A Short History of the Campsite

Open camp in Adirondacks
Open camp in Adirondacks, ca. 1890. [Courtesy of the Adirondack Museum]

One does not impose, but rather expose the site.
— Robert Smithson 1

There is a satisfying immediacy about the prospect of establishing an encampment for the night — clearing the site, erecting the tent, chopping wood, building a fire and cooking over the live flame — that in turn suggests a meaningful connection to landscape, place and the rugged life of backwoods adventurers. In essence camping is an act of faith and survival, a way to buttress a modest, isolated human settlement against the forces of nature. Situated “somewhere between challenging new circumstances and the safe reassurances of familiarity,” the camp is a temporary substitute for the home — a place to dwell, to sleep, to interact socially, to prepare and eat food. 2 Stripped of any but the most vital conveniences, the camp is literally and figuratively open to the stimuli of its natural surroundings.

This summer millions of Americans will take to the road in search of this powerful experience of nature. And that parcel of land upon which most will elect to drive their car, set up their tent, park their trailer or RV is the campsite — which is thus not only an imagined ideal but also the fundamental unit of management of the modern campground. There are 113,000 federally managed campsites in the United States, 166,000 campsites dispersed across state parks, and untold numbers in private facilities. 3 Last year Kampgrounds of America — KOA, familiarly — alone reported a total usage of over five million campsite nights, as well as 1.5 million hits monthly on its website. 4

Modern campsites embody a peculiar contradiction: They are defined and serviced by an increasingly sophisticated range of utilities and conveniences, and yet marketed to perpetuate the cherished American ideal of the backwoods camp. For artist Robert Smithson, whose sensitivities to site and site-making were informed by childhood family camping trips he helped organize, the campsite was where one could reenact the making of a place. 5 Campgrounds indeed commodify into multiple sites — literally tens of thousands of them — with each functioning as the locus of a singular experience, which is itself further commodified and mediated by popular imagery. The record sales reported by sporting utility stores like REI and EMS owe largely to the retailers’ successful efforts to associate their equipment with the out-of-doors and the prospect of healthy living. For many urbanites, high-performance gear — hiking boots, mountaineering vests, etc. — have become staples of everyday casual chic.

Postcard, Silver Streak, “The Finest Travel Trailer Built.” [Via Flickr]

Modern campgrounds are replete with delightful irony: each “lone” campsite functions as a stage upon which cultural fantasies can be performed in full view of an audience of fellow campers interested in much the same “wilderness” experience. Who in the camping community has not experienced a degree of gear envy at the sight, on a neighboring camp, of a brand new Primus Gravity II EasyFuel stove (with piezo ignition), a Sierra Designs tent, or a Marmot sleeping bag? KOA even leases some permanently parked Airstream trailers, which allow campers to spend the night in a cultural icon; this experiment also allows would-be campers to show up without any personal equipment, just as they would at a roadside motel. No wonder that the daily repetition of chores once associated with survival has now been so fully recast as a series of almost spiritual rituals intended to reconnect the camper with what has been largely lost; for by now most of the old necessities — hiking to and clearing the site, hunting for game, collecting water and firewood — have given way to such less arduous activities as parking the car, pitching cable-free pop tents, buying cold cuts at the campground store, hooking up electrical and sewerage conduits, setting up patio chairs, etc. Serviced by networks of infrastructure and populated with trailers and $100,000 RVs, campgrounds celebrate a unique form of American ingenuity in which intersecting narratives and desires (wilderness, individuality, access, speed, comfort, nostalgia, profit) have become strangely and powerfully hybridized.

To tell the story of the campsite is not to tell the story of any one site or even any one campground, but rather to examine how this cultural ideal of rugged American character came to be appropriated and transformed into a generic and widely replicated template of spatial protocols. It is to talk not only about campers but also about the crucial role of motor vehicles in shaping this narrative, which begins rather innocuously with early 20th-century roadside bivouacs and culminates in today’s tightly organized loops of dedicated plots. The following four concepts seem to me key to understanding the radical physical and cultural transformations of the campground in the past century.

1. Spatial enclosure / spatial alienation

If there is any message … that I would sear with words deeply grooved into the plastic record of the brain so that it could never be forgotten, it would be this: Autocamp upon others as you would have others autocamp upon you. This ought to be the Golden Rule — or the Gasoline Rule — of motor camping.
— F. Everett Brimmer 6

It is easy to overlook the fact that organized campgrounds originated as much in the perceived need to protect unsuspecting or uneducated campers from nature’s darker forces as in the opposite wish to spare nature from malevolent human action. The very expression campground seems inherently paradoxical, with camp evoking an informal and often temporary site-making, and ground suggesting a formally dedicated territory. Thus the term suggests dueling agencies, private and collective, seductive and restricting, enabling and protective all at once. By tolerating a degree of ecological degradation and confining campers within a specified zone, campgrounds prevent visitors from occupying just any place they might otherwise gain access to. The subtlety of the spatial enclosure might help maintain the illusion of freedom — of being in nature — but the camper is, in fact, captive.

