MSU SciComm blog contest winner

The author (right) and friend on a road trip to previously hardly accessible Bryce Canyon National Park (photo taken by Lia JYY)

Imagine waking up to the sounds of birds, who, one by one, greet the day and their neighbors. It is still very early (first birds start singing at 3:30AM!), and you decide to grant yourself several more hours of sleep. You are cozy, your evening ended with a campfire and a conversation about the starry skies above, your day ahead is filled with exciting adventures. Several hours later you smell the coffee in the air (your teammate just brewed it for everyone) and, more, you hear that teammate loudly imitating the bird calls. And while more practice with the calls wouldn’t hurt, the mood is set for another humor-filled day.

I have just described a typical morning me and my teammates shared for three months while on a trail building project in Iceland. It was an incredible experience where we would spend two weeks in one location, then pack up our camp and move to the next one. We lived and worked next to waterfalls and glaciers, next to lava fields and to the hot springs. We had no Internet, we got rained on a lot, we did a lot of physically demanding work every day, and we camped the whole time. Ten years later, I am still cherishing those memories. What made them particularly special was the feeling of freedom and independence one gets from being out in the wilderness, from becoming one with nature. It also felt like a real escape from the rest of the planet and a return to one’s primeval roots.

Overall, I consider myself a very lucky person – I have probably spent a year total staying in tents, be it for volunteering, for field biology work, or for backpacking and mountaineering expeditions. Sometimes it was pristine isolated locations like those in Iceland, and other times it was the beautiful campgrounds by Lake Mead in Nevada (pictured above is me next to Lake Mead’s sunset, taken feet away from our camp). But always, always it was a great experience which let me appreciate the nature, the skies, the elements, and the camaraderie of my friends or colleagues.

In January 2020 I started reading academic papers regarding camping for one of my university projects. After all, it is one of the biggest outdoor recreation activities in the U.S. – with over 40 million people taking part in it annually (data from 2019), and I am a student of Sustainable Tourism and Protected Areas Management. Then the COVID-19 happened, and suddenly campgrounds became of even greater importance. Following the ‘shelter at home’ and months of self-isolation, people are now seeking opportunities to safely get outside, to be able to enjoy nature while practicing the necessary physical distancing. All this is possible via camping, and I am happy to share with you here what I have learnt so far.

Staying in temporary ‘packable’ camps is not new to humanity. Think all the nomadic people for whom it is a way of living (picture to the left features the roof of a traditional ger (yurt) I took in Mongolia last summer), the military encampments from the Alexander the Great era to the Civil War and beyond, or the ‘frontier explorer’ expeditions, like that by Lewis and Clark in 1804 – 1806. In other words, there have always been people who were experts in ‘roughing it’, able to live in the wilderness using temporary shelters.

Camping as a leisure activity (meaning camping as a choice, for pleasure) is rather modern, however. In the U.S. the first confirmed leisure travels were those to visit the Niagara Falls after the Erie Canal was constructed in 1825. The first real mass ‘promotion’ of the benefits of the outdoors did not happen until 1869, when the William Murray’s book “Adventures in the Wilderness, or Camp Life in the Adirondacks” was printed (and reprinted seven more times in one year!). Murray had a clear love and passion for the outdoors and the Adirondacks (where he would spend fifteen summers total) which he conveyed to readers. The book became so influential there were specially scheduled trains to the area, more than two hundred camps were set up, and the term “Murray Fools” became widespread.

This was the East Coast story. The West had to wait for its first leisure visitors until the twentieth century with much of it due to the establishment of the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies managing large areas of pristine lands. And while initially the first campers were free to put up tents anywhere (there are literary accounts of this in Yellowstone), eventually their numbers became too significant to continue this practice without harming the parks. The establishment of designated campsites in the protected areas pursued several goals at once: providing safety and enjoyment to visitors while keeping the bulk of nature sheltered from issues like litter (including human waste), noise pollution and potential fires. The 1932 handbook on ‘The Campground Policy’ by E.P. Meinecke was a baseline reference for many of standardized campsites – it foresaw the automobile traffic and strived to limit the damages to nature, all the while providing maximum comfort to campers.