Rachel Lee grew up camping. Her husband Yi did not.
As a child growing up in the western Illinois community of Galesburg, Rachel’s family would often spend weekends camping in tents and cabins along the Mississippi River. Yi (pronounced “Yee”), growing up in China, knew nothing of camping until he came to the United States in 1989.
Since then, he’s taken to the outdoors. A friend introduced him to hunting in the woods of southern Illinois, not far from the Lee’s home in Carbondale. He purchased a pickup truck a few years ago, and, at Rachel’s urging, a recreational vehicle.
“I’ve wanted a camper for years,” Rachel says, “and a few years ago we shared with each other our bucket lists – dreams of things we want to do. He definitely did not have a camper on his list. We both, however, want to support each other’s lists. About two-and-a-half years ago, I told him that I really, really wanted to get a camper and go camping. I want to explore the U.S.”
She says her argument was boosted by the fact that the couple had traveled extensively internationally but hadn’t really vacationed in America.
“There are so many things in the United States with so many environments. I want to see it all and I want to do it in a little more comfort than lying on the ground getting rained on,” she explains.
After extensive shopping, the couple purchased a new 20-foot pull-behind camper this year. Yi says he is still nervous pulling it behind his truck, but he’s enjoying being one of what he calls “RV people.”
“When she shared with me that she wanted a camper, I was a little bit incredulous. I mean, Chinese people don’t buy campers,” he adds with a laugh.
Yi explains that he is enjoying his new-found recreation, and he is not alone. A recent study by Kampgrounds of America reports that 77 million American households go camping at least once a year. They find adventures and discover unique places and people – other “RV people.”
“Everyone has really been great,” he says of those he has met in campgrounds. “They are a unique group of people. Everyone is very helpful with each other, sharing advice and parts, stories and more.”
Yi hasn’t yet met Robert Myers, but it’s a good guess that the two men could become instant friends. Like Rachel, Myers, a semi-retired truck driver from Thomasboro in Champaign County, has camped his entire life. He and wife Lynn have been camping regularly for two decades, as many as 50 nights a year.
“It’s just relaxing,” he explains. “We like to get out and get away and don’t particularly want be in a hotel if we don’t have to. It’s nice to have your own bed with you and to come and go as you please.”
Today, the Myers pull a 40-foot fifth-wheel camper with a pickup. Over the years, they have owned a variety of RVs.
“We started out tent camping just because that was the cheapest way to start,” he recalls. Over the years, the couple has owned traditional pull-behind campers as well as motorhomes. He says every type of RV has its own advantages and disadvantages, but selection all comes down to personal preference.
Many of today’s campers have all the luxuries and conveniences of home. The Myers’ unit has three slide-outs, room extensions that fit within the trailer for travel, but bump out when parked, giving more living area. In fact, he says
his camper has almost 400 square feet of living space, as well as other amenities.
“It has a washer and dryer, a full-size shower and a fireplace,” he says.
Units like Myers’ retail in the $50,000 to $60,000 range, but he explains that the cost offsets other vacationing expenses.
“You’re not staying in motels and we’re eating most of our meals in the trailer, so it cuts down on a lot of your expenses when you are traveling,” he says.
Those looking to travel on the “really cheap,” should consider more primitive accommodations – tents – says Steve Smith, manager of WildCountry, an outdoor equipment retailer in Normal.
“With tents, you can do remote camping,” he explains. “You can actually walk on a trail out into the woods and camp with no one driving by and without having the next camper right next to you. You can be out in the woods with your family and enjoy nature without the hassle and technology. Plus, it’s going to be less expensive.”
So inexpensive, Smith says, that it is easy to vacation on a budget.
“When my daughter was growing up, we went to Colorado as a family every summer. We could spend a week there with just $800 for everything – gas, food, everything,” he says.
Smith says great camping can be found close to home, too, with lots of recreation areas, campgrounds and state parks throughout Illinois. Myers, who serves as a state officer for Good Sam Club, an international organization for RV owners, agrees.
“There’s an awful lot to do,” Myers says. “Every camping area in the state has something different. You can fish, you can go boating, you can go hiking. There’s so much diversity in Illinois.”
Of course, there’s just getting away from it all. That’s the appeal for Smith.
“Camping is just a great way to hang out with your family and get them away from technology, instead of looking at devices and not talking to each other, they enjoy each other and being together,” he adds.
For Rachel and Yi Lee, camping brings community.
“When we were looking to buy a house, I wanted a neighborhood where everybody knows their neighbors, greets them and sits out front every evening while the kids play outside,” Rachel says. “I know that may be nostalgic and it may not be completely the case anymore. But I think we get a sense of that when we camp. You get to know your neighbors, even if it’s just for the weekend.”
Ten Illinois state parks
- Rock Cut State Park, Loves Park
- Mississippi Palisades State Park, Savanna
- Starved Rock State Park, Utica
- Argyle Lake State Park, Colchester
- Kickapoo State Park, Oakwood
- Lincoln Trail State Park, Marshall
- Pere Marquette State Park, Grafton
- Giant City State Park, Makanda
- Ferne Clyffe State Park, Goreville
- Fort Massac State Park, Metropolis
Go to dnr.illinois.gov/parks/camp for more state park locations and camping information.
Shawnee National Forest
Illinois’ sole national forest has many camping options that includes Garden of the Gods. Go to fs.usda.gov/shawnee/ for more information.