Top: Paradise Valley campground, Mount Rainer National Park. [Courtesy of Mount Rainier NP Archives] Bottom: Camping Paradise, Indiana Dunes State Park. [Postcard from the collection of Steven R. Shook, via Flickr]

As the packed scene in Mount Rainier’s Paradise Valley campground in 1915 makes clear, the first public campgrounds in the United States were nothing more than large, dedicated clearings, free of trees, within which to concentrate groups of tourists. Later practices such as time restrictions, pillow counts, admission fees and even moat-building would impose further restrictions: the spatial enclosure would become not only a means to confine tourists but also a way to keep undesirables out. But the spatial enclosure not only protects campers; just as important, it actually isolates them from nature. The introduction of utilities further reinforced the limits of the protected space. Campsites became internally oriented, and recreational campers, unlike their forebears, were no longer expected to venture much beyond. Why should they fend for themselves, gather wood, hunt game, locate water, when they have available electricity hookups, collective toilets, the nearby tap, the camp store?

This is surely a subtle form of alienation (you think you are in nature, but are distanced from it); and it leads to an important cultural shift: the idealization of nature as peaceful and non-threatening. Before the introduction of modern amenities, early 20th-century campers would often mistakenly place their trust in scenic roadside tableaus, unsuspecting that, say, the sparkling water from the cold streams might be potentially harmful. For many modern campers features such as campground taps (with filtered water often piped in from distant sources) reinforce the perception of nature as an abstraction. Nature is expected to remain comfortable, visually and emotionally inspiring; but its atmospheric effects should be negligible. Campground operators themselves emphasize this perception, typically closing facilities before seasonal temperatures plunge below freezing. As a result most campers never confront the brutal rigors of weather, to the point where an evening frost, some persistent bugs, or a light rain might now count as major hardships, and as such providing memories to be recounted in family conversations for years to come.

The dramatic events of June 11 – 12, 2010, at the Albert Pike Campground in the Ouachita Mountains National Forest of southwest Arkansas, challenged the tenacious fantasy — practically a pact — that recreational campers have long cherished about nature. During the night a storm developed; heavy rains quickly saturated the ground and caused flash flooding; the nearby Caddo and Little Missouri Rivers overflowed their banks in a few hours. While many campers managed to flee, others were caught off guard and drowned. Among the dead were six children under the age of seven, who later came to symbolize the particular loss of innocence that campers fear when they enter the woods. While factors of both geography (isolation, rugged terrain, poor phone reception) and design (lax registration procedures and evacuation protocols) can be faulted for the loss of life, the disaster also underscores crucial historical shifts within the culture of camping itself: an increasing lack of awareness of potential danger, and an implicit trust in the protective confines of the spatial enclosure of the campsite and the resources at hand.

Albert Pike Campground flood
Albert Pike Recreation Area after flash floods in June 2010. [Courtesy of the National Weather Service]

2. The cleared site and the presumption of rusticity

Lamentable is the fact, that during the six days given over to creation, picnic tables and outdoor fireplaces, footbridges and many other of man’s requirements, even in natural surroundings, were negligently and entirely overlooked.
— Albert Good 7

Albert Good’s mock surprise that the original wilderness was not outfitted with amenities presumes that nature is an Eden meant to be consumed. Good’s hyperbole actually points to an increasingly common attitude: that properly rusticated infrastructural components are not obstacles to, but rather a necessary condition of, the full enjoyment of nature. These components mark a specific potential for use: picnic tables for sitting and eating, fire pits for setting up camp, wooden steps for negotiating difficult grades, and the like. Published in 1938 in Park and Recreation Structures and widely disseminated — just as the WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps were undertaking a major expansion of recreational facilities in state and national parks — the author’s specifications would form much of the backbone of contemporary campground design.

Good’s observation sets up a key dialectic between fixed infrastructure, on the one hand, and the personal equipment that must be ported in by the camper, on the other. Before the incremental and systematic implementation of modern utilities (water, bathrooms, electricity, fire pits, food lockers, etc.), recreational campers had to transport an array of domestic apparatus (including water basins, tables, chairs, stoves, tents, etc.) from one campground to another. To carry all these comforts, touring automobiles were outfitted with sideboard lockers, trailers and even built-in unfolding tents and tables. The motor vehicle quickly became integral to the camping experience, not only for what it could transport but also as an extension of the campsite. In the 1920s — an era that predated campers and RVs — trade advertisements trumpeted curious inventions such as hammocks strewn inside automobiles and engine surfaces that did double duty as hot plates for preparing meals. And just as the found site and the automobile respectively exemplified wilderness rusticity and technological sophistication, these short-lived innovations suggest the origins of a powerful unwillingness to abandon, even briefly, the modern comforts of home. Indeed the presence of the automobile on the campsite seems, then as now, to have been a reassuringly familiar presence in the face of an almost overwhelming change of environment.

