Camping is one of America’s favorite pastimes. About 50 million Americans head out into the wilderness each year to refresh and reinvigorate themselves.
While it may seem like camping as a recreational activity has always been around, camping as we know it today is actually relatively new. For most of human history, camping is what you did during war or on a hunting or fishing expedition. It wasn’t something you just did for fun in and of itself. So how did camping become a modern pastime?
My guest today explores the answer to this question in his latest book. His name is Terence Young and he’s the author of Heading Out: A History of American Camping. Terry and I begin the show discussing how camping got its start as an anti-modern revolt after the Civil War, and the New England minister who wrote a book that would kickstart the camping craze in America in the 19th century. Terry then shares how businesses responded to the growing number of campers in America by creating and marketing products and goods to make camping easier, and how these products began a debate about which sort of camper is the most authentic camper — a debate which remains today. We end our conversation talking about the rituals of camping, why all campsites in America look exactly the same, and the state of camping today.
This is a great episode to listen to on your way to a weekend camp trip, or when you’re dreaming of your next outing on the way to work.
- When did camping become a recreational activity? (It’s later than you probably think!)
- Why did people start camping for its own sake?
- How camping fit into the broader arts and crafts movement
- The book that kickstarted the camping craze
- What camping was like in the 19th century
- How the conservation movement — including John Muir — reacted to camping
- How the camping gear industry was born
- The everlasting debate about “real” camping
- The ritual of the campfire
- How the automobile poured gas on the American camping flame
- The genesis of America’s campsite infrastructure, and how the modern campground was designed
- The long trail movement (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail) and the rise of backpacking
- How American camping is unique from other countries
- The state of camping in America today
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- W. H. H. Murray
- Adventures in the Wilderness by W. H. H. Murray
- A Call for a New Strenuous Age
- Frederick Jackson Turner
- How to Build a Roaring Campfire
- Three Essential Campfires
- The Magic of the Campfire
- 6 Easy Campfire Desserts
- Tips on Taking Your Little Ones Camping
- 16 Camping Hacks from 1911
- Outfitted & Equipped: Car Camping
- A Man’s Guide to Camping
- 5 Ways to Streamline Your Next Camping Trip
- 9 Delicious Foil Packet Recipes
- E.P. Meinecke and Campground Planning
- Podcast: The Meaning of Trails
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another addition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Well, camping is one of America’s favorite past times. About 50 million Americans head out into the wilderness each year to refresh and reinvigorate themselves. While it may seem like camping is a recreational activity that’s always been around, camping has no today because it’s actually reality new. For most of you in history, camping is what you did during war, or on a hunting or fishing expedition. It wasn’t something you just did for the fun of it, just in and of itself.
So, how did camping become a modern past time? My guest to explore the answer to this question in his latest book. His name is Terence Young and his book is entitled ‘Heading Out: History of American Camping’. Terry begins our show discussing how camping got a start as an anti modern revolt after the Civil War and the New England minister who wrote a book that would kick start the camping craze in America in the 19th century. Terry then shares how business respond to the growing number of campers in America by creating and marketing products and goods to make camping easier, and how these products began a debate about which sort of camper is the most authentic kind, a debate that remains ongoing today.
We end our conversation talking about the rituals of camping, why all campsites in America look exactly the same, or pretty much, in the state of camping in American today. This is a great episode to listen to on your way to a weekend camping trip or when you’re dreaming of your next outing on the way to work. After the show is over, check out the show notes at AON.IS/HeadingOut.
Terence Young, welcome to the show.
Terence Young: Oh, thank you. It’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: So, you wrote a history of one of my all time favorite activities, camping. And really, after reading this book, I’m looking at camping now with completely new eyes. I’m looking at campsites differently, because I know why campsites look the way they do and why there’s the one way loop and all that thing. But, what I found most interesting about this book was that, for some reason, I always thought of camping as sort of this er recreational activity, right? This sort of thing that humans have always done for fun for a long time but, then, when you think about it it’s like, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
So, you point out in the book that camping for the sake of camping is actually a relatively new concept. So, when did camping become just an activity that people just did for the sake of doing it?
