Friday, July 19, 2019

A History Of Camper's Love-Hate Relationship With Electronics

Since William H. H. Murray, the father of modern camping, first set off the camping movement in 1869, campers have been discussing, debating, and arguing over what gear to take. Perhaps no category of gear embroils more passion than that of electronics. By electronics I mean electrically powered gadgets such as music/media devices, games, and cameras, as well as electronic navigation and communication tools. While electronic gadgets were not available in portable, wireless forms in the early days of the camping movement, it didn’t take long for that to change. 

‘Edison’s music box’ the phonograph, was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. But being delicate, expensive, and bulky, they were not frequently taken camping prior to the 20th century except perhaps by the wealthy. With the advent of the automobile, suddenly campers could more easily carry heavy luxury items like a music player into the outdoors. And with their arrival on the camping scene came the never-ending debate about whether electronics belong in the campground or if they run antithetical to the spirit of ‘roughing it’ that lies at the center of camping out. 

Probably the very first mention of an artificial music player and the outdoors in the same quote came from William HH Murray himself. Ironically, it had nothing to do the debate that would later ensue over whether they belong on a camping trip. Murray instead compares camping sounds to a phonograph. "Not only is [camping] a word for the eye, but it is equally a word for the ear. For in it are the sighing of zephyrs, the soft intoning of slow-moving night winds, the roaring of strong gales, the moaning of tempests, and the sobbings of storms among the wet trees. The loon's call, the splash of leaping fish, the panther's cry, the pitiful summons of the lost hound, the slashing of deer wading among the lily pads, and the soft dripping of odorous gums falling gently on the pine stems, listening to which in silence and sweet content, we, who were lying under the fragrant trees, like happy and weary children, have fallen gently asleep, — all these sounds live in the world as music lives forever in the air of heaven, being a part of it. And in it too, are human voices, songs, laughter, and all the happy noises of merriment and frolic. No other phonograph is like to it."1

Radios also quickly found their way into the campground as they became small and portable enough to fit into a car.2 Phonographs and radios brought loud, artificial music and entertainment into wild places. Many found it enjoyable, while others thought it annoying or irreverent. Those who found it annoying often did so because it could easily be played all night long. Before electronic music players, a person had to provide live music. Eventually, they grew tired of playing or went to bed. However, a phonograph or radio could be played continuously. Here are some of the earliest examples from both sides of the debate. 

Barely 13 years into the 20th-century advertisers already recognized how much people enjoyed their music in camp. A full-page ad in a 1913 Ladies Home Journal was aimed at campers and country vacationers. It advertised the Victrola brand phonograph that “enables you to take with you wherever you go the most celebrated bands….” Pictured in the ad is an adventurous family packing their hand-wound phonograph onto their wooden motorboat for a day on the lake.2a

The first-ever cross-country RV tour was taken by the Conklin family in 1915. Their motorhome was so novel it became a national sensation. Newspapers reported regular updates around the country so thoroughly America fell in love with a new pastime. Their RV christened the Gypsy, was outfitted with every luxury money and modern engineering could pack inside. A phonograph was chief among these. The Conklin family enjoyed blaring tunes into whichever wilderness the Gypsy carried them.2b

An article in American Motorist in 1922 lauded the conveniences and enjoyment potential of a mobile car radio for camping. Interestingly, the author discouraged consumers from purchasing a speaker for their system in favor of headphones. In those days radio systems were so large they were sold in individual pieces. One of his biggest arguments against speakers for a camping radio set is that it is “not designed to entertain the universe.” He argued headphones were more desirable to speakers when camping. He goes on to point out that headphones usually give a better personal listening experience “with the least amount of effort and with the messages as distinct as possible.” He concludes that “the advantages of the headphones are, therefore, apparent....”3 In contrast to this article, one ad in a different magazine claimed, “Nobody wants to wear headphones during hot, stuffy weather. A small, efficient Loud Speaker ruggedly built will be welcome in any camp outfit. The AUDIOPHONE JR. is just the thing.”4b

A different 1923 ad, for a compact radio antenna called the Warren Radio Loop, began with the bold headline, "Make your set portable for camping and vacation." This was ideal in a time when many radio antennas were dozens of feet long and required large rigging to set up. It promised continued enjoyment of radio programs wherever you camped or vacationed. It neglected to inform consumers of the sparse coverage of radio signal in rural places or that continued enjoyment might annoy others.4 The July 1923 issue of Popular Radio included instructions on how to install a radio and antenna unit in a canoe. One picture shows a massive eight-foot spiral antenna array mounted on a canoe. The article contended that a radio, despite the necessity of a large antenna array, would, “be suitable for a canoe trip.”4a One Eveready Battery ad in 1924 took the concept of portable radio one step further when it emphasized their radio batteries were light-weight enough "to take camping or on hikes"5 (emphasis added).