But to preserve anew the carefully staged illusion of discovering and dwelling in the wilderness, the modern campsite must also function as a perpetually unfinished site, designed to be provisionally completed each time a new visitor checks in. 8 By physically clearing the site of trees and ground vegetation and limiting the number of fixed infrastructural components, Good and others ingeniously encouraged the delicate yet persuasive sense of rusticity. The loosely domesticated site thus requires the participation of visitors who, importing their own equipment (tent, food, sleeping bags), make its occupation possible, albeit briefly. By later taking care to pack up all belongings and clean the site, each group completes a crucial cycle while also unintentionally clearing and preparing the site for the next occupant. This unending cycle allows us all to enjoy the feeling that we have discovered a site and participated in its construction by temporarily staking claim to it — literally with tent stakes, or maybe with an immobilized trailer or RV — for the night. Hundreds of campers may lay claim to the same site in a single season, but all will remain unknown to the others.

Camping in the 1970s
Camping gear advertisement. [Courtesy of The Coleman Co., Inc.]

3. Spatial coordinates: X marks the spot

It is an inspiring sight to go into … Denver and see several hundred cars parked in their allotted spaces and their happy owners, many of them with large families, enjoying the camp life or recreational facilities of their surroundings.
— Horace Albright 9

In many ways, the assignment of specific sites for individual camping parties constitutes a further refinement of the broad spatial enclosure found in early campgrounds. The idea originated in the 1920s with large facilities such as Denver’s Overland Park (1917-1930). Spreading across 160 acres along the Platte River, the campground built a national following by offering a range of attractions that became the envy of municipal autocamps. Its reputation as the “Manhattan of auto camps” owed perhaps as much to its imaginative assortment of service and programs (a 400-seat movie theater, tourist information services, evening lectures, restaurant, barber shop, gas station, automotive repair garage, grocery store and laundry accommodations) as to its grid of 800 individual lots that could accommodate up to 6,000 autocampers. 10 This arrangement involved not only a high degree of spatial organization but also sophisticated forms of control: systems to collect fees, track camping parties and monitor the length of stays. The campground was no longer an amorphous and contingent gathering of vehicles and tents and cables.

Describing Yosemite’s early campgrounds, Stanford Demars observed that “it was commonly joked — and not without some truth — that the first camper to drive his automobile out of the campground on a holiday morning was likely to dismantle half of the campground in the process due to the common practice of securing tent lines to the handiest object available — including automobile bumpers.” 11 By contrast, Overland Park reflected an obsession with precise statistics that only a refined spatial system could provide. From an early press release: “The total number of cars encamped at Overland Park from May 1 to October 20 … was 7,874; the total number of passengers carried by these cars was 28,910 … The visitors represented forty-seven state [sic], the Dominion of Canada and the district of Columbia. The only state not represented during the season of 1920 was that of Delaware.” 12

The evolution of the campsite: Establishing the spatial enclosure; parcelling individual lots; the Meinecke parking spur; segregation of RV and tent sites; advance registration systems. Click image to enlarge. [Detail from a series of diagrams by Martin Hogue]

The demarcation of the campground into discrete plots produces a complex geography of individual and shared interests. Nowadays, this process serves not only to physically untangle campers from one another but also to fix the density of occupants within a particular territory and to group campers into like-minded communities, for example, keeping noisier RVs and trailers from more modest tent sites. These relationships of individuals to the whole are instrumentalized in the form of a new visual document: the campground map.

For most campers, the ritual of arrival at the campground begins with the handout of the facilities map; the visitor and attendant then agree on the precise location of the campsite. The circling in ink of the agreed-upon location by the attendant ingeniously supports — as do the rituals I’ve described above — the illusion of the cleared site: like a signature, this simple personal gesture makes each copy of the map (and therefore each individual visit to the campground) seem fresh and original, as if each site were being claimed for the first time.

Beyond its obvious wayfinding benefits, the map possesses a peculiar kind of agency: as a visual diagram, the campground map employs graphic strategies that reveal little (if any) of the character of the surrounding environment. Significantly, this type of map promotes an awareness of the campground as a self-sufficient territory independent of its natural surroundings. Depicting numbered plots, roads, bathrooms, showers, water taps, wood bins, snack bar, boat launch and the like, the map offers information through which we can understand and use the camp as a landscape; it not only situates but also establishes, reminding us of the limits of encampment, and of our place inside these limits.

