King-size beds, fancy soap, stellar views: How ‘glamping’ went mainstream

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The writer enjoys the view from his tent at Under Canvas Zion, a glamping site in Virgin, Utah. Glamping, short for glamorous camping, brings resort-style services to the wild.
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It’s afternoon when my wife and I arrive at our Moab, Utah, “glamping” location to find a winding gravel drive, rolling land, and scattered in the brush some 40 safari tents the color of desert bone. We park, throw our luggage on a golf cart, and are piloted to our tent – a “deluxe,” $274-a-night tent with private bath. There’s a canopy-shaded porch and two chairs. We unzip the tent flaps and enter an interior designed as though Teddy Roosevelt might show up.

Glamping, a mashup of “glamorous” and “camping,” is a full-on thing. Google searches for it just reached 100 times their total a decade ago. There are some 35,000 glamping possibilities on Glamping Hub, a kind of Airbnb for the industry. The industry is forecast to reach $1 billion by 2024. 

Everyone we talk to has a theory about why it’s so popular. The practicality of not owning camping gear, the desire to escape devices, the hunger for experiences, the stress relief. And then there’s the sheer natural beauty. You can’t cross the American West without thinking how unconscionably, inexpressibly, unfathomably beautiful this is. When you’re glamping, the world is with you, and you feel it. 

Why We Wrote This

As it transforms the way Americans experience nature, “glamping,” or “glamorous camping,” reveals insights about what we hunger for: escape, modern-day comfort, and stress reduction – with a stunning backdrop.

It’s just past dawn and my wife and I stop for coffee – well, I’m getting coffee, Melanie’s getting Mountain Dew – at the last gas station for miles, in Torrey, Utah. “Torrey: The Middle of Nowhere,” explains a dusty T-shirt in the sales bin. “And That’s the Way We Like It.”

A friendly man fixing his coffee next to me asks, “Out here camping?” 

“Sort of,” I say. “We’re glamping.”

Why We Wrote This

As it transforms the way Americans experience nature, “glamping,” or “glamorous camping,” reveals insights about what we hunger for: escape, modern-day comfort, and stress reduction – with a stunning backdrop.

“Glamping,” he repeats.

“Short for ‘glamorous camping,’” I tell him. “All the camping, none of the work. Tents all prepped for you. Beds. French soap. Campfires you don’t have to build.”

He looks at me narrowly for a moment and adds some creamer. “Ah. The army tents.”

“Not army,” I say. “Safari.”

“Riiiight,” he says, and laughs. “Well that sounds pricier.” Then he says, “Looks like it’d be cool, though.”

And then he’s off, tucking himself into a 30-year-old Porsche retooled with matte paint and off-road tires, before I can parry his skepticism with my data – how Google searches for glamping just reached 100 times their total a decade ago, how private equity investors decided that even minority stakes in modest eight-site glamping chains are worth $17 million. How glamping established its hottest hotbed in southern Utah, much of which my wife and I are traversing as we speak. (My wife being Monitor photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman, whose pictures document the trip.)

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Glamping tents at Under Canvas Zion sit among the sagebrush near Zion National Park in Utah.

I would have told him how glamping is a full-on thing. Which is why we’re on the road for this summer travel piece in the first place, putting it to the test: Exactly what is glamping, anyway? Is there a secret to why it’s grown so hot? What’s it like to do it?

What I could not have told him, because I only learned it later, is that there’s another story here, too. Because whatever else it may be, glamping is also a mirror, showing  us something about our 21st-century lives – our social media fixations, our compressed existences in cubicles, our dreams of adventure (but not without 300 thread count sheets).

And I could not have told him about Amy Affeld and glamping’s tipping point, the day in July 2017 when Ms. Affeld, proprietor of the Utah glamping site BaseCamp 37˚, looked out past one of her luxury tents and wondered, “Why is that girl twirling in my sagebrush?”

Turns out, there are reasons. Reasons why glamping happened at all. Reasons why we’ve hit peak glamping now. Reasons for the twirling. 

So we fuel ourselves in Torrey and head out to look for them.

From Torrey we follow the Fremont River through Capitol Reef National Park toward Moab and the first of three “glampgrounds” we’ll sample. And we’ll get to that.

But first, you’ll have some questions. Or at least a handful of our friends did when a recent dinner party morphed into an impromptu glamping Q&A.

