Leslie's Guiding History Site


Mod Cons at Camp

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In the 1912 handbook our founder, Agnes Baden-Powell, emphasised that Guides did not go to camp to 'rough it' - no, they knew umpteen little tricks and dodges to make camp life comfortable.  Thus from the start the aim of camping was to master the art of making yourself comfortable at camp, and there was every encouragement to seek the 'mod cons' which would allow you to do so.  Although it was regularly made clear that making them was preferable to buying, it didn't stop manufacturers providing a range of options.  Here we will look at the different types of 'mod con' which were available in each era, and for each area of comfort.  


The first Guide camps used the same sort of kit that all early campers used - 'army surplus'.  Pre-20th century, the army were the main people to use tents, and as such they had developed the technology and camping techniques.  Following the Boer War which had ended only a few years before, there was surplus army kit to be had, and it was possible to hire tents, catering size cookwear and the like.  Hence, the first tents used for Guide camps were ex-army 'bell tents', being the only sort readily available from hirers.  There were some clear advantages to them - each Guide had a share of luggage space available to her, they were comparatively straightforward to pitch, spares were readily available, and they could be pitched by a Patrol of Guides unaided.  On the downside, ventilation was limited and the poles were very heavy to transport and had to be set up securely to avoid accidents.  The average weight of a bell tent was approaching 80 lbs, whereas a good ridge tent weighed only half that.

For Guiders, the recommendation was a smaller ridge tent - bells were ideal for 6 or 7 Guides, but too large and draughty for only 2-3 Guiders.  These ridge tents were of canvas, with wooden poles, but the poles were much more lightweight than on the heavy bell tents, and the overall design more compact.  They allowed enough space for camp beds, and also for some of the activity equipment which all Leaders end up taking to camp - it's never just their own clothing and bedding!

As well as sleeping tents, so a storage tent was also needed, to store the groceries - food and cleaning materials, to store the activity equipment - sports gear, wet weather activities, nature reference books, books for the 'Guides' Own' sessions, safe storage for the flag when not on the flagpole, for the toolbox, including the axes, saws, spades - and all the other items needed to equip a camp for all eventualities.  These too were originally army surplus tents, known as marquees.  They came in a range of sizes - for 15-20 Guides a marquee of 18 x 12 ft was recommended, for 20-30 Guides, 32 ft x 16 ft, and for 50 Guides, 40 ft x 20 ft.  Strict warnings were given that they were not to be used as sleeping quarters.    

In 1930, a week-long major gathering was held in Iceland, to mark the anniversary of their parliament.  Accommodation was provided for all those intending in canvas tents, ordered from 'Blacks of Greenock' in Scotland.  After the event, Blacks sold off these second-hand tents at a very modest price - and Guide Companies and Scout Troops across the UK snapped them up, and on finding they were good, urged the company to make more.  Thus, the 'Icelandic' tent became commonly used UK-wide - and is still used by many units to this day.  It is straightforward to pitch, has excellent ventilation, lasts for decades with reasonable maintenance, and as such, is often seen as a classic Patrol tent.  

Tent technology remained broadly unchanged until the 1970s, when heavy wooden poles began to be replaced with aluminium.  This, together with progress in other materials, meant that 'frame tents' started to appear, often with the poles linked together on the inside with metal springs.  Although initially of heavy canvas, soon lighter grades of cotton were being used which, along with waterproofing solutions such as 'fabsil' allowed fabric to combine lighter weight without loss of waterproofing.  For store tents, another advance was the plastic window, which allowed light into the tent, and increased visibility.  These tents also tended to feature zip doorways rather than the old fabric ties.  One downside to the progress in terms of lightweight tents came where strong winds were concerned - in the absence of solid wooden poles and thick canvas, and with their blocky shape and front canopy, any head-on winds meant relying on the quality of the pegging out as to whether the tent survived a gale or not.

The 1990s and into the 2000s saw some units swap their Icelandic tents for lightweight ones, as the options available in catalogues increased.  The advent of carbon-fibre poles strung together on elastic, and modern synthetic waterproof fabrics made it possible to manufacture large tents which were significantly lighter in weight than before.  Advances such as separate bedroom compartments and built-in groundsheets made for increased comfort and privacy for the individual - but splitting the Patrols into little 'chummeries' had it's pros and cons.  They were cheaper to buy than the Icelandics, but tended to be less durable, especially if Guides weren't as careful as they might be over not tugging at zips, protecting the groundsheets, etc.  They also had a larger 'footprint', so weren't so good on compact campsites.