While individual maps denote unique campsites, the use of similar graphic strategies across campgrounds suggests that they are all in some ways rather generic. As the title of Bruce Davidson’s iconic 1966 photograph — Campground No. 4, Yosemite National Park — implies, ironically, the X on the map reduces the specific place to an impersonal coordinate. The act of claiming a site is reduced to a choice between competing amenities: Near the bathroom or the water tap? Near the RV loop? Where are my neighbors? The mark seems at once an imperative (Please camp here) and the trace of an event (This is where I camped). Site is no longer a spatial condition defined by unique surroundings, but rather an abstract designation, akin to a suburban tract or urban parcel. This seems to be a key message of Davidson’s subversive compositional strategy, which depicts fairly ordinary vegetation rather than the iconic vistas featured in popular postcards of Yosemite; there is no way of knowing the actual location where Davidson was photographing.

Bruce Davidson, Campground No. 4, Yosemite National Park
Bruce Davidson, Campground No. 4, Yosemite National Park (1966). [Copyright Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos]

4. Physical and virtual access

A camp proper is a nomad’s binding-place. He may occupy it for a season, or only for a single night, according as the site and its surroundings please or do not please the wanderer’s whim. If the fish do not bite, or the game has moved away, or unpleasant neighbors should intrude, or if anything else goes wrong, it is but an hour’s work for him to pull up stakes and be off, seeking that particularly good place which generally lies beyond the horizon’s rim.
— Horace Kephart 13

The first act of camping is laying claim to the site. But the seductive image of the camper pitching his tent, an “inherited symbol of high adventure,” does not really capture the very first gesture of occupation. 14 One might argue, for example, that the car — and not the camper — is the first occupant of the cleared site (the immobilized bulk of the motor vehicle constitutes a far more powerful statement of intent than does the fabric tent). Others might point to the campground map with its fresh ink stain marking one’s claim, or even to the details of an online reservation made months in advance, as alternate evidence.

Access is a complex phenomenon that happens both within and outside the site itself. To be sure, access involves the presence of physical infrastructure (roads) that leads the camper to the site’s threshold. Expressing concern about overuse in ecologically sensitive areas of national parks during the 1920s, plant pathologist Emilio Meinecke was the first to codify the potentially destructive role of the automobile: “Man injures only those smaller plants he actually tramples under foot. The car, much clumsier to handle, crushes shrubs and sideswipes trees, tracing off living bark and severely injuring them. Oil, a deadly poison to plants, drips from the parked automobile.” 15 Meinecke’s enduring contribution to campground design was to push beyond the notion of the individual plot and propose one-way loop roads that led automobiles to individual parking spurs next to each campsite. In this light, the plot as we know it today is as much about establishing a territory for the camper as about accommodating the automobile in the landscape. The emergence of the heavier, more sophisticated trailers in the 1930s would require a yet more generous re-engineering of Meinecke’s pull-off spur and the implementation of various infrastructural hookups (e.g., electrical, sewage), as well as the progressive segregation of RV and tent sites. Here is John Steinbeck on the trailer: “They are wonderfully built homes, aluminum skins, double-walled, with insulation, and often paneled with veneer of hardwood. Sometimes as much as forty feet long, with air-conditioners, toilets, baths, and invariably television. … A mobile home is drawn to the trailer park and installed on a ramp, a heavy rubber sewer pipe is bolted underneath, water and electrical power connected, the television antenna raised, and the family is in residence.” 16

It would be tempting to limit the question of campsite access to matters of physical infrastructure. But as in the case of the campground map, access increasingly implies the presence of a virtual infrastructure as well, which requires the imagination to make up for a gap in experience. By pointing to a map, we decide which plot to occupy in advance of arrival, before we have seen the site. In the 1920s Meinecke’s newly minted infrastructural guidelines were implemented in response to the growing appeal of automobile tourism. Horace Kephart’s exhortation to take to the wild, “to pull up stakes” and move elsewhere at one’s whim had been quickly embraced by early motorists, who rejected the tyranny of organization and the artificial trappings of late 19th-century railroad tours of the national parks: “You are your own master, the road is ahead; you eat as you please, cooking your own meals over an open fire; sleeping when you will under the stars, waking with the dawn; swim in a mountain lake when you will, and always the road ahead. Thoreau at 29 cents a gallon.” 17

Longmire Village campground, Rainier National Park

Overland Park municipal campground, Denver
Top: Automobile parking spur popularized by Emilio Meinecke, Longmire Village campground, Mount Rainier National Park. [Courtesy of the National Park Archives] Bottom: Overland Park municipal campground. [Courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History and Genealogy Collection]

One suspects that Kephart — focused on not just individualism but also solitude — might well have become alarmed at the masses of automobile tourists taking to the American road. By collectively abandoning the highly organized operations of the railroad tour, these new car campers had created the need for another set of regulations. Railroad tours were limited to the wealthy; affordable automobiles like the Ford Model T would open up recreational opportunities for the growing middle classes. No mater the stirring rhetoric about what “lay beyond the horizon’s rim,” the emergence of autocamping quickly presented new logistical problems. Where should I go? Will there be enough space? How long can I stay? Can I decide before I arrive? It is perhaps ironic, if not surprising, that these new freedoms would be accompanied by a deep sense of anxiety, which would in turn make the campsite a kind of virtual commodity to be compared, acquired and traded outside the physical confines of the campground.

