Hit the Trail: Camping in America

By Hillary Brady, June 4, 2015.
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For generations of Americans, a favorite kick-off to the summer season is taking to the trails on a camping trip. Whether it’s packing up the family RV, or kids kayaking at their favorite sleepaway camp, it’s a way Americans have enjoyed spending the summer for decades.

Many men and women’s first experiences with the great outdoors came in the form of Girl Scout and Boy Scout camping trips. Both groups emphasize getting young people acquainted with the great outdoors, with badges and milestones centered around environmental sustainability and interaction with nature. Moreover, for the generations of young Americans in troops across the country, scouting and camping went hand-in-hand.

For instance, as part of the Minnesota Digital Library, the Girl Scout Council of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys collection has more than 100 images of troops in the 1920s-1950s. Among them are snapshots of young women camping and performing flag ceremonies (and, yes, preparing to sell cookies). Photos of young women cooking in front of campfires show the changes in uniform and dress from decade to decade. There are other interesting photos of Girl Scout activities outside the camp, too, like studying anatomy or diving into a pool as part of a 1920s lifeguarding class. You can also access documents, with troop charters, camp brochures, pageant programs, and a number of letters written by the organization’s founder, Juliette Gordon Low.

Another trove of resources for Girl Scout camping history (primarily from the 1920s-1940s) is from Mountain West Digital Library’s Arizona Cactus-Pine Council Historical Society. A highlight of this collection is an image of Arizona’s first Girl Scout Troop, established in 1918. There are more than 50 images of camp activities, like braiding leather belts, riding horses, and preparing camp skits (including a photo of the female camp director, a graduate of Stanford University, teaching the scouts how to skin a rattlesnake, circa 1930).

There’s a wealth of digitized camping content related to the Boy Scouts, too. From The Portal to Texas History and the Boy Scouts of America National Scouting Museum, the DPLA offers more than 900 issues of Scouting, a magazine written by the Boy Scouts organization, dating back to its founding in the early 1910s. A 1942 issue, for example, discusses camping in wartime at great length, noting that it is “rated by many as the best possible pre-military training for boys and young men.” With a declaration that “The war will not suspend our outdoor program. It must not,” leading the charge, other articles offered suggestions for new wartime camp training programs (among other efforts, like salvage campaigns and victory gardens).

"How to Make a Fire."

“How to Make a Fire.”

"Boy Scouts Series."

“Boy Scouts Series.”

As part of The New York Public Library’s collection, available through the DPLA, there’s the “Boy Scout Series: 100 Designs.” This collection of British cigarette cards have illustrations and descriptions of 100 different fun scouting activities, badges, and skills. Want to know how to build a raft? Or construct a camping shelter? How about cutting “the Enemy’s Telegraph” in a scouting game? Look no further.

For images of young men putting some of these skills to use at camp, there’s the photo collection from the North Star Museum of Boy Scouting and Girl Scouting, via the Minnesota Digital Library. Beyond the wealth of images of scouts around the campfire, canoeing and learning to tie knots, a standout of this collection is this unique Boy Scout scrapbook, detailing years’ worth of troop activities.

If you aren’t a fan of tents or sleeping bags, though, you can still join in on the fun. There’s always the option to camp with an RV!

All featured images courtesy of The New York Public Library.