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How to Live ‘Amid the Silence of the Woods,’ According to America’s First Camping Guide

8 minute read

Other Americans like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson may be more famous for waxing poetic about the wonders of living in nature — but, with camping season in full swing, a different man deserves the credit for teaching Americans how to actually go about doing so: prominent minister William H.H. Murray, author of the 1869 bestseller Adventures in Wilderness, considered the first guidebook about recreational camping.

“People had camped, but not for recreation,” explains Terence Young, author of Heading Out: A History of American Camping and Professor Emeritus of Geography at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. “Military campaigns set up encampments, and that’s probably where the word comes from.”

Murray’s Adventures in Wilderness was based on his experience camping in New York’s Adirondack Mountains in the 1860s. It detailed the practicalities, what sights to see, how to get there, where to stay, how much to spend and how to hire a guide (for $2.50 a day) to pitch tents and take people fishing.

“From the summit of a mountain, I counted, as seen by my naked eye, forty-four lakes gleaming amid the depths of the wilderness like gems of purest ray amid the folds of emerald-colored velvet,” is just one of many flowery descriptions of the scenery in the Adirondacks with which he entices those he characterized as “pent up in narrow offices and narrower studies, weary of the city’s din.” He touts camping as good for physical health for its “curative qualities,” good for mental health as “perfect relaxation that all jaded minds require,” and of course good for spiritual health, urging faith-believers to “leave the haunts of men — where every sight and sound distracts his attention, and checks the free exercises of his soul — and, amid the silence of the woods, hold communion with his Maker.”

For sleeping, he describes how to make “a bed of balsam-boughs.” On what to wear, he suggests bringing a “felt hat,” “stout pantaloons” and a “rubber blanket or coat.” For warding off woodchucks, “a stick, a piece of bark, or tin plate shied in the direction of the noise will scatter them like cats.” As for wolves, his technique would likely not pass muster with fire wardens: “touch a match to an old stump, and in two hours there will not be a wolf within ten miles of you.” To repel gnats and mosquitoes, a vial of tar was the bug spray of the day, though he also recommends an elaborate method of covering up:

For the hands, take a pair of common buckskin gloves and sew on at the wrists a gauntlet or armlet of chamois-skin, reaching to the elbow and tightly buttoned around. Do not leave any opening, however small, at the wrist, else the gnats may creep up the arm. For the face, take a yard and a half of Swiss mull, and gather it with an elastic band in the form of a sack or bag. Have the elastic so as to slip over the head, which, when you have done, fix the elastic inside the collar band, and you can laugh defiance at the mosquitos and gnats.

His book also contains an ode to eating in the woods: “Up in the woods you take a pancake, twelve inches across, (just the diameter of the pan) and one inch thick, and go conscienciously [sic] to work to surround it. You seize a trout ten or fourteen inches long, and send it speedily to that bourne from whence no trout returns…and the first you know you see your face in the bottom of the dish. And the joke is, you keep doing so, right along, for some thirty minutes or more, rising from each meal a bigger, if not a wiser man.”

And, taking a progressive perspective for his time, Murray also wrote about how camping was “delightful for the ladies,” even including a section on what women can wear. “There is nothing in the trip which the most delicate and fragile need fear. And it is safe to say, that, of all who go into the woods, none enjoy the experiences more than ladies, and certain it is that none are more benefited by it.” He does warn that “no ladies should go into the wilderness” before May and June because the snow may not have melted yet. (Shortly after his book was published, these words would help inspire actor and writer Kate Field to go camping with three women and lecture about their adventures fishing and hunting, which encouraged women to venture into the wild.)

It’s unclear why Murray himself started specifically going to the Adirondacks, but there are good reasons why the region — and the activity — got more popular at that time.

Adventures in Wilderness came out right around the moment when a new train route to the Adirondacks was established, making the area more accessible. A post-Civil War economic boom gave Northeasterners a little more pocket change, which made vacations possible. Given how long it took to get there, these first campers were wealthy people from New York, Boston, Hartford or Philadelphia. And as the industrial revolution shifted jobs to cities, the rapid urbanization created a longing to get some fresh air, literally. “It’s a country of rural people who are suddenly ending up in cities,” as Young puts it.

Reviewers made clear that he was no Thoreau, but acknowledged that he got people thinking about getaways in nature. The Nation described his writing as “gorgeous French, badly translated,” and his writer’s voice as “screechy,” but the content “sensible and worth taking.” The New York Times hailed it as “fresh, lively, and exhilarating.” In the June 1869 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, a critic noted that “The region which it celebrates was by no means unstoried before, but Mr. Murray may fairly claim to be the first to popularize a knowledge of it.”

And it popularized him in turn.

Published in April, the book was in its ninth printing by July, according to Young’s book, and made its author a fortune. Trains offered a free copy of Murray’s guide with the purchase of a round-trip railway ticket to the Adirondacks. Young says it launched a stampede of tourists during the summers of 1869 and 1870 that the press nicknamed “Murray’s Rush.” By 1875, there were about 200 hotels in the Adirondacks, and the summer population had ballooned from 3,000 around 1869 to 25,000 by 1900, by one count. These hoards quickly realized camping was easier said than done. Those who got soaked, injured or bitten up were called “Murray’s Fools.”

Other guidebooks came out, such as John M. Gould’s 1877 How to Camp Out, a guide to backpacking from the perspective of a Civil War veteran, but no one came close to the level of fame that Murray achieved.

Camping would reach its peak, however, in the 1920s, Young says. The number of American campers skyrocketed from 300,000 in 1915 to more than 3,000,000 by 1930, when the invention of the personal automobile made it possible for middle-class Americans to literally hit the road for the first time. The first campground followed shortly after, the brainchild of E.B. Meinecke.

July 14 1971
The July 14, 1971, cover of TIMECover Credit: BORIS ARTZYBASHEFF

And the July 14, 1961, TIME cover story marveled at a camping “craze” spurred by the post-war prosperity and suburbanization:

Why this mass movement into the world of mosquitoes, snakes and burrs? For many, the motive is simply that they are tired of expensive hotels and motels; camping provides an inexpensive vacation. A family of four can go into a national park for $1 (or in some cases, nothing) and an outlay of as little as $200 for equipment that will last for years. For a great number of other people, the urge goes deeper than economics: in a sense they still seek what Thoreau looked for at Walden.

The industrialization, urbanization and suburbanization of modern life have sharpened the need for many to rediscover the essential facts of existence. More than ever, Americans <now have the means — prosperity, new leisure hours — to make that rediscovery.

But as their industries, their urbs, suburbs and highways encroach upon the wilderness, that wilderness becomes particularly precious. Where it remains, its symbol has become a disturbingly anthropomorphic grizzly named Smokey the Bear, who wears pants and a hat and speaks. With perhaps too much urgency, a physician’s wife, drawing water from a campground faucet in the Rockies last week, explained: “We have to get away from the daily routine once in a while, and we want our children to see something of an America that may not be here much longer.”

Today, the Outdoor Foundation reports that about 40.5 million Americans went camping at least once in 2016.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com