When I lived in Southern California years ago, I would often take the “Cajon Pass” out of the LA Basin onto the desert. For me, it was the start of one of two trips: Either to see my in-laws in Utah, or heading for the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains for an adventure, usually with my children, sometimes the whole family.
When I took the turn off that would lead me to Lone Pine and the trails and camps of the Sierra, the traffic dropped tremendously. Likewise, going into Las Vegas, or Lost Wages, as I used to call it, cars were bumper to bumper even across the open desert. But exiting Las Vegas, I often had the wide interstate almost to myself heading north.
Obviously, a lot more people were heading to Vegas for the various things they do there than were heading for the mountains. And while the campgrounds and trails of the Sierra would fill up on holiday weekends, I rarely had a problem finding a campground spot, and even in the middle of summer, would often find myself camping alone by a backcountry lake. On one backpacking trip, our party of three went nearly three days without seeing another human being. Very cool
So what is the point of all this? Only that when the inevitable emergency comes (Earthquake in the case of SoCal, other places can fill in their favorite hazards), a lot of people are only going to have the skills and supplies that they have cultivated over the years driving to Las Vegas, or Atlantic City, or Branson, or another resort town with comfortable beds and well stocked restaurants. Far fewer will know how to cook over a fire, sleep in a makeshift shelter, or stay dry and warm in a downpour. How many fewer? Since 2006, the percentage of Americans who camped in any one year fluctuated between 16% and 12%. The overall trend was flat to slightly down. That’s a lot of people with minimal outdoor skills. Especially when you consider that the one sector showing growth was people renting cabins. Tent campers, RV campers, and bless their hearty souls, people who sleep with the stars for a roof and only carry a tarp in case of unexpected weather all showed slight declines.
As one might expect, Westerners camped more than Eastern folk. The ability to drive to high mountains and get away from the summer heat might have something to do with that. Women preferred cabins and RV ‘s, while the men were more likely to stake out a tent or just throw a pad and bag on the ground. Some of the fluctuation is pure demographics. Teens and young adults camp the most, so the 60’s and 70’s, when the baby boom was coming of age was the golden era for growth in outdoor sports. The baby bust that followed saw a corresponding drop in campers, and most large zigs and zags since then have tracked the number of teenagers and 18-24 year olds.
Also, camping has a high churn rate. Some people go once, discover that the backcountry is not Disneyland, and just never go again. Even a lot of people who describe themselves as outdoor enthusiasts will rise early for a dozen mile hike or a day on the river fly fishing, but insist on a chef-cooked meal and a hotel bed with soft sheets that night. One of the emerging trends in the outdoors is called “glamping”, with tents and campgrounds that while ostensibly outdoors, rival a Hilton in amenities. Not to mention that all meals are catered. It also says a lot that the number one “luxury” item requested by campers is….a shower and washing facilities. My only comment is that a lot of dirt hating Americans are going to have a hard time when their daily ration of water for ALL uses drops under a gallon. I read a letter once sent ahead by Napoleon returning from a long campaign to Josephine, his wife. The letter stated that he would be home in three days and was eager to embrace her again and that in the meantime, she should not bathe. But I digress. Hygiene is and will be important in any situation, but our definition of what constitutes good hygiene in an emergency may require some revision.
The low percentage of Americans preparing themselves to live off what they can pack in a few minutes and run should do two things. First, give us an incentive to ensure that our ability to live away from home for several days needs to be honed and sharpened-or begun, if you have not yet.
Second, remember that many of our family and friends are going to be woefully unprepared. This is both a threat and an opportunity. You may need to alter your food requirements to be ready to feed other mouths not as smart as you. Or you may need to include in your emergency skills the ability to go stealthy and not alert others of your presence until normalcy returns. A tough challenge either way.
Note: While I drew on several articles and my own experiences and observations for this post, major portions of it come from information contained in a 2013 Study of Camping Trends done jointly by the Coleman Corporation and the Outdoor Industry Foundation, and I thank them for the information they provided.