Camping is about places and people: where we go and the friends and family we go with. But there are people who have had a major influence on how and why we camp. Some of them you may have heard of. Most of them you probably haven’t.
Outdoorsman, Amazon explorer, conservationist. It’s easy to forget who Roosevelt was initially: the son of a New York City wealthy patrician, a sickly asthmatic child, a career politician. Hardly a likely candidate to do what he did: popularize the “vigorous life” of outdoor exercise and adventure, not to mention a conservation legacy with no parallel. Before Roosevelt, hanging out outside was something you do because you had to: working in the fields or the forests. After TR, we did it for joy and health.
Stephen Mather was a head-scratcher of choice for the first head of the National Park Service: an independently wealthy head of a borax company with no experience running parks or a government agency. But what a choice it was. He expanded the Park Service and made it a widely respected agency. He insisted that the idea of Parks should be open to people from all walks of life. He added creating campgrounds and scenic drives, welcoming automobiles into parks where there had previously been wealthy railroad tourists. Campgrounds became meeting grounds. Camping in parks became as fundamental an American experience as baseball and apple pie.
If you’ve cooked a decent meal outside without a fire, you owe a debt to a Frenchman-turned-Londer named Alexis Soyer. A highly-regarded chef and kitchen designer, he put his ingenuity to work during the Crimean War, when he created the portable “Soyer Magic Stove” that allowed troops to cook nutritious meals on the go. Sound familiar? The father of outdoor camp cooking soon found that his invention had peacetime application too: camping had became popular in Victorian England, and the magic stove, the great-great-grandfather of modern camp stoves, became a universal piece of gear.
The Tin Can Tourists
In 1910, a small group of oddballs started touring around the country with two new contraptions. The first was an automobile. The second was an odd-looking metal box they towed behind it, which they slept in. The camp trailer was born, and so was new way of experiencing the outdoors. Now the staple of Kerouackian vagabonds, southwest sunbirds, and families around the nation. Fun fact: the Tin Can Tourist Club still exists to this day.
Zahniser is an obscure name, but shouldn’t be. He wrote the most important document in camping history: the 1964 Wilderness Act. After a career with the Fish and Wildlife Service, he became the Executive Director of the Wilderness Society. He drafted the bill in 1955, using poetic language that describes the joys and rarity of wild places—unusual for a piece of legislation but undeniably critical in how Americans view and experience wild places. The Wilderness Act was Zahniser’s cause, passion and legacy, and he guided it tirelessly through Congress for a full nine years from introduction to passage. He even went as far as to have a D.C. tailor to custom make an overcoat with supersized inside pockets where he could keep drafts of the bill for easy access when buttonholing members of Congress. Sadly, he never lived to see it become law: he died a few months before it was signed by President Lyndon Johnson.
By the 1970s, camping had become popular enough that areas were being “loved to death.” More visitors meant more impacted sites, more microtrash, damaged streamsides, flattened vegetation where tents were places, and areas scoured for firewood. Decades of Smokey Bear telling campers to put out fires and Woodsy Owl’s “Give a Hoot Don’t Pollute” campaigns were too simplistic for the millions of outdoor lovers.
Bradley, a Pacific Northwest Forest Service staffer, wrote a pamphlet called “Wilderness Manners, Wilderness Ethics, Minimum Impact Camping, and No-Trace Camping” and began distributing it to outdoor groups. Soon the National Outdoor Leadership School, often called “the Harvard of Camping” latched on. Leave No Trace—LNT for short—is now the universal standard for responsible camping.
An aerospace engineer and climber who notched the first free ascent of the West Face of El Capitan, Jardine’s engineering and design mind turned to outdoor equipment when he became the father of “ultralight” hiking. Not wanting to carry a fifty-pound pack on his aging joints and trying to cover more distance on short weekends, he aimed his aerospace design skills at the backpacking gear. The result was a whole new approach to hiking: light, fast, and smart trumped the “bring the kitchen sink” approach. Tarps instead of tents, lighter packs, silnylon tarps, and lighter fabrics that are now the norm owe their design or inspiration to Jardine’s ultralight movement. No more humping a heavy pack if you don’t want to.