Sharing the tasks and the costs in a 14-seat van
"When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less." Those were the sentiments of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll'sThrough the Looking Glass. They could have applied to the antics of travel brochure writers in describing the activity of cooperative camping. By refusing to use the term--substituting instead a dozen or so contrived titles that only they understand--the pamphlet authors have so confused matters as to conceal this marvelous travel mode from 80 percent of the people who could have benefited from it.
Cooperative camping (the name they won't use) is a cheap and sensible travel method for people who haven't the energy, funds, or commitment to buy and then transport their own camping equipment and/or camping vehicle to regions overseas or far away.
The operators of cooperative camping tours print literature in which they describe dozens of potential itineraries throughout the United States, Mexico, and Europe. They schedule departures for each itinerary, take bookings from widely scattered individuals, and ultimately assemble a group of about 14 for each departure.
When the group of 14 reaches the jumping-off point (London, Mexico City, Los Angeles, or New York), they board a 14-person van furnished by the operator and driven by a professional guide-the only paid employee on the trip. The vehicle is already supplied with up to eight state-of-the-art tents, elaborate camping utensils and (sometimes) sleeping bags--although most companies require that you provide the latter. Except for that last item, passengers avoid all the expense and burden of outfitting themselves for camping.
For many such adventures, there is a "food kitty," a pooling of cash for group food expenses (usually between $20 and $40 a week). Members of the group, in rotation, shop for groceries along the way, and then rotate the cooking and cleaning chores. They each pitch their own tent each night and pack it away in the morning. The driver drives. Since the group carries its own accommodations (the tents) and needn't adhere to hotel reservations, they are able either to follow the preplanned itinerary, and make small deviations and stops along the way. They are also able to travel through areas where standard hotels aren't found.
The entire trip is unstructured and fun, close to nature and informal, adventurous, instructive--and cheap. The average cooperative camping tour costs around $60 a day, plus airfare, and plus about $5 per person per day in contributions to the food kitty.
The major companies
TrekAmerica(P.O. Box 189, Rockaway, NJ 07866, phone 800/221-0596, Web address: trekamerica.com, email: firstname.lastname@example.org) is the largest U.S. operator of youth-oriented (mainly people in their early 20s) cooperative camping tours (they supply the transportation, passengers come with their sleeping bags, and alternate the job of cooking and pitching tents cooperatively). Offering about 40 itineraries through North America, from one week to two months in length, with up to two dozen departures per itinerary yearly, at daily costs of $45 to $100, plus a food kitty of $35 to $45 a week. Passengers are limited to the age group, in this instance, of 18 to 38. A colorful catalogue is yours for the asking. The company also has a "Footloose" style of tours, aimed at the adventurous of all ages (recommended for those 25 to 55), and "Winter Sun" tours to all-year warm weather destinations like Mexico, Florida, and the Southwest.
AmeriCan Adventures & Roadrunner, Inc.(P.O. Box 1155, Gardena, CA 90249, phone800/TREK_USA, Web address: americanadventures.com, e-mail: AAsales@premiereops.com) seems to act as a competitor to TrekAmerica, but it is actually owned by the same company -- England's Heritage Limited. Still, AmeriCan offers slight differences. For one, though the majority of AmeriCan's customers are in their 20's and early 30's it imposes no upper age limit (so you could get stuck with a granny on your tour). It also offers a greater amount of shorter programs.
Tours cost between $50 and $90 per day (Road Runner is at the pricier end of the scale) plus a $6 daily charge for food ($7/day in Alaska and Canada). If hotels are included in your itinerary (in some urban areas camping is not an option), you usually have to pay an additional charge of about $35 per night. If tours are scheduled to start within two months and have not sold out, they are usually discounted by 20-30 percent.
Suntrek(77 West Third St., Santa Rosa, CA 95401, phone 800/SUNTREK, Web address: suntrek.com, e-mail: email@example.com. Traveling in vans throughout North America, participants camp out along the way, with Suntrek providing all the relevant equipment (minus sleeping bags). With over 70 different itineraries from one to 13 weeks in length, most of which are camping programs. Per-day costs range from about $50 to $100, plus a weekly food kitty of about $35 to $40. Like AmeriCan Adventures, Suntrek imposes no upper age limit, but the majority of its customers are between 18 and 35. To maintain its youth clientele, Suntrek offers a 10 percent discount to U.S. students, and foreign students studying in the U.S. (who purchase their tour package while in the states). Additionally, Suntrek offers a 20 percent discount to au pairs living in the U.S. Tours that have not sold out and are set to depart within six weeks are usually discounted by 20-30 percent.
Those interested in Cooperative Camping may also want to read about Backpacker Buses in the Youth Section.