150 Years Of Family Camping In America
It’s been a long, wild trek, but the family camping trip is finally living up to its potential — and its promise. Here’s how we got here.
By the time W.H.H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness came out in 1869, he’d spent years traveling up and down the East Coast, delivering sermons on the invigorating, soul-soothing power of his excursions into the wilderness to camp. In cities like Boston and New York, this wilderness evangelist found audiences desperate for his message of reconnection through nature; they hung on his lush descriptions of the forest “in all the beauty of its unshorn foliage” and the promontories stretched over the lakes, “suspended in their waveless and translucent depths.”
Adventures became a massive bestseller — offering heady adventure tales and tons of practical advice about what gear to buy, where to set up camp, and what kinds of meals to prepare. (Chapter One: “The Wilderness: Why I Go There; How I Get There; What I Do There; And What It Costs.”) Soon, thousands of city dwellers invaded the Adirondacks looking for “Murray’s wilderness.” The American camping tradition, as we know it, was born. The spartan excursions for small parties of adventurers quickly transformed into the family-friendly vacations we recognize today, attracting more campers in every generation — last year, some 94 million of us went camping.
Over the years, the gear and the wilderness have changed, and, finally, so have the campers: In 2020, for the first time, most new campers came from non-white groups, a reflection not just of growing diversity — our diversity has never been proportionately reflected in the outdoors — but of the tenacious efforts of Black and brown outdoor leaders. But 150 years of photographs reveal constants too: The family camping trip has always been about feeling at home in the natural world, with a place to cook, a place to convene and place to rest, even if just for the weekend.
The Wilderness Rush
A turn-of-the-century camp in the Adirondacks
Camping out West, 1902
A camping party in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico, 1898
The Wawona tunnel was cut through one of Yosemite’s giant sequoias in 1881. The tree fell in 1969.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the first generation of recreational campers sought out the nation’s unheralded lakes and mountain summits, looking for the spiritual fulfillment and empowerment that Murray had promised in Adventures in the Wilderness. Not everyone was happy about the new recreators. The more rugged folks on the frontier considered them “pretenders and superficials,” as a popular humorist of the era, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, put it. But the critics were never heard. When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, he rolled out a big welcome mat at the edge of the woods — which would soon include a newly designated 150 national forests, 230 million acres of public land, 51 federal bird reserves, and five national parks.
What We Don’t See…
Roosevelt, naturalist John Muir, and others sold the fantasy that they were preserving an uninhabited frontier — a fantasy that still shapes how we think of spending time in the wilderness. The creation of national parks like Yellowstone displaced thousands of Indigenous people to make space for white Americans. In 1916 Woodrow Wilson created the National Parks Service, which furthered the idea of the wilderness being an exclusive place. During that time and going forward, Black people visiting the parks would encounter signs that confirmed the parks were “For Whites Only.”
Camping With Cars
Three-generation car camping in the 1920s
Car camping in Texas, 1920s
The family trailer in Grand Canyon National Park
The Airstream Trailer, circa 1930s
In the 1920s and ’30s, instead of loading gear on their backs, families loaded up their new cars and headed out on new roads like Route 66, which connected hundreds of small towns to parks across the country. They fastened bags to the running boards, attached tents to the chassis, and rolled out custom-rigged cots in the cabin of the car.
In photographs from the 1920s on, we see campers set up next to their cars or RVs, at first, in unmarked clearings, and later next to picnic tables in designated auto-camping plots. The outdoors, like the rest of America, was quickly being redesigned around the automobile.
Likewise, the automobiles were being reimagined for camping.
Ford had developed a vehicle with a sleeping compartment in 1915, the Model-T Roadster, but it didn’t compare to Wally Bynum’s silver bullet that “moved down the road like a stream of air.” In 1929 Bynum unveiled the Airstream, complete with an onboard stove, sleeping quarters, and ice box. By 1932, they were being mass-produced and sold for $500 to $1000.
