Johnson-Sauk State Park in northern Illinois.
Preparing for a camping trip is mostly an intuitive process. In broad terms, you choose a destination, pack your food and gear, and then make your escape. Pretty simple. But as seasoned campers know, snags can occur rather easily in the process. The goal is to avoid becoming the camper who arrives at the full campground or the one who realizes the site he or she reserved sits alongside a busy expressway.
Here’s a list of tips on planning a camping excursion gleaned from my experience researching Camping Illinois, a guidebook that required many weeks of camping and traveling throughout Illinois. Some of the suggestions will be familiar; perhaps others are not.
1. Head to the public campgrounds. If you’re looking for scenic terrain, the best hiking and fishing, and generally well-maintained facilities, go to public campgrounds operated by a host of governmental agencies, from the local to the federal level. While there are exceptions, private campgrounds focus less on scenic beauty and more on a mildly resort-like atmosphere with game rooms, activities, and opportunities for socializing.
The walk-in campsites at Kinkaid Lake in southern Illinois occupy a finger of land reaching into the lake.
2. Chat with park rangers. Park staff people are not consulted enough. They offer a deep well of useful information that never appears within brochures and websites. As soon as you start to seriously consider a particular destination, give the park a call and share your plans. They’ll tell you about expected number of visitors for a certain time, amenities in the park, and, of course, if a campground is closed for maintenance, modifications, or soggy ground.
Illinois contains dozens of riverside campgrounds that often close with little notice due to flooding in spring and sometimes during summer. Once the floodwaters recede from the campground, a great deal of cleanup must occur. Strained park budgets and limited staff can prolong the cleanup process, sometimes for the entire season. I once visited a campground in southern Illinois that was shuttered because a landslide had blocked the access road four months prior to my visit.
Another reason to call the campground before arriving is to find out if hunters will be present. Many state parks allow hunting in fall and winter.
While checking in with the park staff, you can ask about nearby attractions, the best trails to hike, the best local fishing spots, favorite campsites, and what flowers will be blooming when you arrive. If wild turkeys or bobcats live within the park, park rangers will know. Just remember to be extremely polite and thank them for their generosity.
3. Expect plenty of company on holiday weekends. As an anti-social camper, I dread hitting campgrounds on holiday weekends. While researching Camping Illinois, I sometimes stayed in hotels on holiday weekends just to avoid the crowds. Not all campgrounds fill up on holiday weekends, but most do—especially the more popular campgrounds.
Here’s another reason to rethink the holiday weekend campout: In 2008, state parks in Illinois jacked up their fees considerably for camping during holiday weekends at sites with amenities like electric hookups.
If you feel compelled to camp on a holiday weekend and prefer a quieter camping experience, you might choose a campground with walk-in sites, which tend to have fewer visitors. The further campers must walk, the fewer people you’ll find. Another option is to hit one of Illinois’ backpacking trails at places such as Sand Ridge State Forest near Peoria, Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, or Forest Glen County Park near Danville.
The campsites at Rauchfuss Hill State Recreation Area in southern Illinois sit on high bluff above the Ohio River.
4. Consider reservations on summer weekends. If you’re visiting a park with a reputation for being fairly busy (state parks within range of Chicago, for example), make reservations. Before you make reservations, though, contact the park. Staff will know the expected turnout for a particular weekend. Reservations are likely a prudent choice also if there is an event in the area, or if there are no alternative campgrounds in the immediate the area and your travel plans hinge on local camping.
In the Illinois State Park system, reservations are made through individual parks and must be mailed or dropped off in person (no e-mail reservations accepted). Reservations require the first night’s camping fee as well as a nonrefundable $5 reservation fee. Some parks have their own reservation form and others use a generic form (download the forms).
If reservations are accepted at campgrounds operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, make the reservations online or calling (877) 444-6777. For the county and local campgrounds that accept reservations, contact the local management agency.
5. Be prepared for bothersome bugs and plants. A nasty encounter with poison ivy can put a big damper on your outdoor vacation. Poison ivy is a common plant throughout most of Illinois: it occurs as a vine or groundcover, three leaflets to a leaf. It contains urushiol, which is responsible for the skin rash. After contact, raised lines or blisters will occur on the skin. Don’t scratch it. Wash and dry the surface, and then apply calamine lotion to dry it out.
Most often, mosquitoes and other biting insects are more of a nuisance than a danger. Using insect repellant, wearing pants and long sleeves, and avoiding areas where the insects congregate all are strategies to keep from getting bitten.
If you’re spending ample time outdoors you should know about the diseases spread by some insects. Individuals can become infected by the West Nile virus if bitten by an infected mosquito. Culex mosquitoes, the primary varieties that can transmit West Nile virus to humans, thrive in urban rather than natural areas. Insect repellant and protective clothing are the best preventative measures. Remember to follow instructions on the insect repellant, especially when applying to children.
Ticks are often found on brush and tall grass waiting to catch a ride on a warm-blooded passerby. While they’re most active in early and mid-summer, you should keep an eye peeled for them throughout spring, summer, and fall. Deer ticks, the primary carrier of Lyme disease, are very small, sometimes only the size of a poppy seed. For hikers, one of the most common places to find ticks is inside the top edge of your sock (ticks need some type of backstop to start drilling into the skin).
To minimize your contact with ticks, some people choose to wear light clothing so this dark-colored insect can be spotted right away. Insect repellent containing DEET is an effective deterrent. Most importantly, be sure to visually check yourself, especially if you’re out on a hike. If it’s prime tick season, you’ll want to check your exposed skin (particularly your legs, if they are exposed) every hour or so and then do a more thorough examination back in your campsite or in the shower. For ticks that are already embedded, tweezers work best for removal. Speaking of pesky insects…
6. Know the laws regarding firewood transportation. The emerald ash borer is a green beetle, native to Asia, that has already killed 40 million ash trees in the U.S., and threatens to kill many more. To prevent the spread of this invasive insect, you should know the rules restricting the transportation of firewood. If you live in the 18-county area of northeastern Illinois or in certain parts of Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, you may not bring firewood from home. Instead, you must acquire firewood locally. (Most campgrounds offer some nearby options for purchasing firewood). Learn what parts of the Midwest have firewood quarantines.
Dense woods surround this walk-in campsite at Sangchris Lake State Park in central Illinois.
7. Keep the packing strategy and the gear list as simple as possible. I keep my camping gear in a couple of large plastic containers all in one location. After a brief process of weeding and consolidating, the containers go right from the storage shelf into the car. I don’t have to go room to room looking for gear, nor do I have to transfer gear to a new container. When it’s easy to pack and make my escape, I find that I’m likely to head out more often.
Instead of cramming the car with gear for every possible need, I try to bring just enough gear to make my stay safe and comfortable. The quantity and variety of camping gear will depend on the time of year, the destination, and the level of comfort that one prefers. Along with a tent, sleeping bags, food, and a flashlight, you may consider bringing items such as a gas stove, a lantern, and large water container. Some campers bring extra items that will add to their comfort such as a hammock, a small weather radio, and a tarp to hang above the picnic table to block the rain and sun. If you plan to hike, be sure to bring a daypack with padded straps to carry items such as snacks, water, raingear, an extra sweater, keys, money, sunglasses, a camera, and binoculars.
Unlike camping in remote parts of the country, while camping in Illinois you’re never far from civilization. Only a handful of campgrounds in the state will put you more than 30 minutes away from a convenience store and 1 hour from a hardware store or a sporting goods store.
Any suggestions to add? Please let us know in the comments below.
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