A new book explores the fascinating history of camping

Camping: If you haven’t noticed, it’s some kind of bread and butter from Outside. Most readers of this magazine probably know that camping is a fun hobby that allows us to escape normal life and feel healthy that way back to nature. It’s a pretty easy concept to understand. Or is it? The things that we take for granted when we sleep in nature never had to be like this; they are a product of larger cultural forces and government policy.

In her new book Camping Grounds, Historians Phoebe SK Young examines how the American perception of camping has developed from the 19th century to the present day. Of course, people have always slept outdoors. But when did camping become camping in the REI sense? And is this definition sufficient? Young is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder specializing in the cultural and environmental history of the United States. Outdoor activities were one of her research interests even before she started the book in 2002, Young told me in an interview, but most of what she had read about the history of skiing, hiking, and camping was just explored the topics as a leisure activity. She was dissatisfied with writing about camping just as a hobby; Why were people without shelter and others who camped out of need always left to separate conversations? “I felt that if we broke these boundaries and thought more about the connections between them or how they were separated, we could learn something,” she says. In the book, Young posits that camping, as most people know it, has evolved bit by bit over the course of more than a century as the American public began to see camping as an environmentally friendly form of recreation, government-provided infrastructure Special equipment expected and increasingly bought for it. After all, many people even saw their time in nature as an indispensable wellness practice.

(Photo: Courtesy Oxford University Press)

The resulting book is a fascinating story of camping that goes well beyond the definition of recreational activities and makes a compelling case for the question “What is camping?” it’s about so much more than semantics. Young describes specific moments over the decades that sleeping outdoors took on new meaning and popularity, from its debut in the 19th century as a middle-class vacation option to a recent interest in “natural healing.” At every historical moment she also writes about people who often slept outdoors but were not included in the mainstream image of camping, such as recently freed enslaved people and people without shelter. It also shows how American ideas about camping tend to reflect broader societal attitudes and inequalities. “Does sleeping outdoors promise physical health or does it reveal personal weakness?” Asks Young in the introduction. “Should tents signal impermanence or permanence, leisure or poverty, consumer comfort or political protest? Do camps warn of social unrest, do they encourage public participation or do they exemplify the common good? ”

Young traces the popularity of camping back to the years after the Civil War, when romanticized media coverage portrayed Union soldiers sitting around a campfire. Trying to convince Americans that the war hadn’t gone so miserably gave the activity a virtue in public imagination – not to mention the fact that Union veterans continued to gather at postwar meetings. In 1877 Union veteran John Gould published How to Camp Out, a guidebook that explained the rules and skills of camping to civilians – more for survival than fun. Around the same time, John Muir’s writings earned him widespread recognition as one of the earliest proponents of recreational camping. When he was 29, Muir took his “Thousand Mile Walk” from Indiana to Florida, and his writings from that period show how his racist views influenced his narrow definition of camping: he really only approved of it when it came to camping educated men went, all asleep, fresco in western mountain air. He hated the swampy southeast and looked with contempt at the formerly enslaved people who camped there. And while he preached about the individualistic virtues of outdoor recreation and connection with nature, he somehow failed to see those values ​​in indigenous peoples, whose connectedness with their surroundings “led him to question their ability to have a civilized home in nature to create, ”Young writes.

So these less than intuitive distinctions between campers and non-campers have been around since camping became a thing – and they have shaped the rest of its history as well. By the early 20th century, many white middle class recreational seekers saw camping as a means of creating a home away from home and upholding the values ​​of homeliness and gender norms. They drew a hard line between gentlemanly outdoor men like Teddy Roosevelt and vagabonds or migrant families. (In the midst of the Great Depression of 1933, Young writes, a researcher estimated that 1.5 million Americans spent the night in public shelters or outdoors. Between 1930 and 1935, annual national park visits rose from 3 million to 5 million.)

It’s easy to see how this narrow-minded view of camping laid the foundation for the differences in outdoor access that we still see today.

