Car Camping: A Timeline

July 17, 2012

Nothing says summer like a camping trip in July. Camping might be the oldest way of living, but it wasn’t until the advent of affordable automobiles that middle class Americans rediscovered camping as a fun and inexpensive way to explore the world. From the creation of “tourist courts” to the introduction of “carbeque cooking,” check out these major milestones in the world of recreational car camping.

1919 — The first camping club was formed and, thanks to the automobile, grew to 100,000 members by 1930. Its members called themselves the "Tin Can Tourists" because most of them were Model T owners.

1921— Washington State built 200 miles of concrete road, including stretches of the Pacific Highway, which became a favorite of auto tourists. That same year, New York paved 530 miles. Pennsylvania added 640 miles, more than any other state in the nation.

1923 — The Coleman Company introduced the fold-up camp stove.

1925 — Eager to make money from an ever-growing subculture of car camping Americans, businesspeople began building groups of tiny cabins and charging “auto campers” to stay in them. These so-called "tourist courts" often used gimmicks to attract travelers, such as modeling their shelters after teepees, log cabins, or southwestern-style adobe buildings. Eventually, theses individual structures were linked together in a single building, creating what we now know as the motel.

1936 — Wally Byam introduced the "Airstream Clipper," the first of the now familiar sausage-shaped, polished aluminum Airstream trailers. Of more than 400 travel trailer builders operating in 1936, only Airstream would survive the Depression.

1945 — World War II ended and the American economic boom began. Car-owning families began purchasing tents, house trailers (campers), and other outdoor equipment and taking to the road for family vacations.

1957 — Car camping was considered “a major social phenomenon of the post-war era.” The Ford Motor Company published the “Ford Treasury of Station Wagon Living.”

1959 — Eureka! introduced the Draw-Tite tent, the first freestanding, practical exterior frame tent that could be set up in minutes.

1962 — Kampgrounds of America (KOA) was founded in Billings, Montana, by businessman Dave Drum.

1973 — Gas prices began to soar and all car-related recreation took a hit when members of OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo to protest the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur war.

1983 — National Lampoon’s Vacation debuted, a film in which — after stopping at a campground in South Fork, Colorado — in the morning Clark forgets to untie Dinky from the car's bumper before leaving.

1989 — Authors Chris Maynard and Bill Scheller gave new meaning to the words “fast food” when they published their book, Manifold Destiny: The One! The Only! Guide to cooking on your car’s engine. Millions (or at least a few hundred) car campers, tailgaters, race fans, and car show attendees learned how to turn their vehicles in “carbeques.”

1990 — Roman Napieraj, founder of Napier Enterprises, invented the “truck tent”— a customized tent designed to be set up in the bed of a pickup truck.

1995 — RV ownership by Americans aged 45 to 54 increased 25 percent. By the end of the decade, approximately 45 percent of the nation's RVs were owned by baby boomers between the ages of 35 and 54, compared to the 40 percent owned by those aged 55 and older.

2007 — Despite rising gas prices and the lure of electronic entertainment, annual National Park statistics jumped to 275,581,547 (visits), which according to the National Park Service amounts to more “visits” than Major League Baseball, the National Football League, professional basketball, soccer, and NASCAR combined.

Are you among the millions who go camping at least once a year? If you are, what’s your favorite car or trailer camping destination? Log your comments below or head on over to the HVA’s Facebook page and tell us. Camp on!



  1. David Massachusetts

    The Museum of Transportation in Brookline, Massachusetts has an original 1919 Camper, which has a toilet inside. A great place to visit:

  2. Patrick Harris SC

    I enjoyed your article very much but one vehicle was missing, the one that I was sure was there based on the first few paragraphs. Please continue your research and add to your article the Volkswagen Westfalia camper and offshoots of this vehicle. From the first ones produced in the 1950s it continued for almost 50 years. Unlike most of the vehicles you mentioned many of these VW vehicles are "alive and well" --- still in frequent use by a larger and, certainly, a more devoted/enthusiastic following than other vehicles you mentioned. From a user's perspective try OR Google Westfalia to find background info AND Search Westfalia on Wikipedia for some more history but also to see what's happening in Europe with the current Westfalia products. Thank you, Pat