Really? “Glamping?”

Yep. Somebody mashed up “glamorous” and “camping,” and it stuck. Genius, really. It made the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016.

OK, so what makes camping glamping? What’s the difference?

The bed, for starters. Melanie and I enjoyed three of them, all king-size, all artisanally styled and astonishingly comfortable. And all – this might go without saying but is ultimately the point – already set up when we got there. Says Sarah Dusek, co-founder of Under Canvas, one of the premier glamping chains in the United States: “Glamping offers you everything you love about camping without everything you hate – the hassle of setup and sleeping on the ground.”

Beyond that, even glamping providers themselves debate definitions. Scan the 35,000 glamping possibilities on Glamping Hub (a kind of Airbnb for the industry) and you’ll find treehouses, yurts, small cabins, decommissioned Airstreams, Conestoga wagons, tepees, and every manner of tent. And you’ll find them in locations ranging from an off-grid wilderness to a subdivision in an existing campground (with recreational vehicles stacked nearby) to the marginally private yard of someone’s marginally rural house. All of these count as “some form of unique camping accommodation” that can be bundled under the glamping rubric, says Toby O’Rourke, chief executive officer of Kampgrounds of America, the world’s largest campground chain. KOA offers at least one of these forms at roughly 100 of its 520 locations.

Wait, I could be glamping in a treehouse?

Nah. For our purposes let’s stick to the emerging standard and stipulate that real glamping involves 1) a tent, 2) with a bed to die for, 3) in nature. Plus a “fire experience,” as industry people call it.

And s’mores. For some reason, there are always s’mores. (No joke: The s’mores fire is where Melanie and I met our fellow glampers – couples, families, dogs – because it convened people in a way conventional campgrounds don’t.)

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The folk group Joey and Friends performs at dusk around a campfire, while guests make s’mores.

And this is a legit phenomenon?

It is! So is camping in general, topped by glamping as the standout. More Americans camped in 2018 than during any other year in history, and of the 78 million who journeyed into the woods, half said they planned to “experience glamping” in the coming year, more than double the prior year’s response.

Is it expensive? 

Can be. But prices vary madly. Glamping Hub shows plenty of options below $100, but once you’re into the kinds of digs you always see in pictures, prices rise. On our trip we paid a low of $159 and a high of $274 – the latter a tent with a shower, wood stove, and leather chairs. Of course, if your tastes are more refined you can try The Resort at Paws Up, in Montana, where a one-bedroom tent can top $2,600 a night. (In fairness, that includes your meals. And a butler.)

Rule of thumb: Glamping usually costs about the same as a good bed-and-breakfast, but if you’re a plutocrat you can find places to spend like one.

Food, bathrooms, Wi-Fi, electricity for my laptop – how much civilization is there in the wild?

The critical fact to recognize is that for all the glam, what’s mostly happening here is camping. The cook is mostly you, the Wi-Fi mostly nonexistent, the bathrooms mostly shared.

Of course, offerings vary – we were always given batteries to charge our phones, twice we had private baths, and one place (Under Canvas Zion) had a cafe where we enjoyed a foodie-level dinner. Generally we made breakfasts on one of the communal grills (oatmeal with raisins and chopped nuts) and had dinners like most glampers, at restaurants in nearby towns. And then we had the s’mores.

All this sounds a lot like the camp cabins of yore, only in canvas. Could it just be a fad?

Maybe. (Though seriously, those beds are not to be underestimated.)

How does it really feel?

Let’s see.

It’s afternoon when Melanie and I arrive at Under Canvas’ Moab location to find a winding gravel drive, rolling land, and scattered in the brush some 40 safari tents the color of desert bone. Our greeter – everyone gets a greeter – is Marquette Korff, late of drama school. (And it shows. In a good way.)

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“Don't worry. These babies can handle 60 miles per hour!" – Marquette Korff, a greeter at Under Canvas Moab, noting how the tents can withstand strong winds, just as one kicked up.

We park, throw our luggage on a golf cart, and are piloted to our tent – “deluxe” this time, $274 a night, private bath included. There’s a platform weathered like bark, a canopy-shaded porch, two chairs. We unzip the tent flaps, unzip the bug screen, and enter an interior designed as though Teddy Roosevelt might show up.

