No matter your location or unique brand of camping, we all share a common denominator in this industry: the great outdoors. From rugged to glamping, outdoor spaces and places make our businesses possible. This fact calls upon every campground operator to be a steward of their land. Campers have a big responsibility, too. Unfortunately, the Leave No Trace Center found that 9 out of 10 outdoor visitors had “not had the opportunity to receive education on minimizing their impact.” Fortunately, campground operators are in the best position to bridge this education gap to benefit everyone by offering environmental education programs!
The more campers that have intimate experiences outside and fall in love with nature, the more they will want to return to your parks and the environments that make them special. Education is the key. In the spirit of Earth Day, here are six environmental education programs you can implement at your property year-round to attract campers of all ages and better our shared planet.
1. Offer Guided Nature Hikes
You don’t need access to expansive forests or mountains to offer guided hikes. Any private path that you can mark with signage will do. To make it stand out, tailor this pathway to the unique flora, fauna, and funga in your region. For example, self-guided signs along the trail could identify your state bird, flower, and mammal, or note the dominant type of tree growing on your land. Include benches or covered platforms as rest stops along the way.
If you have the capacity to regularly lead walks, factor seasonality into your environmental education programs, such as leaf identification during fall color change and tadpole hatching during spring. If available acreage is an issue, a labyrinth-style walkway makes for a compact yet welcome relaxation site. You can start even simpler with a bird feeder, bird bath, and dedicated viewing station for guests to enjoy.
If you can accommodate large groups, consider hosting Boy and Girl Scout troops. There are numerous nature-themed badges for scouts to acquire, and your nature interpretation programming could be the perfect fit for their goals. Invite local chapters of environmental groups, such as Audubon, for a weekend retreat at your park, too. Whether you address new or old features, account for accessibility measures to ensure all campers are able to enjoy your trails.
2. Lead a Foraging Expedition
Speaking of funga, are you a fan of morel mushrooms? This wild treat grows across the Southeast, Midwest, and parts of the Pacific Northwest from April to May when conditions are just right—especially moist soil and temperate weather. Foraging for morels has become an annual hobby for many outdoor enthusiasts, and perhaps it could take place at your campground.
Searching for wild food resources, or foraging, takes us back to our literal roots and instills in us a new appreciation for the origins of our food. Varieties of berries, mushrooms, herbs, and more are common goodies found when foraging. If this is all news to you, that’s alright—just make sure you know your morels from your brain mushroom. Avoiding toxic lookalikes, researching dangerous species near your park, and practicing identification with an expert are critical steps before you begin.
If wild edibles aren’t native to your property, consider planting a small garden, berry pasture, or fruit tree field where guests can pay to pick during certain times. Popular fragrant herbs such as lavender or mint could also be camper favorites.
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3. Create a Rain Garden
While flooding is detrimental anywhere, it can be especially harmful to overnight campers and campground operations. One way to mitigate runoff and the urban pollutants it contains is by creating a rain garden. A rain garden is an intentionally depressed area of land, planted with native grasses and flowers, to allow excess water to flow and soak into it.
In addition to localized flood control, rain gardens can provide vital pollinator habitats, improve water quality through pollutant filtering, and are aesthetically pleasing. After constructing your rain garden, you can use it as a model to host guest workshops on how to create their very own rain garden at home. Rain gardens also make ideal locations for wooden bee hotels: permanent housing during the early stages of the pollinator’s life.
Using native vegetation in your rain garden is crucial to avoid the need for fertilizer, weed control, and high levels of maintenance. Native plants also have deep root systems for better water utilization and they attract more pollinators. If you need help sourcing the right native plants for all your campground’s landscaping needs, turn to a nearby conservation district. These governmental entities offer natural resource education and often directly sell native plants. With nearly 3,000 conservation districts nationwide, odds are there’s one in your county.
4. Partner with Wildlife Rescue Organizations
Animal ambassadors can teach us a lot about the natural world and their important roles in it. According to The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the role of an animal ambassador “includes handling and/or training by staff or volunteers for interaction with the public and in support of institutional education and conservation goals.” Some animal ambassadors will even travel to you, which presents an enriching and fun opportunity for your guests.
