Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Classic Camping – What Is It And Why Should You Care?

Heads up, this is going to be a rant. If you don’t like such things, avert your eyes.

Classic Camping is a term that has gained popularity recently. A main driving force behind it has been two men, Steve Watts and Dave Wescott. Both men are very accomplished in the field of primitive technology, and have been teaching on the subject for many years. Their expertise in the field covers everything from Neolithic technology, to early 20th century technology and skills.

So, what is Classic Camping? Since the definition of the term comes largely from Watts and Wescott, we have to look to their writings for the definition. According to an interview given by Steve Watts, Classic Camping, encompasses the camping methods and style of the late 1800s through the 1920s. It involves the use of iron tools, canvas tents, and wool clothing. As Mr. Watts explains, it is the time period when the woodsmanship skills of the past intersected with the technology of the early 20th century. In particular, it is the act of leisure camping. It is the point in our history where woodsmanship skills and camping stopped being necessary tools for explorers, hunters, soldiers, and loggers, but rather become a recreational activity for city folk with free time and money to buy a Ford to take them to the camp site.


Washington, D.C., or vicinity circa 1920. "Dr. A.A. Foster and family of Dallas, Texas, in auto tourist camp."

While Watts and Wescott use a lot of phrases such as “Modern camping is what you do to get some place, classic camping is what you do when you get some place”, and it being the “true way to camp”, the reality is much simpler and less full of flowery language. Classic Camping is RV/car camping early 20th century style. It usually involved huge amounts of heavy equipment, designed for comfort, not for travel. Camp was typically set up right next to the car, with a canvas tent in which “you could stand in to put on your pants”, cast iron pots, table, chairs, etc. The focus was to sit around the camp fire, cook large quantities of food, and I suspect partake in some good quality liquor.


The above picture is from last year’s Woodsmoke Classic Camping (and sadly, bushcraft) gathering.

Sounds like a good bit of fun. Granted, it is far removed from my practices in the woods, but to each his own. If that is what gives one enjoyment, why not? I certainly do it from time to time myself.

Well, for one, there is the annoying remarks about how this was the “golden age” of camping, or how this was “true camping”. I must admit, I find the assertions annoying, as I would hardly call the practice the “golden age” of anything. That's not the main issue however. I am sure I also make similar annoying remarks about my chosen style of camping.

What really bothers me, and the reason why I think you should care is that some people, including Steve Watts and Dave Wescott have been pushing to connect their concept of Classic Camping with woodsmanship and bushcraft. I have to say, the notion of equating Classic Camping with woodsmanship and buschraft, or for that matter even implying a connection greatly upsets me. It upsets me because I am very interested in woodsmanship and bushcraft, and in my evaluation, Classic Camping has nothing to do with either.

If you want to hang out in a huge canvas tent in the parking lot, and cook large amounts of food in a dutch oven so you and your friends can hang out by the fire and tell stories, that great; but don’t pretend like this is woodsmanship or bushcraft. It is not. It wasn’t in 1900, and it isn’t now. All that Classic Camping represents is a bunch of city folk from the early 1900s with disposable income, hanging out by the side of the road on the weekend cooking barbeque and pretending to be woodsman. I am quite sure that the actual woodsmen of the time, you know… the ones that actually were in the backwoods hunting, trapping, exploring and logging had very few good things to say about the city car campers that descended on the woods in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Or perhaps they weren’t upset at all because those woodsmen were actually in the woods and never managed to run into the parking lots where all this “classic camping” was taking place.


The above picture is from last year’s Woodsmoke Classic Camping gathering.

Bushcraft has suffered enough in the past few years. It has gone from being the pursuit of learning of wilderness skills, to a backyard barbeque by fashionably, yet retro dressed people. The implication that bushcraft has turned into nothing more than car camping does not need to be reinforced by outright making it so. Nor does the term “woodsmanship”, which many have started using in recent years to distance themselves from the car wreck that bushcraft has turned into, needs to get dragged into this. Let’s be honest, setting up a canvas tent in the parking lot and lighting the barbeque is as much woodsmanship as hooking up the RV to the sewer system. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are many things one can learn at a Classic Camping gathering. The skills demonstrated there however are tangential and not directly connected to Classic Camping itself. They are remnants of what woodsmanship used to be before people decided that they want to play woodsmen without enduring any of the hardships of actually being in the woods.

All of this is even more troubling because of the commercial interests that have aligned behind it. For those not familiar, Steve Watts and Dave Wescott run the Woodsmoke gathering, one of the largest in the country, which in turn is backed by Bushcraft USA, the largest bushcfraft forum/store. The result is a focused and directed push to equate classic camping, bushcraft, and woodsmanship into a perfect money making, gear selling, $300 per person bargain basement priced ticket, ego fluffing amalgamation that can then be spoon fed to every armchair “woodsman” in the country. It almost brought tears to my eyes last year watching poor Tim Smith trying to give a tortured explanation about how the terms are connected.

Now, I am fully aware that I am powerless to stop any of this from continuing. I just beg those involved, please, please, just leave one term untouched, so that those of us who actually go into the woods, and try to live off of equipment and resources we carry under our own power, can use with some degree of pride. You can have bushcraft. The term has already become a parody, but do you have to take “woodsmanship” as well? It’s not going to make the barbeque in the parking lot any more woodsy. All it will do is force the rest of us to have to come up with yet another term which you will then try to co-opt in order to make your paying membership feel like “real” woodsmen.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying any style of camping. If that gives one the greatest satisfaction, then it is an activity equally worthy of pursuit as any other. However, we don’t need to pretend that Classic Camping is bushcraft or woodsmenship, let alone “true” woodsmanship. It is not. it never was, and as long as there are people who actually go into the woods and spend time there, it never will be. 

Alright, rant over. Back to scheduled programming.

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