Firwood Campground, Sequoia National Park

Terence Young
Professor Emeritus of Geography
Department of Geography & Anthropology
California State Polytechnic University
Pomona, CA 91768
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Heading Out: A History of American Camping

What does it mean that for generations, millions of Americans annually have packed up their gear and their families, left behind their comfortable, convenience-filled homes, and camped in nature for a few weeks? Why have they voluntarily and happily been willing to “rough it” in America’s parks and forests? Heading Out: A History of American Camping weaves several historical and geographical threads – cities and nature, pilgrimage and identity, modern and anti-modern, ruggedness and comfort – to produce a tapestry of this popular leisure activity. Campers obviously find camping a pleasant retreat, but the book argues that it also means they are unhappy with their everyday lives. Targeting the outdoor enthusiasts whose eagerness, passion, skill and determination have shaped camping, readers move from the mad rush that occurred at camping’s Adirondack outset to the multi-decade, epic effort to weld together a 2,000-mile Pacific Crest Trail for backpackers.

Annotated Table of Contents

Heading Out is organized into seven substantial chapters that follow a rough chronology.  It is theoretically informed by the work of anthropologists, geographers, historians and sociologists, but is not a monograph aimed at scholars alone.  Instead, the book should appeal to academic, professional and general readers because it is also organized around distinct individuals and events.  The story of at least one central character populates each chapter to express and explain the principal issues; to connect individually held ideas to the larger social order, and to humanize the stories.  An eighth chapter briefly explores the status and consequences of camping in America.  

Chapter One: “Adventures in the Wilderness” – The focus is on William H.H. Murray, the New England minister who wrote the first how-to camp book.  It examines the emergence of camping in the Adirondacks and as a recreation distinct from hunting and fishing, as well as from hotel resorts.  Why Americans camp is laid out clearly here. 

Chapter Two: “The Art of Camping” – An exploration of the geographic diffusion of camping after Murray’s book, which was when campers could travel only by foot, canoe, horse, wagon and train.  Horace Kephart, a well-regarded author of camping guidebooks, is a central figure and through him we learn much about the practice of camping at the time.  During this era, only a handful of determined, prosperous men and a few women could take the time to camp and often had to do so at locations near their homes because access to distant sites was poor and costs high.  The chapter looks at the experience through the eyes of two camping parties, Frederick Jackson Turner, a Wisconsin professor, and his wife Caroline Mae Turner, and Mary Bradshaw Richards, an upper-middle class New Englander, and her husband Jesse.

Chapter Three: “Let’s Hit the Motor Camping Trail” – Investigation of the camping explosion that came along with inexpensive automobiles and paid vacations.  Autocamping developed into a noticeably more socially homogeneous and technologically specialized mode during this era.  To explore the period, the chapter looks closely at the history of the Coleman Company, an influential manufacturer of camping equipment, and at the autocamping adventures of two authors, Frederic Van de Water with his family and Mary Crehore Bedell with her husband.

Chapter Four: “The Garage in the Forest” - Autocamping grew so quickly and became so popular that it had to be managed to control environmental damage.  Chapter Four inquires into management efforts to protect Giant Sequoias in California.  An unintended outcome was the development of the modern one-way, loop-road auto campground during the 1920s and 1930s by Emilio P. Meinecke, a Department of Agriculture pathologist living in San Francisco, California. 

Chapter Five: “Liberalizing the Campground” - The growth of autocamping’s popularity also led to social conflicts.  Chapter Five recounts the conflicts that developed during the 1930s and 1940s over racially segregated campgrounds in southern national parks.  The central character in this struggle was William J. Trent, Jr., an African-American and economist who worked as “Adviser for Negro Affairs” to Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes.

Chapter Six: “A Clearer Picture of this Country” – This chapter surveys the rise of camping trailers and motorhomes soon after the automobile’s appearance, but the focus is on a 1960s and 1970s program jointly supported by the US State Department and the Wally Byam Foundation, and run by the chapter’s principal character, Carolyn Bennett Patterson.  The program provided the State Department’s returning foreign officers and visiting foreign dignitaries with a car and an Airstream Trailer so that they could (re)discover the “real America” while camping in parks and forests, and traveling through small towns.

Chapter Seven: “A Renewal of Our Faith and Ideals” – This chapter examines the slow rise of backpacking, which was first promoted in the 1870s, but did not gain a large following until the Twentieth Century.  The chapter details backpacking’s development and early history, but the principal story is the struggle to create the Pacific Crest Trail, which began in the 1930s and the two southern Californians who spearheaded the effort, Clinton Clarke and Warren Rogers, in order to foster “Christian civilization.” 

Chapter Eight: “Roughing It Smoothly” - An epilogue to scrutinize the consequences and larger meanings of camping, including its current status and the reported decline in its popularity since the 1980s.

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© 2015 by Terence Young
This website includes official class materials for courses taught at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, by Terence Young.  They are subject to change without notice to anyone but students currently enrolled in the class.