In 1912, the option was candles - and with the obvious safety risks of 'naked flames' in fabric tents, suggestions were made for candlesticks and lamps to contain flames safely.  These could be made by using hot string to cut the bottom off of glass bottles, by using forked sticks, or by buying commercially available lamps with glass lenses.  Whilst applauding the desire for homemade, I think I'd have opted for the latter.

One impact of the limited lighting available from candles, is in camp timetables.  Candles give poor light, so camp timetables were arranged around the daylight - hence the day starting at 7am (or sometimes earlier) and everyone being in bed by 9pm.  


From the early days, the bedding options for Guides, and for Guiders, differed.  Altough the 'camp loom' to weave grass into matresses was advocated, I'm not sure of the practicalities.  On the first day arriving at camp, it would take a lot of work to install the stakes firmly, fasten the strings around the stakes, gather enough foliage to weave a mattress, and do the weaving - with the need to cut and fasten off the strings after each mattress was made, and then re-string it to make the next one - even if the camp were only 6-12 Guides it would take several Guides to collect the folliage and at least two to do the weaving - and thus several hours to make mattresses for everyone.  So although it's good to record, and I have heard of instances of looms being made during camp as an optional activity, I doubt they were in widespread usage at any other than small camps of long enough duration to justify it.  

Instead, more common were the 'palliasse' - a cloth bag made from cotton or hessian, which was taken to camp and stuffed with straw on arrival - the straw being provided by the farmer.  The art lay in the right quantity of filling - too little and you could find yourself lying on the hard ground with what little padding you had added surrounding you.  Too much filling and you were inclined to roll off the edge onto the hard ground.  In either case, on top of the palliasse you would arrange your blankets to form a bag around you, before securing into a 'sleeping bag' shape using 'blanket pins' - similar to nappy pins or kilt pins.  The strong message was 'as many layers of blanket below as above'.  
Meantime, for Guiders there was the option of taking a folding camp bed, obtained from army surplus, such as this 1929 model.  With their sturdy wooden frames they were heavy to transport, and with no insulation below other than the canvas base, several blankets were needed to achieve warmth.  But Guiders in those days tended to be wealthy, and soon there was the option of a down-filled 'sleeping bag'.  

A more lightweight option became available for Guiders with the advent of the 'air bed' - blown up using a foot pump, these were usually made of rubber which was coated with fabric, such as the one shown from 1932.  More compact than a folding camp bed, and taking up less space in the tent due to being nearer the ground, nevertheless they weren't necessarily that much lighter - the thick rubber had a fair bit of weight to it too.  It was also warmer than the camp bed, as there wasn't the space underneath the bed for draughts - but the air bed itself didn't contribute warmth, so comfort still relied on the bedding put on top of it.

It was post World War II before Guides were able to move from blankets to having sleeping bags.  At this stage, these were still rectangular.  And by this time the paliasses were gone, so Guides were spreading their blanket-wrapped sleeping bag on a groundsheet, with no other padding.  But the sleeping bags remained a rectangular shape until the late 1970s, when the first shaped 'mummy' sleeping bags were introduced, shaped to fit the body snuggly.  In the 1970s wool blankets became rarer - more houses moved from having sheets and blankets to fitting their beds with 'continental quilts', and then later with 'downies', rather than the old-fashioned blankets, which made laundry easier.  It meant that for camping, the blankets were often replaced by a checked wool 'travel rug', which was lighter to carry, but also not quite so warm.

In modern times, bedding tends to have many more components.  To ease the back, a compressed foam mat is a common choice, offering good padding whilst being lightweight.  For Guiders, a self-inflating mattress is a common choice - a bit more heavy and bulky, but offering greater comfort.  The basic sleeping bags have been replaced by different grades of sleeping bag for different temperatures - the level indicated by how many 'seasons' it is considered appropriate for.  The old wool blankets are now very hard to come by, and even the 1970s-style wool 'travel rug' is becoming rare - so in modern times 'fleece' blankets are used, which are lighter but are also not quite so warm.  Where traditional tents such as Icelandics are used, the bedding is still rolled up and wrapped in the groundsheet to form a 'bedding roll', but where lightweight tents are used, some units opt to utilise a zipped plastic 'laundry bag' instead.