Chapter XIII of Motor Camping by J.C. and J.D. Long (1923) stands out as perhaps the first true measure of the campground as place-less commodity. Consolidating information on over 2,000 municipal, state and federal facilities, the authors published the first directory of U.S. campgrounds. The goal was not to present each campground in terms of its unique characteristics (e.g., natural surroundings) but instead to depict each discrete unit in relationship to a larger system. Arranged state by state in a six-column matrix, the authors established rigid, utility-based criteria (e.g., cost, presence or absence of toilets, drinking water, fireplace or stove, lights, bath or shower) that would allow campers to compare in advance of arrival the relative merits of potential campgrounds.

Unexpectedly, such comparative description would prove generative as well as archival: the campground matrix would act as both inventory record and change agent. Featured prominently in the Long directory, Denver’s Overland Park was among the first campgrounds to optimize this new utility-based descriptive style. And in energetically promoting the unparalleled range of services that secured its popular reputation, Overland Park would become the model for corporations like KOA in the 1960s. But while national and state parks, and even municipal facilities like Overland Park, were conceived as a system of landscapes, Kampgrounds of America promoted a vision of camping as a tightly packaged set of services, akin to those offered by other hospitality industry corporations (e.g., McDonald’s, Holiday Inn, Howard Johnson). By mid-century camping had become big business, and KOA’s growth was propulsive: from a single campground in 1961 to 829 nationwide by 1979. 18 By the mid-1960s it had already surpassed the National Park Service in the number of individual campsites. 19

KOA Campground Directory
KOA Directory, 1970-71, featuring a recipe for creamed beef among the campground listings. Click image to enlarge. [Courtesy of Kampgrounds of America]

A crucial component of KOA’s information strategy was its exclusive, annual directory, which in effect instituted and perpetuated the image of its campgrounds as a self-sufficient system of facilities. To the camper, the directory promised that the quality of the camping experience would be reassuring familiar: “Travel free from worry about where you will stay each night.” 20 With this information at their disposal, campers could now plan their next stop and even call in a reservation to ensure availability. Why look elsewhere? And more: by associating each franchise with an individual family of owners/operators, KOA put a friendly face on its corporate management: the logistics might be highly organized and abstracted, but there would be an actual person on the ground. This combination virtually guaranteed repeat business from satisfied customers someplace down the road.

A close look at a series of yearly directory descriptions for a single KOA franchise in Fort Myers, Florida, reveals shifting styles and priorities. Like the diagrammatic abstractions of the map, a shorthand of specifications is used to describe the campground.

FORT MYERS (1967) OPEN ALL YEAR $3.00 per car for two persons. 25¢ each extra person. 10 miles Southwest on State Hwy. 867 (Beach Road) to Iona. Then 1 mile south on Fort Myers Beach Road (San Carlos Boulevard). Kampground only 3 miles from World’s Safest Beach, Thomas A. Edison Home and Laboratory of our most famous citizen. Fresh and salt water fishing. Gladiola and Mum growing capital of the world. This is Tropical Florida at its best. OWNER: Iona Kampground, Inc., Fort Myers, Florida, P.O. Box 1502. Telephone: MO 4-9642.

FT. MYERS (1969) OPEN ALL YEAR Closed for vacation Sept. 10 thru 25. $3.00 per car for 2, 50¢ each additional person. Located between Ft. Myers and beach on State Rd. 865. 128 spaces — complete facilities with pull thru parking, air conditioned TV lobby, 24 refrigerated food lockers. Pets on leash. Attractions: all kinds of fishing, America’s best sea shelling, world’s safest beach only 2 ½ miles and many golf courses. Owner, reservation address: Iona Kampground Inc., Box 1502, Ft. Myers, Fla. 33902. Phone: (813) 664-9642. FLASH — 150 more spaces with some direct sewer connections by Dec. 10.