Ms. Korff orients us – everyone gets oriented. She explains the pull-chain shower and “green” toiletries, the on-demand water heater, the wood stove, the phone chargers and white-noise machines and adjustable lanterns and battery-powered fans. The rules. (Quiet after 10! Don’t step on the desert crust!) The menu for optional food delivery (like room service, but with a higher markup). 

Suddenly a violent wind kicks up. “Don’t worry,” shouts Ms. Korff, “these babies can handle 60 miles per hour!” She points at the snapping tent, the straining anchor ropes.

In the distance a rainstorm sweeps over Arches National Park and the far La Sal Mountains, still snowy even though it’s 92 degrees in Moab. Lightning jumps.

Tonight, Ms. Korff is telling us, there will be a guitar player by the fire. And s’mores. Nearby glampers might be playing cornhole, boccie, badminton, or adult-sized Jenga, she says. There are yoga mats. Options.

Or, I’m thinking, Melanie and I could sit on our tent porch facing the opposite direction and watch the light change over a cream and violet landscape that’s wild for 50 miles. We could savor the desert air cooling 30 degrees on our skin.

Meanwhile the bed looks, well, amazing – and I want to try it. I start hauling our luggage from the golf cart when my photographer wife hollers above the wind, “Don’t put our junk in yet! I’ve got to get this before we mess it up!” Photographers.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A glamping tent at Under Canvas Moab in southern Utah sits on a wooden platform and is equipped with a king-size bed, full bathroom, and other civilized accouterments.

So while she squats and pirouettes and aims her various lenses at who knows what, I wait, and listen again to the wind against the tent and watch the sandstone fins and towers of Arches alternately glow and dissolve in skittering patches of sun. 

And I’m thinking, I just got here. But I could get used to this.

More questions.

If this glamping thing is so good, why didn’t it happen before?

That’s the million-dollar question – maybe the billion-dollar question, since $1 billion is what  the glamping industry is forecast to reach by 2024, according to the hospitality research firm Arizton.

From its inception in 2005 when the term “glamping” first appeared, through its early bloom in Europe to its U.S. introduction by Under Canvas in 2012 outside Yellowstone, glamping looked a lot like the sort of innovation that happens in every industry: a minor tweak of an already existing phenomenon. Hey, what if instead of permanent cabins we had permanent tents? What if instead of cots we had beds? What if instead of camping we called it glamping?

Everyone we talk to also has a theory about why it’s so popular. “It’s about a new practicality,” says BaseCamp 37˚’s Ms. Affeld, “especially among millennials.” Young people today increasingly don’t own cars (use Uber) or homes (rent little apartments) or the gear that conventional campers need (“where you gonna put all that stuff?” says Ms. Affeld). So use somebody else’s.

Then there’s the desire millennials, empty nesters – virtually everyone –  have to escape the tyranny of their devices, to actually feel like a family or bond with a friend. It’s what Under Canvas executive May Lilley calls a hunger “for experiences more than things.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Guest host Neanna Bodycomb relaxes in a hammock at dusk at BaseCamp 37˚, a glamping site in Kanab, Utah.

“People are so disconnected,” says Neanna Bodycomb, a New York glamping aficionado and part-time BaseCamp 37˚ host. “For a while we’ve been so all about Silicon Valley and our devices and every neat new thing. But now we see what it’s cost us.”

Part of that cost, say experts, is society-wide stress, to which campers think a tent and a beautiful tableau is a perfect antidote. Since 2012 the North American Camping Report, by Cairn Consulting Group (underwritten by KOA), has tracked what campers hope to get out of their experiences in the wild. The two highest-ranked “impacts” are differing kinds of stress reduction. And among camping styles, glamping may be the most soothing.

“You slow up, maybe you even stop,” says Rachael Rhode, guest experience coordinator at Under Canvas Moab. “We do the work for you.”

None of these factors, though – not the practical issues, nor the prizing of the real over the virtual, nor the stress reduction – would likely have caused glamping to catch fire without the accelerant of social media. And by social media, we mean Instagram.

For even as people are fleeing to their Ritz-Carlton tents to escape their devices, many are using their devices to chronicle their time in Ritz-Carlton tents. In this brave new age of the online influencer, says Ms. Lilley, nothing has spread glamping like the testimony of the proliferating mommy bloggers, luxury-travel diarists, and RV nomads, Instagramming as they go. Even children are posting travelogues about their experiences on YouTube. “Peer-to-peer means far more than any paid advertising I could do,” she says.