Numerous articles encouraged people to take a radio or music player with them outdoors in the early days of car camping. One author advised in a 1922 article, “On an auto tour, a camping trip, or merely a day’s picnic this summer, a wireless receiver will bring you endless entertainment.”5a The large volume of ads, how-to guides, and articles discussing the use of radios while camping or vacationing indicates it was highly popular in this era. Many campers enthusiastically embraced the technology in order to stay connected and be entertained. Few seem to have imagined that anyone might be annoyed by this mass noise intrusion. 

One of the earliest records of a camper complaining about another camper's electronics was written by Charles E.S. Wood in his published diary from 1928. He complained in his diary during his 9-month auto camping tour in 1928 that phonographs were "the noise and games of the city" and did not belong in "quiet nature."6 Early electronics taken camping were primarily for entertainment purposes. It seems from my research that most campers had no qualms about taking music and electronic forms of entertainment camping. Many saw it as the height of technological achievement that added to their camping trip, not detracted from it. However, when some played their music without thought for others during sleep hours it annoyed others as seen in the quote above.

In later decades as more portable and greater varieties of electronic gadgets came on the market, a sentiment would grow against their presence in the campground. Purists would argue that the goal of camping was to live primitively, away from modern convenience and technology. After all, why are you taking the trouble to go camping if not leaving behind modern conveniences and urbanization for a short time? Of course, others would argue they wanted to enjoy modern entertainment while also enjoying the scenery and environment provided by camping.  

In 1954 The Handbook of Auto Camping advised taking a portable radio for entertainment, especially during rainy weather. But the author also warned, “If you do take a battery radio with you, you will be popular in campgrounds only if you confine its playing to daytime, or to low volume.”6a In 1959, the Michigan Department of Conservation laid out rules to help conserve natural areas. They included normal rules such as speed limits and bans against destroying natural flora. They also made it illegal, “To use a loud speaker or public address system without a written permit….”6b This is an early example of regulating noise in outdoor spaces. This type of regulation would eventually become ubiquitous.

Camping has always been about 'roughing it', purposely living with less technology. The reasons behind a camper's choice to 'rough it' are varied, but generally, the goal is to reconnect with nature as closely as possible. Living without technology helps in this goal. As electronic gadgets become more pervasive in the mid-20th century, it seems they became one of the many technologies campers shunned more and more. This is born out by a changing attitude towards electronics, especially radios and music gadgets in camping guides and manuals.

In a 1968 guide to car camping in the Appalachian mountains, one author bemoaned the eccentricities of many campers. "Unfortunately, the amount of equipment one has for mountain camping has become almost a status symbol.... Yet if the list of equipment is kept fairly simple, it is not only more economical but also often saves time when breaking camp."6c

One of the 20th Century's most prolific writers of summer camp instruction manuals and how-to guides was Lloyd Mattson. With 31 books and multiple articles to his name about how to go camping and how to run a summer camp, he could be considered an expert on the subject. He advised in 1970 that one of the goals of being in the wilderness is "to discover that life is possible apart from gadgets.”7 Although written over 50 years ago, perhaps there is some wisdom in this old advice.

But do not get the wrong idea here. While animosity towards electronic gadgets was building among some campers, there were plenty of others lugging all sorts of electronic gadgets into the campground. In one article about campers, U.S. News reported just how dedicated some can be to having their electronic gadgets. While they go out to 'rough it' and live 'primitively' they also like to bring the comforts of home. This report from 1970 mentioned two campers, "who were clustered on folding chairs watching a portable television set. A woman nearby had a small electric sewing machine at which she was making a dress for her daughter."7a While TVs are even more common in the campground today than in the '70s, thankfully, sewing machines never took off among campers.