FORT MYERS (1970) OPEN ALL YEAR $3.50 per night for two, 50¢ each additional person. No extra charge for water, electrical hookups. Pull through parking, air conditioned TV lobby, laundromat, 24 refrigerated food lockers, pets on leash. All kinds of fishing. America’s best sea shelling, golf courses, safe beach 3 miles away. Colorful side trips including Florida jungle and animals, tropical gardens, water show, good restaurants. Located between Ft. Myers and Mt. Myers Beach. Take 867, turn on beach road, one mile south. Iona KOA, Rt. #3, Box 462. Ft. Myers, Florida, 33901. (813) 664-9642

FORT MYERS BEACH (1976) OPEN ALL YEAR Loc between Ft Myers & Ft Myers Bch, on Rt 865 1 mi S Jct 867. S bound on US 41 take dntn exit turn R on 867. Pull-thrus, A CTV lbby, shflbd, vlybl, grills, pool, free coffee. Pets on leash. Beach 4 mi. Fish, golf, America’s best sea shelling. Restaurant close by. Scenic trips: Jungle Safari, Edison home Shell Factory, 3hrs to Disney World, paved sts. BBGMPSV $6 per nite for 2 (7 12 thru 4 21) 75¢ ea add’l 2 thru 18 yrs. Adults $1. No chg for hkups. Fort Myers Beach KOA, Box 2819, Fort Myers Beach, FL 33931. Hosts: Jack & Shirley Patterson. (813) 481-0655

FORT MYERS BEACH (1979) OPEN ALL YEAR Loc. between Ft Myers and Ft Myers Beach, on rt 865 1 mi S jct 867. S bound on US 41 take dntn Exit turn R on 867. Pull-thrus, A/C TV lobby, grills. Free coffee. Pets on leash. Beach 4 mi. Fish, golf, America’s best sea shelling. Restaurant near. Scenic trips: Jungle Safari, Edison Home, Shell Factory. 3 hrs from Disney World. Paved Streets. BLMSV Rates: $8 per nite for 2. $1 ea add’l persons 2 yrs & over. ( $9 12/1 thru 4/21) no chg for hkups. Fort Myers Beach KOA, Box 2819, Fort Myers Beach, FL 33931. Hosts: Jack & Shirley Patterson.

FT MYERS / PINE ISLAND (2004) OPEN ALL YEAR. INFO (239) 283-2415 PAST KOA CAMPGROUND OF THE YEAR RES (800) 562-8505 I-75 or Rt 41 turn W Rt 78. Turn L at Stringfellow Rd. Secluded camp in tropical setting of exotic wildlife, mango groves & unparalleled fishing. Serene oasis with free seasonal bus to beach, sights & shops. Deluxe sites, free cable TV, clubhouse, pool, spa, exercise room & tennis. Park model. Golf, nature tours, island cruises, fishing charters. Grp pkgs. KOA 5120 Stringfellow Rd, St James City, FL 33956. [email protected]; www.pineislandkoa.com

In many ways, KOA’s appeal lay in homogenizing the camping experience and smoothing out the endearing kinks that make each campsite and experience unique. The company’s telegraphic descriptions underscore its standardization, the consistency of utilities (BBGMPSV) and ease of access from interstates and other major roadways (on rt 865 1 mi S jct 867. S bound on US 41 take dntn Exit turn R on 867). Among the more curious and revealing descriptions of the Fort Myers campground is the characterization of the campsite as a space, acknowledging the importance of the automobile (parking space) over the quality of the encampment itself. The campsite is no longer a prized destination — the end of the road — but rather a brief pause on the way to someplace else.

Like the hotel chains it emulated, KOA created its own virtual access infrastructure; mass mailings, credit card reservations and a toll-free phone number contributed to its success. And in the 1980s, following in KOA’s footsteps, third-party entities like ReserveAmerica sought to appropriate this virtual access model by offering to match campers and campgrounds (for a fee) through a sophisticated phone reservation system and later a web-based service. The sale of the company in 2001 to Interactive Corp., which also manages Ticketmaster, Expedia, and hotels.com, further underscored the new reality that camping was now mass recreation, and could be bundled along with other forms of entertainment. 21

Carl Fleischhauer, Boys Playing Football in Campground West of Arena
Carl Fleischhauer, Boys Playing Football in Campground West of Arena (1983). [Courtesy of Library of Congress American Memory Project, Omaha Indian Music collection]

This increasingly pervasive and sophisticated access infrastructure has in effect democratized the camping experience. Online information duplicates and enhances information once available only on the ground, at the site: on the web, you can browse campground maps of tens of thousands of private and public facilities (often on the same website) and click through to find detailed specs and photographs. YouTube videos, blogs, tweets, and photographs on Flickr and Facebook detail personal vacations at popular facilities. 22 Payments are transacted online. To ensure fair access, some national park campgrounds now accept online reservations up to six months in advance. For the avid practitioner, camping has thus become a year-round activity, one continuous season, real and virtual, on the ground and in the imagination. 23 Web surfing, like camping, is at once a consequence and an expression of the democratic ideal of access — nature commodified and à la carte.

