Camping Was So Popular It Became Basic and Nearly Ruined the ‘Outdoors’
Camping became so popular in the 1950s and 60s that it became an extension of the suburban dream—and awfully crowded.
That children who came of age in the 1960s would come to find liberating and countercultural meanings in camping was not a predictable outcome. Camping in the 1950s was a decidedly mainstream affair.
Since the end of World War II it had become a broadly popular choice for the summer family vacation, itself increasingly an expected annual ritual. Families clamored for campsites in the many loop campgrounds in public parks and forest preserves. Touted across the popular press, campgrounds became a prime stage to perform newly idealized family roles and camping a privileged method for producing the coveted sense of “family togetherness.”
Public agencies had their hands full trying to keep up with the increasing demand. The US Forest Service (USFS), for one, had hosted 1.1 million overnight campers in 1943, when travel was depressed due to the war. By 1950, it was serving 3.9 million campers and ten years later, it struggled to accommodate 10.9 million. As Table 5.1 shows, the National Park Service (NPS) experienced staggering increases as well. Both agencies initiated major infrastructure development plans during the decade— Operation Outdoors (USFS) and Mission 66 (NPS)— which together aimed to increase the number of campsites available nationally, from 41,000 to 125,000. The inadequacy of that goal became clear even before it was realized, and private campground operators began to fill the gap in the early 1960s— such as the Kampgrounds of America (KOA) chain, whose franchised operators could collectively boast more campsites than the NPS by 1970.
Several key factors accounted for the explosive growth of this form of camping. Federal investment in outdoor recreational infrastructure and transportation networks after the war, particularly interstate highways, put campgrounds within easier reach. The success of Emilio Meinecke’s formula led many Americans to assume that the government had an obligation to provide a low cost public campsite with modern amenities amidst a peaceful natural setting. A 1961 study concluded that most campers assumed essential amenities would be waiting for them, a “frame of reference” that “presumes the existence of picnic tables, wells, toilets, washrooms and the like.”
They wrote unceasingly to the Park Service and their Congressional representatives to insist the government make good on these promises. One elementary school teacher from Texas asked her Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1957 to protect the rights of “us middle- class vacationers,” by improving campground conditions, which she found “very primitive for our progressive America.” As the thick files of complaint letters suggest, Americans were only raising their expectations of the camping experience.
Keeping costs low for the larger families of the baby boom era remained significant. The oft-touted claim that “a camping vacation costs little more than staying at home, once you’ve got the camping equipment” may have been an exaggeration, but it was a standard reference in the popular press and had some basis in fact. The National Park Service collected minor entrance fees, but until 1965 charged nothing for campground privileges, even as it continued to upgrade amenities. Yet while camping could be less expensive than some other vacation types, the claim that it was equally available to all Americans, in the same manner, was less obvious. The standard figure cited throughout the era ranged between two and three hundred dollars for a basic complement of gear— not an inconsequential outlay at the time. While the public infrastructure subsidized it, camping was not free. Nor was access universal, as African Americans continued to experience discrimination at public campgrounds.
Another significant factor was the way the campground came to epitomize the era’s suburban ideal. In a 1954 magazine article, experienced outdoor adventurer and 10th Mountain Division veteran Hal Burton narrated his embrace of the tamer pleasures of family camping. Burton was sheepish to admit his newfound attraction to car camping, which he had once disdained, but he empathized with his generation in seeking a vacation that was “easy on the pocketbook, soothing to the disposition, and ideal for the family that wants to get away . . . but not too far away.” What he had come to appreciate in the campground was the suburban dream come true:
Happy, flushed youngsters romped among the birches, or splashed on the edge of Moose Brook. Bronzed men, chopping firewood or just relaxing, greeted us with a friendly “Hi” as we walked past their spotlessly tended campsites. Young mothers kept one eye on their tots, and the other on food sizzling over open fireplaces. A sign informed me that firewood was supplied to each tent site, and that there was daily trash collection. It was, all in all, pretty good evidence that camping out . . . wasn’t the outdoor version of tenement life I’d gloomily imagined.
Burton’s picture of the campground was a rosy one: reliable public utilities and tidy homesteads with hearty children, virile husbands, and happy housewives. This vision seemed to wipe out lingering Depression- era suspicions of camps as refuge for the down and out. In fact, the near disappearance of concerns about tramps or hobos from camping discourse during this affluent era fueled a vision of campgrounds as better at achieving the suburban ideal than suburbia.
The cultural imperative of “family togetherness” thus served as a key stimulus. While family vacations provided general opportunities to practice togetherness, camping gained acclaim for being uniquely effective at achieving it. Campers echoed these sentiments in their letters to the NPS. One woman from New York applauded the public support of togetherness in 1958. “It is heart- warming to see families camping together . . . from all walks of life. It is a good omen: ‘Families which camp together, stay together.’ ” Whether camping consistently delivered on this promise was less clear, as other letters complained about campers who violated these ideals.15 In this sense, the campground demonstrated many Americans’ commitment to achieving idealized domestic roles and gender dynamics necessary to dominant definitions of family and exposed tensions that underlay the performance of them. Within the domestic paradigms of the Cold War, the social benefits of camping took on heightened levels of importance. Outdoor recreation was understood to promote social stability and family solidarity, bolster the consumer economy, and demonstrate upward mobility— all of which contributed to the moral campaign against communism. Sociological studies tended to reinforce this interpretation: that the white, well- educated, middle- class families who dominated campground populations derived their “major satisfactions” of camping from the “social system of the camp,” the opportunity to perform modern rituals of “companionate marriage and family togetherness.” Recreating an outdoor version of the suburban neighborhood, with loop upon loop of identically- organized, well- equipped outdoor households, sustained an image of affluent American leisure for Cold War purposes and supported the search for the peak togetherness experience.