Terence Young: Well, as you say Brett, camping is, in a sense, is ancient. Probably as long as there have been people, people have camped but, they didn’t camp for fun. They camped because they had to. The idea of camping, actually the word comes from the military word ‘campaign’, to engage in a campaign and they had to set up encampments and so, there were camps. Like, camp Lagune or things like this.
Camping as a recreational activity, in some ways, initially came along, at least in America, with hunting and fishing but, hunters and fishers would go out to do that, hunt and fish. But, they had to camp as a kind of adjunct to hunting and fishing. It’s only after the US Civil War ended in 1865 that we start to see people going camping just to camp, that they might hunt and fish. There were still many people still going hunting and fishing and then had to camp. But, this is when they first see the appearance of the idea, that camping itself is a form of recreation.
Brett McKay: So, I’m curious. I mean, what was it about coast velum America, the cultural melou of it that made people start camping just for camping sake?
Terence Young: The northern part of the country boomed. The economy boomed and industry was growing and the cities like, New York, Boston, Hartford, Philadelphia, they were growing very rapidly in population and getting much larger. Along with this industrialization and urbanization of America came a lot of regulation, a lot of pollution, noise, smoke, things like this. A lot of crowding, a lot of strangers that people didn’t know.
This was all knew to Americans. There had been cities like New York before the Civil War but they largely had been relatively small and the vast majority of Americans had lived in small towns and on farms and tiny settlements and stuff. And this new experience caused a sort of, I would say, identity crisis, if you will, amongst people who weren’t sure. Who am I, in a way, and is this still America?
One of the things, amongst many, that they turned to was camping. Camping going back with this kind of romantic idea of nature as relief, as whatever solution, anidine to their sense of like, “Am I really in the right place being here in the city?” They didn’t want to leave the city because that’s where the jobs were, that’s where the money was. But, they wanted some relief from the city and camping seemed to fill the bill.
Brett McKay: Right, so in a way it was an anti modern revolt? In a sort of-
Terence Young: Yes.
Brett McKay: But yeah, you said this was among other things. This was sort of … Besides camping, I know during this same period, people got really into arts and crafts. This is like when the arts and crafts movement started in Europe and America and people were all about “I’m going to build things with my hands and rustic things are great things because it’s not tainted by urbanization or technology.”
Terence Young: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, that’s right and we do … One of the reasons the arts and crafts movement rose was because people were increasingly in jobs where they didn’t make anything from beginning to end, right? They, whatever, made a part that was assembled into something larger and so, they didn’t necessarily see a completion to their actions. They came enamored of this idea of doing things themselves, and having control and finishing something. Camping is a part of that whole larger movement.
Brett McKay: Right. One of the individuals, most influential individuals in sort of kick starting the camping movement in America, never heard of this guy but he’s a pretty interesting character. His name is William HH Murray. What was it about his book that he wrote? It’s called ‘Adventures in the Wilderness’, that helped kickstart the camping craze?
Terence Young: Well, Murray, for a little background on him. Murray was a congregationalist minister from Boston. He was actually the head of the Park Street Church, which is probably the most significant, or was the most significant, congregational church in America. He was a graduate of Yale. He was very educated gentleman. He was a very enthusiastic outdoors man. He especially loved canoeing and, the thing about his book, his book is, I think, kicks off camping for a number of reasons.
One, it’s accessible, it’s still in print. It’s well written. He’s funny. He’s sort of self reflectively funny. But most importantly, unlike anybody before him, he basically came right out and flatly said, “Well, how do you camp?” He told people how to do it. Writers before him hadn’t really said that. They just assumed everyone knew how. Of course, most urban people in 1869, when ‘Adventures in the Wilderness’ was published, most urban people they didn’t have any idea about how to go camping into the wild. They lived in the city.
His book told them how. You needed to go here, do that. He told them where to go into the Adirondacks in particular. And he told them why. I think that why was also very important because what he did was, he addressed the anxieties that urban people in the post Civil War era were feeling. He came right out and said, “Yes, the reason you don’t feel good is, you work in an office, it’s crowded, your boss is a pain.” These sorts of things and he was the first one to come right out and say it and he was a minister saying this.
