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23 Memories That Prove You Camped in the 1980s

You’re securely buckled into second- or third-row seating. Your ears are covered by silver-dollar-sized foam pads with a spring metal band between them crushing your carefully quaffed big hair – perhaps even a dew with business up front and a party in the back. A wire leads from the headphones to a tape player not much larger than an 8-track tape that’s “so last decade.” Big, all-caps on the side say “S-O-N-Y.” Your sister – encroaching on “your half” of the seat – wears her favorite hiking boots – barely pink Jelly Shoes. Since you’re headed for a weekend of camping, Mom let your brother is wear his Rambo Knife on his belt, but Dad’s frequently checking the rearview to make sure he’s not threatening you or your sister. To keep the crew quiet, Mom passes a box of Bugles snacks, and each passenger — even dad — has at least one displayed on fingertips, like fingernails on the Wicked Witch of the West. “I’ll get you my pretty,” says Mom. (You DON’T want the ones your brother has on his bare toes.) Things are looking up for the weekend as the sun breaks through the clouds. Your dad sighs that big, so-happy-to-be-out-of-traffic sigh and slides on his mirrored, wrap-around Oakley sunglasses. Vacation is ready to begin.

Okay, where are you and when?

Need more clues? How many of these strike a memory .. good or bad?

1. Rambo Survival Knife with Compass in the Handle

What more do you need to survive a weekend of camping than a modern-day Bowie knife, an unreliable compass, a fish hook on 20 feet of line, five matches, and a waterproof tube of dubious reputation to hold it all? One question — how come a knife  touted as waterproof rusts the first time you breath heavily on it?
Want to take a stroll down memory lane? There’s a company that’s still making survival knives for less than $20 – check them out

2. SONY Walkman

Your parents thought, “What the heck? We take the kids out to nature so we can all get away from the noise, and they have those headphones on ALL the time.? But they never complained when they got to listen to what they wanted on the mini-van’s radio during the roadtrip … as long as there was an ample supply of AA batteries.
They’re still selling the original cassette Walkman – and you won’t believe what they’re charging for it!

3. The Taste of Off

Mosquito repellant came in one delivery system – aerosol spray. And like “Kleenex” was understood as the universal term for facial tissue, “Off” was all bug spray. To protect sensitive areas like your cheeks and chin, SOP was to spray Off onto one palm and then the other, then rub them together and apply like aftershave or cologne. Problem was (is) there’s always enough left to amply flavor your s’mores and Jiffy Pop popcorn — and to make the plastic handle on your fishing rod look as though it was dipped in an acid bath!

4. Bugles Snacks

What is it about General Mills Bugles Snacks as a roadtripping food and camping snack? Inevitably, someone is going to put a Bugle on each finger and thumb, flex their fingers like they are playing an accordian and say, “I’ll get you my pretty!” It happens every time, then often becomes a game of improv to see how many “uses” can be made of Bugles. (Next most common is holding two point-to-point in front of your neck and saying, “Like my bow tie?”)
Wondering if they still make Bugles? They do…and you can pick up a bag here

5. Union 76 Antenna Balls

The car camping vehicle of choice changed from the station wagon to the minivan, but one accoutrement that stayed the same was the Union 76 Antenna Ball. How many tens of thousands of roadtripping miles did one of these orange and blue marketing tags ride above your front hood. Only as fewer and fewer vehicles had whip antennas, did they begin to fade in popularity.
Can you believe that someone’s selling an original 76 ball on Amazon for less than $10? Old school cool…

6. Minivans

In the 1980s the minivan became “popular” – choice of the suburban family with 2.5 kids and a dog – so it also became the family camping standard. Camping companies saw the opportunity and began making camping accessories like attachable tents. After all, the minivan for camping wasn’t that new an idea. Volkswagen vans were already iconic for camping in the 60s and 70s – now they just wore American-made brand names.

7. Inflatable Pool Air Mattresses

No words adequately describe the feeling of sleeping on an cheap air mattress, inflated with your own hot breath and cooled by the ground after the sun sets. Words that DO NOT come to mind are “comfortable”, “warm”, “supportive”, or “robust.” Likewise, “well-rested”, “limber”, and “good-natured” are NOT how you feel the next morning after sleeping on one.

8. Jelly Shoes – aka your sister’s favorite hiking boots

Before flip flops, there were jelly shoes. At less than a dollar a pair, anyone could feel like Imelda Marcos, famous for saying, “I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes! I had one thousand and sixty!” No support, next to no protection – can jelly shoes really be called shoes?
Some things never go out of style…they’re still making (and selling!) Jelly Shoes!

9. Fanny Packs

How did you wear your fanny pack while hiking … in the back or in the front? More importantly, what did that say about your outdoor skills or machismo?
Just like a lot of great things from the 80’s – fanny packs are still around!

10. Instamatic Cameras

Do you remember what set an “instamatic” camera apart? The film was in a cartridge with a reservoir at each each. You inserted the cartridge into the camera and the camera automatically advanced the film as you took pictures. When the roll was used up, all the film was in the right-hand reservoir and you sent the whole cassette to the developer for processing. Instamatic, film, processing??? Lost to the ages.

11. Flash Cubes and Flip Flashes

Most instamatic cameras had no adjustability for ISO, shutter speed, or focus. They quite literally were “point and shoot”, so you often needed to boost the available light with a flash. The choices were either a cube with a flash bulb in each of four sides that flashed then rotated atop the camera or a strip of 6-8 flash bulbs half of which flashed in sequence as you took photos, then you “flipped” the strip to use the other half. Again – virtually inexplicable without memories of the 70s or 80s.
We’re not sure what you’d do with them – but it blew our mind that you could still purchase flashcubes on Amazon!

