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Camping Technology: Then and Now
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by Dan Soeder, Chapter Outings Chair | 2010

Lots has changed over the years, from boots to food to tents!

Back in the days when John Muir was trying to get the Sierra Club off the ground as an organization, he turned to outings as a mechanism to build membership. Muir held the opinion that if people could just be gotten out into the wilderness to see what was there, they would be more inclined to support efforts to preserve it.

We sometimes forget how much more difficult outings were logistically in the old days. The Sierra Club ran one big outing out of San Francisco every summer called the High Trip. The expedition traveled to Yosemite Valley, and then climbed up above the valley into Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra, and stayed at campsites along the Tuolumne River. In 1910, it took almost two weeks to get up there from San Francisco, lugging a ton of gear in horse-drawn wagons. A hundred years later, it can be done in a rental car in one afternoon.

Although there used to be a lot more wild areas in the world, it is actually much easier to get to outdoor places these days. Roads now go almost everywhere, and even rural roads are paved, when a century ago, dirt was the norm. It is hard to find an unpaved road anymore, especially in the eastern U.S. A lot of people own vehicles with 4 wheel drive, but something like 85 percent of them have never been off pavement.

Our modern camping gear is better, lighter and stronger. Imagine hauling canvas tents and a cast-iron, wood-burning cookstove out to a campground today. The cookstove in particular was a cantankerous affair, set up inside a special tent with a sheet-metal chimney arrangement poking out through the roof. It was fired with locally collected wood, and sometimes with charcoal or coal that was brought along. Modern white gas and propane stoves are far lighter, smaller, easier to start, safer to use and more efficient at heating food.

All I know about canvas is that it is heavier than nylon, and when it gets wet, it is a LOT heavier. The old-style canvas tents were set up using wooden center poles for supports, with ropes  tretched and staked out to stiffen and support the sides. Tripping over a rope or running into a center pole could bring the whole affair crashing down. A modern, fiberglass pole-supported, nylon dome tent is as different from the old canvas rigs as a 757 is from the Wright Brothers Flyer. Plus, they can be set up in a fraction of the time. One bit of technology from the old days that is still relevant for comfort camping in a tent is to sleep on a cot, which prevents the sore ribs that come from sleeping on the ground.

Cooking must have been a challenge in the old days. They probably served up soups and stews made from dried and preserved meats, potatoes, carrots and other vegetables that traveled well. Biscuits and flapjacks would have been made from flour brought along, and maybe there were some dried fruits for breakfast or dessert. There also might have been some canned goods and foods preserved in jars.  Modern, freeze-dried trail food would have astounded the old High Trip participants. Even the variety of convenience meals you can buy in a regular grocery store that only need water to prepare is pretty amazing. Everything from pancake mixes to macaroni and cheese travels well to a campground, and can be easily prepared in the outdoors. I know a few outstanding  camp cooks who would qualify as master chefs, but as long as you can figure out how to boil water, you can cook in the woods.

The joys of camping, including dayhikes on local trails; the sight, sound and smell of a campfire; the sounds of the woods at night; and the view of the stars far from city lights are just as wonderful now as they were a century ago. We have a couple of camping trips planned this summer. If you’ve never been camping, or haven’t camped in awhile, please consider joining us.

On outings labeled “camping,” you can haul your gear in a car (instead of a backpack) and enjoy luxuries in the woods that the old timers on the High Trip could only have dreamed about. It’s a fun and cheap way to get out of town for awhile, and enjoy some solace with nature. Check out the trips and give one of us a call. We’d be happy to show you how to make macaroni and cheese in the woods.

See you outside,

Daniel J. Soeder
WV Chapter Outings Chair
Dan.Soeder@sierraclub.org

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