I think it gave him a lot of clout, you know? It’s a combination of a well written book, useful book, informative book, and one that explained why you’d want to go camping. People took him at his word and immediately took off and started camping.
Brett McKay: How much of an impact did this book have? Like, how many people started camping because of him and how did it change he Adirondacks and the economy there, and just the amount of people there?
Terence Young: It’s hard to say exactly how many people were effected directly by Murray’s book but, we know that he made a fortune on the book. He made $25,000 in the first year off sales of the book. This is at a time when the average, or per capita income in the US, is under $200 a year. So, he made an enormous amount of money, so then we know lots of copies were sold. In the Adirondacks, they directly felt it in the year prior to his book coming out. A couple of hundred people showed up as Sandarac Lack during the whole season to go into the back woods and stuff. The year that Murray’s book is written, 1869 that it’s published, they got at least two to 3,000 people. So, they had a 10 to 15 time increase in the number of people camping.
Then, the following year, 1870, there was at least 5,000 people or more show up. So, this is a tremendous increase in the number of people going to the Adirondacks.
Brett McKay: What was camping like at this time? I mean, who were the type of people going and how did they get there and what kind of stuff did they bring for them to camp?
Terence Young: Well, relatively few people actually go camping, compared to the total size of the population in the 19th century. This is for a bunch of reasons but particularly it’s mostly upper middle class people who can go camping. That’s largely because you had to have a lot of money, it’s not cheap to go camping in 1880 say, and you needed time. Most Americans didn’t have vacations in the 19th century, most working Americans. So, you had to have your own business or profession, or be able to sell or save enough money to be able to do this so, class people and a few wealthy people that are going.
They didn’t take much gear. There wasn’t much gear that we would … The kind of things that we would think of today, just most of them didn’t exist in the 19th century. So, what they would take was relatively heavy and cumbersome and difficult to move around, which means there were not a lot of people who walked as campers, like backpacking, just handful of them. There’s a fair number of people who went on horseback or in canoes, things like this.
Again, a few who would go with a horse and wagon, but horse and wagon was very expensive and you had to sort of get a bunch of people together to do it. When they went camping, mostly, they went nearby. They would, just say, take the train two stops past the edge of town, get off, walk out along some river and into the edge of a farm field and plop down and start camping. They were perfectly happy to just go, basically, near by. Only the wealthy, I mean and the truly wealthy, could go long distance to some place like Yellow Stone or Yosemite or something like that. Since most of the people who are camping at this time, in the 19th century, course live in the north eastern part of the US, and Yellow Stone is a long way away. So, you had to have a lot of time and money to do that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and during this time, after Murray’s book, this whole marketplace for camping literature just sprung up. Articles started proliferating in magazines about camping. I know you said they talked about the benefits, as it’s a way to recoup from the stressful like of the city but, even though this was primarily an upper middle class activity, one of the benefits that these publishers pushed, or these writers pushed, was that camping was economical. It was like an economic recreational activity.
Terence Young: Yes. I mean, it is a common troupe here because I’m sure people were cautious. Somebody would say, “You should go camping for two weeks or a month.” And they’re going, “Yeah, but that’s extra costs.” So, there was many, as you point out, there were many articles that were published saying, “Oh no, no. It’s so inexpensive to go camping that, in fact, you can keep your house and go camping and your overall expenses will be reduced or, at least, no higher than what you’re already experiencing because you can catch your food. You can go out and catch fish, you don’t have to buy meat.” Something like this. You don’t need to buy fuel, you can just get the fuel from the forest, or something along those lines.
So, yeah, there was a lot of effort to sort of condense people to don’t worry. This is not going to cost you a great deal of money. Also, it’s in the light of people who, of this class, who one of the things they would typically do on vacations, if they had the time and money, was they would go to hotels. Say, in Saratoga or something like this, and that’s very expensive to do, to have a room for two weeks and eat at one of these places. So, camping, people who promoted camping, were situating it in this sort of like, “Yeah, you can do all those things but, you do this, you’ll have a better time and it won’t cost you so much.”