And the Internet is altering the experience of camping as well. Wireless access to the World Wide Web is becoming standard at many campgrounds; campers can now post and read blogs and send and receive email from their tent in the wilderness. Satellites orbiting high above the earth make cell phone communication possible nearly anywhere; even in the remotest regions of the American West, the camper can link to the outside world. 24 The growing presence — or intrusion — of ubiquitous media certainly takes us yet further away from the old idealization of the nature campground as wild place.

Camping as a cultural proposition is, I would argue, most interesting when we approach the prospect of failure — that critical point along a continuum of experience at which this labor of imagination — the conviction that we have ventured into the wild — no longer becomes possible, necessary or even desired. It is at this point that the adventure of camping, over-freighted by the quotidian, blurs into an experience altogether more ordinary, more familiar; it’s at this point that long-cherished ideals are tested, and that lines in the sand between what camping is, and what it is not, are revealed.

Drawing these lines might be largely a matter of perception. Modern comforts have long been part of the wilderness campsite. Early on the installation of electric lights in municipal campgrounds meant that campers could stay on the road until night; they no longer had to set up camp in daylight. Nowadays, purists might gasp at the availability of flush toilets or at the presence of neighbors for the night, while others might draw the line at the necessity of driving to the campsite, or the opportunity of overnighting an RV in a shopping mall parking lot. 25 The ability to watch a nationally televised baseball game from the concrete pad outside a late-model RV using campground-provided cable, or to send emails wirelessly from the campsite picnic table — standard amenities at most KOAs — bespeaks the near total elimination of boundaries between the home and away. Is this the point at which the labor of camping — or, rather, the absence of it — ceases to hold any of its old, once almost mythical power? Or maybe our denial is a new kind of labor, as we work to ignore, in the face of mounting evidence and increasing comfort, the parody of camping that takes places at so many modern campgrounds. But this is camping as well.

Editors' Note

For more, see Martin Hogue’s follow-up feature, “Kampground, America.”

  1. Robert Smithson, “Toward the Development of an Air Terminal Site,” Artforum, 6/10/1967. Reprinted in Nancy Holt, editor, The Writings of Robert Smithson (New York: New York University Press, 1979), 47.
  2. John Jakle and Keith Sculle, Motoring: The Highway Experience in America (Athens: University of Georgia Press), 105.
  3. Federal statistics are as follow: 25,800 sites in national parks; 70,100 sites on lands managed by the Forest Service, as well as 17,500 other sites (BLM, et al.). All statistics compiled by the author.
  4. Kampgrounds of America, Kampground Directory: 2010 Edition (Billings, MO: 2010), 28, 223.
  5. Susan Sessions Rugh, Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2008), 10.
  6. F. Everet Brimmer, Autocamping (Cincinnati: Stewart Kidd co, 1923), 240.
  7. Albert Good, cited in Ethan Carr, Wilderness by Design: Landscape Architecture and the National Park Service(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 283.
  8. Charlie Hailey, Campsite: Architectures of Duration and Place (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 7.
  9. Horace Albright, cited in “The Great Spring Drive,” Denver Municipal Facts, April 1918, 7.
  10. Warren James Belasco, Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 72.
  11. Stanford Demars, The Tourist in Yosemite (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991), 139.
  12. “Tourist Increase at Overland,” Denver Municipal Facts 10 (1920), 14.
  13. Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft (1917. Reprint, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008), 20.
  14. Albert Good, cited in Abigail Van Slyck, A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-196 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 109.
  15. Emilio Meinecke, cited in Linda F. McClelland, Building the National Parks: Historic Design and Construction(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 277-278.
  16. John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 75.
  17. “Two Week’s Vagabonds,” The New York Times, July 20, 1922, sec VII, 7. Cited in Warren James Belasco,Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945, 8.
  18. KOA has several franchises in Canada and Mexico, too.
  19. Susan Sessions Rugh, Are We There Yet?, 131.
  20. Kampgrounds of America, Kampground Directory: 1970 Winter Edition (Billings, MO: 1970), 8.
  21. Managed by the National Recreation Reservation Service, Recreation.gov provides access to all federally managed campgrounds (National Parks, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management) in the United States.
  22. Interesting blogs include Travels with Charley, which covers a wide range of subjects including “gear, supplies, adventure and activities for the 21st century camper”; and Camping Blogger, which promotes a similar range of topics for the family-minded camping trip.
  23. Conversation with professor of geography (Cal Poly, Pomona) and camping scholar Terry Young, March 22, 2010.
  24. W.E. Riebsame, ed., Atlas of the New West: Portrait of a Changing Region (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).
  25. Wal-Mart’s announcement in 2001 that it would permit RVs to park for the night in its parking lots suggests a financial interest similar to those of municipal campgrounds in the 1920s. Said one Wal-Mart spokesperson: “We treat them as shoppers who take a long time to make up their minds.” See Donald Wood, RVs & Campers: 1900 – 2000 (Iconographix, 2002), 150.
Martin Hogue, “A Short History of the Campsite,” Places Journal, May 2011. Accessed 03 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/110531

