Watch out, camping-buffs. “Newbies” have invaded.

With the recent economic downturn, campgrounds have seen an increase in first-time campers. More people are trading soft mattresses for inflatable ones, restaurants for grills and television for stargazing.

Many vacationers have opted to skip expensive hotels and high-priced cruises to return to the rustic outdoors. More families are taking their vacations at campgrounds instead of going to the beach, which is a cheaper alternative (and excuse) to spend time together. The campers are also becoming more local.

“This is a trend carrying over from last year,” said Brett Delk of the United States Army Corps of Engineers of Proctor Lake, which runs three campgrounds surrounding Lake Proctor. The USACE is the largest provider of water-based recreation in the nation. “People are staying locally instead of going south or to other long distances [to other campgrounds].”

Although the Dinosaur Valley State Park, located northwest of Glen Rose, still hosts travelers from out-of-state and across seas, the campground has increased in local travelers who come in from the Metroplex, Stephenville, Houston, and Glen Rose. The state park offers regular campsites that have access to water, electricity, picnic tables and restrooms with showers and backpack campsites that require a one to 2.5 mile hike, have no restrooms and water is only available at the trail head.

“We are getting a lot more calls to book now than we have before,” said Maggie DeZonia, an employee of the state park. “Booking two months in advance between March and Thanksgiving is typical.”

The park also offers a museum, dinosaur footprint castings for children to play in, four dinosaur tracks sites, two full-scale fiberglass dinosaur models donated by the New York World’s Fair Dinosaur Exhibit and the footprints-filled Paluxy River, which runs through the park.  These attractions and amenities make the park a camping hotspot, especially for first-timers.

“We usually pick a site near restrooms [for first-timers], show them where the superintendent who patrols the grounds lives, give directions to the Wal-Mart in Granbury and explain the actual meaning of backpack sites,” said DeZonia. 

Several of these first-time campers do not have the proper skills to really “rough-it” outdoors.  Pitching a tent or knowing how to start a fire are some obstacles that many face.  The new campers usually turn to park staff for help.

“One of the oddest questions we have gotten [from first-timers] was if our restrooms had running water and whether the showers had hot and cold water,” DeZonia laughed.

While there are some first-timers who are brave enough to try tent camping, most turn to camping outdoors in RVs and cabins. Most vacationers want to get away from the stress of work or the city, but still want the amenities they get at home, such as a stove, a comfortable bed or a private toilet. While some “professional” campers may argue that this is not the true spirit of camping, these newbies are relieved to have at least some amenities that a tent campsite cannot offer.

While the RV sales at Bennett Camping and RV Dealership in Granbury have picked up since school has let out, the sales trend is normal for this time of the year.

However, the three campgrounds owned by the USACE-Sowell Creek Park, Copperas Creek Park and Promontory Park-have seen an increase in campers with RVs.

 “More people come with RVs,” said Delk. “This is a trend that the Corp is seeing nationwide. RVs have become more affordable and come down a bit [in pricing].”

The Lake Proctor campgrounds offer 40 tent campsites and 10 RV sites. The campsites are usually full, which is a typical trend this time of the year, according to Delk. 

The Cedar Ridge RV Park in Glen Rose, which offers 50 full-service spaces for RV sites, has roughly the same amount of travelers as last year.  The park has been hosting travelers that are from nearby cities such as Austin, Houston or Dallas/Ft. Worth due to the increase in people making shorter trips for their vacation.  While there are no plans to expand Cedar Ridge at the moment, there are developments that Glen Rose will see in the future.

“There are two to three new [RV] parks being built, but they won’t be finished until 2012,” Bill Norris of Cedar Ridge said.

Oakdale Park, which offers tent campsites, RV sites and cabins in Glen Rose, has seen the same trend as last year in the amount of campers showing up; but for them, most of the campers are from out-of-town.  According to Scott Mays, the park has seen more tent campers than before.  But it has also noticed an increase in RVs.

“We see more RVs than tents, which is pretty normal,” said Kristyn Bunt, an employee of Oakdale. “They’re usually even [in numbers] or the RVs will be more than the tents.”

Oakdale offers the base rate of tent camping for $18, RV camping for $24.50-29.50, and a range from $50-198 for cabins per night plus tax. But these prices compare to hotels in the area such as the Holiday Inn Express and Suites, which the average rates range anywhere between $102-$194 per night plus tax.

Despite the differences in pricing between hotels and campsites, Delk reflects a different view for the Lake Proctor campgrounds and other campgrounds in the local area as compared to the campgrounds nationwide that are seeing an influx of campers.

“We have high visitation rates, no matter how the economy is,” Delk said.