There was almost unlimited open space in national parks and campgrounds, but RV and auto campers tended to congregate in the same desirable areas, leading to a degradation of the sites. In California, Sequoias and Redwoods were dying as a steady stream of drivers made their own way through the forests by driving over their shallow roots.
What We Don’t See…
A plant pathologist named E.P Meinecke developed “A Campground Policy” in the early 1930s focused on organizing campground space around cars — but keeping the wilderness intact. To do so, he created clear paths to travel on and designated campsites to park in, preventing camping areas from becoming overcrowded and vegetation from being destroyed. His layout was first implemented in California and then adopted at private and public campgrounds around the country.
Sprawl Of The Wild
Cooking with gas, 1957
Car camping in Yosemite National Park, 1958
Santa Barbara Forest Camp, Carson National Forest, New Mexico, 1959
After World War II, America’s middle and working classes fanned out into suburbs in pursuit of a new fantasy: neighborhoods cleared of nature and gridded up into evenly spaced plots with perfectly manicured lawns. This was the antithesis of wilderness — and it spread to evenly spaced plots on forest campgrounds, a parallel for this new model of living. Each plot had a parking spot for their car or RV, a picnic table, a water spigot, and surrounding woods for privacy. Camping was billed as the vacation that was “cheaper than staying home” and with new gear, more sophisticated RVs and better campground designs, it was almost as comfortable. In 1960, 10.9 million people went camping, almost triple the number who’d gone camping at the beginning of the decade.
While domestic families were re-casting the woods in their own suburban image, a teenage falconer and budding climber was hammering out pitons on an anvil at a coal-fired forge, to use on his upcoming climb of Sentinel Rock’s north face at Yosemite. Like the adventurers before the Murray Rush, Yvon Chouinard was preparing to face nature on her own terms, with the bare essentials. Chouinard, as the founder of Patagonia and a member of the Sierra Club, furthered the best parts of John Muir’s conservation legacy from the 1950s on.
What We Don’t See…
In the 1950s and ’60s Black community leaders made space for Black children to enjoy summers in the outdoors, even while most national parks and campgrounds remained White-only or segregated until 1964. The Moorland YMCA, an important institution in the Dallas African American community, offered summer programming at Camp Pinkston, and in North Carolina, the first Black superintendent of Jones Lake Park, established a refuge where Black children could camp, hike, fish and swim on grounds they were barred from just a decade before.
The High Road And The Low Road
Family camping in the 1970s
A simple camp at Snow Lakes, Washington, 1970s
Backpacking in Alaska, 1975
Camping on the beach, Fire Island, New York
Through the late 1960s and ’70s, the trailers and motorhomes got more homelike, stylish, and expensive. Most of the retro units that are sought after now by the #vanlife crowd came from that time: the Canned Hams, the bigger Airstreams, and the Winnebagos. Families compared their rig against the Shasta or Scotty in the neighboring campsite, just like they compared their car against their neighbor’s Chevy back home.
Meanwhile, a generation who had grown up with childhood memories of the wilderness, was coming of age. Youngsters took their parents’ aging VW buses to camp at music festivals, like Woodstock, or at state and national parks on their way out West.
A smaller community of backcountry campers took to newly protected trails — the National Scenic Trails Act passed in 1968 — in the same spirit of escape and higher-consciousness seeking that had fueled the original wilderness rush. Gear innovations like the internal frame backpack with a quick-release hip buckle, and foldable tents with lightweight metal (not wood) poles helped them carry more gear comfortably on technical terrain, usually without guides.
What We Don’t See...
Camping light and keeping things minimal may have come from a democratic impulse, but the resulting gear revolution made nature less accessible to those who were not earning a middle-class wage. Not only could they not afford specialized backpacks to check out the Pacific Crest Trail, but as suburbia grew it pushed wilderness farther away while local greens spaces were being paved over.
