I Went Glamping and I Liked It
Can a lifelong tent pitcher with a penchant for roughing it learn to appreciate high-thread-count sheets and teak-floored showers in the midst of nature? Our editor agreed to suffer in the name of research to find out.
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The single whispered word was almost inaudible—just loud enough to get a few parental synapses firing somewhere inside my amygdala and pull me out of a deep sleep. I forced my eyes open, but it was still dark and I was disoriented. To my right, my wife, Kelly, was sound asleep on our plush king-size bed, her face barely exposed to the pre-dawn light filtering through our canvas tent, the rest of her buried beneath two white down comforters. Just beyond, at her bedside, our 23-month-old daughter, Zevi, was stuffed into a snowsuit and breathing heavily in her Pack ’n Play crib: out cold. The same went for my 12-year-old daughter, Olive, hibernating to my left on her foldable cot, only her curly locks visible. OK, I thought. No one froze to death. I can go back to sleep.
I’d been up two times in the past eight hours, reporting for self-assigned woodstove duty. We were staying in a tent community run by Under Canvas, which operates glamping retreats near iconic public lands throughout the U.S. This one abutted Saguaro National Park, on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. It was late December, and last night the forecast called for temperatures in the high twenties. I’d set my alarm for 1 A.M. and 3:30 A.M. to add fuel to the stove. I’m not going to lie: I loved this responsibility. The act of stoking a fire to keep my family warm tapped into something deeply primal. Plus, I had every intention of milking my sacrifice, maybe even earning some off-duty nap time the following afternoon. But right now I wanted more sleep. I rolled over and closed my eyes.
The whisper had ratcheted up a few decibels. I was fully awake now, annoyed. I sat up and saw my nine-year-old son, Cash, standing at the foot of the bed. He was bundled in his down jacket and Houston Rockets beanie, holding two insulated mugs.
“Daddy,” he whispered a third time, “I got you and Kelly coffee.” He handed me one of the mugs, then reached into his pocket and proffered two packages of cream.
My son had just brought us coffee in bed. He’d gotten up on his own, sneaked out of the tent, walked 300 yards in the frigid darkness to the Under Canvas communal tent, and filled our mugs with hot coffee. And he’d remembered the cream! Here was one of my proudest moments as a parent. Here was the moment I fell in love with glamping.
This was an unexpected development. My family loves camping. Traditional camping. Real camping. Camping in a complicated nylon pod you have to pitch yourself while cursing the bent tent stakes. Camping on undesignated sites down long, poorly maintained national-forest roads, ideally next to moving water but not neighbors. Camping that involves some degree of discomfort in exchange for outdoor wonder: terrible sleep, freezing-cold midnight trips to the bushes, the loss of feeling in the tips of your fingers from tinkering with a cranky WhisperLite stove at 7 A.M. as you try desperately to make coffee—coffee you earned.
Growing up, camping was synonymous with summer vacation in my family. We took extended road trips, including one long-haul epic from our home in Boston to California, up the West Coast to British Columbia, and all the way back through Canada. We camped at KOAs and in national parks, with the occasional night at a Motel 6 thrown in, a welcome dose of luxury. Now I have my own family, and camping is one of the reasons it exists. My wife and I both credit a spring-break car-camping trip through southern Utah as the vacation that sealed our relationship. I asked her to marry me in a Tepui rooftop tent outside Taos a few months later. All three of my kids spent several nights under zippered ripstop before they’d made a complete orbit around the sun. Zevi was the earliest adopter, earning her stripes in the Santa Fe National Forest at just five months old.
Ours is a blended family, however, my eldest kids and I having been mashed together in 2015 with two interlopers: first Kelly, and a few years later our third child. That sentence alone hints at some of the complications: Is Zevi our third child? No, she’s my third child and Kelly’s first. Life gets messy when you have to think hard about possessive pronouns and append step- and half- to immediate family members. We struggle most of the time to feel like a cohesive unit. But whenever we’re camping, we become a family, full stop. Bonding is easy when you’re immersed in nature and everyone’s experiencing the same mild hardships, sharing stories and warmth around a campfire, and persevering through low-grade emergencies like a dead car battery seven miles from the road or a hard rain pooling beneath your sleeping bags.
But glamping? Given all my experience with blending, I’m someone who should appreciate a clever portmanteau, but that one always grated. A combination of glamour and camping, the word does efficiently describe the whole idea: you get to experience all the outdoor exposure of camping, with an elevated level of comfort inside a luxury tent.
That was also the turnoff. For me, discomfort is a key ingredient in camping’s value proposition. There’s always joy in the simple act of being outside all day, but the true magic of tent life comes from transcending a little benign suffering, the same magic conjured at the finish line of a long endurance race, when somehow, after hours of pain, your first thought is Where do I sign up for the next one? Suffering transforms bad experiences into treasured memories, the kind you never want to stop collecting. How can one expect to suffer with 600-thread-count sheets, a heated tent, and daily kindling delivery?
Still, as the editor of this magazine, part of my job is keeping up with trends in adventure travel, and lately I’ve heard a lot about glamping. Since the late aughts, when high-end camps offering tents equipped with comfy beds, outdoor decks, woodstoves, and carpeted floors began to be marketed in earnest, glamping has boomed. According to Grand View Research, a California consulting group, the industry is now worth $2.1 billion and is expected to double by 2025.
Under Canvas, which sets up seasonal glamping sites near Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, and other national parks (prices start at $149), is one of the biggest players. But these days there are glamping opportunities everywhere, from rustic backyard yurts bookable through Airbnb and Hipcamp, to high-end luxury enclaves in the Texas hill country and around Big Sur.
