Summer's here and folks all over America are already sitting around campfires telling stories of roughing it in the wild.
"Yeah, I had to move my 32-footer over three spaces 'cause my Sat-dish couldn't get diddly squat for a signal under those trees over there," says Rudy Meraz, sipping a cold one beneath a 3 o'clock sun at Carpinteria State Park.
"Our dishwasher broke and we had to do everything by hand," says Mildred Smith, a housewife from Solvang, Calif., resting her aching feet on an iron fire ring, nearby. "We almost missed the season finale of 'Friends.' "
"My wall-plate signal amplifier just blew," says a man named Sandy, sweeping the artificial turf rug outside his trailer. "No CNN tonight."
As many Americans head out for their first camping foray of the summer over Memorial Day weekend, they'll be taking along the usual tents, sleeping bags, and Coleman lanterns. They'll also be carting along DVD libraries, instant-messaging systems, portable hot showers, butane ovens that make gourmet brownies, and enough amenities to make Martha Stewart feel comfortable among the wood ticks.
Sociologists might say that American's once stout pioneer-wilderness heritage has gone soft. But they ignore a deeper truth: It's a good mile-and-a-half brisk walk to the nearest Starbucks from here.
It's easy to say Lewis and Clark would sob into the sleeves of their buckskins if they could see it: thousands (millions?) of perfectly normal immigrant descendants so reliant on their modern conveniences that none can leave them behind. On the other hand, if the country's two most famous pioneers had a hand-held GPS personal navigator - now on sale at an adventure store near you - they could have found the Pacific Ocean, achieved manifest destiny, and made it back to Washington D.C. before the ink was dry on the Louisiana Purchase (1803, instead of 1806).
So, yes outdoor equipment is getting easier, fancier, lighter, smaller, and more versatile. Camping is also more popular again after two decades of ho-hum growth - thanks to 9/11, airline troubles, and the rise of reality TV shows such as "Survivor."
"Certainly camping is growing because there is so much technology available to make it more convenient, safer, and more appealing to more age groups than ever," says Peg Smith, executive director of the American Camping Association.
Because of all this, this season's trailer- and tent- toters are expected to see a lot more faces and families scrummed around Old Faithful, queued up to vista points, and even traipsing remote backcountry.
"Camping merchandisers have gone all out in recent years to better educate customers about how to prepare for the wilderness so they can be safer and have more fun," says Sally Anderson, a marketer of high-end camping for Adventure16 Outdoor and Travel. "One of the consequences is that you are going to see a lot more people in the deeper reaches of wilderness than before."
However far America's campers go, they will run into the latest incarnation of the camper's hierarchy. RV owners make fun of tent campers, and vice versa. Backpackers - who carry smaller tents - make fun of auto campers, those who stick to paved lots and numbered sites. And super trekkers (a.k.a. ultralight campers or "gram counters") - those who walk the big distances of 2,000 miles and more - make fun of mere backpackers.
But instead of putting those smirkful quote marks around another's version of "camping," say wilderness experts, nature seekers of every ilk should realize the common denominator and make the best of it. Nearly everyone craves a wilderness experience to balance their hectic lives.
The outdoors as an equalizer
The point is, they just want to be as unencumbered as possible to enjoy it.
"When you've just crested a ridge in the high sierra of Yosemite to see your first black bear tumbling along the forest edge, it doesn't matter if you've got every modern convenience of camping or not," says Michelle Karlsen, a wilderness expert based in Los Angeles. "The wilderness is the wilderness. Once you see it, your mind is drawn away from urban pressure syndrome: horns, planes, alarm clocks, and screaming kids."
Well, three out of four. Here at Carpinteria State Beach, kids roar past on bikes and mopeds, footrace into the waves, or just sit while pouring buckets of sand down the front of their overalls.
An hour south, at Leo Carillo State Park, there are school buses unloading full classes of kids. There is also the Rossiter family from Laverne, which has been visiting here since 1988.
Their campsite boasts gizmos such as a Coleman Mr. Coffee maker, a pastry and bread oven, and enough propane tanks to fuel an average-sized aircraft carrier.
"We used to rough it more but then we figured what really want to do is be outside together and enjoy nature, not spending all our time with the details of living outside," says Jeane Rossiter. She does not apologize for her conveniences. But she does draw the line at computers, videos, radios, and cellphones.
"We come out here to get away from the noise of our lives," says Jeane. "I want to hear the sound of nature."
Across the interior West in the Rockies, where every summer a deluge of outdoor-minded Americans arrive in search of wild adventure, there's a clear delineation between those who embrace new gadgetry and those who reject it.
"More and more, hikers are certainly carrying cellphones into the backcountry," says Yellowstone National Park spokeswoman Cheryl Matthews. "We've already had a few people who got into trouble and called 9/11 for help."
Proprietors of camping equipment stores say the biggest "gear heads" are those from out of town, visiting the region from urban settings, their minds filled with the idea that having GPS devices, cellphones, diode-powered flashlights, and Palm Pilots are essential survival accoutrements.
One of the biggest and most popular offerings of the year is a digital mapmaking system that allows webcruisers anywhere in the country to customize wilderness maps which can then be coordinated with their GPS equipment. "You can make a map of any size, layout, or contour, for anywhere in the US. It's really cool," Ms. Smith says.
However, in mountain communities such as Bozeman, Mont., locals pride themselves on their "low tech" sensibilities.
"I have no interest in high-tech toys. The only complicated devices I carry are a can of pepper spray [to ward off grizzlies], a water filter, and a basic compass," says Jim Haron, a book salesman from Livingston, Mont., who hikes more than 1,200 miles every summer. "I like the feel and touch of roughing it. For me, the whole idea of getting out in nature is the promise that you can unplug yourself from civilization."
• Todd Wilkinson contributed to this report from Bozeman, Mont.