Brett McKay: You just said they just kind of plop their tent wherever. So, at this time, there still wasn’t an infrastructure for camping. Did conservationist … Because this is when the conversation movement was starting to pick up. Was they considered about the effect that campers were having on the environment and on forest because of their sort of indiscriminate camping?
Terence Young: Generally speaking, no. I’ve come across very little in the kind of like, “Be careful” or anything like that. Or, “Gosh, we have to control the campers.” Although, having said that, there are people who do note that there’s problems from this. The forest service, when it first gets money, the US Forest Service, when it first gets money to develop camping facilities it does so as an effort to prevent fires. Or, the park service, and one of the things the park service did, the rangers did, most commonly at first was give people tickets for leaving fires unattended. Fire was a particularly special concern.
John Mouer, again as unsurprisingly, one of the things he noted in the late 19th century was that campers were polluting streams. He was one of the first people to sort of mention it and he, in fact, used it as part of his campaign against Hechthechie and Yosemite Park. But, generally speaking, conservationist didn’t seem much concerned with the impacts of campers.
Brett McKay: Yeah, they might have probably liked it because it got people in nature and maybe helped promote the cause a bit. Like, “Oh, this is nice.”
Terence Young: Yeah.
Brett McKay: How did the market respond to America’s camping craze because whenever there’s a craze in America there’s always a company out there trying to capitalize on that. So, what sort of businesses popped up during this time that catered to campers?
Terence Young: Well, I think you can sort of put them into three kinds of groups. One is, there were lots of small companies popped up to provide all sorts of items, whether those were, say imagine if you will, before there’s much camping equipment people had to mostly bring plates that would be ceramic or, they would bring cookware that didn’t fit into each other and stuff.
So, initially companies sprang up to sort of say, “Okay look, we can sell you cutlery that fits inside your cups, which can be stacked together and all of these pots and pans, they can all be nested together.” They basically … These companies tried to provide greater convince and comfort and they made all sorts of things, all kinds of efforts at cooling, ice chest, there’s ice chest in the 19th century. Cookware in particular is one of the things that people go after. Clothing manufacturers are trying to provide. Tents.
But most of these companies, they made a product and then they pretty much disappeared. They didn’t last very long for whatever variety of reasons. In addition to them, there were businesses which recognize … Which already had a product and then, recognized that their product had a new market, potential for a new market, that was campers. So, for instance, Ivory Soap, which was the company that initially made Ivory Soap begins in 1840, long before camping and they’re selling soap to people in homes and stuff like that. But then, in the mid to late 19th century, campers come up and Ivory starts promoting its product to campers. It’s clean, it can clean anything, it floats, you’re not going to lose the bar of soap if you start washing in the stream. There’s a variety of these kinds of companies.
Eagle Brand condensed milk is another one that again and again they say, “We have a product. Let’s market it to campers too.” And a lot of these, you can still … If you go into camping supply store or sporting good stores, you still find products made by companies that generally you don’t think of as camping companies but they make a product that fits camping and gets sold in a sporting goods store.
Then, lastly, there are those businesses which sprang up and continue and lasted. They sprang up to make a product for campers and they’ve lasted all the way through. The one I always think of and remember most is Air Stream Trailers, say. Now, they’re the beginning of the 20th century but, Air Stream was one of many trailer companies, most of which failed ultimately, but there they are still putting out Air Streams and people still loved them.
Yeah, I mean, after about 1880, there’s a real awareness that camping is a market, that there’s a big market of campers and you don’t want to pass them up.
Brett McKay: Yeah, but what this … The market introduce all these comforts, they introduce this debate that we still see amongst campers, right?
Terence Young: Yes.
Brett McKay: About what is real camping. Like, backpackers will say, “Well no, we’re the legit campers because we just take everything we need in. Don’t bring anything out.” The car campers think, “Well we’re better than the trailer campers because at least we’re sleeping in a tent.” Did this debate exist back then, in the early days of camping?
