Skip to main content

The History of Recreational Camping in the USA

Dolores and her family enjoy primitive camping on an island in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.


History of Recreational Camping in USA

Though today nearly 50 million Americans enjoy recreational camping every year, the concept of going off into the wilderness for pleasure originated with the Victorians. Early American settlers viewed the wilderness as a frightening place. The primeval forests of the East Coast seemed dangerous. Some early European immigrants viewed wild places as evil. The Puritan poet Michael Wigglesworth wrote that forests were filled with fiends and "brutish men that devils worshiped."

Indigenous Americans of the Great Plains may have used tepees but they were necessary, movable shelters for nomadic people. The frontiersmen who explored the American wilderness were explorers and trappers and certainly were not in it for their own amusement.

The American forest quickly became a commodity. Lumber was exported to a deforested England. Land needed to be cleared for farms and towns. The Romantics and Transcendentalists of the 1800s began to explore the concept that nature was transformative, healthy and beautiful.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau's book, Walden, helped introduce America to a new way of looking at nature. By this time, the wilderness had lost its reputation as a hell hole and was seen more as a source of income for mining concerns and the timber industry.

Thoreau built a rudimentary cabin 1 1/2 miles outside of Concord, Massachusetts. Though hardly a wilderness, his choice of spending time out in nature for pleasure and contemplation was an eccentric one. He resided in his cabin from July 4, 1845, to Sept. 6, 1847, not as a hermit, but as a man who wanted to live as close to nature as possible. His mother and sisters visited him there and kept him supplied with pies and donuts. Thoreau walked into town occasionally, visiting family and friends. But his departure from town and from "productive" work (he had worked at the family's pencil factory) allowed him to create a philosophy and new view of the natural world. His book, Walden, still influences people today.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists

The dense forests of New York's Adirondacks are dotted with lakes and bogs tucked among picturesque mountains. Summers are cool and the lakes are fresh and clean. This last piece of the great Northeastern forest drew romantic writers, artists, and journalists to create a fashionable new activity.

In the summer of 1858, the journalist William J. Stillman invited a group of friends, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, for a month-long camping trip to Follersby Pond. Emerson famously commented that despite the difficulty of the endeavor, life in the woods made him feel like a child again.

The gentlemen enjoyed their time in the forest while hired guides did all the work - chopping wood, building shanties, cooking, taking care of the boats, and cleaning the fish for the equivalent of $40.00 a day. This was the birth of the famous Adirondack lean-to, a three-sided shelter with an open side to the fire, often with a bench at the rear. In the 1930s the Department of Environmental conservation built attractive, sturdy versions of the simple shelters around the park.

The romantic ideal of nature being restorative took hold. As new technology increased the speed of communication and transportation, some felt that there was no escape from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. A new sickness popped up among urban workers, a kind of nature deficit that led to headaches, neuralgia, depression, anxiety, and hysteria. Outdoor activities became a popular release from the pressures of the modern world. People took up hiking and ocean bathing to restore their health and spirits. Many took up camping. Religious organizations established large campgrounds at beaches and in mountains and forested areas.

Adirondack Lean-to

Adirondack Lean-to

William H.H. Murray (1840 - 1904) and the Camping Craze

William H. H. Murray was a minister who gained fame for his charismatic sermons. He became a popular speaker who extolled the virtues of spending leisure time in the wilderness for both physical and spiritual health. He downplayed the rigors of discomfort due to weather and insects.

While the camp out had become a favorite pastime for gentlemen, Murray encouraged the whole family to get out and enjoy nature. During a time when women were considered weak and of delicate constitution, Murray claimed that the simple life in the backwoods should be enjoyed by women and children too.

Hoards of people tromped out into the Northeastern forests for restorative vacations. Murray had made the experience of camping seem so simple that people went unprepared for adverse weather conditions and swarms of black flies. There were not enough guides to tend to the needs of over-packed, inappropriately dressed crowds who headed into the Adirondacks. Disappointed campers returned to the city, bad-mouthing Murray's ideals. Though he fell out of favor, his dream of taking the healing airs of the Adirondack forests lives on today.

Horace Kephard (1862 - 1931) and The Great Smoky Mountains

When librarian Horace Kephart suffered a nervous breakdown, he took to the big woods of western North Carolina to restore his mental health in the Great Smoky Mountains. Unlike the Victoria gentlemen campers of the Victorian age, Kephart was self-reliant. He found restoration in the simple day-to-day operations of a long camp out and established a kind of mindfulness that served him well. The well-read, articulate woodsman wrote a series of articles for Field and Stream, collected in the 1906 book Camping and Woodcraft.

He worked toward the establishment of Great Smoky Mountain National Park and helped plan the Appalachian Trail.

Horace Kephart circa 1906

Horace Kephart circa 1906

Ernest Thompson Seton (1860 - 1946)

Earnest Seton was a successful wildlife illustrator and an author of children's books. When local hooligans vandalized the fencing of his Connecticut home, Wyndygoul, he decided to inspire the boys. Inviting the local troublemakers for camp-outs on his estate, he created a group he called the "Woodcraft Indians."

