Make the Most of Your Fall Camping Trip

Tips for snagging a spot, and what to take along once you do

There are plenty of reasons to visit Door County in the fall. Autumn colors, lots of festivals and fewer crowds are a few that come to mind. But for some, the cooler temperatures and slower pace of the shoulder season signal something else: It’s time to go camping. 

With four state-park campgrounds and plenty of private-campground options, Door County has a site for every type of camper. Want something in the center of the action with a whole host of outdoor family activities? Peninsula State Park has you covered. For something off the beaten path that will test your primitive-camping skills, check out Rock Island or Newport State Park. And if you need fully accessible amenities, consider reserving the Cabin by the Bay at Potawatomi State Park. 

Compared to camping in the summer, fall camping comes with some exclusive perks, too. The drop in the temperature means no (or at least fewer) mosquitoes, prime sleeping weather and ideal campfire conditions. And what better way to take in the fall colors than by living and sleeping under the beautiful, changing canopy? 

One perk typically associated with fall camping that’s changing, however, is availability.

“July and August are definitely the craziest months for us,” said Brooke Bittorf of Fish Creek Campground, “but weekends are still fully booked through September and October about a month in advance.”

The reservation book at Rustic Timbers campground in Egg Harbor tells a similar story. 

“The smaller the camper, or if you’re camping with a tent, the easier it is going to be to get in, but we’re pretty full,” said Kylie Bond, Rustic Timbers’ operations manager. “The first two weekends in October are completely booked.”

Newport State Park features 17 secluded backpack, or hike-in, campsites, some with a waterfront view. Amenities are primitive and include a pit toilet, fire ring, lock box for food and supplies, and benches. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

The increase in fall campers throughout the peninsula – at both private and state-park campgrounds – can be attributed to a couple of factors.

“I think a lot of it stems from COVID and people not wanting to travel the way they used to,” Bond said. 

And, according to the 2021 “North American Camping Report,” she’s right. Although camping was already climbing in popularity prior to COVID-19, it jumped in 2020 – a trend that seems to be continuing through 2021. The report, which surveyed U.S. and Canadian campers, showed that more than 86 million U.S. households now consider themselves campers, and 48 million took at least one camping trip during 2020. Compared to 2019 numbers, that’s an increase of 6 million households. 

In addition to more first-time campers, 2020 also saw an uptick in RV activity, which the survey also attributes to people looking for a safe way to travel during uncertain times. 

Another factor contributing to the increase in fall campers is the switch to reservable sites. At the state parks, camping reservations are now required and can be made up to 11 months in advance, but same-day reservations (if you can find a site) are accepted. At both Fish Creek Campground and Rustic Timbers, campers can select their sites beginning in January of the current season. 

But never fear: If you haven’t made a reservation for this fall and still want to snag a site at one of the many campgrounds in the area, a little flexibility can go a long way. 

“You’re definitely going to find more availability during the week,” Bittorf said. 

Reserve your campsite early if you’re hoping to book one of the waterfront sites in the Nicolet Bay campgrounds. But don’t worry if you can’t. As the peninsula’s most popular camping destination, the park features five campgrounds with a total of 468 reservable family sites and three group campsites. Photo by Sara Rae Lancaster.

And if you’re lucky enough to book a site, here are a few tips for making the most of your fall camping experience. 

Dress for the Weather

Although afternoon temperatures may continue to hover in the comfortable low 70s and high 60s, nights can be notably chilly. The average low temperatures in Door County can dip into the low 50s in September and the 30s in October. Dress in layers (opt for quick-dry synthetic fabrics over cotton); take a hat, some lightweight gloves and a pair (or two) of wool socks; and invest in a cold-weather sleeping bag. If you don’t have one, putting a bivy sack around your sleeping bag can boost your sleeping bag’s warmth by 10 degrees.

Be Prepared for Rain

Just like having a dependable sleeping bag, you may also want to invest in or borrow a three-season tent. You’ll also want to pack an extra tarp or two: one to place underneath and another to go over the rainfly to keep moisture out of your tent. 

If you’re planning to do some hiking or you’ve reserved a hike-in campsite, plan to get a rain cover for your backpack. In a pinch, plastic bags and garbage bags can also help to protect your pack, electronics and other important items.

Cook Like a Pro

If you plan to prepare meals at your campsite – whether over a campfire or using a camping stove – you’ll want to leave more time for cooking because of the lower temperature. It’s also a good idea to have extra cooking fuel with you.

Take a Headlamp

Keep in mind that the daylight hours are dwindling, so whether you’re out for a hike or arriving at your campsite, know when the sun will set and keep a headlamp or lantern (plus extra batteries) handy for after dark. 

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