When Emma Renner, a graduate student at Cornell University, wanted to travel during the summer, she entered the outdoors rather than a hotel lobby.
Camping during the pandemic has grown in popularity among people like Renner, who said she has enjoyed the activity since her freshman year. It has also become a favored vacation activity for new campers, she said.
But this newfound interest has its consequences. Renner said she observed a sharp uptick among hikers at the places she camped this summer, with trail heads unusually packed by 6 a.m. Many of these visitors are amateur campers, she said.
“There are so many more inexperienced people who don't have the right gear, who aren't leaving at the right time to do hikes, who aren't dealing with their food correctly when they camp,” Renner said. “I've just been looking for free, primitive [campsites] that maybe you hike in a little bit too.”
Caroline Bodd, a research associate at the Adirondack Council who graduated from Cornell University in 2019, said that as part of her job this fall, she works to measure public perception of and manage foot traffic at the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks by surveying hikers at the High Peaks trailheads. She said the increase in campers and hikers has led to more search-and-rescue missions for groups that were unequipped to endure a long camping trip. These rescue missions ranged from groups who forgot a headlamp to someone who broke their leg.
“It's kind of a mix of good and bad for the park because, obviously, we love having more people here, but it’s also a challenge to educate everybody on how to safely hike and camp,” she said.
Renner said she thinks that because people are less likely to travel to a far destination during a pandemic, they have become interested in what their local community offers instead. Because camping itself is an exclusive, or expensive, hobby, Renner said she hopes the increase among visitors yields more socioeconomic, racial and gender inclusivity.
“[Camping has] been a historically middle-to-high-class, white male thing, and so you're not going to think, ‘Oh, I can go survive in the woods,’ … if you don't see people who look like you doing it,” Renner said.
Owen Valdescruz, a senior electrical and computer engineering major at Cornell University, first camped in Ithaca while participating in “Outdoor Odyssey,” a pre-freshman-orientation backpacking trip. Valdescruz was accepted to be a guide for the excursions his sophomore year, though the expeditions did not take place prior to the spring semester due to COVID-19, he said.
For Valdescruz, a typical day of camping includes hiking and paddling with Renner, his girlfriend. The two camped at Cranberry Lake, New York, in July as well as Saranac Lake, New York, and Stowe, Vermont, in August. Closer to Ithaca, Valdescruz and Renner have camped at Shindagin Hollow State Forest in Brooktondale, New York, and the Finger Lakes National Forest in Burnett, New York, where Valdescruz has also camped with his five roommates.
In preparation for camping trips, Renner goes to her local Rite Aid weekly for free, self-administered COVID-19 testing. She said she also avoids large gatherings during the week and only camps with her roommate, Valdescruz or other friends who have tested negative recently. When crossing paths with other hikers or campers, she dons a cotton mask.
Bodd said the expectation for campers is to wear a mask when close to others and to keep their distance when not wearing one. The Leave No Trace Seven Principles should also be abided by, something she said she thinks not many new campers or hikers are aware of.
A typical day on a camping trip is long and active, Renner said. Awake at sunrise, Renner makes breakfast, usually oatmeal or leftovers from the previous night, before hiking a mountain or canoeing with Valdescruz. This is an all-day affair, finished off with dinner at the campsite.
Valdescruz said that for him, camping is a safe way to adventure outdoors during the pandemic after being inside for so long.
“I just really like being outdoors in nature,” he said. “I feel like it helps a lot with anxiety. … Being at Cornell, being in college in general, is stressful as hell, so being able to leave your problems … behind and just go swimming for a weekend is super relaxing and energizing.”
Nick Bahamonde, a sophomore at Ithaca College, said that backpacking trips with friends are his way of seeking normalcy during the pandemic. Since the plan for classes at the college shifted from in-person to online in August, Bahamonde said weekend excursions, like one he took the first weekend after classes began, are easier to schedule while living at home in Clarke County, Virginia.
“It was a reset from the summer,” he said. “It was the most normal I felt in the past multiple months because you see other people, and you can talk to them, but it's so easy to stay away from them when you're outside.”
Renner was accepted for an internship with GE Global Research, a program that was intended to begin in June. She said it was pushed back to August due to COVID-19 but that, as a result, her summer schedule in Ithaca was unexpectedly open, giving her the opportunity to camp more frequently than she thought possible.
Although now working 40 hours per week at GE while living in Troy, New York, as well as completing her school work remotely, Renner said she still prioritizes weekend camping trips. They provide a brief repose from her stressful hours of work in front of a computer throughout the week, she said.
“It's an escape from my internship and from schoolwork,” she said. “It's really important for me, during the weekend, to not just be sitting in my apartment and [...] looking at screens, but also [to] do it in a way that still is safe and not putting anybody's health at risk.”