Terence Young: Oh yes. Right from the very beginning. I think if we recognize, or we accept the idea, that camping is a sort of anti modern activity and that part of the modern world is technologies. One of the reasons I think campers divide along these different mode, lines of modes, backpacking, trailer camping, canoe camping, car camping. I think one of the reasons they do that is, they are willing to accept different levels of technological presence in nature with them. That tension has never ended.
I mean, totally. I mean, I feel it myself. I love to go camping and I’m sure I’ve made more than one observation that, “Well I would never use that kind of equipment” or something. But, camping is … Sort of, camping is what campers do. You know, if they’re happy with it and they feel good about it and it satisfies them, I think we have to accept that it is camping. Might not be the kind of camping that I or somebody else would care to practice and maybe I wouldn’t feel the pleasure and the relief and release from camping in somebody else’s mode with a trailer, with a backpack, or whatever. Never the less, I think it’s clear that the people who do use those kinds of technologies, they are enjoying themselves. They are having a good time. It does work for them. But, it doesn’t make them anymore satisfied with the other kinds of camping.
Brett McKay: Right, now there’s a lot of ritual around camping, even today, right? First thing you do get to a spot, you pitch your tent. Then, you get the fire going. Then, maybe you have a chuck box, you get that going. Were these rituals started back in the 19th century when camping was first getting going?
Terence Young: In the 19th century, there’s not so much of that. But, in the 20th century, at the very beginning, late end of the 19th, very beginning the 20th century, it starts to appear. You start to see it in magazines and in how to books, and stuff like this because you start to see articles appearing in, say, winter time in a magazine. Lady’s Home Journal or something like this, Popular Mechanics or something, talking about well now summer is coming. You want to get ready for that camping trip. You got to start planning it. You got to start thinking about it.
I think we see this, and this is not exclusive to camping, I think. But at the beginning of the 20th, end of the 19th century they start to … There’s this literature that says imagination is the first thing you do, is image where you’re going to go. Then, you plan it. Then assemble it all and finally, when you’re going to go and get out there. But, the one activity that I think has become most identified, I think with camping, one of those rituals, which does go right back to the very beginning is a camp fire. I mean, you can see people talking about “Be sure to have a camp fire.” Right in the 1870s, right after Murray’s book and virtually every first early books written about camping. They’ll illustrate them with camp fires, people standing around camp fires. It’s clearly something that has a strong ritual meaning for campers, no matter what kind of mode they practice.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That was interesting too, you bring up this point, by the early 20th century the frontier in America pretty much closed. All the states that were once territories were states. I live in Oklahoma. 1907 Oklahoma was a state. Few years later, Arizona was a state. So, there’s this closing of the frontier. How did that closing of the frontier effect how Americans viewed camping?
Terence Young: Well, this idea, which was made, whatever, widely known by Fredrick Jackson Turner, the historian, 1890s. When people came to think of the frontier as closing it wasn’t until it was going away that they came to think “This is how we became Americans.” The frontier was the place where immigrants from other countries, other parts of the world, other parts of America, they’d move out on to the frontier and even if they weren’t true Americans in a way, the interaction between them and the frontier left Americans behind. That it created Americans. So, it was people interacting with the American frontier.
Well, when it is officially declared gone and closed, camping becomes much more of a … It starts to be presented in literature as, “Look, this is how you got to get to the frontier. This is all that’s left. We don’t have that actual frontier anymore but we do have wild places.” What do you do? You go camping. It’s the closest thing we’re going to be able to do. Importantly, you take your children to go camping too because this is how you can be sure that they’ll get that experience that your forebears, that the pioneers, had. They’ll have that same experience and they’ll end up being rugged and tough and self supporting and this sort of thing. So, camping sort of got kicked up a notch culturally, by this idea that the frontier was gone.
Brett McKay: Right, and another idea of the frontier thesis was that the frontier is what made democracy work in America, right? Because the frontier, you could go out and everyone was pretty much the same, whether you were a banker from east or some rough neck or cowboy, you were sort of on the level because you were out facing nature with each other.