Electronic gadgets became so numerous they caused real issues, beyond the annoyance of other campers. In a 1972 book titled Issues in Outdoor Recreation, the author reports of a campground losing its power because their grid could not support all the electric gadgets campers had plugged in. "The trouble was, they plugged in so many coffeepots, television sets, electric guitars, razors, overhead lights, and portable refrigerators that they blew out the park transformer!"7b

In 1972 the U.S. Congress passed the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act. This is a bit surprising as there was not much organized effort in the public sphere to regulate noise. It was primarily passed to fund research on what levels of noise were harmful to workers in various industries and to the general public and to regulate noise based on the research. It seems this Act brought noise regulation to the attention of other Federal agencies. In 1975 the U.S. Forest Service included a sign in its official lineup for campgrounds that established a quiet time. It read, "Music Lovers Quiet 10 p.m. - 6 a.m.” Whether this is the first time a unified quiet time policy was established by the U.S. Forest Service is hard to tell. The history of campground regulations is not well chronicled. It seems unlikely based on the widespread availability of portable radios going back to the 1920s. What is certain is that most campgrounds eventually adopted a quiet time policy. Many adopted a similar timeframe to the U.S. Forest Service as this is a reasonable window for sleeping.8

Some guidebooks have recommended taking certain electronics for practical reasons rather than entertainment. The Family Camping Guidebook (1975) advised its readers to take a transistor radio camping to stay apprised of foul weather.9 In another instruction book for campers, the author complained of losing sleep because of "some idiot listening to a transistor radio". His solution was to pack earplugs. This is perhaps still good advice because no matter how many rules, signs, or guidebooks promote keeping music volume to reasonable levels and times of day, there will inevitably be some who ignore it.10 In 1985 a camping how-to guide titled Camping Basics showed a reasonable approach to electronics in the campground by educating them. In a packing list, the author includes "radio or cassette player" and immediately follows it up with, "but don't annoy other campers with it."11 In other words, bring it for your own personal entertainment if you want, but be cognizant of others trying to enjoy some peace and quiet. 

While guidebooks and administrators have tried to regulate the misuse of music gadgets outdoors, manufacturers of portable electronic gadgets have continued to advertise to campers. Reminiscent of those radio component ads from the 1920s, Sony specifically marketed their Walkman Sport cassette player to campers in a 1988 ad in Spin magazine. It started off by bragging about the extreme places users had taken it. "Only the Walkman is built so rugged, audiophiles have been known to take it sailing to Cape Horn, bushwacking the Amazon, and climbing Mount Fuji." The ad also touted its rugged construction, including being "splash-proof". 12 It seems for most campers; musical entertainment is a necessary luxury. After all, manufacturers wouldn’t continue to advertise to this demographic if it were not lucrative! It is also doubtful so many campers would risk damage to their sensitive equipment if they did not highly value having music in the great outdoors.

Campers have annoyed other campers as long as there have been electronic music players with speakers. Rugged, wireless speakers have amplified this problem of inconsiderate noise in the 21st century. Previously, loudspeakers were usually limited to the campground because of their bulk. But portable, powerful, wireless speakers have enabled people to blare music while on the move in the backcountry. One mountain biker shared her frustrating experience in which a peaceful ride through some remote single-track was tainted by another biker who passed her blasting a loud beat from a wireless speaker. As the offending biker passed, she yelled, “Have you ever heard of headphones?!”12a

Of course, music players have not been the only form of electronic gadgets to grace the backwoods. Electronic games have also been common in the campground as long as they have existed. Other portable gadgets to find their way into the campground and trail include communication devices and electronic navigation aids. CB and other two-way radios were perhaps the earliest forms of backcountry communication devices used by recreation campers. By the early 1970s, there were so many electronic gadgets for camping that one camping magazine had a regular column dedicated to the topic.13 When cell phones became available, they inevitably found their way outdoors. Electronic navigation aids, including GPS devices, digital compasses, altimeters, and others, have become common in the 21st century. 

