As I lay in my coat on the back seat of our Skoda, with a black jumper over my face to block out the dawn, I realised I wasn’t a camper. My family were asleep under canvas. In the dead of night, it had struck me that the man in the tent adjacent to ours would be snoring and farting till daybreak. The quiet of the car interior compensated for the fact that I was huddled in the stress position with the seat-belt buckle jamming into my back. Only two more nights, I told myself, and I’ll never go camping again.
Or so I thought. From July 4, campsites (and hotels and other “accommodation providers”) can reopen. And thanks to the continuing uncertainty about international travel, camping in Britain may be the most viable holiday option this summer, forcing me, and thousands of other committed “non-campers” to reconsider.
And I’ll admit – despite the noise pollution from the next tent – my Skoda-enhanced camping trip had its magical moments: scuffling down the path to the sandy beach; reading while the children surfed; sipping coffee made on our tiny stove, as the first rays of sun hit our faces, in the brisk salty sea air; toasting marshmallows over fire and gazing at the silver stars that scattered the velvet night.
Sure, on occasion, you’ll battle horizontal rain and howling wind to stop your tent washing away, or marvel at the sheer amount of back-breaking effort the simple outdoor life requires, but the lows make the highs even sweeter. There’s a unique pleasure in sitting in a meadow, eating barbecued sausages, watching the flames dance, breathing the scent of woodsmoke, as the children rediscover nature.
If we can avoid rookie errors – such as almost freezing to death in June, forgetting our hay fever medicine and sun cream, purchasing a fancy fold-up table that falls out of the boot and is irreparably dented, or setting our tent alight with the little heater – camping can be glorious.
Happily, our experts have shared tips to make it even more rewarding. We non-campers should embrace it, for after months of indoor isolation, this is a chance to appreciate the wild beauty of the earth and pure joy of family, friends and freedom.
The non-camper’s guide to…
Choosing a campsite
If you’re keen to camp this summer, don’t hang about. “Campsite booking engines have all reported an absolutely massive surge in bookings over the past couple of weeks,” says Shell Robshaw-Bryan, editor and founder of the travel and outdoors blog Camping With Style. “A lot of campsites are fully booked now, so if people can manage a stay midweek or dates outside school holidays, that will increase their chances of actually getting a pitch.”
Not everywhere will be operating at full capacity. “The Camping & Caravanning Club has alluded to the fact that they’ll be limiting numbers,” Robshaw-Bryan adds. And – an important caveat – “quite a few campsites are choosing to reopen on July 4 without facilities. So while you’ll be able to get a pitch, the shop, showers and lavatories are going to be closed. A lot of sites are saying, if you don’t have a portable loo or washing facilities, booking isn’t a good idea.”
Looking off the beaten track might be the best way to secure a booking at this point. But let’s be optimistic – it’s still important to consider your preferences. Do you favour a shop, a café, decent lavatories and a laundry, or quiet seclusion and crouching in compost? Decide on your priorities, says James Warner Smith, author of Cool Camping Britain (third edition, just published).
“If you want lots of space, and wildlife, and a wild feel, then generally speaking you’ll have to forgo some of the more luxurious facilities,” he says. There are many beautifully situated “off-grid” campsites with only five or six pitches, he adds, “but you’re more likely to have composting lavatories, and maybe solar-powered showers.”
If you long for a wilder experience, search online for “nearly wild campsites” or “pop-up campsites”. These are temporary and don’t require planning permission. “As long as nothing’s permanent, you can open a tent campsite for 28 days,” says Warner Smith. Many pop-ups open for August, or weekends in July and August. “They’ll have composting facilities, gas or solar-powered showers, and they’re also in spaces where you might not get planning permission – in national parks, in woodland, riverside spots, farmers’ fields.”
You might also check out The Greener Camping Club of eco-friendly campsites, he adds. Most of their sites are in Wales and you pay £10 for annual membership. “They’re often wild, off-grid sites and often have fewer than 15 or 20 pitches, so they’re nice and small.”
Yet wild doesn’t always mean primitive. Stackpole Under the Stars – a family-run site tucked away behind woodland in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – is small, but half its ten pitches are “glamping”. Those who struggle with sleeping in a field can choose from furnished yurts and safari tents (with solar packs for charging devices). For those even less willing to compromise on comfort, there’s a “luxury glamping pod” – described as a little boutique hotel suite in the open. The site has luxury showers and lavatories as well as the composting option, camping fire pits for hire, and a tiny shop.
If you fancy even more convenience, a larger campsite might suit. But, says Robshaw-Bryan, some are quite rowdy. “Spend time researching and reading reviews,” she says. “Familiarise yourself with the rules of any site before booking. Some are quite prescriptive and say ‘No noise at all after 9pm.’ Some don’t allow large group bookings. Some charge extra if you’ve got two cars or a dog. Some don’t allow ball games, but others have designated play areas.”
It’s worthwhile finding a campsite that allows campfires, says Warner Smith – many don’t. But the raison d’être of camping is being outside, so “a focal point like a fire is really nice”.