Terence Young: Yes. This is, again, a common sort of recognition on the part of individual campers. You can find it in their diaries talking about meeting people of all sorts of walks of life and being really pleased and getting along with them. They could go camp in Yellow Stone or Yosemite or Great Smoky Mountains or something and they would meet these people and they all came back feeling like, “Yeah, I’m an American. They’re an American. We’re all Americans here, out here in the woods, and doing this sort of thing.”
The parks and the forests promoted that. This idea. These are America’s playgrounds and by that, they mean this is where all Americans can come, all of us. I think that that notion still persist. Just my own experience with camping is that you get out, you get your camp site and people will just come up, chat with you, take a look at your gear, offer you things, be very helpful. I don’t think that has changed a great deal but, it’s definitely something that appears at least in the early 20th century, if not earlier.
Brett McKay: Right, so probably by the mid 1920s the car had become a main stay in American culture. How did the car pretty much poor gas on the camping flame in America?
Terence Young: The automobile transformed camping. The automobile, initially, was a play thing for the rich. It didn’t have much effect until through 1910, give or take. But then, Henry Ford, to his ever lasting credit, he figured out how to make automobiles cheaply and in mass numbers. People took to cars like crazy and the number of people who could camp skyrocketed.
The automobile really made camping available to anybody who could afford a car and there were a lot of used cars in short order. America really took to the road and so, we see the number of people going camping in the national parks just takes off like a rocket by the 1920s certainly. It’s just going up very, very fast. Campers loved this. They didn’t see the car … Many, at least most campers, they didn’t see the car as some sort of inappropriate invasion of the woods or desert or where ever. But rather, they saw it as something that facilitated their ability to get into the wild. That is, if nothing else, it could take them to the edge of some road less area. But, it did allow them to go into such wild places, which for the average person, seemed very wild. So, the automobile had a huge effect. Tremendous effect on camping.
Brett McKay: I’m sure the debate between what was real camping only intensified. Bet all the canoe campers were like, “Oh these car campers, they’re ruining the scene here with their cars.”
Terence Young: Oh yes! I mean, the automobile probably, indirectly, is responsible for the creation of wilderness in America and the prompting of a lot of backpacking. And as you say, a lot of canoe camping as well. People who were supporting of backpacking and wilderness and canoe areas and protected lake areas and stuff, they say the automobile as an invasion by people who just took advantage of the ability of the car to get anywhere and were just creating roads anywhere. Getting the government to do that. They then, pressed to get wilderness areas protected for backpackers or wilderness areas for canoe campers.
So, the automobile, it very much facilitated the number of campers but, in reaction to that, the automobile also ended up creating places for backpacking and canoe camping too.
Brett McKay: The automobile, one of the things it did as well, is it pretty much created the infrastructure of camping that we see today. Like, you go to any campsite, whether it’s a state park or national park, you’re going to see pretty much the same thing. You’re going to see a restroom facility. You’re going to see a table, like a cement table, or wooden picnic table with a grill, preset campsites. You’ll see showers and you’ll see the ubiquitous one way road that goes through. This started in about 1930s, right? With EP Meinecke, is that his last name? Tell us a little bit about him.
Terence Young: Just before the 1930s, as we said, camping is booming because of the automobile and lots and lots of campers are coming, especially to the national parks and forests in the west. There’s no regulation. The national park service has an approach to regulation, which they refer to as indirect. That is, they don’t like to put up signs. They don’t like to tell you, “You can’t park here. You can’t do this there. You can’t do …”
They’d rather put a rock in your way to get you to not park there or something like that. Well, they didn’t want to tell campers, “Don’t camp in places.” So people could camp virtually anywhere in the national park and they did. The problem was, they particularly liked to all camp in the same places, which would be like Stone Men Meadow at Yosemite or something. They liked to be right up against the rivers and this was killing the vegetation, polluting the rivers. Something had to be done about all of this as a result. Then, there’s all these cars crammed together.