Communication devices and electronic navigation aids may seem indispensable. How could anyone argue against taking them camping? These devices do provide much utility but can also cause inconvenience and even harm if used improperly. A story was reported in 2001 about a hiker who called search and rescue on his cellphone from the backwoods of Olympic National Park in Washington State. The caller had been hiking and was now requesting a helicopter. When pressed for details about his situation, the caller revealed that he had no injuries and even knew exactly where he was. He was not out of food or in any immediate danger. Upon further questioning, he revealed he did not have time to hike back out in order to be at a scheduled meeting in Seattle. He wanted search and rescue to dispatch a helicopter to get him back in time. Needless to say, one was not dispatched, despite the caller's offer to pay all expenses incurred.14

In 2014, Trever Lee pled guilty to 5 misdemeanors for crimes committed in various National Parks. His crimes included climbing endangered trees, camping in areas where camping was banned, and having campfires where they were banned due to a high risk of forest fires. How did his crimes get discovered? He posted pictures of all these activities on his Instagram account, and they were found by Park officials.15 Why did he commit these crimes? To increase the number of followers on his Instagram account. His is not an isolated incident. Many articles have reported major damage to remote, delicate areas in National Parks and other locations due to graffiti, forest fires, and increased traffic that resulted from trending social media posts. 

Someone visits a beautiful alpine lake and posts pictures or videos to their social media account. The post gets thousands or hundreds of thousands of likes and views. Suddenly, thousands of people decide they want to visit the same site. The problem is, some places like alpine lakes, caves, and other delicate ecosystems can be destroyed if visited by too many people in a short time period. Social media sites like Instagram and YouTube have made previously unknown "secret" locations common public knowledge. It is possible to love a place to death. The drive to post unique and awesome content can cause people to do things they wouldn't otherwise do. People have died or been injured trying to get the perfect selfie. In fact, some have called it an epidemic. Between 2011 and 2017, at least 259 people reportedly died taking selfies.16

Electronic gadgets have their place in the backcountry. As more and more of our camping tools become electronic, it becomes increasingly impossible to leave all electronics at home. The debate over this topic is certainly not over and perhaps never will be. There are very valid reasons to take certain electronics outdoors. Navigation aids such as GPS and map devices are very helpful. But they cannot replace skills with an old-school map and compass. Electronic devices can break or fail. In 2013 a woman died while hiking the Appalachian Trail. She was only 200 miles from completing her through-hike in Maine. One would think after hiking nearly 800 miles successfully, she would be quite competent with navigation. She accidentally left her GPS in the last hotel she stayed in. As a result, she got lost along the trail. Eventually, her remains were found after what was reported to be the biggest search and rescue effort in Maine's history. Surprisingly, a compass was found with her remains. Interviews with her friends and family revealed she did not know how to use it. This tragic end could have been avoided if she did not depend solely on her electronic navigation tools.17

Tim Smith, a registered Master Maine Guide and the founder of the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School, summarized the problem of dependency on electronics this way. "One of the worst trends we’ve seen in the past 20 years is the proliferation of cell phones and technology in the backcountry. It gives people a false sense of security."18 We should not completely depend on our electronic gadgets in the backcountry. We need to have competency with traditional navigation tools and carry them. We need solid survival skills in case the unthinkable happens. Cellphones, satellite phones, radios, GPS devices, and avalanche beacons, all these are extremely helpful tools that increase our safety in the backcountry. But they were never designed to replace traditional methods and tools. 

Music devices, digital readers, portable gaming units, and cameras, with these devices it is more of a personal choice if you enjoy taking them camping. Some may feel they do not belong there. But I think it depends on what you are doing. When living on the trail for weeks or months, such as during a long through-hike, or during a difficult activity like trail running, you may desire some modern entertainment to keep your spirits up. Also, it’s fun to capture your achievements with photos, GPS tracks, etc. The key is to not annoy other campers or users with it. Never do something illegal or dangerous because of your electronic devices either. If you are not a purist and do frequently take electronic gadgets camping, I challenge you to forego these occasionally. One of the goals of getting back to nature is to get away from modern technology and unplug. Whatever side of the debate you fall on, sometimes it's nice to watch and listen, uninterrupted, to the beauty of nature. No phonograph or other electronic gadget is like it.

Learn more about this topic at these links:
At this link you can learn all about using electronics in the backcountry safely and ethically with Leave No Trace principles. Learn how to use a traditional print map and analog compass in this video series or this article.

Written by David F. Garner

Photo credit:
Top: Popular Science Monthly, June 1922, pg. 70, photographer unknown.
Middle: American Motorist, August 1922, pg. 9, photographer unknown.
Bottom: Edwin Levick, Popular Radio, July 1923, pg. 7.

