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Travelling the Simpler Way: In Praise of Camping

This post was written on the invitation of Zero Carbon Moreland.

Henry David Thoreau, the pioneering environmentalist and philosopher of the simple life, once wrote an essay called ‘Walking’ in which he informed his contemporaries – in all seriousness – that they didn’t know how to walk properly. In fact, he claimed that he had only met one or two people in his life that knew how to walk. When I first read this it took me a while to stop laughing, but then I realized that his point was that walking in nature is a sophisticated art form, promising untold riches to those who have a genius for walking, a genius for sauntering in the woods.

Perhaps if Thoreau were alive today he would write an essay called ‘Travelling,’ in which he would declare that few people know how to travel properly. How presumptuous of people to travel to the other side of the world, he might assert, when we haven’t even seen – really seen – our own backyards; our own locality. Just perhaps, he might suggest, unimagined wonders await those who are willing to open the doors of perception and dare to take a closer look.

Even Thoreau, however, might have admitted that the advertisements for exotic travel today can be extremely seductive. You all know the template: The sun is setting over a private pool in some island resort as two beautiful people sip their cocktails and smile at you. Then the sun is shining and the same beautiful people are laughing together on pure white sand as turquoise waves smoothly approach their tanned bodies. Next they are having a candle-lit dinner in a beachfront restaurant. As they look at each other lovingly, someone starts playing the harp.

Or consider another standard example: an ad for a fancy hotel. There is the grand stairwell and a smiling doorman. There is a sweeping view of a spacious, perfectly new hotel apartment. There is also a snap shot of a huge pool, a vibrant city scene, and a pianist playing in the hotel bar to remind you how sophisticated the patrons are. Everyone is having a fantastic time, including the hotel staff. Finally there is some closing slogan like: “You deserve it. Your family deserves it. Book today for only $299 per night plus airflights. Conditions apply.”

Well, perhaps that would be a nice way to travel, but personally I’m not so sure. When me and my girl take a bus or a train to some camping site an hour or so outside of Melbourne; when we light a small fire and have a glass of wine under the stars, and let our conversation wander in the midst of nature, I feel like the richest man on Earth. And it only costs $12 per night for the privilege of enjoying that small, humble but extremely beautiful corner of Earth. Even better when we go bush camping and don’t pay a cent!

Are campers supposed to feel deprived for not staying in those fancy, perfectly new (and expensive) hotel apartments? Is it expected of us to be envious? In all honesty, I wouldn’t exchange those simple camping experiences for the polished surroundings of a fancy hotel any day. I want to swim in the sea and stroll through natural landscapes. I want to carry everything I need on my back so that I reminded how little is needed to be happy and free. And I want the birds wake me up at dawn.

Living an urban existence as I do, where intimacy with nature is not always easily achieved, such simple travel experiences nourish me in a way ‘first class’ travel never could. Perhaps there are some among you who agree?

Aside from the very different experiences between camping and ‘first class’ travel, another increasingly important issue with respect to travel is that it so often depends upon airflight, and airflight is the world’s fastest growing source of carbon-dioxide emissions.[1]

Part of the problem – strange as it is to say – is the fact that air travel is too cheap. Since the environmental costs of air travel are not built into the cost of the ticket, the human economy greatly under-prices and therefore over-consumes air travel, leading to momentous externalities like climate change, which economists call a ‘market failure.’ A market failure, indeed! At the very least, air travel should be priced appropriately to account for its true costs. But that takes government action, which too often is painfully slow in coming, or doesn’t come at all. Personal steps, however, can be taken to offset your emissions at websites like Greening Australia (see http://www.breatheeasynow.com.au/html/offset/).

Of course, I do not pretend that avoiding air travel is easy in our day and age. For many people it’s a necessary part of their job description. For others, with family overseas, avoiding air travel completely would be simply too painful, no matter what the climatologists say. Nevertheless, there are very good reasons for trying to minimize air travel. The main point that I’d like to make today is that this needn’t sound so depressing.

Travelling to exotic locations by private jet to stay in a fancy hotel might be a necessary way to enjoy travel for those with no imagination. But those who have an imagination should take a second look at their travel options. It may well be that there are cheap, low-carbon, and more fulfilling travel options that are closer to home than we might first think, if only we look at the world in a different way.


[1] See Tony Jupiter, How Many Lightbulbs does it take to Change a Planet? (2007) 141.

 

6 Responses to “Travelling the Simpler Way: In Praise of Camping”

  1. Kirby says:

    My boyfriend and I bicycled for a month last (European) summer through England and Scotland. As we were living in Holland at the time, it was a boat trip across the channel each way and beyond that, pedal power! Our trusty steeds were loaded up with all that we hoped we would need; camping and cooking equipment, some spare parts and tools, food and some minimal clothing. As we didn’t have a large amount of money to buy what we needed for the trip we were making it simple before we even left. Making our own stoves out of cans, fireguards out of aluminium plates and pulling apart old bicycle tyres to make mud guards! We would wild camp for 4 days or so, then usually I would request a campsite every 5th night so I could shower. But what a way to travel! The smallest things were so rewarding; finding a really great camping spot (on the shores of a loch, in a forest abundant with blueberries), having food in our bellies, experiencing an 8 hour day outside cycling in beautiful weather. We used to wonder as people sped past us in their metal bubbles; what on earth can they be seeing and experiencing in there? I can’t recommend the joys of travelling simply highly enough.