For example, Amazing Animals Wildlife Preserve in Florida offers “zoo to you” environmental education programs featuring their three-banded armadillo, Amazon parrot, and various reptile ambassadors. Midwestern states could consider partnering with wildlife rescue organizations focused on beloved birds of prey ambassadors, like red-tailed hawks and great horned owls.
It’s important to note that not all animals are suited to be ambassadors or for travel. Many animal ambassadors are in their roles only because they were found injured or abandoned at birth and can no longer survive in the wild. You need to thoroughly research any prospective partner organizations to ensure they have the highest accreditation and animal welfare protocol in place. If you already have resident pets or traditional farm animals on site, consider how you can enrich their care and incorporate environmental education programs beyond serving as an attraction.
5. Embrace Nighttime Activities
There are many advantages to a park being tucked away in a rural area or remote wilderness. For one, it will receive less light pollution from man-made sources at night and offer much better stargazing opportunities. Dark Sky RV Park in Utah is one Campspot customer that has leveraged their desert surroundings to the fullest. If you are located in a similarly remote environment, your property may even qualify to become an “international dark sky place” through the International Dark-Sky Association.
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If you are located in a more urban setting, you can still encourage campers to use a mobile app, such as Night Sky, to help identify constellations from their sites. For general information on how to host astronomy education, check out Mountains of Stars. This nonprofit’s mission is “creating environmental awareness through a cosmic perspective.” Their website includes recommended books, presentations, videos, downloadable resources, and more. They can also bring their portable planetarium and telescopes to parks in northeastern states for special programs.
Beyond stars, nighttime is full of life no matter where you are. Plan an “Insects After Dark” summer series to spot fireflies and encourage children to care about even the smallest creatures among us. Lead a walk at dusk where campers are specifically looking for bats flying around and feeding. Have your camp host lead a campfire chat where campers try to match animals to the nocturnal sounds they hear: hooting barred owl, chirping spring peeper, and clicking cicada. The possibilities are as limited as your imagination.
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6. Host an Earth Day Event
Since 1970, Earth Day has marked “the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement,” and it remains a day of action. This is why you often hear of global clean-up events on Earth Day, but there are many ways to honor this holiday and involve your campers.
If you are open for the season, invite campers to participate in 1-hour shifts to pick up debris in an adjoining park or along a throughway near your property. Although this may seem counterintuitive while on vacation, “Earth Day is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world” and eco-tourism is on the rise. Folks who don’t care to participate won’t and folks who do will be thankful for the opportunity to do their part. You could incentivize camper participation with a future stay discount, too.
Beyond trash removal activities, involve campers in tree planting or early spring gardening activities on site. Science proves that neighborhood trees can reduce stress and improve overall health outcomes. Host environmental trivia at your park’s restaurant or recreation hall. Stock your camp store with state-specific field guides, nature-themed coloring books, and copies of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Organize a scavenger hunt for campers to identify specific plant species, animal tracks, or hidden Earth Day clues around your property. If your park won’t be open by April 22, sponsor other volunteer events in your community instead for brand exposure and goodwill.
The best part about Earth Day is when it reminds us that every day should be Earth Day, even when we’re quick to forget. No matter how you choose to incorporate environmental education programs into your business, remember how much it matters to our industry and how much it will benefit generations of campers to come.
Haley Dalian is a lifelong Michigander who takes advantage of recreation throughout the state’s changing seasons, such as skiing up north in the winter and scuba diving the Great Lakes in the summer. A former Campspot marketing employee, Haley is pursuing a Master of Science degree at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability. She is passionate about solving the world’s sustainability challenges, enjoys performing improvisational comedy, and has never met a potato she didn’t like.
Image credit in order of appearance: Finger Lakes Campground, Adobe Stock -leszekglasner, Haley Dalian, Adobe Stock – Bethany, Haley Dalian, Haley Dalian, Haley Dalian, Adobe Stock – anatoliy_gleb, Haley Dalian