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What’s the difference between legitimate camping and simple vagrancy or homelessness?

Just in time for the release of KOA’s eighth annual report about the state of camping in North America (read more about that here), historian Phoebe S. K. Young has published “Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement,” a book that gets at the deeper complexity of this fundamentally American pastime and of our love-hate relationship with this wacky idea of sleeping outdoors.

Camping Grounds

As reviewed by Dan Piepenbring in the current issue of The New Yorker, Young’s book explores Americans’ confusion about what constitutes legitimate camping and how it’s different from simple vagrancy or homelessness. As Piepenbring notes, as far back as the 1870s, campers “didn’t want to be mistaken for actual vagabonds, and the line between the two was easily smudged.” An early camping enthusiast described it as “a luxurious state of privation,” to which Piepenbring adds, “One of its luxuries was that it was temporary.” Indeed, the travel industry of that time began to promote tramping as an aesthetic, “something that campers could slip into and shuck off as they pleased.”

A book titled "Camping Grounds" by Phoebe S.K. Young

Come the Great Depression, however, and the shucking-off was not as easily accomplished—as is becoming increasingly true today. With an estimated 1.5 million Americans sleeping outside or in shelters, “budget-minded vacationers were sometimes cheek by jowl with the down-and-out. Who could say which was which?” In a further echo of today’s spurious industry representations, “manufacturers of camping trailers went out of their way to disclaim the use of their products as a ‘permanent address,’” in an apparent attempt to further the conceit that this was just a temporary affectation.

But as more than three million visitors overran national parks and monuments—at that time considerably less developed than they are today—their undisciplined impact on the environment was unsustainable. “The deluge was unmanageable,” Piepenbring wrote, in a passage that is equally descriptive of today’s circumstances. “In addition to arresting vistas and pristine forests, campers expected generous amenities—firewood, electric lights, running water, garbage collection—and they were not in the habit of leaving nature as they found it.”

Struggling to strike a balance between leisure and nature, in support of a belief that doing so was “a potent way for citizens to demonstrate national belonging,” U.S. Forest Service employee Emilio Meinecke came up with a campground design to minimize campers’ impacts on plant life that is still used today. Yet even as almost 90,000 acres of federal campgrounds were reworked according to his template, Meinecke was fretting that campers were overstaying their welcome. Some visitors, he complained, “evidently camped for a long time,” giving his sites a “‘used,’ second-hand look” that spoiled it for “decent people who are not slum-minded.”

History repeats itself

Nearly a century later, history is repeating itself. While Young’s more contemporary focus in the second half of her book is on camping as a tool of social protest, including tent cities raised by the Bonus Army in 1932, Resurrection City in 1968, and Occupy Wall Street more recently, it could as readily have noted that uncounted millions are again “easily smudging” the distinction between campers and “actual vagabonds.” At least a million RVers are full-timing, often on public lands, often for the extended periods that gave Meinecke fits about creating a “‘used,’ second-hand look.” Another 600,000 or so Americans are living on city streets and in shelters, and untold tens of thousands more are sheltering in national forests and on Bureau of Land Management acreage. Many are in tents, but many also are in battered old RVs, adapted vans, and school bus conversions.

The worsening housing crisis will only increase these numbers (all of which are conservative estimates), adding to a “camping” population that is not accepted as such—if it’s even recognized—by the various industry-driven studies on the subject. When one of the key findings in KOA’s annual survey is that nearly 40 percent of campers report a household income of more than $100,000, for example, you can be pretty certain its research did not extend to those for whom the outdoor “lifestyle” is not something they can just “shuck off.”

You can find Phoebe S. K. Young’s book here.

Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park. From the book: “While campers are out to experience fresh air, bucolic surroundings and the easy-going camaraderie of fellow travelers, the people who create that environment are often over-worked, under-paid and stressed out. And to make matters worse, their efforts are too readily dismissed as just ‘renting dirt.’” The fascinating book is available at some bookstores and at Amazon.com.

##RVT1051

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Keith
13 days ago

People are moving to rvs because they dont have a choice . You cant find a single place to live on social security . There is no housing help in this country unless you consider long waiting list help. Seeing more people fulltime rving is a sign the USA is seriously messed up.

Zayer
16 days ago

So why is this important again and why should people read this and care 🤔

Hoop
17 days ago

Giving a drug addict or mentally ill person an RV will not make then better, nor is it humane. The junkie will use it for drug acquisition and the mentally ill will destroy it through neglect or while in the throws of being mentally ill.

Living in an RV fulltime does NOT change who you are despite the advertisements.

If you are an imbecile and jerk before RVing, you will still be one on the road. The only thing that will change will be the address and state in which you are arrested or committed.

The recent trend in supplying the homeless with an RV only improves the pocketbook of the one who does selling or renting.

There are no enforceable standards when constructing an RV except for the dimensions. Basically, some of the RVs, new or used, cheap or expensive, that are pushed onto people are no better than the cardboard boxes one sees people living in on the streets.

Hoop
17 days ago

Qq

Kate R
17 days ago

It’s definitely been a learning experience for me as a solidly upper middle class full-timer. My husband and I started out in a Winnebago Travato we bought and drove off the lot brand new. We sold it two years later and converted a school bus. Nothing about us changed other than the vehicle we were living in but we now regularly get dirty looks from both locals and from folks in RVs who assume we’re homeless. It has taught us a lot about people’s prejudices, especially those of other RVers. I’d far rather have people scowling at us and showing us their true colors when they think we are poor/homeless than make friends with those same folks who welcomed us when they saw us approaching in our fancy new RV.