In the past few years, as both glamping and my family expanded, I arrived at an unsettling realization: real camping can be a real pain in the ass. Not the activity itself; I’m referring to the endless checklist we must attend to like tax-season accountants just to get out of the driveway. Dog food. Headlamp batteries. Salt and pepper. Stove fuel. Meal plans. Diapers. Ice. Beer. Marshmallows. Any one of these can make or break a trip. (Don’t believe me? Try telling your nine-year-old you forgot the s’mores fixings. Things are about to get real.) Packing is the one form of camping-induced suffering that brings no joy whatsoever. Glamping basically eliminates all that. You just have to show up.
So yeah, I became glamp-curious. And I remember exactly when I became glamp-ready: March 2019. That’s when some good friends came over, fresh from a spring trip to Under Canvas Tucson and raving about it. You guys, seriously, the beds. Trails out the front door flap. And—oh my God, Kelly—the clean bathrooms and hot showers!
Kelly and I, meanwhile, had just spent the past week moving across town into a new house. What can I say? It was a vulnerable time for me. The pitch left an impression. (Props to Under Canvas: you guys have a pretty badass guerrilla-marketing team.)
Eight months later, looking for a post-holiday getaway, my wife pulled up the Under Canvas website. We were booked for a four-night stay before bedtime.
After zipping through our delightfully streamlined glamping packing list, we set out for Tucson the day after Christmas, driving seven hours from our home in Santa Fe and arriving at Under Canvas around four in the afternoon. Snow was dusting the highest peaks of the Catalinas, and city slickers were ambling by on horseback at the entrance. In addition to being adjacent to a national park, Under Canvas Tucson was located on the property of a historic dude ranch, Tanque Verde. As guests, we had access to the ranch’s pool, tennis courts, and horseback riding—a nice perk for families. (Since this story was reported, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Under Canvas closed its Tucson operation. After U.S. states went into lockdown, Under Canvas revised its 2020 opening dates. All of its locations are now open except Under Canvas Glacier, which plans to open on July 1.)
After winding through the property to the ranch’s back end, we parked beside the Under Canvas reception tent. Waiting to check in, I leafed through the company catalog and read the opening letter from CEO Sarah Dusek. She explained how, when she and her husband, Jacob Dusek, started the company in 2009, they “imagined a world where … enjoying nature didn’t have to be uncomfortable or difficult.” This didn’t exactly speak to me, but I kept my sudden misgivings to myself.
After checking in, we were handed off to a twentysomething Under Canvas staffer named Shandee, who transferred the baggage from our car to the back of a seven-seat electric golf cart and told us to jump in. We bumped around a few curves, saguaro cactus towering above us, then headed up a steep dirt road toward camp. A minute later, the view opened up—two dozen or so cream-colored canvas tents spread out on four or five acres of desert scrub. The location was incredible. The sun was setting, and there were mountains in every direction.
Not surprisingly, the kids went nuts at their first glimpse of our tent, jumping on the bed and arguing over where to position their cots. Meanwhile, Shandee gave me a well-rehearsed tutorial on how to get the woodstove going. “Just call us if you’re having trouble,” she said. Yeah, OK, Shandee, I thought, pretty sure I got this.
After settling in, we walked down to the Tanque Verde saloon for dinner, then headed straight back to our tent. Kelly put Zevi to bed while the big kids and I went searching for the communal fire pit, where, we’d been told, we’d find a nightly supply of graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows. We loaded up our complimentary stainless-steel skewers and then joined an Israeli family who were singing camp songs on the benches surrounding the fire. I looked up and saw a shooting star. Not bad.
Before bed, Olive and Cash grabbed their PJs and headed to the showers and bathrooms, housed in a wood-paneled single-wide trailer 50 feet away. I was skeptical about the solar-powered water heaters, but both children returned shiny and red-faced. “There’s shampoo and conditioner,” Olive beamed.
A half-hour later everyone was asleep, and I took in my first moments of semi-solitude. The fire was crackling, I was deep into a great book, and there was a Hilton-quality mattress beneath me. I could get used to this.
Turns out glamping doesn’t preclude suffering after all. We woke up the next morning to steady rain and the familiar feeling that our recreational options had severely narrowed. Our Under Canvas tent was carpeted, and some 190 square feet—a palace even compared with our massive six-person Big Agnes tent—but cabin fever is cabin fever. We went for a long hike among the saguaro, came back soaking, and then warmed up with hot showers. Glamping, just like camping, facilitates immersive, therapeutic bouts of nature, which is really what everyone’s looking for, right? The difference is the amenities you get in between. A two-hour hike in the rain while on a “real” camping trip means additional hours of soggy misery when you return to your tent. If you’re glamping, you just reboot. The showers are always hot and the warm drinks are always ready.
Despite my skepticism, glamping’s conveniences didn’t get in the way of the most enjoyable parts of camping, either. The rest of our days were unhurried and organized around nature’s bookends, sunrise and sunset. Childhood curiosity was constantly sparked (“Why do some saguaro have arms but others are just one pole?”), and the food, as always, tasted better outside. We suffered just the right amount for the magic to happen. I overestimated my fire skills and we all got cold the first night. (I suppose I should have called Shandee after all.) By night two, I’d learned that the stove needed frequent feeding, but in the wee hours I had to scramble to the communal tent in my underwear for a stealth resupply of wood. Olive’s hot shower turned frigid one evening.
And then there was the morning-coffee episode. I was miserable and tired from the heroic woodstove work when Cash woke me up. And he was close to shivering after his hot-beverage run. But now everyone was awake and the sun was coming up. Kelly grabbed her coffee and pulled Zevi onto the bed. Cash and Olive hopped on, too, after Cash made a second sortie for hot chocolate. We were, all five of us, a little cold and sleep-deprived and hungry, crammed into a single bed—and having a pretty awesome time of it. We were a family. A family who glamps.