During the first 50 or so years of Guide camping, toilets were very basic - a trench was dug in the ground, a pole inserted to hang on to, and using it to help your balance, you positioned yourself above the trench.  Thereafter, one used the trowel to shovel some of the earth from the trench back into it, sufficient to 'cover your tracks' and leave the trench ready for the next user.  Screening was arranged around the trench - either barriers of woven branches or hessian fabric atttached to stakes - and the site chosen was often shaded by a hedge if possible.  At the end of the camp the trench was filled in and the turves returned, and a marker with a clear 'L' left on the site to indicate the latrine's location so that the ground would be left undisturbed long enough for composting to take place.  

By the early 1920s more elaborate set-ups were established, with designs created for equal-sized cubicles with screened doorways, to allow privacy.  Suggestions were also made for toilet units - old wooden boxes which had held sugar could have a hole cut in the bottom and be sited across the trench, supported on a couple of planks, to provide a basic lavatory seat.  By now it was also recommended that the latrine be roofed in inclement weather, and a fabric lid be fitted over the toilet seats, to ensure the trench did not become flooded, and the seats remained dry for sitting on.  At this time too, suggestions regarding chemicals to be used to treat the soil in the trench to discourage flies and keep the area hygenic were also made.  Other gadgets such as a tin toilet roll holder with holes at either end through which a stick could be run to allow it to be hung up, and a slot in the side for the end of the paper to emerge.  In spite of measures taken, Guiders were still encouraged to ensure their Guides would attend the latrines regularly; it was not coincidencental that fruit such as prunes was recommended as part of the menu within a day or so of camp starting . . . !

Later in the 1920s commercial 'toilet tents' became available.  These reduced the complication of setting up screening to create cubicles.  Nevertheless, although commercial options for toilet seats in the form of folding stools became available, latrine trenches and trowels continued to be the order of the day.  In the 1960s and 1970s frame toilet tents became available - instead of the flaps, they had a long floor-to-ceiling zip on one side.  A downside was the noise of the zip - no longer could you casually saunter in the direction of the lats and slip in - now the noise of the zip being opened, and then closed behind you was audible to all!  But the only advance in terms of fixtures and fittings in these new tents was that there was now a pocket on the inside which could be used for storing a spare toilet roll, plastic-wrapped.  

It was after World War 2 that more advanced toilet units became available - the famous 'Elsan' brand chemical toilets gradually came into use - initially as metal containers with wooden seats, later as all-plastic units in the traditional grey-blue and white colour scheme.  These had a chemical in the bottom which neutralised odours, and contained the deposits.  The upper section had a plastic flap in the toilet bowl which meant that 'previous contributions' were not visible - after using the lid could be shut then the 'flush' lever pressed to drop the contents of the upper section into the chemical below.  But when it came time to empty them, a pit was still required - the toilet unit had to be emptied into a 'lat pit' which had been dug, and then the lot covered over with soil as before - but instead of each person 'covering their tracks', the health patrol was tasked with covering the bucketfuls, making for a longer task, and thus a less pleasant one, especially at larger camps where there could be multiple 'Elsans' to empty, rather than the 3 or 4 typical of a unit camp.  

It was during the 1990s and early 2000s that more and more sites moved to having plumbed toilet blocks, hastened by the increasing regulation around what form lat pits could take and where they could be sited - and also by the difficulty in securing volunteers to help dig them.  Now it is rare for any camp to be held on a site which is not equipped with flush toilets in cubicles with locking doors.


Just as provision had to be made for toilets, so it also had to be made for washing.  Heating water for baths all round wasn't practical, so it was necessary instead to encourage the Guides to wash thoroughly night and morning.  As a result, wash cubicles were needed which offered privacy to the users, allowing them to expose sufficient skin to enable thorough washing.  This diagram from 1921 shows a suggested set-up for back-to-back cubicles providing wash basins for 6, and also space for a bath.  The trench provided drainage for emptying used water, and each cubicle was fitted with a clothes-rail gadget as well as a small table gadget, to ensure that clothes, towels and sponge bags were all kept off the ground.  

The basins themselves were often canvas basins on tripod legs - and the bath too would have been of canvas.  However baths were more commonly used on sites where there wasn't access to facilities for swimming - where a suitable river, or section of sea allowed for swimming, there was less need of filling baths at camp.

The set-up didnt change much over the next few decades.  By the 1940s a simpler system of cubicles with doors had been devised, as shown - these would be homemade, of hessian or similar fabric - but were much simpler to cut out and sew during the winter months when less camping was done, and much simpler to erect on arrival at camp.  

