The History of Camping

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Podcast Transcript

We are all familiar with camping, and many of us go camping or camp regularly. Enjoying the great outdoors with friends and family can be an enjoyable experience.

However, camping has a history that is unlike most things in humanity. The path from the ancient world to luxury glamping was not straight. 

Despite having very ancient roots, what we know today as camping is a relatively modern phenomenon. 

Learn more about the history of camping and how we went from the rugged outdoors to luxury experiences on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The weird thing about camping is that if you go back thousands of years, back before the rise of civilization and agriculture, you can say that no one ever went camping. At the same time, you can also say that everyone was camping every moment of their lives. 

The definition of camp as a verb means “to live temporarily in a camp or outdoors.” So, even if they were camping, no one would have thought of it as such because it was just life. 

When civilization arose and people became more settled, almost no one went camping. The vast majority of the ancient population was involved in agriculture, so they were very close to nature all the time, even if they had some sort of home. 

Pretty much no one had any desire to sleep on the ground when you could sleep in your home where you had a roof, food, and fire. If you were outside sleeping, you were probably in a position where you had no choice. 

This was the state of affairs for thousands of years. 

This isn’t to say that no one ever camped outside. Soldiers on campaign would have to establish camps, and there is a good reason why a military camp and camping share the same root word. 

Not everyone would have been roughing it in a military camp. Commanders would often have elaborate camps with large tents, tables, chairs, and even artwork. All of this stuff had to be transported in the baggage train so the commander could have a camp that was better than how most people lived. 

More on this in a bit….

This was the situation for centuries. People were rural, and other than going out for an afternoon, almost no one went camping for recreation.

It just wasn’t a thing.

That began to change in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Industrialization was taking place. Cities were growing, becoming more crowded and dirty. Railroads and steamships allowed for rapid transportation. 

It was in this environment that the Romanticism and Transcendentalism movement started. These movements promoted a sense of awe and grandeur in the face of nature’s power and mystery.

Romantics like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron, as well as transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, began to rethink human’s role in nature. 

It was in this environment that some people began going out into nature for recreation, not necessity. 

One of the first advocates of recreational camping was Thomas Hiram Holding. Born in England in 1844, his family immigrated to the United States and took a wagon train across the country. He and his family had to camp for five weeks on the banks of the Mississippi River while waiting for their wagon train to leave. 

However, after difficulties on the journey, where several family members died, they ended up going back to England. 

His early experiences stuck with him and throughout his life, he would go camping wherever he could. He helped popularize bicycle camping and even developed a lightweight tent that could be carried on a bicycle. 

Most importantly, in 1908, he published “The Camper’s Handbook.” The book outlined the joys of recreational camping and made a large impact in popularizing the activity. 

At about the same time, another British man, Lord Baden Powell, established the Boy Scouts. One of the core components of the new organization was camping and outdoor activities, which he felt helped build character. 

One of the things that helped popularize recreational camping in the early 20th century was the rise of the automobile. Not surprisingly, people began to quickly create automobiles that allowed for camping. 

The Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau, introduced in 1910, is considered to be the first recreational vehicle or RV. It featured a back seat that converted into a bed, a folding washbasin, and a toilet, signaling the start of the RV industry. The Pierce company was considered to be one of the first luxury automobile companies. 

A group known as The Tin Can Tourists was established in 1919. They were an automobile camping club that promoted safe and clean campgrounds, high moral standards, and family entertainment.

It wasn’t long before the marriage of automobiles and camping became more sophisticated, allowing people to camp without forgoing the conveniences of home. 

In 1936, the Airstream corporation released its first camping trailer, which could accommodate four people. The trailer had electric lights and its own water supply.

Before the Second World War, camping was still a relatively niche activity.

The end of WWII saw a rise in interest in camping as returning soldiers had disposable income, more automobiles, increased free time, and young families. 

Camping became an affordable way for people to go on vacation. Moreover, increased automobile adoption made it easier to get to camping sites such as national parks. The development of the interstate highway system in the United States made longer trips possible. 

This spurred innovation beyond trailers. 

