I began camping in the 1960s using a military surplus shelter half. As equipment progressed, I backpacked with light gear and canoe camped through the decades. About six years ago I joined a fine bunch of like-minded outdoor enthusiasts who reenact the Golden Age of Camping. During the Golden Age—from about 1880 to 1930—outdoor equipment consisted of canvas tents, natural fiber clothing and gear constructed of wood, metal and leather. The experience has given me a renewed respect for the old style of outdoor living and the desire to utilize this type of outdoor gear in the field.
On a recent two-night river canoeing trip, Steve Maxwell, a fellow old-style camper, and I had a chance to combine historic camping techniques with those of the present. We had a rare opportunity to camp in the Southern Appalachians at a newly opened North Carolina State Parks canoe-in-only campground on the New River that is truly primitive with no tent pads, picnic tables or concrete fire rings. Our vintage equipment stood the test of time when combined with some modern innovations.
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Canoes Of Yore
The canoe, like the bow, is an elegant and time-tested design. The general configuration has remained unchanged since prehistory, but construction materials have advanced rapidly in the last 60 years. Many of us would love to own a birch bark or wood-and-canvas canoe, but acquiring such a boat can be expensive, and seriously damaging such a craft on a boulder-strewn river at low flow is a real possibility. My first canoe, purchased in 1970, was a used, 17-foot, aluminum model that weighed over 90 pounds. It ground to a halt on every rock it hit on a river and was expensive to repair. A major improvement came in the 1970s with the introduction of the affordable, durable and relatively light ABS plastic canoe. In later years, even lighter Kevlar and graphite canoes became available for those who could afford them.
During our trip on the New River, we used two 30-year-old Mohawk 17-foot tan- dem ABS canoes. Canoes this size can carry 700 pounds of passengers and equipment. Each of us paddled solo with plenty of room for gear, food, firewood and potable water. We chose wooden paddles over aluminum and plastic models because wood is surprisingly lighter and has a traditional look and feel. State law required that we carry a life-jacket for each paddler.
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Tents & Bedding
Well-made canvas tents such as those produced by Panther Primitives are breathable, waterproof, and roomy. We used easy-to-pitch wedge models with 7 feet of head room, a 7- by 7-foot footprint and doors at both ends for ventilation. The 2- by 2-inch wooden uprights and ridge poles for our tents stowed neatly in the forward bellies of our canoes. Military-style canvas, wood and metal cots covered with two sheepskins end-to-end as a mattress provided comfort and warmth when wool blankets were added. In his 1906 Book of Camping and Woodcraft, Horace Kephart wrote, “The wider the cot, the more comfortable it will be, especially in cold weather.” As usual, his advice is spot on. A folding canoe chair rebuilt with a pack basket style seat and back provided comfort by the campfire. A small throw rug made the tent cozier. I also carried a 1950s-model cotton mosquito net designed to fit on uprights over a cot, but found it unnecessary in the absence of mosquitoes.
We cooked over flame and coals with a steel cooking stand and small wire grill. A backpacker’s isobutene/propane stove such as the MSR Pocket Rocket is fast and convenient, but the forest provided a ready source of downed wood for fuel, and nothing beats the taste of meat grilled over coals served with coffee percolated over an open fire. Food can be canned or dried, but the flavor of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats made a durable modern cooler the choice for our excursion. A gallon plastic jug of water frozen overnight for ice kept food in the cooler cold longer than bagged ice would have and added more potable water as it thawed.
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Lights, Tools & Bags
Our kerosene lanterns emitted the soft, welcoming glow that is the essence of Golden-era camping. The possibility of an emergency in a remote spot, however, demanded a hands-free and powerful light in the form of an LED headlamp. Both were in our kits.
On this trip, I carried a 1950s-era Plumb belt axe, a WWII U.S. Navy Camillus brand fighting knife with a newly crafted stack handle and birch bark sheath and a new Rough Rider folding pocket knife in a traditional camping design. A small camp shovel was used for digging a keyhole fire and a slit trench toilet. These edged tools met all our camping needs.
Modern dry bags and waterproof boxes served their purpose well when we were caught in a downpour on the last day of our trip. In addition to rain, even experienced canoeists always face the outside possibility of capsizing. A dry bag is the best protection for valuable equipment. Of all modern gear, I think Lewis and Clark would have appreciated the simple innovation of the dry bag the most.
We found our canvas wedge tents with cots to be easy to transport by canoe and more comfortable than modern nylon tents with closed cell or open cell sleeping pads. Old-style cooking is still the best. We preferred the glow of kerosene lanterns to modern bright ones, but also carried a headlamp in case of an emergency. Vintage-style knives and axes provided a link to life in the past and made camp chores easy. Modern coolers, dry bags and plastic canoes proved to be incredibly functional. Our old-style equipment provided the basics, and we added a few modern items for safety and convenience. In short, we meshed the best of old and new to create a memorable backcountry experience.
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.