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The History of Camping: Guidebooks, Parks and Conservation

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Ever wonder how camping was invented? The history of camping, as we know it today, along with nylon or canvas camping tents, lanterns, and sleeping bags, is not a long one.

Humans have lived nomadically and in tents for quite some time, of course. And when caves were not enough, our hunter-gatherer ancestors packed up to seek food. They would make shelter from hides, cloth, bark, and all kinds of natural materials. But recreational camping actually doesn’t go back that far. In fact, the term “camp” was taken from military encampments.

So if you’ve ever been curious about the history of camping, read on.

Down by the River: English Camping Skiffs

Some of the earliest known history of camping happened down by the river. In England’s late Victorian era, pleasure boating along the Thames became widely popular among all the ladies and gents. These “Thames skiff” pleasure boats could even be converted into floating tents and tied off along the river bank for soirees.

The First How-to-Camp Guidebooks

historic images of people at campsites and tents

The history of camping in The UK and America can be attributed to two men and their published books, which brought easy camping tips to the masses. Around the turn of the 20th century came Thomas Hiram Holding’s The Camper's Handbook and William Harrison Murray’s Camp-Life in the Adirondacks.

Camp-Life in the Adirondacks

William H. H. Murray, a Yale graduate and church minister from Connecticut and Massachusetts, went camping in the summer of 1864 in beautiful upstate New York.

Situated there is the Adirondack Mountains. On each camping trip visit, Murray made rough, informal notes of his excursion. Notes like directions and steps to sites and landmarks. He even jotted down thoughts on appropriate camp clothes and attire, as well as how to ward off wolves (lighting a tree stump on fire — Don’t do that!) and other critters.

Just a journal to him, the casual writing style was recognized by a friend who pushed it under the publisher's nose. The notebook was approved for publication in 1869 under Camp-Life in the Adirondacks. Not only did the book teach families how to recreationally camp in the wilderness, but it also boosted tourism to the Adirondack Mountains.

The Camper’s Handbook

In 1908, Thomas Hiram Holding, a British travel writer, introduced The Camper’s Handbook. Holding wrote the book reminiscing of his younger years when he and his family traveled by wagon train across the United States.

The Camper’s Handbook, which encouraged folks to get out in nature, helped make camping popular in the US. Today, Holding is considered the father of modern recreational camping.

Camping Organizations

Along with the know-how and popularity of recreational camping came its culture. In the early 1900s, campers found their people and created associations and organizations surrounding their love for the outdoors.

In his later years, Holding also took up cycling and camping as he toured Ireland. This led to Cycle and Camp in Connemara, which created the Association of Cycle Campers in 1901. Eventually, the association became the Camping and Caravanning Club, which merged with the National Camping Club.

Sadly, during World War I, recreational camping went into decline. But, after the war ended, camping became more prominent than ever. People bought their family tents, packed up their automobiles, and traveled once again.

And in 1907 came the Boy Scouts of America, founded by Sir Robert Baden-Powell. In 1911, the first Boy Scout Handbook was published, revealing 10 various tent shapes and designs, such as the A-frame pup tent.

Soon after, the Girl Scouts published their book. In it, is a recipe for s’mores!

National Parks and Campgrounds

john muir book, camp gear, campsite of canvas shelter tents

While the Adirondacks might have been the birthplace of American camping, soon enough came along National and State Parks, which offered easy access and campgrounds across the country.

President Teddy Roosevelt had a huge role in the history of camping. He created five national parks and created the Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906, which enabled him and succeeding presidents the ability to declare historic landmarks and create national monuments. In turn, this gave Americans a reason to travel and see their great country.

John Muir was also a part of the National Park legacy. An advocate for wilderness preservation, he is known as the "Father of the National Parks" for good reason. When you visit Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, and Mt. Rainier, you have the conservationist John Muir to thank.

Without early conservationists and the establishment of parks and campgrounds, the history of camping might be an even shorter one.

Innovations in Camp Gear

Over the years and into the Midcentury, just as WWII ended, a post-war economy boosted numerous innovations in camp gear and tents themselves, which welcomed a whole new generation of campers.

Canvas tents with wooden frames, while reliable, were swapped out with lightweight nylon fabrics and lightweight metal poles. Straw mattress pads and sleeping bags were exchanged for more insulative options. The compact Coleman stove, an invention for the U.S. Army, made camp cooking easier for families, even without a bonfire.

All these bits of camp gear we take for granted today helped boost the love of camping. Just like the boon in parks and campgrounds nationwide, these pieces made family camping trips that much more accessible.

Continue the History of Camping

Create your family camping history by heading outdoors. It's easy to take our beautiful parks and national parks for granted. But just remember the quote above the Yellowstone Roosevelt Arch: "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people."


Brette DeVore
Brette DeVore

As a former hospitality interior designer with an adventurous spirit and love for travel, I now help interior designers and tourism-related businesses in creating online content and media.

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