In 1958, Raymond Frank, the owner of a trailer company, wanted more than a trailer to take his family on a trip to Florida. The current options on the market at the time were either a trailer like the Airstream or a trailer grafted onto a truck. 

Frank wanted something different, so he built a purposeful recreational vehicle from the ground up. It was the first such vehicle that you would probably recognize as an RV. Frank dubbed his vehicle the motorhome. 

His motorhome became the foundation of a company called Travco.

That same year, the Winnebago company was founded and became the number-one brand in recreational vehicles.

The RV industry expanded rapidly with innovations in design and comfort. Motorhomes became more popular, offering the convenience of being self-propelled units rather than towed trailers.

However, there was still a market for trailers, which were cheaper and more affordable to own. One innovation that took root in the late 1960s was an adaptation of an earlier idea of a trailer tent. 

A man named David Rowe developed a roof that could be raised lowered, and applied it to a system for raising and lowering the roofs of campers that were in the beds of pickup trucks. The sides of the camper were made out of fabric like a tent and could collapse when the roof was lowered. 

This innovation led to the development of both truck campers and pop-up campers. 

RVs became larger and more luxurious, equipped with modern amenities like air conditioning, televisions, and microwaves. This period also saw the rise of the “fifth wheel” trailers.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, mobile homes continued to get more luxurious and larger. 

Eventually, some became the size of coach busses and had become literal homes. Even though they could be driven from place to place, many of them would tow another car behind them because it was easier to drive another car once their RV was parked. 

Today, a luxury motor home can cost several hundred thousand dollars and go all the way to over a million dollars, even more than a traditional home. 

Here, I should address the contradiction that many of you might be thinking. 

Isn’t camping supposed to be about going into the wilderness and experiencing nature? Don’t large luxury motorhomes sort of violate the spirit of what camping is supposed to be about?

Well, the answer is yes and no. Ever since camping became a movement in the 19th century, there have been two different wings and two different philosophies. 

For example, the noted naturalist John Muir would often go on excursions into the backwoods of Yosemite with nothing but a frying pan and a blanket. 

This wing of the camping movement also began taking backpacking excursions in the 20th century, sometimes hiking for hundreds or thousands of miles with nothing but what they could carry on their backs. 

The other wing did all they could to keep the comforts of civilization while they were far away from it

This history of luxury camping dates back to Wealthy American and European travelers who embarked on African safaris that embodied mobile luxury, bringing with them elaborate tents and all the comforts of home, including fine linens, furniture, and gourmet food.

In the 19th century, these safaris often had dozens of porters who carried all of the gear, often by hand or on pack animals. 

Royal tours and military campaigns often involved luxurious mobile accommodations that allowed dignitaries and officers to maintain their standard of living in the field. These elaborate setups can be considered early forms of luxury camping, emphasizing comfort in the midst of nature or while on the move.

While these early examples of luxury camping were reserved for the rich and powerful, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, like many luxuries, it was eventually democratized.

The modern version of luxury camping is now known as glamping, a portmanteau of glamorous and camping. The term glamping first appeared in only 2005 and it was already in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016. 

The concept of glamping as we know it today began to take shape in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This period saw a growing desire for unique and authentic travel experiences that connected people with nature without requiring them to forgo luxury and comfort.

A glamping experience might involve sleeping in a tent, but the tent will cover an actual bed with high thread count sheets. 

The 21st century has witnessed an explosion in the popularity of glamping, fueled by the digital age, social media, and a growing emphasis on experiences over material possessions. People increasingly seek unique and Instagram-worthy travel experiences that combine adventure with the comforts and amenities they enjoy.

The rise of eco-tourism and sustainable travel has also significantly contributed to glamping’s popularity. Many glamping sites prioritize ecological responsibility, offering accommodations that are not only luxurious but also minimally impactful on the environment.

The history of camping has not had a very stranght path. It was an activity that was once part of daily life for tens of thousands of years for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It then became something that few people ever considered doing for fun for several thousand years more. 

Finally, within the last century or so, camping has found a place as one of the most popular recreational activities, regardless if you are roughing it, or if you decide to do it with style.