Camping is Outside’s bread and butter, in case you hadn’t noticed. Most readers of this magazine probably know that camping is a fun hobby, one that allows us to escape from normal life and feel healthy in that back-to-nature way. It’s a straightforward notion. Is that correct? The things we take for granted about sleeping out in nature never had to be that way; they’re a product of larger cultural forces and government policy.
In her new book, Camping Grounds, historian Phoebe S.K. Young examines how the American idea of camping has changed from the nineteenth century to the present. Humans have, of course, been sleeping outside since the dawn of time. So when did camping in the REI sense become camping? Is that definition adequate? Young is an associate professor of American cultural and environmental history at the University of Colorado Boulder. Outdoor recreation was among her research interests even before she started the book in 2002, Young told me in an interview, but most of what she’d read about the history of skiing, hiking, and camping only The topics were investigated as leisure activities. She felt dissatisfied with writing about camping as just a hobby; why were unhoused people and others who camped out of necessity Always left to separate discussions? “I felt that there was something to be learnt if we broke down those barriers and thought more about the links between them, or how they became distinct,” she adds. In the book, Young posits that camping as most people know it developed piecemeal over more than a century, as the American public gradually came to view camping as an eco-friendly form of recreation, expect government-provided infrastructure for it, and purchase increasingly specialized gear for it. Many individuals eventually began to see time spent in nature as a vital health practice.
The upshot is a fascinating history of camping that goes well beyond the recreational definition, as well as a compelling showing that the question “What is camping?” is about much more than semantics. Young describes specific moments through the decades when sleeping outside took on new meaning and popularity, from its 19th-century debut as a middle-class vacation option to recent interest in the “nature cure.” In each historical moment, she also writes about people who often slept outdoors but weren’t included in the mainstream image of camping, like recently freed enslaved people and unhoused people. Along the way, she demonstrates how American views about camping mirror greater socioeconomic attitudes and disparities. “Does sleeping outdoors guarantee physical wellness or expose personal weakness?” In the beginning, Young asks. “Should tents represent transience or permanence, leisure or poverty, commercial comfort or political protest? Do encampments signal societal unrest, inspire civic involvement, or serve the public good?”
Young links the rise of camping to the years after the Civil War, when romanticized media represented Union troops relaxing around a campfire. The effort to convince Americans that the war hadn’t been so miserable ended up giving the activity a sheen of virtue in the public imagination—not to mention that Union veterans continued camping with each other in postwar reunions. 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 for fun. About the same period, John Muir’s works established him as one of the first proponents of recreational camping. When he was 29, Muir took his “thousand-mile walk” from Indiana to Florida, and his writings from the time reveal how his racist views influenced his narrow definition of camping: he really only approved of it when it involved educated men sleeping al fresco in western mountain air. He despised the marshy Southeast and the once enslaved people who camped there. And though he preached about the individualistic virtues of recreating outdoors and connecting with nature, he somehow didn’t see those values in Indigenous people, whose interconnectedness with their surroundings “led him to question their ability to make a civilized home in nature,” Young writes.
Thus those counterintuitive differences between who is and isn’t a camper have existed since camping’s inception. They’ve characterized the remainder of its history as well. Through the early 20th century, many white middle-class leisure-seekers saw camping as a means of setting up a home away from home and upholding values of domesticity and gender norms. They distinguished between gentlemen outdoorsmen such as Teddy Roosevelt and tramps or migrating families. (In the middle of the Great Depression in 1933, Young writes, a researcher calculated that 1.5 million Americans spent the night in public shelters or outside. However, yearly national park visitors increased from 3 to 5 million between 1930 and 1935.)
It’s simple to understand how this narrow-minded concept of camping contributed to the discrepancies in outdoor access that exist today.