  2. Samuel Alexander says:

    Kirby, thanks for sharing such a wonderful story. Camping on the shores of a loch, in a forest abundant with blue-berries! Priceless.

    Anybody else willing to share their stories of simple travel?

  3. J says:

    Thankyou for the article. I was traveling in India and there was a period of time that I would count as one of the happiest of my life. I was staying in a monastery for less than $5aus a night. It was dirty, cold, plenty of mosquitoes, people sleeping outside my door (with the radio on), cold bucket showers, unclean out door dirty toilets etc. It was one afternoon when I was outside hand washing my clothes, listening to the birds and surrounded by trees that I realised that I could not have been happier. It was wonderful to experience how such a simple act could be so blissful and fulfilling.

  4. Jon says:

    Hi I would love to know where your “some camping site an hour or so outside of Melbourne” is, would love to take my kids to experience some nature.

  5. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Jon, my favourite place is Wilson’s Prom, although that is slightly further away, but worth the trip. (It may be closed that the moment, however, as there was a flood there recently). Closer and easily accessible by train and bus are the many campsites along the Great Ocean Road, although they are less ‘wild’ than the bush camping at Wilson’s Prom, but still beautiful in their own way.

  6. sgl says:

    in addition to camping, hostelling is a good choice, particularly if you’re interested in travelling somewhere to see museums and such.

    hostels are usually easily accessible to the centers of compact european cities where all the museums are, lots of fellow travels to talk with, get tips from, and spend a day sightseeing with. also, usually inexpensive meals served each evening, often have simple cooking facilities if you want to cook for yourself too.

    way back in 1991, i travelled 3 months in europe (plus greece, turkey, and egypt), staying mostly in hostels. many memorable times from the trip, from both the sightseeing, and the fellow travelers met. i think the entire 3 month trip cost about $50/day, including lodging, food, transportation (eurail pass, city buses, etc), museum entrance fees, etc. along the way, i saw the sistine chapel, statue of david, aiya sophia in istanbul, the pyramids, and innumerable other treasures of the western world.

    i chose the guidebook i used in part because of the philosophy of the author:

    ———-
    http://www.ricksteves.com//plan/tips/sleeping.htm

    As far as I’m concerned, spending more for your hotel just builds a bigger wall between you and what you traveled so far to see. If you spend enough, you won’t know where you are. Think about it. “In-ter-con-ti-nen-tal.” That means the same everywhere — designed for people who deep down inside wish they weren’t traveling, people spending someone else’s money, people who need a strap over the toilet telling them no one’s sat there yet. It’s uniform sterility, a lobby full of Stay-Press Americans, English menus, and lamps bolted to the tables. [….]

    The hotel I’m describing may be appalling to many Americans; to others, it’s charming, colorful, or funky. To me, “funky” means spirited and full of character(s): a caged bird in the TV room, grandchildren in the backyard, a dog sleeping in the hall, no uniforms, singing maids, a night-shift man tearing breakfast napkins in two so they’ll go farther, a handwritten neighborhood history lesson on the wall, different furniture in each room, and a willingness to buck the system when the local tourist board starts requiring shoeshine machines in the hallways. An extra $40–50 per night will buy you into cheerier wallpaper and less funkiness.

    ———-

    today, young’uns can make their hostel reservations on-line (and probably from their smart phones too!). and there’s also websites like couchsurfing.org where people coordinate letting other people sleep for free on their couch.

    i’ve also spent about 5 years of my life travelling for business. i can tell you, many of the upscale hotel chains are not all that spectacular or interesting outside their flagship properties in the big cities (eg, the marriott in nowhere iowa). but, they’re fairly predictable — you’re not likely to be woken up in the middle of the night right before your important presentation/meeting the next day — which is often what justifies the price. (one of my fellow business travelers was bumped from his reservation an overfull hotel, and ended up at a sleazy hotel where he thinks a drug-deal-gone-bad was occuring next door. not conducive to top performance the next day!)

    however, when i’m traveling on my own nickel, and i have the freedom to not be impacted even if something unpredictable wakes me up in the middle of the night, then i much prefer the character of hostels and other inexpensive lodging.

    so, while camping is great, it’s not the only way to see the world, or travel inexpensively, or create opportunities to meet locals and fellow travelers. and while nature is great, there are some pretty impressive artifacts from 5000+ years of civilization, much of it collected in big cities. and it’s possible to see them inexpensively also, and in my personal opinion, well worth it too.

    –sgl

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