In a YouTube video posted in May 2019, Steve Wallis, a 38 year-old guy who radiates the chuminess of being everyone’s best friend, offers the helpful tip that, when camping, a good mosquito deterrent is “a small fire.” He then picks up a half-a-million BTU torch rigged up to a heavy propane tank and ignites a loose assemblage of tree branches and logs, like DiCaprio roasting Nazis with a flamethrower in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. The makeshift bonfire goes up in a flash, cartoonishly orange flames swelling. And that, to nip one of your new favourite YouTuber’s catchphrases, is camping with Steve.
Like any worthwhile obsession, I came across Wallis while tumbling deep down a YouTube rabbit hole. A few years back, while severely depressed, I mainlined the History Channel reality series Alone, in which survivalists attempt to outlast each other in Canada’s most unforgiving hinterlands—with minimal supplies and no crew (all the footage is recorded by the participants with handheld camcorders), armed with their bushwhacking know-how and ability to withstand their own company. (Really, it was this latter facet that kept me hooked: witnessing the ability of the human mind rambling in total isolation.) From there, I developed an interest in camping YouTubers, who similarly recorded their own solo survivalism (mis)adventures. In time, while exploring the niche of people who forgo tents in favour of camping in heavy-duty hammocks, I stumbled into “Urban Stealth Camping With Hammock In Residential Area,” a video posted by a charming Albertan named Steve Wallis, who calls himself “Camping Steve.”
These videos were different. The current vogue in survivalism—popularized by programs like Survivorman, Alone and Naked and Afraid—vaunt some primal relationship to nature, where the aspiring outdoors-person must start fires from scratch, trap their own food with deadfalls, and fashion sun-shielding bonnets out of woven reeds. It’s that romance of (to paraphrase Thoreau) existing more deliberately, of fronting only the essential facts, of sucking all the marrow out of life itself. It’s also, in the case of popular programs like Alone or Naked and Afraid, about that more modern romance of going on TV to win a bunch of money.
Camping Steve is no modern primordial man, born naked into nature’s unfeeling bounty. He camps under tarps in residential areas. He builds rafts out of rain barrels and floats downriver. He “hunkers down” (another of his favourite turns) in a rented U-Haul in the long-term parking lot of the Edmonton International Airport, braving the elements while avoiding the prying eyes and piercing Maglites of security personnel. He starts fires with hand sanitizer, cooks in closed quarters with propane grills, and is the only camping YouTuber I’ve ever seen who rigs his pop-up tent with a CO2 monitor, precisely because he cooks in closed quarters with propane grills. He forgoes both the back-to-the-land foraging and the pricier gear many campers pay hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars for, all in the pursuit of bushwhacking primitivism. He is, he tells me over the phone from Edmonton, “taking back camping for the people.”
Beyond the appeal of his content—which combines man-vs.-nature survivalism, ASMR, and the camping scene from Fubar—Camping Steve’s approach is refreshing in part because camping itself can sometimes seem so rarefied. In a damning indictment, he compares contemporary camping to golf. “It's turning into a pastime for the affluent,” he says. “The most wholesome form of camping is going out with a bedroll, and a fire, and a can of beans and sleeping out under the stars. We're paying to reserve campsites, which are just parking lots. We're buying RVs and campers that are just ridiculous. I saw a $300 backpacking tarp the other day at the camping store!”
Like so many activities, camping—roughly defined as lodging temporarily somewhere in the out-of-doors—has become a lifestyle. And a pricey one. A 2019 Global News story pegged the price of a basic outlay of gear—tents, sleeping bags, heavy-duty backpacks, bug balms, etc.—and reservations between $978 and $1,333 CDN. The rise in popularity of more luxurious outdoor accommodations (the nauseatingly termed “glamping”) and expanded access to cell and wi-fi networks, have removed perceived “barriers to entry,” leading to would-be-campers across Canada (and North America) reporting an uptick in interest. Outdoorsy brands like Patagonia, North Face, and Arc’teryx have grown from purveyors heavy-duty performance equipment to coveted dadcore lifestyle brands—allowing you to dress like a serious rock climber, even if you don’t know a bowline from a belay. Where camping and camping-adjacent outdoor activities (canoeing, climbing, angling, etc) were previously conceived as a way to rekindle a relationship with nature, that relationship has become just another luxe commodity. (See also: the related phenomenon of #VanLife, which I have a hard time reading about without getting so annoyed that my heart goes arrhythmic.)
