Camping—spending nights under the stars and cooking on an open flame—has been popular for generations. In many families, a love of the outdoors is handed down right along with the heirloom china. And in spite of high-tech innovations in camping gear, it's nice to remember that what we practice in our campsites is actually part of an ancient tradition.
It's hard to guess when the first humans set out on a camping trip for pleasure. Our cave-dwelling ancestors probably felt that their lives were rugged enough without the additional strain of packing for a day hike or climbing a mountain to see the view. But as early as the Middle Ages, picnics—the precursor of the camping trip—became popular among the noble classes. In one ancient story of Guinevere and Lancelot, the queen packs an elaborate lunch, dresses her ladies and their horses all in green, and heads out to enjoy a day in the forest.
Centuries later, when exploring new lands was a thriving enterprise, camping became a way of life. Lewis and Clark's famous expedition to find a river-way to the Pacific could certainly be called one of the largest camping trips ever undertaken. The Native American tribes of the plains camped as they followed the buffalo, and, when the land was settled with ranchers, cowboys camped as they followed their herds.
Despite these early forays into the world of sleeping and eating outdoors, the advent of camping for pleasure certainly coincided with the popular use of the automobile. Beginning in 1914, when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line and reduced the price of his Model-T (available in black only) to $550, travel became an American hobby. Sunday drives, family outings, cross-country adventures—all of these arrived with the affordable family car.
Suddenly the thought of visiting the western national parks became an actual possibility even for members of the middle class. Families set out for Yellowstone and Fort Laramie, where women donned their first dungarees. Couples made tours of California, stopping at Pinnacles National Monument and the Muir Woods. With the founding of the Boy Scouts in 1910 and the Girl Scouts in 1912, thousands of children discovered the joys of camping.
From that time to the present, camping has only gained in popularity. The introduction of campers, trailers, and motor homes made camping not only fun but convenient. All the logistical pieces of travel—the transport, the food, and the shelter—combined into one comfortable vehicle. Camping gear has also made great strides with the invention of new fabrics such as fleece and gortex, lightweight shoe and boot materials, and safe, reliable camping stoves. And while the amount of open space has diminished, the number of designated camping areas has only increased with each decade.
Where will our camping adventures lead in the coming years? It's difficult to predict, but there's little doubt that the old standby camping spots will retain their popularity. Parents will continue to pass their favorite fishing holes and hikes along to their children, and children will continue to find new ones for themselves. New inventions will mean that the campers of the future will explore their world in ever-greater comfort, recording what they see with something far advanced of the old Brownie camera or even a Polaroid. And one thing we can say for certain—the urge to "get away from it all” will be as strong in our descendants as it was in our predecessors.