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ELECTRONIC EXPLORER

Virtual Camping in the Glow of a Computer Screen

July 11, 1999|LAURA BLY

From online reservations at national park campsites to the lyrics for such fireside favorites as "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," cyberspace is packed with pointers on how and where to pitch a tent or park an RV. And if you can't bear the thought of substituting a starry night for the familiar glow of a laptop screen, not to worry: A growing number of Web sites even list modem-friendly campgrounds.

A sampling of worthwhile virtual trail heads:

One of the Internet's oldest destinations for fresh-air enthusiasts, the Great Outdoor Recreation Pages (http://www.gorp.com) remains the leader in an increasingly crowded field. This easy-to-navigate site encompasses thousands of regularly updated pages, with book and gear sales, reader exchanges and information on everything from hiking the Tramuntana mountains on Mallorca, Spain, to the thorny issue of what successful anglers should do with leftover fish heads and intestines. (Advice from Buck Tilton, director of the Wilderness Institute: "Scattering fish parts widely in secluded spots probably rates as the best disposal method.")

The National Park Service's cleanly designed ParkNet site (http://www.nps.gov) has already won kudos for features on such topics as lesser known parks and for an extensive database that lets visitors search by location or theme. But this year marks the first time you can make online camping and tour reservations up to five months in advance at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and two dozen other Park Service sites (http://reservations.nps.gov). Like would-be campers who reserve by phone, Internet users must submit requests between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, and only one Internet reservation can be made at a time. One plus: Campsite availability can be viewed online 24 hours a day.

The National Recreation Reservation Service (http://www.reserveusa.com), meanwhile, now offers online reservations for nearly 50,000 campgrounds, wilderness excursions, cabins and day-use facilities at more than 1,700 locations managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A companion site, ReserveAmerica (http://www.reserveamerica.com), provides online booking at state park campsites in California, New York, Oregon, Texas, Wisconsin and Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

About.com (http://camping.about.com), formerly known as MiningCo.com, serves up an impressive range of camping-related articles and Web links, including several listings of modem-friendly campgrounds.

CampNet America (http://www.campnetamerica.com) ranks as one of the Web's most popular directories of campgrounds, RV parks, cabins, outdoor suppliers and general camping and travel information. You'll find everything from driving directions to weather updates here, but the site has some glaring weaknesses: only a single campground listing for the entire state of Montana, and its campground choices aren't reviewed or rated.

By contrast, the Web version of Trailer Life magazine (http://www.trailerlife.com) gives users who fill in a free registration form access to detailed information and ratings on more than 12,000 parks and campgrounds across North America. Among its features, the site provides contact information for hundreds of RV dealers who offer rentals as well as sales.

Not to be confused with Backpacker Magazine, the Backpacker e-zine (http://thebackpacker.com) is aimed at hikers with a wide range of ages and experience levels. One of the site's best features is its strong sense of community, including a beginner's corner and an extensive database of reader-rated trail reviews in the U.S. and Canada (62 in California alone).

Still looking for the right ditty to accompany those s'mores and pigs in a blanket? Check out Yahoo's extensive camping section (http://dir.yahoo.com/recreation/outdoors/camping), which links to a trio of sites featuring popular campfire songs.

Electronic Explorer appears monthly. Comments are welcome at lsbly@aol.com.

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