”There’s this mentality where you think you have to spend so much money,” says Wallis, “it’s not camping unless you've paid to reserve your campsite, and you use your week of vacation a year, and get top-of-the-line stuff you only use once and then it'll sit in your garage forever. I'm probably part of the 1/1000th of a percent that has gotten their money's worth from sleeping in a tent.” For Steve, it’s not about gear, or pricey “base-layers” (what the Patagonia merchants call T-shirts, as if drinking 35 Mooseheads in autumn at a friend’s parents’ cottage requires attire befitting the K2 Base Camp), or $300 technical tarps. It’s foremost about getting out there, and just being nature, with whatever gear works. It’s also, in many cases, about the thrill of doing so stealthily.
When he’s not camping out on Crown Land or testing the resilience of all-weather tents in his yard, Wallis is sneaking around closed campsites, residential areas, and parking lots. He spent years in Victoria, BC living out of an RV which was both his vehicle and primary residence, camping in parking lots and off logging roads. He calls that phase, “boondocking.” It was a lifestyle not by choice, but necessity. He now lives in Edmonton with his wife (who never appears on-camera in his YouTube videos and is referred to, almost exclusively, as “Beautiful Wife”) and runs his own heating and gas company, Hunker Down Heating. But Wallis, as he explains, got “the bug” during his boondocking years. “There's a risk to getting caught,” he says. “There's a game of cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek. And you're getting a good deal, because you're parking for free for the night!”
Wallis found YouTube about three years back. He was always aware of it, but figured it was a platform for goofy, viral videos, and not for personalities. When he camped out in -32C and posted the video, he saw an immediate response. “I was getting a lot of comments from people who were interested in this kind of thing, and following along,” he says. “I ran with it from there.”
Some people have accused him of basically cosplaying as homeless; of making a game out of being sleeping rough. He doesn’t think so. In fact, he thinks his adventures give him a certain perspective. "Every morning where you dread going out to scrape off your windshield, someone has been sleeping out in that all night,” he says. “It's a big eye-opener. Unfortunately, in this weather, people do die every year, sleeping out there. It's a tough world out there for people who don't have a home.”
Beyond the stunt-factor of camping in well-below freezing temps or hunkering down in a rented U-Haul in an airport parking lot, the primary appeal of the channel is Camping Steve himself. His videos are rack up plenty of comments from viewers saying stuff like, “I don’t know why but I can’t stop watching.” There is, undoubtedly, just something about him: an even tone to his voice, an ability to remain utterly unflappable even when security guards are hammering on his van doors, black bears are looming on the perimeter of his campground, or his jerry-rigged camping raft gets beached on the banks of an Alberta river. There’s even a pleasing rhythm to his videos, in watching him find a spot, set-up camp and crank a celebratory beverage (he calls this ritual “Step Two,” to the point that in recent videos he just straight-up refers to beers as “Step Twos”).
Some viewers have dubbed Wallis “The Bob Ross of Camping.” And it fits. He’s calming, reassuring, and just irrepressibly kind-seeming (He leans into this a bit, compiling a YouTube video playlist called “Sleepytime Camping Mix.”) Wallis isn’t much interested in parsing the appeal that has led him to 165K subscribers and sees his videos regularly draw in 1,000,000-plus views. “Whatever it is, I don't want to get the yips and over-analyze this. I just want to keep doing what I’'m doing.”
It’s that candour—that utter lack of guile—that drew me into Wallis’ own cozy YouTube warren. (Also: he has a nice a nice smile and he reminds me of my friend Mike.) Shows like Alone and Naked and Afraid are by-and-large fun watches because you get to see people who style themselves as hardened lone survivors absolutely suck at all the feats of high-level outdoorsmanship they insist they’re amazing at. Steve Wallis camps under Walmart tarps and cooks corn niblets in a can and slugs back belts of Wiser’s not to prove something to himself or his presumed viewership, but because he genuinely loves it. He likes the breeze and bedrolls, the nip of the autumn air, and the canopy of stars. He also really likes upping the ante. He tells me he’s noodling with the idea of building “a large treehouse thing” in a future video. “These are things I wanted to do as a child, but never could,” he says. “I'm thinking maybe a hovercraft of some kind. A camping hovercraft.”
“A camping hovercraft.” Now that’s some serious marrow-sucking. That’s camping with Steve.
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