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How camping technology made us feel at home in nature

How camping technology made us feel at home in nature

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The National Park System is turning 100, and The Verge is celebrating with Wilderness Week: a look at the natural world, its freaky critters, and its future.

I used to think of camping trips as a time to disconnect from society. That is, until I started covering camping gadgets and discovered that a lot of modern campers are gadget mongers, with a serious thirst for battery life. So for Wilderness Week, I talked with Martin Hogue, a professor who teaches landscape architecture at SUNY in Syracuse, to find out how camping has evolved with and for technology. Hogue is currently working on a book called Thirtyfour Campgrounds about campsites and their evolution. His research suggests that although we often think of camping as being on the opposite end of the connected spectrum, the hobby actually took off in popularity thanks to a revolutionary product of technology: the car.

In the early days, only the elite could afford to camp. They hired help to take them into the woods and cook them meals; build them shelters; and essentially, make sure the campers didn’t die. But with the invention of the car, anyone could drive out to the wilderness. Camping became a feasible and affordable vacation option, and naturally, gadgets developed around this new pastime: hammocks to hang in your car; tables that fold out from the side of vehicles; and eventually, the RV. All these innovations brought the amenities of home outside, but ultimately, campsites were what made the outdoors accessible. No one needed to bring a machete to get through the thick of the woods and set up camp. Everything was developed already, including bathrooms and showers.

Photo courtesy of Martin Hogue

Now, 100 years after the National Parks were established, we have different needs. Though the car remains central to camping, as does the RV for certain people, today, more than anything, we need our electronics — and gadget makers are well aware. Backpacks from companies like Goal Zero now come with solar panels built in, so hikers can charge their devices while out on the trail. Big Agnes’ Krumholtz UL2 mtnGLO tent comes with LED lights inside, so campers feel more comfortable at night. The tent also has solar panels that can charge the lights and comes with a solar-powered fan and lantern. BioLite’s CampStove charges phones through power generated by the fire that’s already cooking campers’ food. Multiple companies are working on chargers that use water current to generate power.

Modern camping is designed to make us feel more at ease in the outdoors by letting us stay connected. We’re outside but still within reach of emergency responders or friends. We’re in nature, but we’re also somewhat removed from it. How will camping change next? Maybe with the adoption of VR we'll be able to enjoy nature from the comfort of our couches and without disconnecting.