holidays complicated and sometimes expensive.

We wanted to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin this weekend, but alas, there are no tent sites available on a weekend there until August 30 (!) and a host of other state parks in that region, including Mirror Lake, Rocky Arbor, Buckhorn, Governor Dodge, Lake Kengosa, Wildcat Mountain and others, are also sold out for the holiday weekend. Most of the state parks in Wisconsin charge just $12-15 per night for tent sites, though they have a three-night minimum stay on holiday weekends and a $9.70 reservation fee.I checked into some private campgrounds around Wisconsin and was floored by some of the prices. A place called Baraboo Hills wants $56 per night for a basic tent site with water and electric (the most primitive site they offer) and they are actually sold out. And other more basic campgrounds are nearly as pricey – at Fox Hill the price is $41 per night, Jellystone Park Campground in Fremont wants $45 for tent sites, the KOA-Wisconsin Dells charges $40 and up and Sherwood Forest will set you back $43, plus 10.5% sales tax. Most places have a three-night minimum for the holiday and most, even some of the priciest ones, are sold out.

Capitalism can be an ugly thing when you’re trying to plan a last minute trip on a holiday weekend, along with 8 million other Chicagoans and at least a few million Cheeseheads. The bottom line is that the camping season in this part of the country is very short, and comparatively few people camp during the week, so campgrounds have to make their cash on the few peak weekends they have to work with.

Last summer, I stayed at a private campground near Devil’s Lake that charged twice the price of the state park, which was sold out. And although it was adequate, it wasn’t as nice as camping in the park itself. Private campgrounds often offer a lot more amenities than the state or national parks, like swimming pools and play areas, but if you’re just looking to commune with nature, you’re often paying more to camp at a place that may not be as beautiful and serene as a state or national park.

But while Wisconsin clearly underprices their state park campgrounds at just $12 or $15 a night for most basic tent sites, Illinois prices some of their parks much more aggressively. I looked into camping at Starved Rock State Park, near Ottawa, in the north-central part of the state, but they charge $35 per night for a basic tent site with a three-night minimum on holiday weekends, and were sold-out anyway.

Neighboring states charge less to camp in their state parks this weekend – Indiana charges $20, Michigan $14 and Iowa as little as $9. But every park with positive reviews on Campfire Reviews and other sites within a 3-4 hour radius of where we live seemed to be sold out for this weekend, even though the forecast looks iffy for most of the region. I thought I’d hit paydirt when I found a tent-site at a place I’d never heard of called the Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area in Kewanee, Illinois, but before I clicked the reserve button I noticed the fine print: there was no way to drive to this tent site. With a wife and two little boys in tow, I don’t think we’re up for trekking out to a site with our coolers and gear in tow, so it was back to the drawing board.

I kept looking and finally found a site at the Roche-A-Cri State Park in Central Wisconsin. I couldn’t find a single review from anyone who’s camped there online, there are no showers and we got the last tent site available, located right next to a pit toilet, but it’s a bargain at $14 per night ($12 per night for Cheeseheads, three-night minimum stay).

If you’re looking for a place to camp this weekend, I highly recommend you use the city search function on the Reserve America site, since it allows you to see what’s available near a given zip code or town. And check back frequently, because cancellations do pop up. Also, check You Tube, because there are plenty of helpful campers out there who have documented what the various campgrounds in the Midwest look like.

Be prepared for three-night minimum stays and prices that might be higher than you’re expecting. And if you want to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin next Memorial Day weekend (May 23-26, 2014), mark your calendars – you can book starting on June 23 of this year. But please don’t, because I’m certain I’ll forget and will be scrambling to find a place to camp (and complaining about high prices again) at this time next year.