Bug spray? Check. Smores? Check. Laptop?

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – On a blistering Friday afternoon at the LaSalle RV Park, all is quiet. Guests are either out exploring the valley or shut up tight in their vehicles with the air conditioner pumping.

Behind the front desk, an electronic board studded with a dozen green blinking lights belies the apparent inactivity. For every blinking light, there is a guest on the Internet inside their RV, taking advantage of the campground’s wireless signal.

Over the last two years, wireless Internet access at Flathead Valley campgrounds and RV parks has proliferated from a bonus feature to an utter necessity. Continuing a nationwide trend, modern vacationers still want to “get away from it all” – but only so long as they can check e-mail while they’re doing it.

“Eight out of ten people that pull in here make sure you have it,” said Lisa Koehler, whose family owns the North American RV Park in Coram. “If you don’t have it, you lose rentals.”

“They’re addicted and they can’t leave it alone,” she added. “You’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world and you’re worried about WiFi? Come on!”

Out of all the campground employees and owners interviewed, none said they could recall a similar technological development or other amenity that became so essential to have, so fast. At the KOA campground in Whitefish, you can play the original Pacman arcade game from the 1980s, then turn around and trade stocks from your laptop.

“Your whole electronic world has expanded so much,” said Laura Coe, a KOA employee. “The RV industry has catered to it.”

But while guests now expect it, installing outdoor WiFi is not without its hassles. Chief among those hassles is cost: Most campground owners said the thousands of dollars required to set up outdoor WiFi was necessary in order to stay competitive. The North American RV Park is currently on its third system, after problems with the first two. The Mountain Meadow RV Park and Campground in Hungry Horse had to upgrade its system when one of its best features started getting in the way of the Internet signal.

“We have so many trees, it wasn’t getting past the trees,” said employee Angela Hussion. “I think it’s crazy, but people do a lot of business on the computer in this day and age.” Rather than chopping down the trees, Mountain Meadow opted to improve its system.

Some campers said the Internet obsession detracts from vacations, particularly in rustic, Northwest Montana.

“I just think everybody sits around on the computer anymore and that’s all they do,” said Ed Haley of Clarksdale, Ariz., while squeegeeing the windshield of his rig. “They don’t get out and exercise.”

RV travelers cite a number of benefits to having wireless Internet access while camping: It allows them to continue working while on the road, to stay in touch with family at home, and check the weather in future destinations to plan and make reservations at campgrounds for the next leg of the trip. As long as that campground has WiFi, that is.

Some campers now say they wouldn’t enjoy traveling without it.

“I probably would not be comfortable doing it if I didn’t have it because I stay in touch with my kids and grandkids,” said Carole Kirschbaum of Olympia, Wash., while sitting outside her RV at LaSalle with a book. “These campgrounds eventually are going to realize that they’re not going to have any business if they don’t have it.”

And when a campground does have WiFi, but the network fails, all hell breaks loose for the employees. Koehler said she got an earful from guests when the signal went down earlier that day.

“They were out here with pitchforks,” she said. “They were not happy campers.”

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