When the number of visitors to the national parks increased in the 1930s, the federal government stepped in to provide infrastructure such as the good old fire ring. Nevertheless, this infrastructure seemed to be designed primarily with the white middle class looking for relaxation in mind. Emilio Meinecke, who developed the now ubiquitous campsite loop, summed up this view when he complained about messy camps in Yosemite: “The campsite is spoiled for all the decent people who are not in slums.” Going mainstream in the 1950s, campers found ways to differentiate themselves from other campers by being more adventurous (with the rise of the National Outdoor Leadership School) or virtuous (Leave No Trace), or by wringing hands over the overcrowding. (The inaugural letter from the editor of Backpacker magazine said they would “limit distribution as much as possible to those already backpacking” for this reason.) And of course, the US government has a long history of excluding certain ones Public land groups, forcing Native Americans from their ancestral lands to tolerate the segregation of national parks.

It’s easy to see how this narrow-minded view of camping laid the foundation for the differences in outdoor access that we still see today. “Nature isn’t just a completely pristine space out there,” Young told me. “It’s woven through our entire history, our public institutions, the way we talk about our connection to the land and the way we treat each other.” But why is it important to include recreational camping and other forms of camping in the Bring conversation? Camping Grounds shows how the popular image of recreational camping has often promoted social ideas such as democracy, the freedom to use public land, and self-sufficiency. But the value judgments we make about who is allowed to sleep in public places show how often we fail to live up to these ideals. As Young demonstrates throughout the book, recreation seekers (often white) are the only people who have consistently received a free pass to sleep almost anywhere. Unoccupied people and political demonstrators are often in the same country and doing almost the same thing: the night in an emergency shelter. But officials or recreational campers often question their presence for arbitrary reasons, on the grounds that they are an eyesore or a nuisance.

These challenges have reached even the highest courts in the country; Over the past few decades there have been several cases of debate over whether public land is an appropriate place for the constitutionally protected, but – what, indecent? In many cases, courts have put the needs of recreational campers first. In 1984, Young writes, a homeless group planned to camp in Lafayette Square, DC and the National Mall as a protest to demonstrate how the homeless live. The federal government challenged these plans in one case before the Supreme Court, arguing that camping was not allowed in these locations and letting protesters sleep there would disrupt “visitor activity”. The court agreed and forced the advocacy group to cancel their demonstration – and sent a clear signal that the interests of the tourists trumped the rights of the First Amendment.

The debate about what is acceptable camping re-emerged in January 2012 during the protests against Occupy Wall Street on C-SPAN. At a House Committee meeting, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis was asked to explain how more than 300 protesters were indefinitely allowed to camp on Park Service land in McPherson Square, Washington DC. Jarvis replied that demonstrating on public land was a protected right. Camping was not allowed in McPherson Square, however. Protest organizers had advised participants to bring a tent; Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy wanted to know if they weren’t camping? “Watching Congressmen debate the definition of camping was a little dazzling,” says Young. The hearing would eventually lead the NPS to enforce the no-camping rule and effectively shut down Occupy DC. But, writes Young, the lessons from Occupy have everything to do with mainstream ideals about camping and public land. Early Occupy posters with tent pictures and the words “Yes We Camp”, she writes, “provoked viewers to rethink Wall Street – a space dedicated to private gain – like a national park: as a place for the public good is regulated ”.

The potential of camping as a public good has only made headlines over the years as protesters from the Standing Rock Sioux of the Dakota Access Pipeline camped on their own land to protect it and uninhabited people and city dwellers for equal access to public Fight green spaces. Camping Grounds argues that only with our relax-or-bust mentality do we hinder this kind of comprehensive social benefit. The mainstream conception of camping is not only a social construct, but also increasingly attitudes and strategies that favor the privileged and disenfranchise the marginalized. Towards the end of the book, Young asks, “How could we use public nature to remember the public good and revise it for another time?” If we stop insisting that it is only one thing, could Camping can actually be inviting to everyone.

Buy the book

Main photo: Chris Zielecki / Stocksy

If you buy something through the retail links in our stories, we may earn a small commission. Outside does not accept money for editorial equipment reviews. Read more about our guidelines.

Related Articles