  3. Don Westphal Rochester, MI

    Great timeline. The Manufactured Home RV hall of fame Museum in Elkhart Indiana adjacent to the toll road has an impresive collection of car homes as well as travel trailers. Well worth the visit.G8J

  4. Don Obermeier Mocksville, NC

    Years ago when my family resided in southern Indiana, my family which consisted of my mother, father, and my three brothers, used to drive up to Lake Michigan in our 1951 and 1955 Nash vehicles. These cars were equipped with reclining seats and we would camp at the old roadside rest parks and we would ALL sleep in the car. Every other day we would check into one of the little local motels or cabins in Michigan so we could all clean up and get some rest. Of course, we would also check into a motel when we arrived at our destination at Lake Michigan. I can still remember my joy at seeing the sand dunes at Michigan City, Indiana when we arrived. But my best memory was the sleeping in the car and aggravating my brothers trying to sleep and I sure do miss my parents fussing at all of us boys making so much noise in the car.

  5. F. L. "Pat" Jacobs Washington

    We've camped since about 1962; first with a tent, and with a travel trailer since about '69. As for a favorite location, almost any Forest Service campground here in the West, Canadian provincial parks, and Western States State parks, although fees are getting too high. Favorite tow vehicle; Cheverolet Silverado's! Sadly, most trailers seem to be very cheaply made, sort of like a boat in that always something needs to be done. Best one I've had was a Timberline.

  6. Mike Pohl MN

    Yellowstone NP is our favorite destination. My first visited Yellowstone N.P. was in 1964 with my parents and 4 brothers. Folks and three youngest brothers slept in a rented tee- pee tent trailer, middle brother slept in the front seat of the family Ford station wagon, oldest brother and I slept in the back of the wagon. In the middle of the night I woke up to a large black bear crawling in the back window of the station wagon I tried to wake my younger brother who was asleep on the front seat so he could run the rear window up ( the switch was near the back window and one under the dash) but he was sound asleep. My older brother and I both piled over the back of the front seat at the same time (on top of the younger brother) to get to the switch. When the window started up the bear crawled back out. I don't think we slept any more that night but we still had fun on the rest of the trip.

  7. Denny AZ

    Not mentioned in this timeline is the AMC Hornet tent accessory for 1973 & 1974. It was an optional dealer accessory that converted the open hatchback area into a tent camper with mosquito net windows. There's actually one on Hagerty's America's Sweetest Lemon contest web page right now!

  8. Tom,Bell Knappton,Washington


  9. Tom Bell Knappton,Washington

    Folding tent trailers came into being in the early 1900's. Our family purchased a Kozy Kamp tent trailer in 1946, and I [a son] still have it. Many camping/hunting/fishing and vacation trips were made an still continue. In the past I purchased 2 more from the inventors [S.S. Strachan sons and gave one to our daughter and aother to ma friend. I am having an annual Kozy Kamp gathering August 11 this year for anyone interested. Tom 360-484-3662

  10. Tom Bell Knappton,Washington

    Folding tent trailers came into being in the early 1900's.Our family purchased a Kozy Kamp tent trailer in 1946,and I [a son] still have it.Many camping/hunting/fishing and vacation trips were made an still continue.In the past I purchased 2 more from the inventors [S.S. Strachan sons and gave one to our daughter and aother to ma friend.I am having an annual Kozy Kamp gathering August 11 this year for anyone interested.Tom 360-484-3662

  11. Bill OR

    Interesting article. We older campers all remember those days of pitching tents and carrying water. An addition you might consider for a future article that spurred on the "travel trailer craze" was the tear drop trailer. These small, ingenious vehicles came in many sizes and variations. Some with elaborate pantries, sun shades and gorgeous woodwork. Thousands were manufactured commercially and many, many more were homebuilt.