Pitching a tent in any park in New York City is likely to earn you a stern talking-to from a green-vested public employee urging, “Move along, now,” if not a flat out ticket from a cop. However, for those yearning to hit The Great Outdoors without leaving The Greatest City on Earth, The Urban Park Rangers are here to help. They’ll teach you and the kids how to live off the land without stepping foot outside the city – after all, you never know when these skills might come in handy!
Eat, Sleep, Camp
Held on designated days throughout the summer and billed as “Family Camping,” this all-borough program is not only totally legal, but it’s also totally free! They even provide a tent and food, though the latter is of the US Army, meals ready to eat, just-add-water-to-plastic-bags variety. (There have been reports of burgers and marshmallows roasted on a campfire at select sites, however, so you never know.) Expect the kids to be really intrigued or really repulsed, or perhaps a little of both.
Each family is expected to bring their own sleeping bags and, with some guidance, pitch their own tents (the campout takes place rain or shine, so sleeping accommodations can get muddy if you screw up). But the Urban Rangers do take the lead on their celebrated nighttime hikes, which range in themes based on the location you’ve chosen.
Ready, Set, Hike
The hikes in Central Park (Sat., July 20; Sat., Aug. 24; Sun., Sept. 22) focus on its history and architecture, as well as Calvert Vaux and Frederick Olmsted’s vision for a common green space that would be equally accessible to all citizens, regardless of wealth or class. For Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx (Sat., Aug 10; Sun., Sept. 14), which is near a beach, it’s an up-close-and-personal look at sea life. In Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (Sat., Sept. 21), it might be a discussion about bats. Bats, it seems, love Brooklyn.
All camp-outs begin at 6:00 pm, with hiking after sundown, and end promptly at 7:00 am the next morning (no sleeping in!).
For Summer of 2013, campsites include all of those mentioned above, plus the Alley Pond Adventure Center in Queens (Sat., July 27), Blue Heron Park in Staten Island (Sat., Aug. 3; Sat., Sept. 7) and Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan (Fri., Aug. 2; Fri., Sept. 6), among others. For a complete list of dates and locations, visit nycgovparks.org/programs/rangers/registration.
Unfortunately, every year, the program has more families wanting to participate than the Urban Rangers have slots (capacity is around 30 people per night). So how do you get in?
As a result, the Park Rangers have set up an online lottery. Each household is allowed to register only one time for any given program. Winners are selected randomly by computer and notified by phone about two weeks before the camp-out they’ve applied for. There is a waiting list, and you may register for more than one camp-out.
Try your luck here. Camp-outs run throughout the summer, with the last one scheduled for September 22.
For those who prefer to pick their own dates and times, not to mention eat their own food, go to sleep and wake up on their own schedule, click here for a list of private campgrounds in and near the NYC area. (Many, however, require permits and charge fees.)
Have you gone urban camping? Share your tips in the comment section below.
— Alina Adams