What is Camping?

I recently had a buddy go on a rant on how people in RVs couldn’t consider themselves campers, that these glampers, a recent term for “glamorous camping” weren’t really camping at all. Chuckling, I reminded him that his expedition level Jeep complete with off-road trailer, rooftop tent, refrigerator, heater, AC, could probably be considered an RV. Camping has not had a definition update in a very long time, and this creates friction and a sense of superiority among the different classes of campers. The commonly accepted rule is that to say you “camped” means you slept in a tent at night. Past that, you get into arguments with phrases like “Yeah, but that’s not really camping” like I did with my friend.

This really set me to thinking though, what exactly is camping? While that’s a seemingly obvious question, how would I explain it someone who had no concept of what camping is; just like how people have to stop and explain to me what a Kardashian is, (because I honestly have no clue), how would I talk to someone with a clean mental slate. As mentioned previously, the dictionary definition of camping is having slept inside of a tent, so by extension elaborate canopy beds would count as camping every night of the year and I think we can all agree that isn’t camping. So let’s narrow down that definition a bit and put some more qualifiers around the term.

The most commonly argued point is whether RVs should be accepted or if they’re another entity entirely; are pop-up campers big tents or are they an unholy abomination of the righteous tent and the evil RV. As a tent camper who has experienced every temperature extreme in a tent, it’s easy to be angry, self-righteous, and if truthful, jealous of these wheeled hotels that have life giving air conditioning in the middle of July. In good conscience I can’t exclude the RV’er completely from the definition of “camping” because I know older people who were more adventurous in their youth than I’ll ever be who are now using RVs because health has necessitated it. I know parents who can hike circles around me while carrying a toddler that use small trailers because tent camping with a 6 month old is a level of difficulty that sometimes isn’t worth the reward. I’m not going to belittle them by saying they weren’t really “camping” just because their walls were solid; besides, old timers in canvas tents had their walls frozen enough to probably count as solid walls.

Part of the amenity argument is that camping has to be rough and tough. Bush craft, flint and steel, Bear Grylls, and dysentery are all by-words that are used to try and distinguish a real camping experience. If you have any idea what fake camping is, please send me an email because I’m still clueless what that is as I am by the Kardashians. Kickback from this frontier attitude gave rise to glamping which is best described as the type of camping you saw in the movie “Out of Africa”, just with less Robert Redford. If comfort alone defined camping, we wouldn’t be allowed to take sleeping pads, pillows, wicking shirts, sunscreen, bug repellant, or food that had flavor. Taken to logical extremes, you shouldn’t even use a car to arrive at the campground but instead carry everything with your hands because something like a pack is for the soft non-camper. It may sound like I’m making this up, but I once had a man argue with me that you weren’t really backpacking unless you were carrying 60+ pounds on your back, regardless of your size, age, or trip length.

Perhaps where you camp is as important as how you camp. Wilderness and nature are some of the powerful draws for camping in the first place, the “getting away” that’s so appealing. Can camping in heavy tourist areas like Gatlinburg or Myrtle Beach be written off because there’s too many people? Hipster-ism, a word I just invented, is the tendency of people to shun anything mainstream or accessible simply because it’s popular, not because it’s lacking. For example, if you have a friend who always looks down on others for liking music heard on the radio, but praises this band who performs in a cardboard box in an alley every full moon, that’s a form of hipster-ism. America has very popular wild places though: Yellowstone saw 4 million visitors last year; Yosemite had over 5 million. There is no more hallowed camping ground in North America than these 2 places, yet they saw heavier traffic that some amusement parks. So instead of figuring out what camping isn’t, let’s figure out what camping really is.

Camping, while defined as “sleeping in a tent”, is really a word that means “the experience of being in nature for an entire day and night”. I’ll admit, if you have an RV and only stay inside watching movies, I’m not going to count that as camping. You’re not experiencing whatever is outside the door; it may be a KOA right next to a major highway or it may be an alpine meadow in the Rockies, but the point is you’re shutting yourself off from it. Experience what the place has to offer; it might be awful and you’ll regret not staying inside and watching movies but that’s just a lesson of where not to go the next time. Things like cushy sleeping pads and lightweight gear aren’t barriers to your enjoyment either; I’ve never understood the idea that adding unnecessary misery makes something more enjoyable. You don’t chew cloves of garlic before a first date in the hopes it makes it a night to remember, so why would something like a good night sleep on a self-inflating cloud make a camping trip not as good?

Camping is the distillation of a person into the environment. Shut off the phone and stop worrying how many likes you’re missing on Instagram by not taking that picture. Lean back in a chair. Watch the embers glow, sparks scatter in the air, and the dim shadows of bats swooping to catch mosquitos. Listen for the call of an owl, the cacophony of cicadas, the trickle and drips of a nearby stream. Feel the wind gently blow through the trees and the trapped heat in the earth still underneath your tent. Talk with your friends, sing awful renditions of “Carry on my Wayward Son”, find the perfect level of burn on your marshmallow. Camping is never really about what you take with you, but what you leave behind.