These factors combined to drive the popularity of camping ever upward in the 1950s. As the next decade began, many began to wonder whether increasing crowds were undermining the appeal of the pastime. In July 1961 Time magazine ran a major story on the camping craze, emblazoning the cover with a double- sized fold- out illustration and a banner that branded it: “Camping: Call of the Not So Wild.”
Vividly colored, the cover teems with tents, trailers, cars, hikers, boaters, and wildlife, packed cheek- by- jowl into every square inch of level ground. Vehicles crammed with people and gear snake through the panels in bumper- to- bumper lines. Everywhere people are busy fishing, swimming, reading, taking photographs, grilling hotdogs, playing ball, blowing up air mattresses, battling a thunderstorm, ascending switchback trails, fleeing from curious bears. An appealing and calmer landscape of hills and snow- capped peaks, complete with highflying birds, smiling sun and a rainbow, frames the hurly burly below. A closer look reveals notes of tension. On the crest of a hill, a transmission tower hides under the letter “M.” Two men are engaged in a fistfight while a ranger shakes a scolding finger. One man spanks his son for sinking the boat, while another rushes to rescue his daughter on the precipice of a waterfall. Bullies knock a boy off his canoe. Perhaps most tellingly, on the right a hill frowns in distress and on the left a grimacing face glares from a storm cloud. Nature, it seems, does not like being overrun.
The article on the inside, titled “Ah, Wilderness?”, took a similarly conflicted perspective. After directing readers to examine the cover, it began by quoting Henry David Thoreau’s famous passage that starts with “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” as a laughable mismatch. Thoreau had been the subject of renewed attention, as the Sierra Club and other nature organizations put his words in service to a modern push for wilderness preservation. If the reader missed the point, the article suggested that if Thoreau were to seek out Walden Pond today, he could find it easily by following the “snort and belch of automobiles” and “the yelps of children,” the sounds of the “invasion of hundreds of thousands families hungering for a summertime skirmish with nature.” These Americans, it declared, were “smitten by the call of the not- so- wild”— a not so hidden critique of their outdoor preferences. The piece aimed to understand “Why this mass movement into the world of mosquitoes, snakes and burrs?” But the unstated question it posed was instead this one: Who on earth would want to spend time in the crowded, harried world depicted on the cover?
Upward of 16 million Americans, Time predicted, were headed to campgrounds that summer of 1961, “enough to make a forest ranger reach for a cigarette.” The federal Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) noted in 1962 that “bumper- to- bumper traffic” and “campground full” signs had become frequent. Debates escalated over the relationship between improving amenities and increasing crowds. Some campers wrote to the NPS to ask for protection from modern intrusions. One woman registered her disappointment in 1961: “Couldn’t one little beautiful campground be . . . kept for those of us who still appreciate peace, and quiet, and can still get along quite well without lights and radios?” Others expressed the opposite sentiment, requesting long- distance phone service, better roads, precut firewood, and electric light in the restrooms. Almost everyone wanted reliable hot showers.
Occasionally, campers asked for more and less in the same letter, as Frances Archer of New Mexico did in 1966. She expressed “great disappointment” that the NPS would take “the most beautiful section” of Big Bend National Park and “ruin it by building cabins, filling stations and hotels.” Rather, she contended, “is it not the main purpose of the National Park System to keep these beautiful sections of our country unspoiled by commercialism?” Yet Archer appended a postscript venting her frustration that the gasoline brand of her choice was not available in the park: “Because I had not a Gulf credit card, I . . . had to cut my park visit short and go outside the park and buy gasoline.” Even as campers like Archer recoiled against the ugly sight of filling stations, they relied upon the NPS to provide a host of modern services to facilitate their visits.
Public agencies scrambled to strike the right balance. An NPS administrator laid out the nearly impossible task in 1961: “How to retain the charm, tranquility and beauty of a natural setting in the degree that each individual would like to see it preserved while permitting each to use the area according to his personal desires.” The Mission 66 building program essentially doubled down on the Meinecke system to achieve that delicate balance. The NPS Chief of Forestry urged the “continued endorsement of the principles published by Dr. E.P. Meinecke” in order to prevent damage to park resources in the rush to increase campground capacity. Yet so far, the one thing the Meinecke formula had produced most spectacularly was more campers. One lamented the feedback loop: “A few ‘improvements’ are made, then people hear that the camp has such amenities. . . . They like the beautiful location but aren’t satisfied with the campground. They start ‘pressuring’ for more ‘improvements,’ which brings more of the same type of people and the vicious circle continues.”
The Time cover satirized the outcome of this process, but the article hedged. Despite campers’ “absurd concessions to civilized living . . . the great mountains and forests of the U.S. are such indestructible marvels, and so mysteriously instructive to man’s nature, that even the most unabashed dude and his togetherness- mad neighbor in the sprawl of Tent City return from a camping trip stronger from their experience.” The article contained a multipage spread of photographs showcasing the rewards of family camping, picturing tents and trailers amidst beautiful landscapes from the Ozarks to the Tetons, in Yosemite and Glacier National Parks. Even those who chose “the new- style, cocktail- slinging mass encampments” might experience a Thoreauvian “sublime.” The article thus concluded by admitting that in offering access to a public nature that fostered American ideals of middle- class living, even the call of the not so wild had its redeeming qualities.
Adapted from Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement. Copyright© 2021 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.