For many of us, camping during our childhoods fueled our pursuits of careers in the outdoors. But for many others, those precious times spent huddled in tents with our families were less frequent, if trips to the campgrounds happened at all.
To give first time campers a positive experience spending a night outdoors, Vermont has partnered with Burlington-based specialty retailer Outdoor Gear Exchange (OGE).
Akin to the successful program in New York, Vermont's First Time Happy Campers Program gives families a free weekend at one of five state parks in July and August, a full set of camping gear, and a “friendly park interpreters” to support them through it all.
OGE is much more than a store. Here's why.
Campers can attend interpretive programs and borrow fishing gear while enjoying the parks, including Bomoseen, Button Bay, Grand Isle, Stillwater, and Woodford.
Marc Sherman, who is the OGE co-owner and serves with the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative, said the idea for the program came up during a conference, where leaders from nonprofits, for profits, retailers, and government agencies met. Over beers one night, they started talking about the barriers of getting people to visit state parks.
"The future of our wilderness lies in the hands of our children and the best way to get kids outside is with their parents and if people can't afford to buy a $500 tent, they may never take their kids outside," Marc said. "We thought, what if we create a gear lending library in the state park system? And I said, 'I bet I can rally some brands.'"
Therefore, firewood, tents, camp stoves, lanterns, and sleeping pads are provided to families. If campers don’t already have sleeping bags or don’t want to bring bedding from home, OGE is offering Kelty sleeping bags online for a discounted rate of $34.95 for delivery to their home or pick up upon arrival at the park.
In the first week of announcing the program, 70 families applied. Two families are being chosen at random for each weekend when they register through vtstateparks.com/happy-camper.html.
Moving forward, Sherman said, the hope is that Vermont invests money in the program, so they can buy gear to serve more families in more parks across the state.