12. Vaurnet and Oakley Sunglasses

Vaurnet and Oakley Sunglasses – both brands still exist – in fact, thrive – today, but there was something about their 1980s designs and popularity that just screamed, “Road trip!” And we have to ask, did Vaurnet sell more sunglasses or T-shirts with their logo on them?

13. Coppertone Suntan Lotion

By the 1980s, Coppertone Suntan Lotion was already a heritage brand. It was developed in 1944 by WWII Airman Benjamin Green with the main purpose of protecting soldiers from the sun. However, it wasn’t until the 70s, 80s, and 90s the importance of preventing too much exposure of the skin to the sun was really recognized. Coppertone sunscreen still exists today in many variations.
Coppertone is still going strong after all these years

14. Huge Mosquitos

Campgrounds in every state in every part of the country have been accused of being the home of the “biggest mosquitos.” Giant skeeters are even jokingly claimed as “state birds” in places like Maine, Minnesota, and Florida. But how large are the world’s biggest mosquitos? It is reported the world’s largest biting mosquito is the Gallinipper. It grows to 12.7 – 25.4mm – that’s an inch-long mosquito! It is second in only to the Australian Elephant Mosquito which is about 1.5 inches long, but doesn’t feed on blood. The Gallinipper lives east of the Continental Divide in the U.S.

15. Wall Drug

Nobody’s ever said exactly how many Wall Drug billboards there are in the world, but there’s a 650-mile stretch of Interstate 90 from eastern Minnesota extending well into Montana with hundreds of them. “How Many Miles to Wall Drug?” signs appear in Paris, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Taj Mahal, Afghanistan, and even Antarctica.
Never made it? Wall Drug sells their legendary bumper stickers online for just $1!

16. Power Windows

The 1980s ushered in an ultimate roadtripping convenience – electric motors to lower and raise car windows. It took a long time for parents to “trust them” to not breakdown, but once they did, power windows took the world by storm! Look for a new car on the showroom floor with crank windows today … good luck!

17. Road Maps and Road Atlases

Road maps were the bane of roadtripping for generations. After buying one at the gas station or picking one up for free from the rest stop and opening it for the first time, was any roadmap in all of history ever properly folded again? (Rumor has it, that’s where the idea for another 1980s hit – the Rubix Cube – came from.) As a solution, Rand McNally began publishing annual road atlases including maps of each state, Canada, and sometimes even Mexico! While solving the folding problem, it introduced a new onboard storage problem. Even rolled up, the road atlas didn’t fit in the glove compartment or map pockets.

18. Mt. Rushmore / Grand Canyon

There are no more iconic family camping destinations. If you went on an extended “family camping” road trip in your youth, it probably included Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or the Smoky Mountains. If there was a problem with seeing these sites in the 1980s, it was that the world was in such a rush. Need proof? Check out one of the great roadtripping movies of all time which debuted in 1983 – National Lampoon’s Vacation. Clark Grizwald’s reaction to driving across the country to the Grand Canyon is a classic that strikes some, a little too close to home.

19. Pay Phones

“You see, way back in the 1980s there were still these things called ‘payphones’, many of them housed in these things called ‘phone booths’. When you were roadtripping and needed to call someone, you looked for a payphone. They had them at gas stations, truck stops, and the nicer interstate rest areas. Then you put in a dime to make a local call, or dialed a zero to get the operator to place a collect call.”
“What’s a local call? What’s an operator? What’s a collect call? What’s a dime?”
“Never mind.”

20. Baby On Board Sign

Certain aftermarket options were required for mid-1980s minivans to be accepted as roadworthy. Among them were the Rand McNally Road Atlas, an organizer for the family’s collection of cassette tapes, a pull-down window shade stuck to the glass with suction cups you licked to make them stick better and … most visibly … the Baby On Board sign. For minivan owners without infant children, signs were available touting anything you can imagine on board.
Curiosity got the best of us – yes, they’re still selling these signs on Amazon

21. Plastic Tubing Lawn Chairs

Considered an “upgrade” from the woven webbing chairs of the 1970s and earlier, lawn chairs of the 1980s took on a different texture by weaving thicker, stickier, plastic tubing to create the seat and back. You could be sure such a chair was the “real thing” after sitting in one for awhile with bare legs and/or a bare back. Sweat just a little bit, and when you stood up — the chair stuck to you, then dropped to the ground with a clatter.

22. Cassette Tapes

The 1980s were the decade of the cassette tape as the medium for delivery of road trip music. The decade began with 8-tracks and ended with CDs, but those 10 years were influential enough to create the lexicon and the exercise, “road trip mixtape.” It sounds simple enough — record your favorite mile-eating songs on a tape; play it on the road. Ha! Hours, even days, went into selecting and organizing the right songs. Then you had to hunt them down on your vinyl albums and painstakingly record them — one at a time — from your turntable to your tape deck. Oh, those were the days!

23. Special Export Beer

Some beers are just tied to camping – we don’t know why. One of them in the 1980s was Special Export from the G. Heileman Brewing Company in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. That company went way back to 1800s with the brand “Old Style”. What made “Special Export” special as Heileman’s second brand in its roster in the 1930s was the bump up to 6% BVA. That makes for a better campfire brew if there ever was one.


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