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What IS glamping, anyway?

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Katie Mast | Sep 13, 2013 11:00 AM

Retired Associated Press editor William Kronholm and his wife recently spent six days on the Salmon River in Idaho, rafting during the day and enjoying a gourmet meal with wine each night before retiring to their tent, complete with a mattress, fluffy pillows and floor rug. Kronholm, whose previous standard for wilderness luxury was simply having a dry pair of socks, wrote an article describing the experience as a “delightful shock.” He calls it “glamping,” a mashup of glamorous and camping, and informs us that a similar six-day trip could be ours for the price of roughly $2,500.

Paws Up
Paws Up, a ranch and resort in Montana, markets its elaborate tents to the luxury camper.

The idea of luxury excursions in the wilderness is nothing new, but the term “glamping” is only a few years old; Google Trends shows that people started searching the term online in 2007. Recently I’ve seen the word come up quite a bit, which sparked my curiosity: What exactly defines the glamping experience? Does using the Thermarest LuxuryMap sleeping pad count? What about a winter ski trip to a wood stove-heated cabin? Or packing that extra dessert you know you’ll crave on the trail?

The Online Urban Dictionary defines glamping as: “Satisfying your craving for the outdoors and your penchant for a good meal, nice glass of wine, and a comfortable bed.” Another online dictionary describes it as like a hotel, but where your room opens to a beautiful landscape instead of a lobby.

I’ll admit, when I first heard the term, I rolled my eyes. I agreed with Ben Gadd, a Canadian wilderness guide, who called it “just silly.” Most summers of my childhood, my family would pack the mini van with our heavy, two-room Coleman tent, thick flannel-lined sleeping bags and fold-up cookstove. I learned to expect a week of great hiking and beautiful scenery, as well as dirty feet, mosquito bites and a lot of work. But it was a pretty cheap way for a family of five to vacation.

As an adult, I’ve begun to assemble my own array of camping gear.  While fancy new gear isn’t at all cheap, a few luxuries really can make the experience, well, more attractive. Inflatable sleeping pads make the ground a lot softer, and fiberglass tent poles are incomparably lighter than our old Coleman steel frames. It turns out that I do like to stay warm in a down sleeping bag, and meals with a little bit of extra care – like pancakes spiced with cinnamon chips – taste amazing on the trail.

At first, I wrote off glamping as another example of our consumer society. But add up the costs of all that camping equipment, and you’re well on your way to covering the cost of a night at one of the fanciest glamping locations. For people who camp frequently, those initial costs of purchasing gear are more of a lifetime investment. But for those who just want one camping trip each summer, hiring out for a more comfortable experience might not actually be so silly. So does my penchant for warm sleeping bags and tasty trail food qualify as luxury camping?

In a sense, glamping is not at all a new phenomenon. Until recently, these cozy expeditions have been the realm of the ultra-rich. Today, elegant wildland experiences are a bit more accessible than they were at the turn of the 20th century. As it turns out, there’s a wide range of experiences that now qualify as “glamping.”

Ultra-Glamp

These glampers have cash to spare. They want to step out into expansive landscapes that evoke the idea of adventure, but they like someone else to handle all the details – and with style. In the early 1900s, British and American adventurers to the African plains hired tailors, chefs and dozens of porters per person for extravagant game hunting trips. President Theodore Roosevelt joined a Smithsonian-led safari, hunting Africa’s big game for the museums during a months-long trip that rang up a bill of a 2005-equivalent of $1.8 million. Today’s high-end glamper can get a Montana-based “American Safari” experience at Paws Up Resort 45 minutes east of Missoula. The Montana ranch glampers won’t take home any big game, but they might enjoy shooting clay pigeons and fly-fishing. Heated slate floors and individual bathrooms make these tents more like fancy hotel rooms. With meals prepared by chefs, and access to all the resort’s amenities, this vacation starts at $1,025 per night.

Semi-Glamp

Treesort
Out'n'about is one "treesort" in Oregon offering a suspended getaway.

Some glampers want a hot meal waiting each morning but are happy to leave the tailored suits at home. The Swiss Family Robinson members didn’t set out as glampers, but by making the best of an extremely bad situation, they paved the (literary) way for tree-loving campers today. Stranded on a deserted island, the industrious family built a home in the trees – something kids have dreamed about ever since. Exploring the island by day and eating what they could find or grow in the evenings, some family members decided not to leave the accidental paradise when the chance finally arrived. In southern Oregon, where the trees are big enough to support multi-story tree houses with porches, several hosts aim to make childhood fantasies come true. Guests don’t even have to hunt for dinner. A night at Vertical Horizons starts at $225 per night.

Minimalist Glamp

The taste of a hotdog cooked over a campfire and the smell of woodsmoke in their hair is part of what really makes the experience for these glampers. A good example might be President Chester A. Arthur, who joined a team of explorers in Yellowstone National Park in 1883. The media called the trip a boondoggle, but the president made no apologies. The expedition carried supplies for miles on horseback and mules, and slept in unheated tents despite inclement weather. While President Arthur was an acclaimed angler, fishing wasn’t just for recreation on this trip; the crew tracked down their own protein for meals. Today’s minimal frill glampers are happy preparing their own meals, but like having a comfortable bed. In close range of the Tetons, near where Arthur’s crew ventured, Moose Creek Ranch in Victor, Idaho offers “luxury tents” with queen-sized beds and wood burning stoves for $100 per night.

All this talk of glamping made me wonder if the new term reflects any real consequences for the environment. On the one hand, it might mean more people are using, and possibly abusing, the outdoors. Yet there’s nothing like hands-on experiences to encourage people to care. Maybe embracing comfortable camping experiences will get more people outside and boost enthusiasm for protecting undeveloped landscapes. Or is it, as I originally thought, nothing more than self-indulgent consumption? I suppose you could say the same about my Thermarest.

Katie Mast is an editorial intern at High Country News. Image of Paws Up courtesy Ranchseeker via Flickr. Image of Out'n'About treehouse courtesy Nicholas Boullosa via Flickr.

Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Sep 16, 2013 04:27 PM
I sort of went glamping a few years back, at Glacier, my wife and I bought a cabin cruiser tent and a queen size blow up mattress along with a small table and chair that fit in the tent. Then we used sheets and blankets and pillows instead of sleeping bags and rolled up jackets. My whole life I have never slept so good when camping.

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