A short history of the American campsite: Martin Hogue, designobserver.com

Image via gtykal


Most Americans have gone camping at some point in their lives, and some make it a habit to go at least a couple times a year to “get away”, possibly without completely getting away. This contradiction begs the question, in our modern, 21st century society, are we truly “away” when we have “gone” camping? The answer to this question might depend on your geographic location, or more importantly on how you define the camping experience. I know a couple whose idea of camping is driving their vintage Airstream trailer 30 minutes away to a local state park and, if necessary, driving back home or to the nearest gas station to run errands or pick up something they forgot, while also making sure to catch any NFL games on their portable television… for others, it means packing tents, fishing poles, and canned comestibles that can be cooked over an open fire… for others, it involves taking a cross-country trip that involves bringing home on the road, i.e. with a modern $100,000 RV.

As Martin Hogue points out in his excellent essay for Design Observer on the history of the American campsite, modern camping allows us to be at one with nature while at the same time relying upon modern conveniences that keep us connected to the real world. It’s an experience easily characterized by a series of binary opposites: nature and civilization, isolation and connection, self-sufficiency/reliance on nature and ease of access/convenience, fixed and temporary structures, the unfamiliar and the familiar (i.e. nature versus the home). And it has also changed drastically in the last century, along with individual notions of camping and nature (as something to be tamed, primitive, spiritual, a commodity to be consumed, etc.)

I really like his description of the campsite as a temporary substitute for the home, a place where personal and social activities/interaction take place as if one were at home. The campsite, as it is arranged and set up, becomes the home, and life carries on, with minor adjustments. At the same time, campers must live with the surprises that nature will inevitably provide (perhaps we must all deal with bugs and snakes and thieving raccoons no matter how insulated we are from nature while camping). However, it seems that many of the camping traditions and rituals of yore have been rendered obsolete: we no longer have to hunt or gather food, build fires the old fashioned way let alone use them for cooking, or clear settings or set up tents with wooden stakes, or cut ourselves off from society completely, unless we want to as part of a nostalgic camping rite de passage. Now we have the ability to bring pre-packaged foods and cook them in microwaves or over permanent charcoal grills that come with many camp sites, and we can stay connected to the “outside” world through our smart phones and laptops using the campsite’s wifi connection.

I find it interesting to think about the use of technology and conveniences when camping. As Hogue observes, technology has changed camping both physically and culturally, especially with the advent of motor vehicles. Think of how they, along with roads and highways, expanded access to camping as well as the geography of reach for campers across the country. Campers have clearly always used the tools that best suited their needs since pioneer days and before, with tents and cooking utensils and other items associated with the experience. But modern improvements like RVs and Airstreams with built-in bathrooms and televisions and air-conditioners come to mind as amenities that seem to have developed out of campers’ desires to bring home with them, or at least its comforts and conveniences, which can be connected to how national/cultural concepts of camping and use of technology changed rapidly during the 20th century.

The implications of technology on the lived experience of camping are many – what tools and gear and technology must you (not) have in order to have a truly authentic camping experience? What implications does this have for marketers, who must fuse relevant images of nature and technology/convenience to attract the over-convenienced consumer to their camping products or locations? Again, it comes down to how one defines what true camping is. Perhaps modern life (and the modern work place) demand that we stay connected, even while on vacation. Modern camping, in combination with campers’ desires to be a part of the old American past time of experiencing the wilderness, however defined, allows them to live out their “cultural fantasies” while still remaining connected.

So is it still camping if you have access to Wifi, a hair dryer, a phone charger or portable t.v.? I think so. Camping has just changed, that’s all. I think it should be left up to individual campers, with their myriad notions of what camping is and should be, to decide for themselves.
Image via Jane Elix

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