Outdoor Articles and Reviews

How to Camp Out by John Mead Gould

The first book to be featured as Boldly Goes’ outdoor book of the month is one of the first books written about recreational camping. ‘How to Camp Out’ was written in 1877 by American Civil War veteran John Mead Gould. He wanted to popularise recreational hiking and camping, and especially inspire the young of the USA to go out and experience what they could while they were able. I read the entire guide in a single sitting and made notes of interesting techniques and notable quotes as I went, finishing with quite a long list. The book definitely succeeded in inspiring me to get outside and make the most of my youth, I immediately put some of the skills I had read of in practice and began to take Gould’s advice on note taking very seriously. It is part of the reason I wanted to start Boldly Goes to begin with and you will no doubt see me quote its timeless wisdom in future articles.

"Consequently, write what you can, and let it stand with all its blots, errors, and nonsense. And be careful, when you are five years older, not to go through the diary with eraser and scissors; for, if you live still another five years, nothing will interest you more than this diary with all its defects."
- John M. Gould

The preface really tells you everything you need to know about this book; it summarises the advice of a very experienced outdoorsman with the intention of inspiring the young people of the USA to go out and experience everything nature has to offer. Gould does this by systematically providing all of the information they would need to assemble a travelling party of their own and survive outdoors for an extended period of time. This includes a briefing on all of the important aspects of camping, from which equipment to buy and how to cook on an open fire to advice on how to take useful notes on your trip, with a view to write them up for posterity later.

The book continues with 11 chapters detailing everything the youth of 1877 needed to know to prepare and set out into the, then very, wild American countryside. He begins with the preparations you might need to make before you leave and recommends leaving all but the essentials behind to save pack weight. Then he moves on through the equipment and tasks which you’ll be using and performing when camping and provides a quick but thorough summary of best practises to prepare you. Very few people will find it useful know know about loading a pack onto a horse and cart then walking next to it up a mountain these days, but these less applicable snippets provide a window into outdoor life in the 1800s, they have a different value. This is the beauty of Gould’s guide; it contains a lot of techniques that remain the same today, and anything outdated provides an insight into the history of camping and hiking, there are no wasted chapters.

His words on the versatility of a wool rug inspired me to drag our old family wool blend picnic rug from the car and give it a go, I was pleasantly surprised to find it was extremely useful in the woods where the Boldly Goes team usually camps. Rolled up and slung over the shoulder, it’s a comfortable, if a bit warm, way to carry clothes and food. Folded it provides a nice seat or sleeping mat in the summer, and it stops the wind wicking away the warmth from your sleeping bag when wrapped around it. It’s obviously a bit heavy, but if you’re camping overnight and aren’t walking too far, it’s definitely a nice thing to have.

As well as keeping you warm in the evenings, a wool rug makes carrying extra food and water a breeze.

In the final two chapters of the book, Gould has included extracts in full from the work of two other experts of the day. The first, Reverend Edward Everett Hale, has some insights into the habits you should develop while hiking as well as a cautionary tale on not taking chances of adventure when they present themselves. The second, Dr. Elliott Coues, offers advice on avoiding injury and illness outdoors, the preventative measures like keeping warm and always maintaining three points of contact when climbing still ring true. I would, however, advise finding some more up-to-date information on reviving a drowned man that doesn’t involve rubbing their face to make it warm, then splashing cold water on it.

"Be independent, but not impudent. See all you can, and make the most of your time; "time is money;" and, when you grow older, you may find it even more difficult to command time than money."
- John M. Gould

How to Camp Out is 70 pages of distilled knowledge written in an accessible way by a man whose clear love for the outdoors and passion for teaching others shines throughout the book, making it a pleasure to read. It’s a lovely little piece of nourishing history which I’d definitely recommend to keen outdoorsmen who are beginners or seasoned experts. Both will come away from the book having learned different things: the newer, perhaps some new techniques and tips; the more experienced, some perspective on their outdoor skills and gear, and how little the basics have changed in 140 years.

How to Camp Out is available for free as an ebook or PDF via the Gutenberg project or