What Are the Local Rules About Camping Right Now?

Here are the basics on camping right now.

Living in a state that’s cold nearly nine months of the year, Wisconsinites take their summer camping seriously. But that beloved chance to come out of hibernation is currently in flux with the safer-at-home order extended to May 26th.

The order limits people to essential activities and closes businesses deemed non-essential. Campgrounds are considered an essential service, because they provide lodging, which puts them in the same category as hotels. Outdoor activity is also permitted by the order, so visiting an open campground trail is allowed.

AJ Heil, the program director for Outdoor Pursuits, a recreation group, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee points to the two statements the governor’s office released on recreational services and campgrounds as important guidelines for campgrounds and anyone considering camping to follow, as restrictions are lifted. The statements encourage “social distancing and sanitation practices” to help ensure the safety of those using the grounds.

When deciding if you will go camping, there are three major public players to consider: state parks, county park campgrounds and national forests, along with a fourth option, private campgrounds. The situation is different for each.

Some counties, such as Jackson and Oneida, have closed their parks entirely (until May 14th for Jackson and May 16th for Oneida). Others, like Marquette and Green Lake have partially opened or will soon open for seasonal campers and campers who can provide their own bathroom facilities.

Private campgrounds within these counties have also begun the process of opening on an individual basis, while instituting social distancing restrictions.

In Wisconsin, there’s only one national forest system, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest up north. Camping there is closed indefinitely, but their trails re-open on May 8th.

Wisconsin state parks are also closed for camping until the safer-at-home order lifts on May 26th, but they have re-opened for outdoor activity. If you plan on visiting a state park, you need an annual pass. No day passes can be obtained, and you can’t pay at the post, which means you have to purchase your pass in advance to gain admittance.

Bathrooms and shelters are still closed at state parks, and the parks are not fully staffed. This means that following The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace is more crucial than ever, with limited workers to take care of the land. It also means, you’ll definitely want a plan in place to avoid an unwanted call of nature.

The lifting of total closures doesn’t mean a lifting of social distancing and other pandemic guidelines. While outside, it is still important to maintain six feet distance from anyone who is not from your household.

“This is where we see a lot of land management agencies going, this idea of restricting group size after they lift restrictions on camping and travel,” Heil says, also noting that future campers can, “look out for other [campers] following suit with restricting group size to 10 or less after this.”

If this all feels overwhelming, here are a few steps for how to safely use park facilities:

  1. Expect closures and have a backup plan if you get to a trail or area that’s overcrowded.
  2. Bring a mask. If you end up within six feet of people, wear your mask, per CDC guidelines.
  3. Avoid places of high use. Go to places with wide trails. Locally, this would be Whitnall Park, Brown Deer Park, Estabrook Park.
  4. Check park websites before going, such as the find a park tool on the Milwaukee County website. Ensure the park you want to use is open and check what restrictions and facility closures are in place (such as no bathrooms!)
  5. Go during slow times of use: early morning, during the week instead of the weekend, etc. Besides avoiding overcrowding, this also relieves the burden on potentially understaffed parks.
  6. Engage in sports and activities where you can socially distance, such as hiking, running, biking, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing.
  7. Keep pets on a leash to limit contact with other people and their pets.
  8. Pack your trash and ensure you leave no trace, in order to preserve trails and public spaces.