Which brings us to the sagebrush twirling that Ms. Affeld has grown so accustomed to. After all, what’s more Instagrammable than someone posing amid the mesquite, or in a lantern-lit safari tent at the golden hour on a grassy escarpment? What’s a better backdrop for, well, you – for you living your best life, in pictures?

“Oh my gosh, you should see them,” says Ms. Rhode, “all of them looking for stories to tell. They see [glamping] on Instagram and say, ‘I’ve gotta do that.’ We’ve got girls that come decked for the photos – the hats, the dresses. ... I mean it’s a blast, obviously, but I still can’t help asking them, ‘Um, you bring any hiking boots?’”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“We've got girls that come decked for the photos – the hats, the dresses....I mean it's a blast, obviously, but I still can't help asking them, 'Um, did you bring any hiking boots?’” – Rachael Rhode, guest coordinator, Under Canvas Moab

And do they?

Ms. Rhode thinks about it. Sometimes, she says. Since, you know, the hikes are pretty Instagrammable, too.

As it happens, Melanie and I have brought hiking boots – and, as we glamp, we manage to use them in four of Utah’s famous big five national parks, including in Bryce Canyon, on what has to be the Most Beautiful Walk in the World. But that’s another story.

Most days we rise early – to beat the heat, to miss the crowds – but not so early that we miss hearing each camp come to life. As the morning light grows from cobalt to lavender to rose across the view beyond the open tent flap, you catch the tiny sounds – footfalls on gravel, a tent zipper. Campground sounds, the sounds of a community in open air – but peculiarly crystalline, like the way voices sound when they carry to your blanket across a beach. 

From Moab and Arches we circle south to Kanab, and Ms. Affeld’s place at BaseCamp 37˚, where our tent is so close to Arizona that a sign in the brush divides time zones between Mountain and Pacific. From there we skirt Bryce again and pass through Zion National Park, to another of Under Canvas’ locations, on Zion’s western edge. Another terra cotta canyon, more stands of juniper, taller spires of silvered granite. Another stage set of the spectacular American West.

And maybe here is where we should note a fact that it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge despite feeling too clichéd to mention, which is this: You can’t cross the American West without thinking, a thousand times a day, how unconscionably, inexpressibly, unfathomably beautiful this is. So beautiful it would be stupid to try describing it. Even the delicious photographs on these pages can’t quite take that beauty’s measure, because they miss the third dimension of it, the sheer exhilaration of the expanse. The silence. The air.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An approaching thunderstorm turns the sky purple near Under Canvas Moab glamping site.

(Please don’t tell my wife.)

Clichéd though it is, the beauty matters. Glamping isn’t glamping without it. 

And maybe one of the things glamping is trying to show us is that when it comes to beauty like that, none of us should be too long without it, either.

Last question. This one voiced by a friend who looked at Melanie’s photos and listened to our stories and was plenty envious but still paused, still said:

I don’t know, what’s the magic? Looks cool, but would I like it? Should I glamp?

Depends, I tell her. Keep in mind there could be crying kids four tents over, and your neighbor could decide to fly his swarm-of-bees-sounding drone before breakfast. Sometimes it’s too hot, sometimes it’s too cold, sometimes it rains and you need a poncho to reach the bathroom. It’s camping. Weather happens. People happen.

But maybe you like weather and feel like you haven’t been in it enough. Maybe you sleep better in the cold (the linen comforter helps). Maybe you haven’t been surprised enough lately and haven’t seen nearly enough beauty. Maybe you’d like a reason to put down your phone.

It turns out there is a secret to glamping, in the end. It’s almost too obvious. The secret is the tent. Maybe glamping really is just a cabin with canvas walls. But maybe it’s those canvas walls that make all the difference – how thin a membrane they are, how little they separate you from whatever is on their other side. From the wind that moves the tent flanks like they’re breathing, from the creaking poles lashed together with ropes, from all that beauty that’s so close.

When you’re glamping, there’s all that preposterous comfort, of course, but there’s also all the camping. The world is greatly with you, and you feel it. And whatever everyday cocoon you came from is gone, because the moment is just too present to be escaped.

So, how does glamping feel? Like that, I tell our friend. It feels like that. How does that sound?

To which she says, “Perfect! I’m in!”

Then she smiles. “And I know just what to wear.”

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