How can camping be considered a culture?

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When the camping season approaches, we recall starry evenings spent huddling around a campfire, toasting marshmallows and sharing tales. But a CU Boulder professor’s new book encourages those heading to the great outdoors this summer to reflect on the long history of camping and its implications on inclusion, homelessness and protest culture.

Phoebe Young, an environmental and cultural historian at the Department of History, has been exploring what it means to camp for over 18 years.

Young examines how camping feeds into some of our basic American ideals about nature and citizenship in her new book, Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement, and why certain types of camping grew popular while others were excluded throughout time.

“Camping can teach us a lot about how Americans relate to nature, but also about who has access to outdoor recreation, how various groups enjoy the outdoors, and the non-recreational ways in which individuals camp,” Young said.

Recreational camping is the “standard.” It’s the traditional picture of a campfire in the wilderness. But Young goes beyond the mainstream definition to examine political forms of camping, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, and functional camps, like those of the unsheltered community.

“Recreational and non-recreational camping both impact how we conceive about the other,” Young said.

“We can’t understand one without the other.”

Origins of camping

While recreational camping is the most widely accepted description, the roots of camping may be found in the utilitarian domain.

“Camping was something you did when you were traveling and found yourself between cities; you may enjoy it or not, but it didn’t have a lot of cultural significance,” Young said.

But as cities and industries grew, recreational camping became a way of reestablishing connections to the land and claiming a piece of public nature. Camping has progressed from a practical, need-based activity to an elite recreation for the upper class.

“In the late 19th century, you needed a lot of leisure time, something that wasn’t available to most people outside the upper classes,” Young said. “You also required sufficient finances to venture out into nature.”

This elite set of campers worked hard to maintain looks and distinguish themselves from migratory or mobile labour.

Several non-white communities, notably Black Americans, were also mainly barred from participating in this activity, since they were quietly discouraged from visiting National Parks.

“This is a truth that has recently received more attention and emphasis, but it has taken a very long time for government entities to aggressively address that problem,” Young said.

The “right” amount of roughing it

Why do we see homeless camps as aesthetic and environmental blights while viewing national park campsites as wholesome and patriotic landscapes? Why did national movements like  Occupy Wall Street result in less tolerance for the unhoused and unsheltered?

Young examines how the recreational, utilitarian, and political aspects of camping have interacted over the past 150 years, sparking conflicts over who has the “right” to camp.”

She cites Occupy Wall Street as the most conspicuous recent example of individuals using camping for political purposes. The movement, which began in New York City’s Wall Street financial district in 2011 and spread to other major cities across the country, protested economic inequality and the corruptive influence of major corporations on the government.

Occupy protest instructions included a date, a location, and a single instruction: “Bring Tent.”

Young said that the strategy took off in ways that both organizers and onlookers were shocked by. Tens of thousands of people participated in the grassroots movement around the United States, including in Denver, where demonstrators set up tents in Civic Center Park. Camping at dozens of Occupy sites captured the nation’s attention, as did the attempts from legislators to dislodge Occupiers, which allowed the protest to remain in the news for longer.

“Camping has been a persistent protest technique since the nineteenth century, but what we saw on Wall Street in particular was this very intriguing response from politicians who viewed what Occupy was doing as a perversion of leisure camping,” Young said.

As a consequence, in the aftermath of Occupy, numerous towns and municipalities passed anti-camping restrictions or restricted public outdoor places at night, directly affecting the unhoused groups that depended on functional camping as a way of life.

Denver’s unauthorized camping ordinance, which passed in May 2012 after the Occupy movement ended, is not technically a ban on camping, but does outlaw “unauthorized” camping on both public and private property. Presently, the city does not permit camping in any public areas.

In 2020, a Denver County court declared that Denver’s camping ban is unconstitutional, re-centering the contentious legislation in a legal and political fight about who has the right to camp freely.

Turning the rock over

Young appreciates questioning things we take for granted, whose meanings may seem clear, and working out how they came to be so obviously ubiquitous as a cultural and environmental historian.

“I adore flipping the stones over to discover what’s underneath and how they got to be so beautiful,” she said.

She also invites folks to go camping this season as families and friends around the country do.

“We must acknowledge that the reason camping has become so ingrained in our infrastructure has a longer and more complicated history that has differential impacts on how we utilize the outdoors and who receives preference in enjoying the outdoors.”

Related Questions

  • What is the importance of camping?

    Camping has several advantages. Simply said, camping is healthy for you, both physically and mentally. Relationship building, opportunity to learn and develop new skills, unplugging and disconnecting from devices, connecting with nature, stress reduction, and increased physical fitness are all advantages.

  • What is the concept of camping?

    Camping is an outdoor activity that entails spending the night/nights in a protected shelter in nature. Camping is a broad term but in its essence, camping is a way of getting away from the hassle of urban life, to a more natural environment for a limited time.

  • Is camping an adventure?

    Camping can be – and usually is – combined with other adventure activities, such as hiking/trekking, fishing, whitewater rafting and kayaking, giving one the ultimate outdoors experience. It may be done alone, but it is most typically done with friends and family.

  • What are the 2 types of camping?

    Some of the types of camping are listed below.

    1. Glamping Camping. Glamping, sometimes known as glamorous camping, combines camping with the comforts of home or hotel.
    2. Tent Camping. …
    3. Backpacking Camping. …
    4. Survivalist camping. …
    5. Canoe Camping. …
    6. RV and Van Camping. …
    7. Calling Camping Lover.


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