The dire warnings of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the coalition of environmentalists who came together to form a unified front on the first Earth Day in 1970 fueled a new wave of political action in the conservation movement. By the end of that year, the EPA was formed and soon after, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed.
Campers Go Big
Family camping, ’80s-style, on the Colorado River in Moab, Utah
Auto Camping in the 1980s
Adventure family camping, Patagonia catalog, circa 1990s
1980s family s’mores
A new level of motorhome and camper luxury had emerged by the 1980s. RVs were equipped with slide-outs that offered extra square footage, bedrooms, full kitchens and dining areas, and TVs, and campers gravitated toward campgrounds set up specifically for RVs, with plumbing and electrical hookups and on-site recreation centers. Thousands of retired couples hopped in their deluxe campers, popped a Willie Nelson tape in the deck, and spent years traveling to glorious parks in all 50 states, gathering stories to tell their grandchildren about the spectacular geyser Old Faithful at Yellowstone, or the lurking gators and gliding herons of the Florida everglades.
Backpackers trekked through the country's most challenging terrain into the 1980s and ’90s, and as their ranks grew they resolved to “leave no trace” in the process, establishing the seven principles of wilderness ethics. But some could only “rough it” for so long. With full-time jobs and kids of their own, they got right back to the convenient auto campgrounds where they vacationed as kids.
What We Don’t See...
Outerwear companies like Patagonia and the North Face began using lightweight, warm, and breathable synthetic materials like fleece and Gore-Tex in their garments, making the camping experience decidedly comfier and less soggy. The styles that proved so useful on the trail on the campground crossed over into the mainstream. North Face’s zip-up fleeces were so ubiquitous on northeastern college campuses you’d think they passed them out at the registrar, and New York rappers with puffers and parkas on their backs like Biggie, Big L, and Method Man, soon had seemingly every teen in America wrapped in soft, warm down.
Here We Are
Camping was born out of an urge to trade in the comforts and trappings of modern society for true freedom. But freedom is a vague concept — just try explaining it to a kid who doesn’t want to go to school. Long work and school days don’t feel like freedom. Our parks and our campgrounds were the great consolation prize, though. On summer vacations or post-retirement — after we’ve already paid our dues — we can head to the forest, set up camp, and pretend we don’t answer to anyone.
A new generation of campers have extended the dream, by seemingly living on the road full-time in renovated retro motorhomes and vans. Enter #vanlife in the Instagram search bar and you’ll find hundreds of pictures of attractive young couples parked by the Grand Canyon, or with their feet dangling out the back of a Westfalia parked at a beachside California campsite. It’s not always clear how they fund the lifestyle, but some do make enough through various social media and online streams to keep going on their own. The pictures are meant to sell a fantasy, but monitoring followers and algorithms every day while living full-time within 50 square feet might not feel as good as it looks. Most people still camp the old-fashioned way, on a part-time schedule.
There was a dramatic surge in camping during early COVID, when getting on a plane wasn’t an option. Furthermore, Black people and people of color, who have been historically excluded from all parts of America’s promise of freedom, are making their way to campgrounds.
As recently as 2012, 88% of campers were Caucasian. In 2021, 54% of the 10 million first-time campers were non-white, according to KOA, the leading campground association in North America. Organizations like Outdoor Afro, Black Folks Camp Too, Melanin Basecamp, Melanated Campout, and Outdoor Promise, all organized camping trips and trained Black people and other people of color in outdoor skills, leadership, and stewardship.
The history of camping in America is full of contradictions: the rejection of industry and modernization, while participating in both all week long; how we “escape” to the wilderness, only to quickly set up all of the controls and comforts of the home we left behind; how we’re drawn to the romance of nature, only to trample over it en masse; and the way we promised everlasting access to the land as an American privilege, while chasing out or forbidding America’s original land stewards. That not all Americans have felt safe in the outdoors is the greatest contradiction of all. If we can clear that one up, and we’re on our way, we can start enjoying the rest of it, all together.