Car Camping: A Timeline

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!