B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S



by Kenneth Rexroth

(Unpublished manuscript, ca. 1939)


1. Minimum Equipment
2. Minimum Provisions
3. Equipment for Larger Parties, Pack Trips, and Fixed Camps
4. The Camp
Provisions for Larger Parties, Pack Outfits, and Fixed Camps
6. Horses, Mules, Burros, Riding, Packing, and Horse Furniture
7. First Aid
8. Cooking
9. The Trail
10. Climbing
11. Songs
12. Winter Camping




Besides being a wonderful poet, painter, essayist, translator and social critic, Kenneth Rexroth was also a highly experienced camper and mountaineer. In his late teens he worked several summers as a cowboy cook and wrangler (one who takes care of horses) as well as at various forestry jobs in the Northwest. Once he moved to San Francisco (1927), he usually spent two or three months every year in the Sierra Nevadas or other western mountains, and continued doing so for at least a few weeks a year well into his sixties. He describes these experiences in a few pages of his autobiography and they form the theme or background of many of his poems, but only in the present text can we really see how thoroughly familiar he was with just about every aspect of natural history and wilderness living.

Camping in the Western Mountains was written in the late 1930s and was originally intended as a WPA publication. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a New Deal program designed to create jobs during the Depression. One of its branches, the Federal Writers’ Project, enlisted out-of-work writers to put together guidebooks to each of the 48 states as well as to several major cities. Rexroth contributed to the volumes California: A Guide to the Golden State (1939) and San Francisco: The Bay and Its Cities (1940), and he also planned or worked on several other WPA projects that never materialized, including “A Field Handbook of the Sierra Nevadas” and guidebooks to Sequoia and Kings River National Parks. I don’t know if he got very far with any of the latter projects, but he completed Camping in the Western Mountains. The book was never published by the WPA. It is thought that this may have been because Rexroth made some political enemies among the people in charge of the California Writers’ Project, though the book itself contains no explicit political statements apart from the passing mention of anarchism in chapter 4. The book was apparently also rejected by the Macmillan Company in 1940.

The manuscript (currently located in the library of the State University of New York at Buffalo) consists of 242 typed, double-spaced pages, plus a few handwritten and partially illegible notes that may have been intended as inserts. The complete text is reproduced here with the permission of Bradford Morrow, Literary Executor of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Written more than sixty years ago, the text is naturally outdated in many regards. In particular, tents, backpacks, sleeping bags and other equipment are significantly lighter, cheaper, and better constructed than in Rexroth’s day. Thus, although his general remarks on the desirable features to look for in camping gear remain largely valid, much of his specific advice is now of purely historical interest. The “very expensive” backpack he recommends, “ranging in price from $15 to $25,” seems unbelievably cheap by current standards, but in the 1930s that was equivalent to several hundred modern dollars, at a time when the Depression was not yet over and most people could barely make ends meet. People in those days also tended to be more skilled in sewing, carpentry, handicrafts, etc., so Rexroth’s detailed instructions on making one’s own backpack or sleeping bag were more practical than they might seem now. This is probably also the case with his lengthy chapter on pack animals. I have no experience with that form of camping, but my impression is that it is much less common than it used to be, and that those who do it generally rely on professional guides and packers to take care of most of the matters that Rexroth discusses. The modern trend is much more toward backpacking (which in the thirties was not all that common, in part no doubt because the equipment was so heavy and bulky), traveling as light as possible, and thus rarely staying out more than a week or so. If Rexroth’s lists of equipment and provisions seem rather extensive, it should be borne in mind that he is usually presuming an outing of 2-3 weeks, with the use of pack animals if necessary.

Many other things have changed in one way or another — wilderness areas are more crowded, lightweight propane stoves may replace wood fires (in many places they must do so due to revised park regulations), more varieties of compact high-nutrition food are available, “moleskin” is better than bandaids for treating or preventing blisters, ziplock baggies could in many cases replace the homemade “oiled silk bags” he so often recommends. . . . But everything considered, the book remains remarkably reliable in most regards. When Terry Gustafson, a professional ranger, packer and trail guide with decades of experience in the western mountains, was asked to check the manuscript in view of possible publication in 1994, he found no more than four or five significant details to object to. (One is quoted in chapter 6; the others mostly involved changed theories of first aid treatment.) I would not suggest that a camper rely exclusively on Rexroth’s book, but it could certainly serve as a useful supplement to more recent manuals. Newer campers will get good general guidelines; experienced ones will pick up some fine points while no doubt fervently disagreeing with one or another of Rexroth’s opinions; and even stay-at-homes should enjoy the wry comments that are sprinkled throughout the book.

When I first got the manuscript, I impatiently skimmed through the lists and technical details in the desire to get to his regrettably brief remarks of more “general interest” on hiking and climbing, and I thought that I would reproduce only a few excerpts from the book. But as I reread it I came to savor the other parts as well, and soon decided to put the whole thing online. Like virtually everything Rexroth wrote about virtually any subject, it somehow manages to be entertaining and inspiring at the same time. Even the most dated parts are usually of some human or historical interest.

I have silently corrected typos and occasionally edited Rexroth’s punctuation (which was more lax at this stage than in his later writings), changing commas to semicolons or periods or adding hyphens when that seemed to make the text read more clearly. Apart from that I have strictly followed Rexroth’s text without worrying too much about stylistic consistency. All remarks within square brackets are mine. In a few cases where it might make a practical difference I have noted statements that are no longer true, but it goes without saying that there are numerous other outdated passages that I have not pointed out. Information regarding park regulations, first aid, etc., should always be verified from reliable current sources. I would appreciate comments from knowledgeable outdoorspeople about any errors they may notice.

—Ken Knabb
October 2003

P.S. (May 2012): On a related note, I would like to recommend In the Sierra: Mountain Writings by Kenneth Rexroth, an excellent collection of Rexroth’s nature-related poetry and prose that has just appeared, edited by Kim Stanley Robinson (New Directions, 2012).


Kenneth Rexroth’s Camping in the Western Mountains is copyright 2003. Reproduced with permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.





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