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Past Discussions View
  • OnDaRoad

    05.31.2011 at 13:35

    I was trying to tweet this but this RV Park wifi keeps going in & out! :-)

  • Worldwalker

    06.02.2011 at 08:56

    Not everyone drives a $100,000 RV to a place indistinguishable from the city and does exactly the same things they would do at home. Not everyone envies other people's gear, either, for that matter; if it does the job one got it for, it's good enough, no matter what else someone is spending their money on. And there's a 2-man tent (with poles) to sleep in and a campfire to cook on, and darkness outside the firelight when the sun goes down.

    Maybe they need a place for the RV owners and TV watchers where they'd be safe and comfortable and have all the amenities they're looking for. They could call it ... a motel.

  • elaine barclay

    06.03.2011 at 12:45

    our family has owned a bathing beach and campground since the '30s. it is interesting to see the changes that have taken place. however, many of the same families have been coming there to "get away from it all" since it first opened. both White Crystal Beach and Elkview Shores in Earleville, MD. have been getaways for people in the tri-state region ever since.

  • Erin Evans

    06.08.2011 at 17:33

    I've worked for the FS on a few forests and have come across a few repeating themes and misconceptions. A frustration and bafflement is getting visitors to understand what "wilderness" is. It's not just a term used for any forested area more than a few miles from a gas station. FYI...it's not the inherent right of the elderly and disabled to use ATV's in wilderness areas of the forest. Campgrounds were built long before most people retired and bought giant homes on wheels therefore not all campgrounds can accommodate 45' RV's with 4 slideouts, check with the forest before you roll up and find out that you can't stay because your rig won't fit. There are rules on the forest such as speed limits, seat belts, fire arms, and open containers, it's not a free for all. Leash laws apply in developed areas on the forest and that means YOU too even if YOU are the son of the forest supervisor!!! Clean up after yourself and put your fires out 100% A tent wall does not insulate your noise so be conscientious of your fellow campers and be quiet after 10pm, if you are hellbent on partying stay home!!!. Wildlife does what wildlife does, if you want to see them it helps to get away from your vehicle and go for a hike. You don't have to camp in a campground, you can camp in dispersed camping sites or in the undeveloped areas of the forest. When your "camp site" has turned into a "tent city" complete with vacuum cleaner and multiple cats you've probably overstayed your limit!!

  • Ken Pidcock

    06.12.2011 at 00:11

    Most of our camping these days is on land owned by friends, originally intended for a hunting cabin (the best laid plans...), which they've improved, including septic, to the point of having a decent campground, with maybe eight tent sites, a fire pit surrounded by a graveled sitting area, and a large covered dining pavilion (well, a carport, actually).

    I'll bet there are many thousands of places like it, one for every group of friends whose plans to build a hunting cabin came to naught. I, for one among many freeloaders, am grateful for it.

  • Paul Souders

    06.12.2011 at 06:11

    A couple of thoughts while reading:

    1. Many of the fascinating ironies presented here are in fact age old. Foragers have made habitual use the same landscape features (camping every winter at the same sites for example). These habitual uses were codified using social regulations such as marking sites, or having proprietary rights to sites that are known to other members of the group through social mechanisms. Foragers leave sites in varying states preparation, for example when living in a Yupik village in Alaska I was struck by one man's description of a place upriver as "where we keep the good coffee pot."

    2. Many of these ironies are inverted when camping by other means of transport.

    Bike camping often takes one from one small town to another, where much of the camping happens in public parks. So the effect is to more closely inhabit the HUMAN landscape than in everyday life.

    Bush travel by plane or boat often takes campers to highly prepared sites such as a cabins, where basic amenities seem less ironic.

    Backpacking and horse packing (and to some degree ATV camping) takes one much farther from the developed landscape, with an accompanying heightened awareness of natural dangers. Dozens of backcountry campers die every year of exposure in North America, with little public outcry, because the danger is accepted as part of the experience. This type of camping also places a premium on "solitude" -- who wants to hike 20 miles to camp cheek by jowl with strangers?

    But, point taken: these kinds of camping represent a tiny fraction of car camping, which is what most people consider "camping" these days.

    3. Many people (myself included) car camp not for access to nature or somesuch but because it's cheaper than (but comparable in comfort to) a motel. Which helps explain ironies like KOAs with wifi.