He felt that modern kids had become removed from nature, a necessary element in the health and well-being of boys. His campfire dances and chants, drum groups, swimming, and other outdoor activities became the inspiration for Boy Scouting. His book, Birchbark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians introduced a ranking system, camp rules, and games.

Robert Baden - Powell (1857 - 1941)

The "Father of Scouting," Robert Baden - Powell was an English professor and clergyman who had been a hero of the Boer War. Baden - Powell decided that boys needed discipline and fellowship so created the Boy Scouts in Britain. His 1908 book, Scouting for Boys, employed a ranking system of patrols named after animals. He added to the concept created by Seton by introducing themes based on nationalism and morality.

By 1910 there were 150,000 Boy Scouts. Meanwhile, Ernest Thompson Seton felt that Baden-Powell stole his ideas and disapproved of the militaristic aspects of the Boy Scouts.

Baden - Powell's sister, Agnes Baden - Powell organized the Girl Guides. The word "scout" sounded too masculine for British girls.

Robert Baden-Powel

Robert Baden-Powel

Juliette Gordon Law (1860 - 1927)

Juliette Gordon Low, nicknamed Daisy, saw no gender issues when she organized the Girl Scouts of America in 1912. When the eccentric debutante was widowed by her playboy husband, she dedicated her life to empowering girls. Unlike the Campfire Girls (founded in 1910) that taught domestic skills, Low's organization provided more rugged activities.

Members of the GSA participated in exercise, fire building, camping, woodcraft, self-defense, and team sports. Conservative groups accused the Girl Scouts of encouraging girls to become tom-boys. Some saw the organization as downright evil.

The first African American Girl Scout troop appeared in 1912. Native American troops followed in 1921. By the 1950s, the GSA had fully integrated troops.

Juliette Gordon Low stands in the center

Juliette Gordon Low stands in the center

Theodore Roosevelt (1852 - 1919)

Once a sickly, nerdy boy who headed into the Adirondack forest to take the nature cure, Theodore Roosevelt promised to use political power for wilderness preservation. An avid hunter, Roosevelt felt that conservation and regulation protected the wild places for hunters and nature lovers alike. He saw the conservation of the American wilderness as a patriotic issue and believed that wilderness was part of the national identity.

As governor of New York, Roosevelt backed the state's purchase of 70,000 acres of forest reserves in the Adirondacks and the Catskills. In 1890, on America's most famous camp-out, Roosevelt and John Muir spent several days in Yosemite. The two legendary men spent long hours discussing the importance of saving pristine areas from rampant mining and logging. At the time, California's giant sequoias were being lost to the timber industry and Muir encouraged Roosevelt to save the threatened sequoia groves. President Roosevelt created the US Forest Service and 5 National Parks.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir


Technology and Camping Today

Before the invention of synthetic materials camping was a difficult ordeal. Tents were made of heavy canvas and outdoor clothing was heavy, bulky, and hard to dry. The invention of nylon in 1935 enabled manufacturers to produce lightweight tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, and clothing. The new fabric dried easily and was simple to pack and carry. The 1970s introduced lightweight boots, synthetic down for sleeping bags, and Gore-Tex.

Automobiles allowed people to travel farther off the beaten path than ever before. The American highway system put the nation on the road. Wild areas became more accessible to people. The 40-hour workweek and vacation time allowed the middle class and the working class to travel farther and spend more time in the great outdoors.

Camping today is vastly different than it was when those Victorian gentlemen took to the Adirondacks. Gear is easier to transport. Thin, synthetic fibers simplify packing and keep campers more comfortable. Insect repellents help ward off the black flies and mosquitoes that plagued those early campers.

The rules of camping have changed as well. Campers are encouraged to leave no trace. Chopping down trees is discouraged and, in many places, even campfires are not permitted.

Van Camping in the 1970s


For Further Reading

Heading Out: A History of American Camping by Terrence Young

Under the Stars : How American Fell in Love With Camping by Dan White

The Art of Camping by Matthew de Abaitua

The Tent Book : A Celebration of Tents From Prehistory to the Future by E. M. Hatton

Adventures in the Wilderness Or Camp Life in the Adirondacks by William H. H. Murray (You may want to read up on various editions as some contain faded or blotchy text.)

© 2016 Dolores Monet


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 27, 2017:

Hi Peggy - thanks for reading! My favorite place to camp was up in the Adirondacks. I too am grateful for our park system. At a time when most people live in urban areas, a visit to a place that has been left in its natural state is certainly restorative.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 26, 2017:

This was a delight to read. I loved that book Walden and also read quite a bit from Emerson. Thankfully Roosevelt met John Muir and the saving of public spaces which became national parks was initiated. Visiting national and even state parks is high on my list of favorite type vacations. There is much about spending time in nature that can be restorative.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on September 05, 2016:

aviannovice - yes. I am concerned that there are a lot of people out there who seem to want to allow commercial enterprises into our wild areas for minerals as well as timber. I don't think we have to actually visit the wild places to appreciate their value.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on August 20, 2016:

Camping has fallen out of favor for few decades now, and should be brought back to life. It is even easier now, as your say to enjoy the outdoors and all that it has to offer. Not only that, it is also a reminder that these areas still need to be protected and kept off limits to fracking and other fuel seeking excuses. Great reminder!