Culture  /  Origin Story

Before Camping Got Wimpy: Roughing It With the Victorians

A brief history of camping.

The great cities of the West weren’t even complete before urban dwellers fantasized escaping them. Compelled by sublime landscapes and the conservationist bug, 19th-century city slickers saw camping as a way to ditch the daily grind, plunging into the wilderness their forebears had just conquered. And after a century of high-tech camping innovations, from Gore-Tex hiking boots to smartphone apps, our desire to “rough it” is virtually unchanged.

Recreational camping first became trendy in the late 1800s, popularized by the exploits of naturalist John Muir, who wrote extensively during his years living in Yosemite beginning in 1868. Remarkably, this was only twenty years or so after troubled wagon trains languished in barren deserts or frozen winter climes on their journey to the frontier (think Donner Party). Civilization was barely established in the western U.S. when “citizens were already seeking a respite from it,” observes U.C. Berkeley librarian and author Susan Snyder in her book Past Tents: The Way We Camped.

From the get-go, journalists were all over the story. Popular essayist Charles Dudley Warner’s “In the Wilderness” series, published in 1878 in The Atlantic Monthly, presented camping as a blissful escape from the obligations of civilized society. “I suspect that many of us are, after all, really camping temporarily in civilized conditions; and that going into the wilderness is an escape, longed for, into our natural and preferred state,” wrote Warner. This camping impulse helped inspire the campaign to create America’s first National Parks.

Top: Turn of the century campers enjoy simple pleasures out of doors. Above: Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite, 1903.

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite, 1903.

The movement was hardly fringe: Public figures like future-president Theodore Roosevelt, conservationist John Muir, and industrialist Stephen Mather worked together to create an organized system of national conservation. Peter Fish, Editor-at-Large for Sunset magazine, says they encouraged Americans “to get out into the wilderness for the preservation of their sanity and their souls.”

California proved the perfect spot to develop a national dialogue on conservation, and one place this discussion unfolded was in the pages of Sunset. Founded in 1898 as a kind of in-flight magazine for the Southern Pacific Railroad to lure travelers westward via train and ultimately entice them to purchase real estate (Southern Pacific was the largest landowner in the West), the magazine promoted California as an exotic natural paradise, an “outdoor wonderland” as Fish describes it. Early Sunset contributors touted the region’s idyllic natural imagery at a time when “the big industrial cities of the East were perceived as being unhealthy or stressful.” Their antidote to this poisonous urban blight? Going camping.


Summer Memories

In the decades that followed the Civil War, some Americans started seeing the wilderness as a place worth traveling to. "Civilization was barely established in the western U.S.," according to an author quoted in this article, "when 'citizens were already seeking a respite from it.'"