May 13, 2006

Free camping day at family-friendly KOAs

May 12 was Come Camp With Us Day at KOA . If you missed the campground chain’s giveaway day this year, you’ll get another shot at a free site next year. Come Camp With Us Day, when KOA gives away some 25,000 campsites for a night in May, is an annual event (2006 is number three). KOA locations start accepting reservations in February, so mark your calendar.

The kids and I got hooked on KOAs on our trans-America trek. Backcountry types will scoff and say staying at a KOA isn’t camping. By their definition, they're right. Nobody’s roughing it at a KOA. These are tidy, well-lit, family-friendly enterprises with pools and WiFi and microwaves to heat the pizza and Chef Boyardee ravioli that you buy at the camp store. They're located close to civilization -- and often close to go-kart tracks, burger joints, gas stations and Dairy Queens. If you want remote, pitch your tent elsewhere. At a KOA, you'll have plenty of company.

As a woman alone on a 12,000-mile road trip with two kids, these places were just the ticket after 300 miles of hot, dusty driving. They had activities, movies and video games for the kids, and electricity for me, so I could pull out the laptop and get some writing done.

We tent-camped quite a few times – and it’s the tent and RV sites that KOA offers as freebies on Come Camp With Us Day – but we fell in love with the Kamping Kabins. For less than 50 bucks, we got our own little bunkhouse with four beds, a desk, lights and outlets, a porch – sometimes with a swing – and a little patch of front lawn. Water pumps were steps away. KOA offers ritzier cabins with bathrooms, separate bedrooms, heat, AC, and even kitchens, but the economy models suited us fine.

We had some great KOA moments: eating canned chili by the fire in Santa Rosa, New Mexico while the long, sweet whistle of a hundred-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe filled the desert night; sitting poolside and swapping road stories with other traveling families in Cedar City, Utah; gathering under a purple High Plains sky in Belvedere, South Dakota to sing "You Were Always on my Mind" along with Almost Willie Nelson, whose braided pigtails hung to his waist; watching Dana, who'd signed on as a volunteer mucker, grin big as she shoveled clots of haystuck manure from the Mount Rushmore KOA's horse stables.

I made sure she washed her sneakers under our water pump before letting her back inside our cozy Kamping Kabin.