1. William H.H. Murray, Cones for the Campfire (Boston: De Wolfe Fiske & Co., 1891): 96-97, Print.

2. “This Summer Has Shown That Radio Is Not Seasonal,” Radio World Vol III, No. 25, Whole No. 77 (September, 15 1923): 2, accessed July 18, 2019 from  

2b. Mr and Mrs Roland Ray Conklin, The Trail of The Gypsy, (Rosemary Farm Publishing, Long Island: 1916): 3, ebook, retrieved from

3. Gilland Mason, “So Far and Yet So Near,” American Motorist Vol XIV No. 8 (August 1922): 8, accessed July 18, 2019 from

4. V-De-Co Radio Manufacturing, “Warren Radio Loop.” Popular Radio Vol IV, No. 5 (November, 1923): 72, accessed July 18, 2019 from

4a. William F. Crosby, “How to Install Your Radio Set On Your Boat,” Popular Radio Vol IV No. 1 (July, 1923): 3, accessed July 18, 2019 from

4b. The Bristol Company, “Audiophone Jr,” Popular Radio Vol IV No. 1 (July 1923): 35,

5. National Carbon Company, “More Power For Summer Radio,” Boys Life Vol XIV No. 6 (June 1924): 3, accessed July 18, 2019 from 

5a. Armstrong Perry, “How Radio Adds to the Joys of My Vacation,” The Popular Science Monthly Vol 100, No. 6 (June 1922): 68, accessed July 18, 2019 from

6. Terence Young, Heading Out: A History Of American Camping, (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 2017): 46, Ebook.

6a. George Stevens Wells, Iris Wells, The Handbook of Auto Camping and Motorist's Guide to Public Campgrounds, (Harper: New York, 1954): 59, Print.

6b. Michigan. Dept. of Conservation, “Conservation of Natural Resources,” Proceedings of Conservation Commission, Volume 39, (1959): 117, Print.

6c. Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Discovering the Appalachians: what to look for from the past and in the present along America's Eastern frontier, (Stackpole Books: Washington D.C., 1968): 211, Print.

7. Lloyd D. Mattson, The Wilderness Way, (Board of Christian Education: Evanston, 1970): 16, Print.

7a. U.S. News Publishing Corporation, U.S. News and World Report, Vol 70, (May 10, 1971): 39-41, PDF.

7b. Clayne R. Jensen, Clark T. Thorstenson, Issues in Outdoor Recreation (Burgess Publishing Co., 1972): 158, Print.

8. United States Forest Service, “Forest Service poster and small metal sign catalog 1975,” February 1975, United States Forest Service, accessed July 18, 2019 from  

9. Jerome J. Knap, Alyson Knap, The family camping handbook: a complete guide to camping in North America, 1975, (Pagurian Press Ltd: Ontario,1975): 117, Print.

10. Andrew J. Carra, Camping: a complete guide to why, how, and where, (Stein and Day: New York, 1978): 31, Print. 

11. Wayne Armstrong, Camping Basics, (Prentice-Hall: Upper Saddle River, 1985): 35, Print. 

12. Sony, “Camping, sunbathing, or on safari: one Sony plays on,” Spin, Vol 4 No. 4 (July 1988): 77, Print. 

12a. Megan Michelson, “HOW TO UNPLUG: ETIQUETTE FOR ELECTRONICS IN THE OUTDOORS,” Outside online, (2015), accessed July 18, 2019 from

13. Henry Groskinsky, “Roughing It Soft,” Life Vol 71 No. 10, (September 3, 1971): 45, Ebook.  

14. James Gorman, “The Call in the Wild: Cell Phones Hit the Trail,” New York Times online, August 30, 2001, accessed June 17, 2019 from

15. Will Egensteiner, “Yosemite Instagrammer Pleads Guilty in Federal Court,” Outside online, Oct 29, 2014, accessed July, 18, 2019 from

16. Kathryn Miles, "Cause of Death: Selfie,” Outside online, Apr 16, 2019, accessed July 17, 2019 from

17. Lauren Abbate, “Hiker who died on Appalachian Trail didn’t know how to use compass,” Portland Press Herald online, May 26, 2016, accessed July 18, 2019 from

18. J.R. Sullivan, “Our Reliance on Technology Makes the Backcountry More Dangerous,” Outside online, Mar 16, 2016, accessed July 18, 2019 from