Camping in the National Forests
Perhaps in response to often harsh and demanding working conditions, overcrowded city life, or a pervasive desire for a simpler existence, camping became a popular pastime in the late 19th century. Several publications from that period describe in enthusiastic detail the particular advantages of various styles of tents, stoves and clothing, as well as tips for successful outings.1
Bringing just what they needed to set up a temporary home in the natural shelter of the woods, early campers arrived to the national forests on foot, horseback, or wagon. Attracted by the adventure of living out of doors and experiencing nature at close quarters, they were there to go "gypsying," to experience the renewed sense of freedom one finds in the natural world.
While it was informal and unsupervised in the early years, camping was recognized as a significant use of the newly reserved national forests. 1902 regulations issued by General Land Office, Department of the Interior, required that "specially desirable camping grounds or place[s] of resort" be considered for protection from the private development of hotels or sanitariums on national forest land.2
Thousands of campers were drawn to the scenic beauty of the national forests, and their numbers steadily increased throughout next century. The first camping club was formed in 1910, calling themselves the "Tin Can Tourists."3 In 1912, the Forest Service reported 231,000 campers in the national forests. Mountain forests close to urban areas were the most heavily used. National forest land could be leased for building private summer homes and camps, and some cities also leased land to build municipal summer camps for their citizens. The Los Angeles Municipal camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, built in 1916, is one such example.4
Trailer camping at White Ledge Campground, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire, 1937.
During the 1930s and the Great Depression, when vacationing was beyond the means of many Americans, the Forest Service was able to catch up to the demand for more and better camping services. Although federal budgets were restricted, the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 provided money and manpower to accomplish the needed upgrades and to complete new construction projects. While the extraordinary building projects completed during this time brought the Forest Service campground accommodations to a higher standard of design and construction, subsequent years would see a continuation of the budgetary struggle to provide and maintain camping services adequate to the demand.10
CCC enrollee putting finishing touches on stone fireplace at Allegheny Forest Camp, Pennsylvania, 1937.
The period after World War II saw another huge increase in the numbers of Americans camping, as returning GI’s and their growing families sought affordable vacation destinations in national forests and national parks. In 1938 the Forest Service had 3587 developed campgrounds used by 3 million visitors, and by 1952 over four and one half million camping visits were reported. That number nearly doubled to 8 million camping visits ten years later, in 1962.11
The number of campers in national forests continues to increase today, as does the demand for more services. The Forest Service now recognizes three types of camping experiences; backcountry (dispersed) for backpackers, campground (improved) for tent camping, and full service (developed) for recreational vehicles and trailers. In spite of, or perhaps because of, increasing demands on our attention and our wallets, millions of Americans continue to "take up their abode" in the woods, and go camping. You can learn more about the history of this national pastime, and its place in the management of the national forests, in the resource section below. Additional resources may be found using the Forest History Society research databases.
The Ray Klescewski family camping at Franklin Lake Campground, Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin, July 1960.
Camping in the National Forests - Resources
• Shields, G. O. Camping and Camp Outfits. Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company, 1890. Practical guide on how to camp. Includes chapters on cooking, tents and equipment, hygiene, choosing a guide, among many other topics.
• Kephart, Horace. Book of Camping and Woodcraft. New York: Outing Publishing Co., 1906. Guide to camping and "woodcraft," having the skills and knowledge to handle any situation in the woods.
• Gregg, Hortense Gardner. Camping for Girls. Norway, ME: Advertiser book print, 1907. Delightful description of the joys of living out of doors, and challenges women to venture into the woods to strengthen body and character.
• Marks, Jeannette Augustus. Vacation Camping for Girls. New York and London: D. Appleton and company, 1913. Practical how-to guide from England.
• U.S. Forest Service. Handbook for Campers in the National Forests in California. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1915.
• Miller, Warren Hastings. Camp Craft, Modern Practice and Equipment. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1916. Includes chapters on "Taking the Family Along" and "Camp Comforts".
• Verrill, A. Hyatt. The Book of Camping. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1917.
• Miller, Warren Hastings. Camping Out. New York: George H. Doran, .
• U.S. Forest Service. Vacation Days in Colorado's National Forests. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1919.
• Clyatt, Harry B. Campfire Cookery. Cincinnati, OH: W. B. Carpenter Co., 1921. Written by a graduate of the "Army School for Cooks and Bakers," includes recipes and suggestion for cooking for large and small groups in camp.
• Long, J. C. and John D. Long. Motor Camping. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1923. How-to guide for camping with a car. Topics include equipment, trailers and motor bungalows, where to go, what to bring, and "Weekend Wild Men."
• Meinecke, E. P. "A Camp Ground Policy." Forest History Society, U.S. Forest Service History Collection, 1932. Emile Meinecke was a pathologist in the California Region of the Department of Agriculture and seems to have been involved in managing the plant environment of campgrounds for the national forests.
• Meinecke, E. P. Camp Planning and Camp Reconstruction. Washington: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1935.
• Meinecke, E. P. "The Trailer Menace." Forest History Society, U.S. Forest Service History Collection, 1935.
• U.S. Forest Service. Backpacking in the National Forest Wilderness: A Family Adventure. Washington: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1963.
• U.S. Forest Service. Camping: The National Forests, America’s Playground. Washington: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1975.
• Morrison, Jim. "Commemorating 100 Years of the RV." Smithsonian.com (August 25, 2010).
Family camping at Mammoth Pool Campground, Sierra National Forest, California, August 1963.
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1 George O. Shields, Camping and Camp Outfits: A Manual of Instruction for Young and Old Sportsmen (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1890), and Horace Kephart, Book of Camping and Woodcraft (New York: Outing Publishing Co., 1906).
2 US Government, Forest Reserve Manual (Washington: Govt. print. off., 1902) 69. Includes a form used when leasing an area for a privately developed amenity. One of the required questions to ascertain appropriateness of request asked "If the location is at shore of lake or bank of stream, will the granting of this privilege involve any monopoly of specially desirable camping grounds or place of resort. . .?"
3 Jim Morrison, "Commemorating 100 Years of the RV," Smithsonian.com, August 25, 2010. [accessed December 14, 2011]
4 William C. Tweed, History of Outdoor Recreation Development in National Forests 1891-1942 (Washington, DC: US Forest Service) 3.
5 Tweed, 3.
6 Forest Service, Report of the Forester, October 10, 1925, William B. Greeley, Forester (Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1925) 11.
7 Forest Service, Report of the Forester, October 4, 1923, William B. Greeley, Forester (Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1923) 37.
8 Morrison, 1.
9 E. P. Meinecke, "The Trailer Menace," (Forest History Society, Forest Service History Collection, 1935). Paper written for internal distribution, US Department of Agriculture.
10 Tweed, 16-20.
11 "Statistical Supplements to Chief of the Forest Service, 1953," (Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service) 8.
12 Forest Service, Report of the Chief of the Forest Service, 1962 (Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1960) 15.
Written by: Nancy C. Nye, special
projects, Forest History Society.