Hitting the Road: A Brief History of Camping

By Kimberly Roberts

The invention of the automobile changed how Americans interacted with their landscape. Once confined to railroad tracks and wagon roads, the great American expanse was now open and available, and exploring by car signified a new freedom for those who could afford it. Road construction made once distant, remote places accessible and day-trippers and campers flooded public lands for weekend recreation and rejuvenation. 

The US Forest Service began massive infrastructure projects in the national forests, building recreational facilities and constructing trails and campgrounds, shelters and scenic vistas, roads, ranger stations, and lookouts. National Parks were reimagined and designed for viewing from the roadside rather than the intimate confines of the private lodge and the guided pack trip. For a country as young as the United States and lacking the ancient ruins of Europe, the scenic splendor of rugged hills, mountains, lakes, and dense forests came to represent what made American unique. Pilgrimages to parks became an expression of pride and patriotism, and outdoor life came to represent civic virtue and moral character as people celebrated their unique American heritage. 

Groups such as the Boy Scouts rose during this time, and summer camps for youth began to spring up across the landscape. Children were taught the importance of wilderness and how to engage with the natural world, infusing recreation and immersion into the landscape with an educational purpose. Equated with character formation, the lessons of outdoor life became essential lessons. Camping also represented adventure and a way to prove oneself in the tradition of the American frontiersmen and women and the pioneers who had blazed the trails.  

Camp Chonokis, Lake Tahoe, 1932, showing how outdoor training creates teamwork and builds moral character.   Image/ Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno, Libraries

Camp Chonokis, Lake Tahoe, 1932, showing how outdoor training creates teamwork and builds moral character.
Image/ Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno, Libraries

Yosemite, 1923, showing how roads were designed to feature dramatic views.   Image/ Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno, Libraries

Yosemite, 1923, showing how roads were designed to feature dramatic views.
Image/ Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno, Libraries

Camping, 1914, showing a pre-WWI automobile outfitted with a tent.  Image/ Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno, Libraries.

Camping, 1914, showing a pre-WWI automobile outfitted with a tent.
Image/ Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno, Libraries.

People began to outfit their cars for overnight trips soon after the invention of the automobile, adding fold-out picnic tables and tents such as the one pictured above. While many of these were homemade, commercial products including camping trailers, were available for purchase before the first World War. Outdoor recreation such as hiking, rock climbing, and skiing became popular activities during this time, with outdoor clubs such as the Mountaineers in Washington and the Mazamas in Oregon providing training, equipment, transportation, and lodging for participants. The Sierra Club organized an annual camping expedition into the mountains called the High Trip, which included meals cooked by professional chefs and evening theater for entertainment. This kind of festival evolved into camps like Burning Man today. Camping has become a lifestyle that continues to grow and change while seeming to remain unchanged. “Hitting the Road” is perhaps the most uniquely American rite of passage, be it with a simple tent, a luxurious RV, or a backpack, a sleeping bag, and a pair of boots. 

The Special Collections Department at the University of Nevada, Reno is currently preparing an exhibit on the history of camping set to premier in September 2019.

 
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Kimberly Roberts grew up all over the American West, mainly in Colorado. She studied literature and history at Colorado State University and has a master’s degree in the history of photography, landscape, and science from the University of Nevada, Reno, where she is the photograph curator in Special Collections.

Image of blogger/Courtesy of Kimberly Roberts