Camping in Victorian Times

Emily Gartner

For many Canadian families, no summer is complete without a family camping trip; whether it’s at a local or national park, a cabin, or in the backwoods, Canada is full of great spots to camp and people who love to go discover them. But it wasn’t always this popular. Before the 1870’s, there was little interest in camping. Most people couldn’t afford to take time off work and travel and those who could were more likely to want to relax in a hotel than the forest floor. But in the late-Victorian period, several factors led to the popularisation of camping among the upper and middle-classes. Thus, camp grounds and summer homes became populated with families, hoping to get away from it all in the summer months.

Following the industrial revolution, many Victorians saw their lives becoming filled with modern comforts and amenities, which made it difficult to try new things and feel connected to the natural world. Many viewed this as an issue and began to fanaticise about living off the land, away from urban life. At the same time, there were many books and publications telling romantic and exciting stories about the great American and Canadian frontiers in the West and all of the opportunities that they offered. These books captured imaginations with stories of cowboys and gold miners, explorers and warriors, all seeking a life on the range. As people read them they would start to desire to go and enjoy the great outdoors with their own friends and families. And many did just that.

Campers and game at Comfort Point, Columbus Camp, Muskoka Lakes, Ont., 1887. (Library and Archives Canada)

Campers and game at Comfort Point, Columbus Camp, Muskoka Lakes, Ont., 1887. (Library and Archives Canada)

Going camping often entailed many weeks of bringing only the barest of necessities in an attempt to prove that they could easily live off the land. People slept of beds of pine boughs and washed up in rivers and lakes. They observed wild animals and ate many of them too. They hiked, biked, and canoed with abandon, adventuring and exploring as much as they could.

This getting back to nature mean that many families left their servants behind and did all of the chores and work themselves. This led to common role-reversal, as husbands took up housework, like dish and clothes washing, which normally would be the domain of their wives or lady servants. Meanwhile, women often chose to wear men’s clothes and pants rather than long dresses, as they were more practical, which was something that would have been socially unacceptable back in their hometowns.

Boy Scout camp, Lambton, Ontario (Library and Archives Canada)


Boy Scout camp, Lambton, Ontario (Library and Archives Canada)

Not all families opted to go without any servants or assistance while camping; many did hire guides, who were mostly local men who knew the lay of the land. These guides would help them understand how to set up and look after their campsites and show them around. Many were also engaged to cook and clean for the families, so that the campers didn’t have to do it for themselves.

As the concept of camping and living off the land became popular many people sought for more permanent and organised experiences when tackling an outdoors adventure, which led to the establishment of places that provided camp programming, particularly for youth. The YMCA was the first to respond to the desire for summer camps in North America, opening their first camps in the 1880’s and ‘90’s for young adults to attend during their holidays. Other camps run by different churches and community organisations soon followed, offering programs that included activities like canoeing, tenting, and sports for their eager campers. This style of camp continues to exist in various forms and is still quite popular today.

Around the same time, adventure magazines and journals became popular. Boys would read these along with adventure novels that would make camping and hiking exciting and glamourous, causing many to seek to travel the world and live off the land. These books continued to be popular following the end of the Victorian era in 1901, with many becoming best sellers and encouraging youth to get outside and embrace nature. One especially popular publication was Scouting for Boys, written by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, who was a veteran of the Boer Wars. This book prompted the creation of the Scouting Movement, which still exists today as the largest youth organisation world-wide. It also directly influenced the creation of the Guide movement, which was developed as an organisation specifically geared towards young women. Both teach outdoor skills and use camping as a method of delivering their core messages and values.

Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in front of Court House (Library and Archives Canada)


Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in front of Court House (Library and Archives Canada)

Since the Victorian period, camping has become a traditional pastime for many families in Canada, who still use it as a chance to get away from city life and connect with nature. While many of the things we use for camping have changed, right along with the time, camping can still be a lot of fun and a great way to spend your holidays.