The forest service approached a gentleman named EP Minecky who worked for the department of agriculture. He was a plant pathologist. And they said, “Can you help?” He’d helped them with other vegetation issues and they said, “Look, the campers are basically killing the redwoods. The giant Sequoia as Sequoia National Park and the around the area. Can you help us?” Minecky went, took a look and said, “Yep, you’re right. All these campers in these cars, they’re killing the trees because they’re running over the roots.” So, they said, “What can we do?” Long story short, Minecky basically developed a design, the modern camp ground.
That is, like you were saying, you now have fixed roads. They’re one way. Can’t go in both directions. You have a camping spur for your car. It’s sort of a garage in the forest if you will. There’s a table sitting there. There’s a place where your tent is supposed to go. There’s supposed to be, should be, some vegetation around you.
So, sort of what he did was he created a space that mimicked a domestic space, which you had to fill up. Then, there were restrooms that you had to walk to nearby and water fountains, or whatever, spigot. Things like that nearby. This is all Minecky and he did this, basically, in 1932 is when he came up with this design, which as you said, is now just everywhere. Virtually every state national park I’ve ever been to basically uses this same design for their automobile campgrounds.
Minecky is the fellow who put that together and one of the peels to this, for the forest service and the park service, was not just that it eliminated pollution and that sort of thing, but also was, the parks were being over run by people. They were being loved to death by campers and the forest but, the administrations didn’t have anyway to sort of manage that. This camp ground gave them a tool. That is, what it did was, as they say it, unitized the campsites. That is, there’s a campsite number one, and when all campsites, all your 38 campsites or 107 or whatever there were, when somebody was in everyone then the authorities could say, “Camp ground’s full. You can’t camp here.” And previously they’d not been able to say it was full. People would just say, “I can cram something in there. I could shove a car in there. It’ll be fine.” This gave them an ability to control the campers so that they could make space.
Then, they added the two week rule, or 30 day. Initially a 30 day rule, then a two week rule. You can only stay for 30 days or you can only stay for two weeks and then, you have to leave so somebody else can come in and camp here. It gave the authorities not only better protection of the environment but, it also gave them more control over camp grounds so that people would just come, which they did, and come and camp for three months and basically use up all the space.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So, the car democratized camping even more but then, as you talk about in the book, there was sort of a revolt against car camping and this sort of emphasis on canoe camping but also backpacking. But one of the other movements that was going on in America that coincided with this shift was The Long Trail Movement, that started with the Appalachian Trail, then the Pacific Crest Trails. How did the Long Trail Movement sort of put the gas on backpacking in America?
Terence Young: People had been hiking, particularly in the northeast and the Appalachians. The Appalachian Mountain Club is an old organization, which had been about hiking. They had cabins and stuff like this along, they still do, along their trails. But in the early 20th century, 1910s, actually the first long distance trail is called the Long Trail in Vermont and this was supported by people who wanted to go out and camp as well as hike and just walk along so they’d have a place to do that. Backpackers, these things are all coming together. Backpackers had become more enthusiastic and they were more active and their equipment, their gear, was getting lighter in the early 20th century and they wanted places for themselves.
So, they pushed to create these long trails and as you said, probably the best known of the early ones is the Appalachian Trail, the AT, stretching, whatever it is, 2,000 miles. Then, it was followed, pretty quickly at least, by the idea of – took a little longer to complete – The Pacific Crest Trail. I think that the significance of these trails and the significance of backpacking in popular imagination has always remained strong, in that, this is form of camping, which even those people who don’t want to practice it, I think would admit that, “Yeah, there’s … It’s a special form and provides a special experience because you have to walk, just like people have always had to until 20th century, or whatever.” They finally got cars but people for 10,000 years have had to walk if they wanted to get places. That’s what backpackers do and it has this special appeal.
I think we can see that popular significance, even today, in the consequence of Sheryl Straid’s book ‘Wild’, then the movie being made from it. This idea, Sheryl Straid, she went on the Pacific Crest Trail to find herself in that long walk and I’ve heard this from many people who have done seriously long distance backpacking, which I admit, I have not. But, I talked to one gentleman. He walked the AT three times, the entire thing and the last time he did it, at the end he broke down and just started crying and he couldn’t stop because he said doing that kind of long distance walking puts you in a mental state that’s simply not reproducible else where. There’s special places.
