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How Camping Became Cool

August 8, 2017


When you think about it, camping is a pretty weird pursuit. We voluntarily give up creature comforts that we’ve worked hard to earn and expose ourselves to hardships like cold, heat, rain and bugs. How did this become a pastime?

Camping’s journey from an uncomfortable necessity to a hobby for millions of Americans goes back a long way. A few centuries ago, the only reason to go into the woods or hang out in the countryside was hard work—forestry, farming and herding. “Outdoor sports” like hunting, riding, and fishing were the province of the wealthy landed gentry on their estates. The outdoors wasn’t cool. Being tan meant you worked the fields. Pale and plump was in. But somehow camping became a $646 billion dollar industry and one of the most popular things to do on vacation.

A Virginia Politician Looks West
From his comfortable tidewater plantation, a young politician looked toward the Ohio Valley opening up to settlement after the British victory in the French & Indian War. He believed that the openness of land in the west would be an opportunity for independent-minded, self-governing farmers to migrate west and break the power of an aristocratic elite of bankers and merchants in cities. The politician was Thomas Jefferson. His philosophy linked open land, independence, and the American national character for centuries to come. Ironically enough, Jefferson himself never traveled west of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains: his imaginings of the west occurred entirely in his head. But by connecting independence, wilderness, and national virtue, he shaped an American identity with the outdoors at it’s core.

Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Shelly
The era of English romantic poets was a response to the industrialism and urbanism of the English Industrial Revolution, with its’ coal mines, steam power and “dark satanic mills.” The romantic poets promoted returning to nature for awe, inspiration, and the divine. They took long rambles in the Lake and Peak districts, and later in the Alps. Jefferson saw the west as the pressure valve for American politics: the British saw rugged nature doing the same for the human soul.

The Golden Spike and the Aftermath
On May 10, 1869, in Northern Utah, the last railroad spike was driven into the transcontinental railroad linking New York and San Francisco. In the decades that followed, the American West would be transformed from isolated frontier to urbanized society where most people lived in cities, conducted commerce with people far away, and lived lives removed from the natural world. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner would declare the frontier “closed.” As soon as westerners moved into cities, they started to wax nostalgic for the frontier world, and that included appreciating the natural world more. Excursions to the mountains and rivers for fun, rather than to trap furs, grew in popularity.

“The Vigorous Life”
A few decades after the Golden Spike, an asthmatic New York state assemblyman was grieving from the death of his wife and mother sought rebirth in the hard work of ranching in the Dakota Territory. His name was Teddy Roosevelt. The hard work of sleeping outside and herding cattle in the Badlands cleansed him, and Roosevelt went on to popularize the “vigorous life”: hiking, horseback riding, camping, hunting and just about everything that cold be done outside, even as president. Today’s backpackers and climbers, who voluntarily sweat up mountains with a 50-pound pack, are direct descendants of Roosevelt’s idea of becoming a better person through hard work outside.

The Counterculture and the Car
Camping grew into a major pastime between the 1950s and 1970s. Climbers began gathering in Yosemite’s now-legendary Camp 4. National Parks became major destinations like never before. People started running commercial trips rafting western rivers like the Colorado, or backpacking deep into the wilderness….and, like Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, writing about it. Two things made this possible. The first was the automobile, which, combined with the Interstate highways, made getting to the mountains and exploring off the beaten path much easier. The second was the back-to-nature ethos of the 1960s and ’70s. This massive interest in nature also led to a wide range of protecting wild places, such as the Wilderness Act and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The Nature Health Connection
By 2005, America had urbanized even further. We started spending huge chunks of online, and smartphones were creating ever-present internet addiction. In 2005, Richard Louv published his groundbreaking book, The Last Child In the Woods, which depicted how nature is essential to the development of healthy kids, both mentally and physically. The book launched a wave of concern that kits weren’t getting enough “Vitamin N”: enough nature to stay healthy, active and smart.

Our interest in camping can seem odd: a nostalgic yearning for how it was “back then” in a simpler time. For some, it does seem odd to plan your vacation to carry your own weight on your back, sleep on the ground, and eat freeze dried food while being bitten by bugs. But if we think about it a different way—as Louv and Edward Wilson contend—nature is deep in our genes. When we’re backpacking, we’re going back to our evolutionary origins. We’re once again a small band of nomads traveling through the landscape with deep connections to nature’s rhythms. Seen in that light, it’s no wonder camping feels cool.

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