When the number of visitors to national parks increased in the 1930s, the federal government stepped in to provide infrastructure such as the good old fire ring. Yet, this infrastructure seems to be constructed primarily for white middle-class recreationists. Emilio Meinecke, who developed the now-ubiquitous campsite loop, summarized this view when he complained about untidy camps in Yosemite: “the campground is spoiled for all the many decent people who are not slum-minded.” Beginning in the 1950s, as camping became more popular, campers sought to differentiate themselves by being more adventurous (with the creation of the National Outdoor Leadership School), more moral (Leave No Trace), or wringing their hands over congestion. Backpacker magazine’s debut editor’s letter said that they will “restrict distribution as much as practicable to people who are currently hiking” for this reason. Of fact, the United States government has a long history of banning particular groups from public areas, from forcibly removing Native People from their native territories to allowing national park segregation.
It’s simple to understand how this narrow-minded concept of camping contributed to the discrepancies in outdoor access that exist today. “Out there, nature isn’t simply a totally immaculate area,” Young said. “It’s threaded into our history, our public institutions, how we speak about our relationship to the land, and how we interact with one another.” So why is it vital to discuss recreational camping and other types of camping? The exhibition Camping Grounds demonstrates how the popular image of recreational camping has often promoted societal concepts such as democracy, freedom to utilize public lands, and self-sufficiency. But, our value judgements about who gets to sleep in public settings reflect how often we fall short of those standards. As Young demonstrates throughout the book, the only people who have consistently gotten a free pass to sleep nearly wherever they want are (often white) recreationists. Unhoused persons and political demonstrators are commonly seen on the same grounds doing the same thing: sleeping in a makeshift shelter. Nonetheless, authorities or recreational campers often object to their appearance for spurious reasons, claiming that they are an eyesore or a nuisance.
These challenges have even reached the country’s highest courts; the past few decades have seen multiple cases that debated whether public lands were an appropriate place for the constitutionally protected but—what, unseemly?—act of protesting. In numerous occasions, courts have prioritized the needs of recreational campers. Young says that in 1984, a homeless advocacy organization intended to camp out in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Plaza. as well as the National Mall as a demonstration to show how the homeless live. The federal government fought these plans in a Supreme Court case, arguing that camping was not allowed in these places, and letting protesters sleep there would interfere with “visitor activities.” The court agreed, compelling the advocacy organization to abandon its protest and delivering a strong message that the interests of visitors outweighed First Amendment rights.
The debate over what constitutes acceptable camping showed up again on C-SPAN in January 2012, during the Occupy Wall Street protests. National was speaking before a House of Representatives committee hearing. Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis was asked to explain why more than 300 protestors were permitted to camp indefinitely on Park Service grounds in McPherson Square in Washington, D.C. Jarvis stated that protesting on public lands was a constitutionally protected right. Camping, on the other hand, was not permitted on McPherson Square. Protest organizers had instructed guests to bring a tent; Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy inquired whether they were camping. “It was a bit jaw-dropping to see members of Congress dispute the concept of camping,” Young adds. The hearing would ultimately lead to the NPS enforcing the no-camping rule, thereby putting an end to Occupy D.C. But, as Young points out, the lessons of Occupy have much to do with conventional notions of camping and public lands. Early Occupy posters that included tent imagery and said “Yes We Camp,” she writes, “provoked viewers to reimagine Wall Street—a space dedicated to private gain—as they might a national park: as a space regulated for the public good.”
Camping’s potential as a public good has only made more headlines over the years, with Standing Rock Sioux protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline camping on their own land to protect it, and unhoused people and urban residents fighting for equal access to public green spaces. Camping Grounds argues that our recreation-or-bust mentality is simply stifling such wide societal advantages. The popular image of camping is not just a social construct, but it also reinforces attitudes and practices that benefit the affluent while disenfranchising the vulnerable. Young wonders at the conclusion of the book, “How may we utilize public nature to remind us of the public good, and adapt it for a different era?” Camping might be friendly to everyone if we stop focusing on it being just one thing.