You are here

Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart

Camping and Woodcraft bookcover

The bottom photograph of Horace Kephart was taken by George Masa, a photographer and hiking companion.

Horace Kephart has been called the John Muir of the East and the savior of the Smokies. Though schooled as a librarian, he became the consummate outdoorsman while spending years in the Smokies, which he promoted for a national park.

Those years in the woods taught Kephart much, and he, in turn, passed that education on in the form of a book, Camping and Woodcraft.

Several of Kephart's books have never been out of print since they were first published in the early 1900s. Now the Great Smoky Mountains Association has published a new edition of Camping and Woodcraft, a remarkable historic tome of useful information, lore, stories about surviving and enjoying the woods.

In addition -- and alone worth the price of the -- George Ellison and Janet McCue, two Kephart scholars, have written an 80-page introduction on Kephart's life. So who was Horace Kephart?

Horace Kephart arrived in western North Carolina in 1904 when he was 42. He was born in central Pennsylvania into a Swiss-German family with strong religious convictions and grew up within the United Brethren Church. His first library job was at Yale, and then he moved to St. Louis with his wife, Laura, and his first child to work at the St. Louis Mercantile Library, a subscription library.

As his professional responsibilities and his family grew - he had six children - he became obsessed by the outdoors and looked for a "back of beyond." He took trips into the Ozarks, tinkered with guns, and read Nessmuk's book on woodcraft, an early book on lightweight canoeing. His trips into the woods became more frequent and Kephart lost his job and his wife. He drank more, and finally had a nervous breakdown. Moving to the Southern Appalachians was his salvation and rebirth.

For the first few years, he lived in a cabin on Hazel Creek, near present-day Fontana Lake, where he studied the land and the people. In 1906, he published Camping and Woodcraft. Later, he wrote Our Southern Highlanders, about the mountain culture, much in the local vernacular.

Kephart advocated for the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He wrote article after article trying to save the land from loggers. Kephart continued to live in Bryson City now a gateway town to the Smokies but he used the old Bryson Place as a summer camping spot. It has now become campsite #57 on Deep Creek Trail. A permanent marker, put up by a local Boy Scout troop, commemorates Kephart. See this past story on how to get to the marker.

Camping and Woodcraft is a veritable compendium of practical, amusing, and historical information on how to survive in the woods comfortably and safely. At the time that Kephart wrote, most recreational campers used professional guides if they wanted to explore the woods. Kephart explains how you could do it yourself.

Consider my favorite chapters on food. When I backpack, I personally do not consider anything more than boiling water and pouring it into a freeze-dried meal. But reading about how to butcher a deer is fascinating. Remember this was written before the Smokies became a National Park.

Of course, you have a jack-knife, and either a pocket hatchet or a big bowie-knife - probably the latter, if this is your first trip.

And I'm thinking, "All I have is a Swiss Army knife and I use it to cut an apple." He continues for several pages, first describing how to save the buck's head for mounting.

Cleanse away any blood that may have been issued from the nose and mouth, and stuff some dry moss, or other absorbent, in the beast's mouth.

On the subject of food, Kephart is a veritable Julia Childs. He tells you how to make risotto, bake biscuits, and thicken soups with a roux, all over a fire. He didn't have a butane stove.

Camping and Woodcraft are considered two separate books, each with their own page numbering system and indices. In the Woodcraft section, Kephart discusses "featherweight kits," used for lightweight cycling and backpacking, though he doesn't use the term "backpacking" very much. He enumerates several equipment lists that in total don't exceed 7 pounds. He recommends kits that you could order from Great Britain that included a tent (2 lbs. 8 ounces), a "comfy" sleeping bag (1 lbs., 4 ounces), and even a compact brush, comb, and mirror for just 2 ounces.

On top of that you add your clothing and food. Of course, camping practices have changed since Kephart's days. He assumed that you can drink water from any stream so he doesn't include any way to treat or carry water.

But so much makes sense today. You might want to keep your feet dry by dusting the inside of your boots with talcum powder. His advice on treating an earache and toothache can still be tried today. For earaches, pour alcohol into the ear or better, warm olive oil - something my mother always did for us at home. If you have a tooth cavity, clean it out with a toothpick and then fill the hole with iodine or ammonia.

And of course, always carry a compass. This book will connect with survivalist folks. There's great information about on emergency shelters and catching fish without a fishing pole. Is that even legal in the Park? One woman said that this is "the book I would take on doomsday." 

With the 70th printing of Camping and Woodcraft, the Great Smoky Mountains Association's version offers a great deal that is new.  GSMA is the cooperating association that runs the bookstores in and around the park and publishes trail and field guides. The association has redigitized and retypeset the book, making it much more readable. There are hundreds of line drawings that were rescanned. Many of the original illustrations were obtained from Libby Kephart Hargrove, great-granddaughter of Horace Kephart, who has been very instrumental in keeping alive an accurate version of Kephart.

To this remastery, they've added over 40 historic photographs, taken by Kephart and George Masa, a photographer and fellow hiker. These photographs were recently discovered by Ms. Kephart Hargrove in a relative's attic and donated to the association.

The 888-page book is offered for $14.95 for soft cover and $25 for a hardback, special collector's edition. You can buy it in all the Smokies visitor centers, area bookstores and outdoor stores and on the GSMA website. All members get 15 percent off on anything they buy in visitor center stores and on the web. With a basic membership of $35, a membership quickly pays for itself.   And of course, all proceeds help the park.

Featured Article


You can't help but like how dilligently Kephart did his research. Talk about field testing! When you read this book you can tell he spent years experimenting with recipes, firewoods, woodcraft techniques, and especially wilderness survival strategies. Nothing else has ever come close.

 Nice job Danny.  Good review and plug for the membership drive.  Have a good one.  David

What a nice article about Horace Kephart, Danny!  I enjoyed reading his book, "Our Southern Highlanders" a few years ago, too.  

Like the book it's about, this review is comprehensive and engaging. Seems like Camping and Woodcraft will fit on the shelf between Walden and A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, books that also make one yearn to head for the horizon (and make one feel preposterously pampered by prepared foods, tents, and water filters along the journey). Thanks for the article! 

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide