Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Camping Program Needed for the Ice Age Trail

By Drew Hanson

Use of the Ice Age Trail is increasing. But a significant impediment to more people enjoying the thousand-mile footpath remains: the lack of regularly-spaced camping areas. It’s like a coast-to-coast highway with no place to buy gasoline. Fix this problem and more people will use the Trail. More people using the Trail will bring economic, education, and physical fitness benefits to Wisconsin.

The non-profit Ice Age Trail Alliance recognizes anyone who can verify that they hiked the entire Ice Age Trail as a Thousand-Miler. In the ten years prior to 1990 only four people hiked the entire Ice Age Trail. During the 1990s 13 people completed their hikes of the entire Trail and 39 people completed between 2000-2010. By this meter, Thousand-Miler use of the Ice Age Trail is increasing at a rate of roughly 200% per decade.

Sign directing hikers to one of only two
existing dispersed camping areas along
the Ice Age Trail

The Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest has three backpack shelters spaced along roughly 30 miles of the Ice Age Trail. The shelters require a fee for use and can be reserved in advance. Use data for the three shelters for May – October, 2010 shows 297 user/nights out of a possible 552 available nights for an occupancy rate of 53.8%. For comparison, according to the report The Economic Impact of Expenditures By Travelers On Wisconsin: Calendar Year 2010 prepared for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism (see http://media.travelwisconsin.com/~/media/Files/Research/Economic%20Impact/2010/2010%20Full%20Report.pdf), hotels/motels/resorts/B&Bs had an average occupancy rate of 51% in 2010. Like hotels/motels/resorts/B&Bs, demand for Southern Kettle Moraine shelters is greatest on weekends when the shelters are often reserved months in advance. Comparable occupancy rates between camping shelters and hotels shows that demand for overnight use of the Ice Age Trail is solid where camping accommodations are available, even inconvenient accommodations that require a reservation and fee.

Another example of long-distance hiking use is provided by the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail (AT). Most of the estimated 2-3 million people who use the AT each year hike only a portion of it but an increasing number complete the entire trail. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, approximately 500 - 600 people complete their hike of the entire AT each year (see http://www.appalachiantrail.org/about-the-trail/2000-milers). Given that the Ice Age Trail is roughly half as long as the AT and passes over terrain that is generally easier to hike, if the Ice Age Trail had a camping program, long-distance use numbers on the Ice Age Trail might surpass long-distance use of the Appalachian Trail.
Simple. One of the existing dispersed
camping areas along the Ice Age Trail.
A system of these is needed.
To address the need and realize the tourism potential of the Ice Age Trail, a new program of regularly spaced dispersed camping areas was adopted in 2011. While these camping areas should be free to use, the economic benefits come from the increased gas purchased to reach trailheads, food and specialized equipment purchased for multi-day hikes, visits to taverns near the Trail and more.
Such a program would be one of the least expensive economic generators that the State of Wisconsin could invest in. It would benefit half of the state’s counties. Partners such as the National Park Service and Ice Age Trail Alliance could assist with set-up. Once in place, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism could promote the program to state residents and the vast Chicago market. Other benefits would include educating residents about the beauty of their state, increasing public use of state-owned land and promoting physical fitness.
Let’s get the program rolling.

1 comment:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree! Mapping out a route that includes convenient camping spots is the single biggest challenge of hiking the IAT.