Rather than having a trench running through the wash cubicles, it became more common for a loose enamel bowl to be set up on a tripod made of lashed gadget wood, making it easy for the Guide to take the bowl of used water to a central grease trap to empty it, before collecting fresh water to refill it before replacing ready for the next user.  

After the war, commercial wash-tents became available and tended to replace the homemade ones.  Canvas tents with zipped fromts and aluminium frames were easier to construct, albeit they did need to be well-guyed in stormy weather.  The close-weave canvas gave more privacy than hessian did, as did the zip fastening.  Inside the tent, however, fittings had not altered, and the bowl of water on the tripod stand and the towel rail gadget for hanging towels and excess clothing were the only fittings.  Baths were no longer taken at camp - instead, the custom was that the middle day of camp was the day out, and would invariably involve a visit to the local swimming pool.  Although encouraging the Guides to learn to swim and to lifesave was of general value, one of the aims was to take advantage of the facilities, for as part of getting changed after swimming each Guide would be getting to take a hot shower and wash hair.  Thus in swimming pools across the UK, Wednesdays found flocks of campers descenging!  

From the 1990s onwards, wash tents became rarer, as more campsites moved over to having plumbed-in toilet blocks with toilet cubicles and wash-hand basins - and by the 2000s, many had showers in locking-door cubicles too.  

Fireplaces and Cooking


Food Storage



Part of 'not roughing it' was the seeking of ways to make camp life tidier, and more comfortable.  With the need to keep coats handy yet not have them lying on the ground or getting in the road, so gadgets such as the one shown on the left were created - a buckled leather strap fitted with hooks which could be secured round the centre pole of a tent, providing hanging space for coats, hats, and other items which it was convenient to hang up off the ground.  


Luggage at camp has evolved over the years.  The starting point was, as with so many things, 'ex-army' - the army kit bag was made in thick canvas with a round base and drawstring top.  It could be carried on one shoulder, and several of them could be stacked up in pyramids.  After WW1 many were available from 'army surplus' suppliers - and many families would have them at home from fathers or brothers who had served.

Carrying them very far, however, was tyring, and frequent were the stops to switch the bag from one shoulder to the other - and the rounded shape meant that knobbly items could dig in uncomfortably.  Although in theory they could be carried across the shoulder, there weren't convenient handholds to do so, and it tended to result in a stiff neck before long.  

Before long, european-style haversacks were becoming available, made of stout canvas with webbing straps, and a wooden or metal frame.  Fastenings would tend to be leather straps with buckles. These haversacks spread the weight across both shoulders, making it easier to carry weights than in a kit bag, and the outer pockets made it easier to keep key items to hand and accessible without having to unpack the whole bag - especially useful for hiking where items such as the waterproofs, water bottle and hike food could be kept to hand.  To our modern eyes, they look extremely small - but if we look at camp kit lists for the era, and recall that the bulky items such as blankets would be rolled up and strapped on underneath, they may well have been adequate for their purpose.

It was only in the 1970s and 1980s that more lightweight waterproof fabrics became widespread, and rucksacks replaced haversacks, and moved from being made of cotton canvas towards being made of lighter synthetic materials - and in a wider range of colours (partly as a safety feature when hiking, as it was recognised that blending into the landscape wasn't always ideal!).  In terms of size, too, rucksacks were becoming larger - as airbeds and sleeping bags had replaced palliasse covers and blankets, and people used to centrally-heated houses needed many more clothes to stay warm, so more luggage space was needed and larger capacities were needed.  As a result, straps became padded and pockets often had zips.  In this era rucksacks usually still had metal frames to retain the shape - progress on making them ergonomic was slow and comfort levels varied - there was still a tendency to fit the person to the rucksack, as much as to fit the rucksack to the person..

In modern times, rucksacks have developed onwards - they can now be obtained in 'ladies fit', and in a range of sizes measured in litres from 20 or 30 up to 70 or 80.  Materials are lightweight, framing tends to be limited to a couple of lightweight metal struts, and ther is often a separate bottom section to keep the bedding apart from the clothes, multiple pockets, and areas of strapping to allow items like walking poles to be fastened to the outside.  Shops offer fitting services, and adjustable straps make it much easier to adjust the rucksack so it fits snuggly against the back, whilst the introduction of padded waist belts means that a goodly proportion of the weight can be carried on the hip bones, rather than relying on the shoulders alone.  Some come with detachable backpacks, allowing you to leave the main rucksack in camp whilst taking the backpack out on your day hike.  

Waterproof Clothing