Brett McKay: I’m curious, I forgot to ask this Terence but, was this whole camping craze, beginning in the 19th century into the middle part of the 20th century, was this a uniquely American thing or were other western countries also experience this sort of camping craze going on?
Terence Young: Well, camping is equally popular in Canada, to Americans. It’s more or less contemporary with what’s happening in the United States. I don’t think it’s quite as intense. The forms are practiced elsewhere but the meaning, I think, is really an American Experience. I mean, you can go to France. French are big campers. Or Germany or Sweden, or any of number of places around the world, Australia and stuff. And you’ll find people who are camping but the reason they camp is, like in the case of Europeans in particular, it’s an inexpensive form of vacation. They’ll tell you that. “Why you camping?” “Well, it’s cheap and allows us to be here.”
But, I think to say that about American camping, just see it as something that’s inexpensive vacation, misses the cultural significance that it has held for us for a long time. It’s a means for Americans who aren’t comfortable with cities to kind of make up for having to live in them. I mean, we understand if you want to have a job and good income and all that today, you’re going to more or less end up living in a city. But, you don’t have to like it. Camping is a way to kind of make up for it for a couple of weeks, or whatever. That is unusual. That’s something Americans do. More than anybody else.
You’d have to ask … If you go to Britain, “Why do they camp?” They have other reasons but not the same as us.
Brett McKay: What’s the state of American camping today?
Terence Young: It’s still very strong. Latest surveys I’ve read put camping, we’re talking at least, a minimum of 50 million Americans, about 1/6 of the population go camping every year. When you ask people, “What do you do in your leisure time?” You give them a list of things and they’ll pick them. Camping almost invariably ends up in the top 10 and that’s up there with watching television, and going to restaurants and stuff like this. It remains extremely popular in America.
At the same time, I would say it is not as significant … Well, the numbers are still enormous. It’s not as culturally significant as it once was. I think the kind of high point in American history for camping, as a kind of cultural phenomenon, was the 1920s. It was that car. I mean, the car liberated people to go camping. Everybody went camping. Henry Ford, John Burrows, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison had these annual camping trips that they did and that were in the news and stuff like this. President Harding joined them on a camping trip. It was enormous at that time. But the total number, of course, is much smaller than now.
The other thing I would say about camping today is I suspect in part, it’s slowly declining. Not seriously and certainly in backpacking hasn’t declined but, the other forms of camping, the number of people doing them, seems to be in a slow decline but not serious. I would like to think, I mean I’m not sure exactly why, but I would like to think that one of the reasons is that American cities are becoming more comfortable little … There’s a little bit more wildness in American cities and the need to leave the city, to go into some place far away, isn’t quite as necessary anymore.
I say this in part because if you look at pictures of American cities in 1920, they are just so bare. Those street trees and are few and just little green anywhere. You compare that now to the efforts that I think we’re trying to do now a days to green up our cities, put in more squares, put in more street trees, just generally make them more comfortable in terms of mix of wild and art, human art. It’s perhaps taken a little bit of the sting out of life in the city and therefore, a little less desire to go camping.
Brett McKay: Well, Terence this has been a great conversation. There’s a lot more we could talk about in the book but where can people go to learn more information about the book?
Terence Young: Well, I have a Facebook page for the book, as a matter of fact, called Heading Out or Camping in America, I think either one will take you there. But also, the book is published by Cornell University Press and they have a website, CornellPress.Cornell.edu and you can find out everything about it there and it’s for sale in book stores, online, that sort of thing.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Terence Young thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Terence Young: Oh, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you for asking me to be here.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Terence Young. He’s the author of the book ‘Heading Out: A History of American Camping’. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Also, check out his Facebook page where you post about camping, it’s called Heading Out There. You can also check out our show notes at AOM.IS/HeadingOut where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. If you enjoy the show or you’ve gotten something out of it of the episodes you’ve listened to, I’d really appreciate it if you take a minute or so to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. As always, thank you for continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 6, 2017