Lisa
14 days ago
Reply to  Kate R

So true . I guess it’s like in the brick and mortar world alot of people think less of people who don’t live like they live.

Steve
17 days ago

This article is a book review, not a social commentary, so get off your political soap box. Simple–if you don’t like the subject, then don’t read the book!

Mark Olsen
17 days ago

It’s just part of the new WOKE agenda from the left. It’s no longer fashionable to refer to someone as a bum or vagrant even if in fact that’s exactly what they are. So many things we can’t call by their true and honest names thanks to the woke left. In my mind it simply comes down to one big thing that will cover all this and more including so-called climate change. WE HAVE TOO MANY PEOPLE LIVING ON OUR SMALL PLANET.

captain gort
17 days ago
Reply to  Mark Olsen

BINGO! Spot on, Mark!

Richard
14 days ago
Reply to  Mark Olsen

Right it’s the woke left – if it wasn’t for them there’d be no homeless bums or crazies running around – and the so called ” climate change” hah what a joke – all those stupid scientists and experts don’t know anything – just today I stepped outside to a nice sunny day not too hot or cold – that says it all. Yep it’s the woke lefts fault. Living in ignorance is awesome.!!

Joseph Average
8 days ago
Reply to  Mark Olsen

You know you’re free at any time to leave right?

Marlene
17 days ago

Read an article the reason for homelessness is less about housing shortage and much more about drug addiction and mental illness. Both of these diseases have gotten worse post covid due to mask mandates and shut downs.

Tim
17 days ago
Reply to  Marlene

How do “mask mandates and shut downs” lead to “drug addiction and mental illness”?

captain gort
17 days ago
Reply to  Marlene

When I see a person all alone on a deserted beach, strolling with a MASK on….I KNOW that a mass psychosis is happening. And I see this- or something equally asinine- all the time.

Mary Edwards
16 days ago
Reply to  captain gort

I got a real awakening when my grandkids ages 7 – 13 got in the car and didn’t take their masks off day after day. I finally told them I couldn’t tell which of them was talking with their masks on. They looked stunned because none of the four had thought about their masks until I mentioned it. The 9 year old said “Our teacher told us she knew that wearing masks was a hard thing to do but she promised we would get used to them.” The 7 year old spoke up and said “I guess your teacher was right.” If grownups would act their age and not put negative thoughts into a child’s head this would be a better world.

Richard
14 days ago
Reply to  Mary Edwards

Right !!! How dare they try to protect the kids and adults from some made up virus – it’s part of the woke lefts plan – free healthcare for all , free college tuition infrastructure upgrades – who needs it – I’d rather live in an RV than have that leftist b.s you with me ginny Sue ? Yup knew you would be yeehaw !!

Mary Edwards
16 days ago
Reply to  captain gort

Is captain gort your real name? Sounds like you are hiding your identity.

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
16 days ago
Reply to  Mary Edwards

I think the majority of the commenters hide their real name, Mary. Or at least just use part of their name. That’s fine with us, as long as they register with their actual email address. There are some very creative names of commenters on here. Some, however, are too crude to post, so they either get trashed or bleeped. Have a great day! 😀 –Diane

Richard
14 days ago
Reply to  captain gort

Right masks are for wusses and the woke left – COVID – more like NOvid- totally made up – never happened all part of the woke lefts agenda to do uhhhh ummm well I don’t know but it’s fake news I’m sure o’ that right jethro?

B T
9 days ago
Reply to  captain gort

People with allergies and allergic to pollution And Respiratory problems exaberated by Airborne pollutants pollen wear Masks.

Richard
14 days ago
Reply to  Marlene

Right it’s the woke left that’s producing all the dope fiends and mental – there’d be none of that if the awake right could finally finish the job of stealing back the power we lost in 2020!!

Coy
11 days ago
Reply to  Marlene

You mean you read an article that gave you an excuse to pretend like those experiencing homelessness deserve it. There is addiction and mental illness in every community out there, even yours. Yours just has walls to hide it behind. So instead of focusing on anything useful, you will focus on the negative you see and ignore the thousands upon thousands of homeless that have no way out, because too many, like yourself, tell yourself, and everyone who will listen, that they deserve it, and that absolves you of any duty or empathy.

Last edited 11 days ago by Coy
B T
9 days ago
Reply to  Coy

PERSONS permanent Structurally challenged and/or so physically unable or mentally to maintain a structured Housing Residence. Returning to the “Grounding of walking on living on Earth” simplicity for many is Addressing mental health and mentally and physically recharging, invigorating. And proven in Indigenious practices and beliefs.

Socioeconomic of Elderly, Disabled living or non surviving upon SSI $776. oo Monthly Disability check.
Can any of these left or rightists describe Surviving living upon within City, or otherwise being housed according to Societial Standards of Permanent Housing. Subsidized housing is /has being bulldozed. Promised new Replacement as handicapped accessible. 1200 unit Housing now Being replaced with 10 units handicapped. 30% $75,000.00, 20% $37,000.00 income are lowest qualifying incomes.
Where does the $776. Disable monthly income or $867. Couple monthly income fit in? To live in Housing Structure to call home??