A Short History of the Campsite

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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.

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.

Read Martin Hogue’s four concepts at Places >>

Source: Places

Image by Eurapart, licensed under Creative Commons.


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.  

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