A Short History of Camping

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A Short History of Camping

By Jeff Adams

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Every summer more than 42 million Americans turn to the wilderness seeking escape, however temporary, from the drudgery and stress of everyday life. They go camping. Fortunately, not all at the same time.

How did the idea of voluntarily leaving a comfortable home to sleep on hard ground under the stars and cook food over a smoky fire come about? And where did all the neat gear we use come from?

Here is a short history of camping.

The History of Campgrounds

Set aside human migration and great armies on the march—activities which have taken place for thousands of years— and here's how modern day camping got its start.

1861 - Gunnery Camp is founded in Washington, Connecticut, by Frederick Gunn, who owned a boys' school. Taking his wards on a two-week trip, they hike to a specific wilderness area where they set up camp. Activities include hiking, fishing, and observing nature, and of course, cooking over a smoky fire.

1874 - The YWCA establishes its first camp in Pennsylvania. Called "Sea Rest," the camp catered to women only.

1885 - Surprisingly, it took men 11 years to realize that camping could be fun and set up a YMCA camp in New York. That camp is still in operation today.

Over the ensuing years, the concept of camping steadily grew.

1900 - The first Boys' Club camp is built in Salem, Massachusetts.

1910 - The Boy Scouts of America establish a camp in New York.

1912 - The first Girl Scout camp is built in Georgia.

1930s - The National Park Service develops 34 Recreation Demonstration Areas, a complex government name for campgrounds, which are later turned over to state agencies.

Today - There are over 113,000 federally managed campsites, more than 166,000 campsites in state parks, and an untold number of private facilities.

The History of Camping Gear

The Tent

Eons before becoming our favorite pastime, camping was, literally, a way of life. And perhaps the most important piece of iconic equipment is the tent.

1855 - The real ancestor to today's familiar shelter is designed by a U.S. Army officer. He modeled his "bell tent" after Native American teepees, using canvas instead of buffalo hides.

1911 - The first Boy Scout Handbook is published and shows 10 different types of tents.

1945 - WWII is over, and the post-war economic boom sends Americans to camping retailers and war surplus stores where they purchase thousands of tents of all types before heading off the great outdoors.

1959 - Long-time tentmaker Eureka! introduces the first fast-to-set-up freestanding tent.

1960s - Lightweight metal poles begin to replace wooden frames.

1970s - Eureka! again steals the show with a backpack-storable tent that sells 1 million units in just 10 years.

1990 - The first "truck-tent" appears, designed to be pitched in the bed of a pickup truck.

2011 - Despite technological innovations that offer a more glamorous experience, 3.2 million Americans still make tent camping trips—a million more than RV excursions.

The Camp Lantern

Pushing back the darkness with a wide assortment of configurations and technologies.

1905 - W.C. Coleman develops a liquid fuel lantern with a small base tank that is pressurized using a hand pump. It offers campers a safer, more enjoyable experience, with brighter illumination and no sooty smoke.

This same principle is still in use today, with factory-pressurized fuel bottles replacing the pump. Over the years, battery-powered lanterns joined the mix and today utilize brilliant LEDs for exceptional energy efficiency.

The Camp Stove

While a crackling campfire is closely associated with camping, it was the only smoky, sooty, ash-laden way to cook meals and boil water. Until…

1942 - At the midpoint of WWII, the Coleman Company responds to the U.S. Army's urgent request to develop a compact stove for battlefield use. The resulting single burner stove can burn any kind of fuel, function at -60 degrees F up to +150 degrees F, weighs 3.5 pounds, and is smaller than a one-quart milk bottle. Along with the Jeep, it's considered one of the two most important pieces of non-combat equipment in the war

1950s and beyond - The Coleman army stove evolves into the familiar fold-up, two- and three-burner stoves seen in many campsites today. Other manufacturers adopt the pressurized fuel concept and there are now several variations of the basic design.

The Cooler Chest

Unless you have an RV with a refrigerator, you have one of these at your campsite.

1957 - Coleman introduces an insulated cooler with steel shell and inner plastic liner to replace old-fashioned steel ice bins that would sweat, rust, and didn't stay cold very long.

1960 - Igloo Company goes one better and introduces the first all-plastic cooler chest.

The Air Mattress

With bulky, horse hair-filled bed mattresses being too heavy to drag into the forest, early campers had to contend with sleeping on the cold, hard ground. Luckily, ingenuity came to the rescue.

1889 - First air mattress invented in Reading, Massachusetts. Original design is still in use today.

1960s - Closed cell foam pads debut in the U.S. These are followed by self-inflating and manual-inflating pads.

The Sleeping Bag

A must-have.

1800s - Various European designs were combinations of sheepskins lined with wool, a sewn-over blanket with rubber bottom, or bags made of reindeer fur.

1942 - The U.S. Army issues purpose-designed slumber bags. Heavy and bulky, these are eventually replaced with down-filled bags—the precursor to today's modern synthetic-filled sleeping bags.

The History of Camping Treats

The S'more

The ubiquitous camping treat.

1927 - The first official recipe for s'mores appears in a Girl Scouts manual, Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts.

The History of Travel Trailers

Modern-day travel trailers trace their origins to gypsy travel wagons and the Conestoga Wagons built to carry settlers across the United States.

1910 - The first non-tent travel campers are built at the Los Angeles Trailer Works and Auto Kamp Trailers.

1916 - The first tent trailer arrives, built by the Campbell Folding Camping Trailer company.

1920 - Airstream trailers first hit the road. The name "Airstream" isn't used until 1936.

1936 - Airstream luxury trailer introduced. The "Clipper" features dry ice air conditioning, water tanks, electric lighting and kitchenette.

1960s - Fifth-wheel trailers appear on the roads, offering greater towing stability. Due to the unique hitching method, the overall length of the tow vehicle and trailer is shortened without giving up inside space.

1964 - The first pop-up trailers make their debut.

The History of Motorhomes

Created out of Americans' love for camping and automobiles, the motorhome is born.

1910 - The first motorhome, Pierce-Arrow's Touring Landau, debuts at Madison Square Garden. A back seat that folds down into a bed, a chamber pot toilet and a fold-down sink are a sensation, but the whole idea of a "motor home" doesn't catch on.

1930s - Auto coachbuilders continue to tinker with motorized homes, but high sticker prices keep public demand low.

1950s - Following WWII, innovative thinking restarts the motorhome industry on a small scale. Expensive luxury items, motorhomes remain far less popular than travel trailers.

1960s - Following the creation of the country's interstate highway system, traveling to remote wilderness areas becomes easy. Companies like Winnebago begin manufacturing motorhomes on a massive scale, driving down the cost.

Today - From the early 16-foot models, motorhomes have grown into 40-foot behemoths that feature literally every comfort of home.

The History of Camping Clubs

For camping enthusiasts whose family and friends don't share that enthusiasm, camping clubs provide friendship and travel adventures.

1919 - Tin Can Tourists, the nation's first camping club, is founded in Florida. They got their name for the soldered tin can on their radiator caps. The club still exists today.

1966 - The Good Sam Club is founded. It now has 1.5 million members.

Today - Camping clubs abound in the United States. Some are local, some regional, and some are national. These organizations offer camping discounts, information, consumer hotlines, and jamborees to celebrate the camping lifestyle.

And there you have it; a "short" history of camping and how it evolved into the great vacation pastime it is today.

See the infographic.

RAReserve a campsite.

Jeff Adams is a California-based freelance writer, contributor to ReserveAmerica.com and an avid camping enthusiast. He's been dragging his trailer and willing family around the western U.S. for more than a decade.