The 2023 Summer Camping Forecast
This year’s hot topics for Michigan campgrounds: ticks, fire, and RV hookups
By Anna Faller | July 15, 2023
For many of us, it just wouldn’t be a Michigan summer without a few days (or weeks) spent sleeping under the stars, even if that comes with dozens of mosquito bites. But, where do we go to get off-grid, and how can we enjoy those places safely?
Northern Express sat down with a few local experts—Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Superintendent Scott Tucker; Michigan Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation Chief Ron Olson; and Huron-Manistee National Forest’s Recreation Program Manager Connor Landeck—to talk unsung camping spots, modern amenities, and up-to-date safety tips for another summer spent in the great outdoors.
How to Plan Your Trip
For those looking to rough it in the wilderness (or a wilderness-adjacent location), camping falls into a handful of categories:
For starters, there’s classic tent camping (also called car camping, as you usually drive yourself and your gear to a campsite). This is the type of old-school excursion wherein campers sleep in a tent but also have access to a campground and a host of basic amenities.
Remove the campground, and you have dispersed camping, which as Tucker of Sleeping Bear Dunes explains, “is just you and your backpack.” Finally, there’s van or RV camping, which also involves a contained campground, but replaces the tent and sleeping bag with the luxuries of a trailer or motorhome.
However you choose to enjoy the outdoors, Michigan has a slice of forest for everyone—and they’re filling up at record speed. In fact, since the onset of the pandemic and corresponding rise in outdoor recreation, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports a whopping 30 percent uptick in park and camping attendance, with an all-time “camp-night” high of site reservations in 2021.
Now sitting at 94 percent total occupancy—up from about 90 percent pre-COVID—those numbers show no signs of decreasing. Ron Olson of the DNR, however, also notes a significant shift in outdoor accommodation trends, with just 30 percent of this year’s users opting for tent-camping opportunities. “The rest are using cabins, campers, or other pop-up devices to visit [our sites],” he explains.
Further, campgrounds throughout the state have noted a recent spike in demand for full RV hookups (including water, electricity, and sewage). The trouble is that many state park campgrounds—both in Michigan and throughout the U.S.—haven’t been renovated for several decades, and as such, aren’t always equipped to accommodate increased camper sizes.
In response, the DNR has increased RV facilities at various sites—notably, Wilderness State Park in Emmet County—and they are piloting a few alternative lodging projects, including tiny houses, all-weather yurts, and even a safari tent.
Waterfront access also drives tourism, which has pushed campgrounds throughout the state to spearhead ADA-compliant updates, like toilet guard rails and wheelchair-accessible tent pads.
“It’s a standard that’s nationwide,” says Connor Landeck of Huron-Manistee National Forest. “Every national forest needs to have more accessible recreation opportunities.”
Where to Go
From here, it’s up to the campers’ discretion to choose a location that fits their needs. (But be sure to make your reservations early, as many of Michigan’s most popular sites book up six to nine months in advance.)
Within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Tucker recommends the popular mainland D.H. Day and Platte River campgrounds for casual stays, both of which offer restroom and vehicle access (though only the former has electric hookups).
“I’ve met visitors in the D.H. Day Campground who have been camping there for 50 years,” says Tucker. “There’s a little romance and a family tradition piece that sets [them apart].” These spots are also centrally-located and offer easy main-road access, making day trips and other excursions a cinch.
For the more adventurous camper, North Manitou Island—accessible by a ferry trip from Leland—offers just eight designated campsites with a maximum of four people each, as well as 22 square miles of permit-required wilderness camping. Meanwhile, hiking into the White Pine Campground (near Honor) offers stunning views of Lake Michigan.
Other off-grid opportunities our experts recommend include Pere Marquette’s Bowman Lake Campground, as well as the Wakeley Lake Area (Grayling) and Indian Lake Campground (White Cloud), all of which offer dispersed campsites and endless recreation, including hiking, boating, and fishing.
If staying close to home is more your style, state parks in Traverse City, Interlochen, and Cadillac have all recently undergone renovations.
What to Know
Before you lace up your boots, ensuring that you’ve prepared for a range of conditions is critical. In fact, says Tucker, “Most of our safety issues in the parks come from [people] not being ready for the elements.”
This means pre-downloading offline maps, stocking up on water for day hikes (Landeck recommends at least four liters), and packing essentials like sun block, bug spray, and warm clothes for evening temperature fluctuations, which, even in the summer, can dip into 40s.
Tucker also encourages campers to familiarize themselves with their venue. This starts with the fun stuff, like day-trips and meals, but also extends to knowing and abiding by the regulations your camp enforces.
Tick prevention is another biggie, as populations of these pesky critters have continued to rise in recent years. To avoid bringing unwanted guests back to camp, Landeck recommends frequent tick checks as well as sealing socks and pant legs.
For dispersed camping, or even lengthy day hikes, he lets us in on the secret of Permethrin insect repellent, which can remain potent on treated clothing for a whopping 30 to 50 washes. For best results, he recommends spraying clothing and gear—but not skin!—at least four hours before venturing out.
And if you suspect you might have been bitten? Don’t wait—consult your physician immediately. “There’s plenty of diseases ticks carry and can spread, so [being able] to detect that there might be an issue with a tick bite is super important,” Landeck says.
Why Skip the Campfire
Once you’re settled in (and tick free), safety is the next step. This includes the obvious—like wildlife-proofing food and toiletries—as well as staying up to date on increased risk factors for the season. With temperatures steadily on the rise and drought looming in parts of the state, fire safety is at the fore.
For starters, says Olson, DNR officials are asking campers to only build fires with purpose, and if the conditions are dry or windy, to seek out alternatives, like portable stoves. If you do go the campfire route, flames should be contained to mineral soil or your campground’s insulated fire pits (which also safeguard kids from burns).
Active fires should always be closely monitored, and once you’re through, should be extinguished with water and stirred until completely cool. Off-grid campers should also be aware of areas with flammable vegetation, including downed trees, brush-logging, and dry grass.
“Those are all things that can easily catch on fire, so that consideration of where you’re camping is [equally] important,” Landeck adds.
Firewood is another element that comes with its own set of rules; the key points are to leave yours at home and only purchase kiln-dried firewood within 50 miles of where you’ll burn it to avoid introducing unwanted critters.
And remember: Aerial fireworks (including bottle rockets, Roman candles, and sparklers) are always prohibited in Michigan state parks.
As a final note, all three representatives highlight “leave no trace” principles. This means packing out all your gear, minimizing wildlife contact, and being respectful of your campsite neighbors.
“There’s a balance in encouraging one family’s version of camping so that it doesn’t impact another,” says Tucker. “[Visitors] have a responsibility to ensure that this lakeshore will be here in 50 years so that you can come back here with your grandkids. That’s really what it’s about.”
For more information on the DNR’s camping regulations, visit michigan.gov/dnr.
Photo courtesy of the Michigan DNR.