Few topics among men are as polarizing as… camping. Some love it and live for it. Some hate it and avoid it. I believe that there are things about us as men (probably women too, but I can’t be certain because I’m not one) that will not be unlocked unless we make our peace with camping. I’m not talking about backpacking into the woods with only a bag of granola and recycled TOMS shoes. I’m just talking about being outside with no bed and absent of central heat/air.
Strong words, I know — but they come from a former camping hater. Six years ago, I took my son on a bike trip out west and knew I couldn’t afford gas, food, and hotel for two people so we camped. Spending 7 days straight around a campfire and in a tent changed me and my perspective. That trip has led to roughly 200 nights camping since; put simply, I’ve become a camping evangelist. Here’s why…
Remember that time you stayed at a Holiday Inn and watched SportsCenter? Of course not. It wasn’t stimulating enough to be memorable. But I remember and still talk about the trip when we had cheap gear and were on the edge of a gorge and the wind kicked up and pancaked our tent on top of the two of us. Then we had to walk in our bare feet and nakedness to squeeze into another person’s tent. I remember the honest conversation around the campfire where a brother revealed an addiction to porn. I remember every meal that my friend Mikey (also known as LuLu for his Lululemon fetish) makes over the fire. I remember the sound of the rushing creek beside my tent on my most recent trip to Utah. Our social media driven culture is numbing out our senses. Camping comes against this tide.
Humanity has been camping for most of its history. There was no such thing as air conditioning prior to the ’70s. No one had an indoor seat to sit on to take a dump before the early 20th century. When we sit around a campfire telling stories, sleep out under the stars, and wake up to cover our poop with dirt we have entered into an ancient rhythm that every ancient male was in sync with and many in the world today still are. When I camp I feel a mysterious primal connection with men on the battlefields of bygone eras or the hunters who left their village to bring back food for the community. Camping enables us to have a primal connection to pioneers and settlers — men with a toughness — that the average male today simply doesn’t have.
The average male is isolated. Our technology has enabled us to be isolated because we don’t need anyone else. We don’t need someone to kill a deer for us to eat. We just go to Kroger. We don’t need someone to sew a patch for us, we just buy another cheap shirt from India. We don’t need a friend who has mechanical skills, we just pay someone to take care of the leak. This is how society is built and I’m somewhat thankful for it. But in the process, we isolate ourselves and become cut off from truly needing other people. Camping is a communal effort. Someone gathers firewood, someone starts the fire, someone breaks out the food, people help each other with their tents or a structure to shield the rain, etc. This activity is a springboard into lasting friendship.
We rode to Alaska a few years ago and it was difficult. There is nothing fun about taking down a tent in the driving rain and then setting that same wet tent up 9 hrs later in a driving rain. I had cuts, dirt, and stains embedded in my hands that would take weeks to heal. But at the end of that trip, I had crossed over into a new territory of hardiness. Things that stressed me out or intimidated me before the trip didn’t bother me anymore. I knew I could get through it. When the housing crisis hit a few years ago and I saw the value of my home drop I thought, “this house could go away and I’ll be fine because I’ve proven to myself I can live without all these creature comforts.”
The Bible starts with Adam and Eve in a garden in the book of Genesis and ends with the image of people in a city in the book of Revelation. This means that camping wasn’t intended by God to be the pinnacle of civilization. It was the start of civilization and we should celebrate and use all the comforts we can afford. But when we can’t live outside those comforts we become dependent on them. Our confidence takes a hit and we don’t feel capable…because we aren’t. When a man learns to build a fire to stay warm, to keep himself sustained without fast food, or figures out how to mend a broken tent pole he becomes a problem solver. Problem solvers have a right to have confidence which gives them a leg up on whatever the future may hold.
To feel like a man we have to do things that men do. Many stereotypical things like riding a motorcycle or chewing tobacco aren’t necessary to be a man or feel like a man. But camping scratches something deep inside of us. It produces something different in our character. When we return to civilization, we do so with a changed identity. It is the way it has always been and we would do well to emulate the men who have gone before us in every time period and on every continent.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made was not getting my family to camp when we were younger. It spurs teamwork, conversations, character, laughter, and memories that no hotel ever will. I encourage you to try it. Make it an easy start. Load up your car with a bunch of food, blankets, and firewood and park it at a sanctioned park where there is a fire ring and restrooms nearby. You can use the wet wipes in the woods the next time.