If you can bring your own, Robshaw-Bryan recommends the Primus Kamoto OpenFire Pit: “It folds flat, so it’s easy to transport in the car, and you open it up in seconds. It gives you a safe, stable campfire. It’s got a little tray at the bottom, so if any coal or wood does drop out, it doesn’t damage the grass.”
Entertaining the children
This is mostly about helping your children fall in love with nature, develop self-sufficiency, turn feral, and have fun. (It’s not, as I used to believe, about killing time until we could return to the house.) Attitude is everything.
Simon McGrath’s book Camping with Kids embodies that joyful, can-do spirit. He says: “It looks at simple ways to bring us closer to nature, such as learning tracking skills to understand which creatures are nearby, even if you can’t see or hear them. And there are lots of ideas about how to relearn traditional skills such as den-building, stargazing, ways to use natural materials to create artwork, learning how to navigate, or making your own weather station.”
McGrath has c ompiled more than 400 delightful pastimes for all ages. He explains how to make tiny shelters with twigs for snails, carve your own tent peg, or tie a bowline knot with spaghetti or liquorice laces before consuming your work. He reveals how to teach your children to build a fire, or create a perfume from petals. One suggestion for the evening is hide-and-seek by torchlight. Children love to feel competent, and adults always wish they’d help more – so teach them how to make the ultimate hot chocolate or perfect bacon sandwich. Scavenger hunts are top of McGrath’s list: ask them to find, say, a nice-looking stone, and a feather.
Robshaw-Bryan adds: “Take a few nature books so that kids can have fun spotting and naming things. If we’re at a coastal campsite, we’ll collect rocks. We have brought acrylic paints, and we’ll do rock painting. The iPhone has various sky-gazing apps – combine that with a telescope – it’s a lovely evening activity.”
Stan Ridgway, of Stackpole Under the Stars, also recommends bringing a local guide book, and a few indoor pastimes such as board games and playing cards for rainy days.
One disadvantage of camping with small children is that tents are so very bright early in the morning.
However, in a genius move, some manufacturers now sell tents with sleeping areas constructed from blackout material, such as Coleman’s BlackOut Bedroom tents.
James Warner Smith advises buying a tent you can stand up in, such as Coleman’s Rocky Mountain or MacKenzie. “There’s something nice for an adult about being able to stand in your tent and move around freely,” he says. Though bear in mind that the more airy the tent, the cooler it will be in chilly weather.
“If I’m not worried about the cold, I’d look for a tent with room for one or two more people than I’m taking,” Warner Smith says.
He also suggests getting one “with a decent porch space, where you can sit with a fold-up table if it’s raining, but you’re still under cover.”
If you’ve bought or borrowed a tent, pitch it at home first, advises Ridgway: “Some new tents have air pumps to blow up the tubes, which people often forget to bring.”
Ridgway also recommends that, if there are hedges around your campsite, you pitch your tent along them for extra protection from the wind.
It’s wise to arrive well fed, and before dark, says Warner Smith. And McGrath, a former editor-in-chief of Camping and Caravanning magazine, says don’t forget mallets, in case the ground is hard.
“A little gadget I wouldn’t go camping without is called a HUBi 10k,” says Robshaw-Bryan. It’s a solar lighting and power system, and it comes with two lights you can hang in your tent. “If you leave the unit in your garden before you go away, in sunshine, it fully charges – even on six-day camping trips it’s more than enough to power the lights.” She prefers it to camping lanterns that rely on batteries. The system will also charge your phone or even an iPad. “Camping is about getting away from tech, but it is nice if you want to watch a film in bed one evening,” she says
Don’t be too much of a purist, advises Warner Smith. “For a long while, I was guilty of thinking of camping as minimalist, so I’d not pack that much. I’d be like, ah, I’ll find a log to sit on.” Now he says: “If you’ve got stuff, put it in the car. So many times I’ve gone camping without chairs, thinking it didn’t matter. I always regret it.” Bring cash, too – some rural sites take cash only.
McGrath never goes camping without a head torch (one less thing to hold) and also suggests bringing a tarpaulin: “Tarps are really handy, multi-purpose pieces of kit. They provide extra protection over an al fresco area, can be laid on damp ground to stop other items getting wet when pitching the tent or packing away, and the kids can use them to build a makeshift play den.”
Pees and Quiet
If your site lets you choose your pitch, don’t camp too close to the toilet blocks, says Robshaw-Bryan. “The closer you are, the more foot traffic, and the more noise.” Yet stumbling miles across a field at night isn’t much fun either. So she says: “If you want to be really fancy, a camp loo is amazing – no nasty communal blocks and no traipsing.”
It’s a bold move, which can work if your tent has a porch, living area, and bedroom. “We use one of those as a toilet and dressing area,” she says. “It might be a step too far for people trying camping for the first time, but if you’re going on a two-week family holiday, £50 for a chemical flushing camp loo could be a brilliant investment.”
She says Porta Potti inventors Thetford have a range suitable for camping, which are roughly 40-60cm high. Chemicals keep them sanitary. “It flushes it through cleanly. The waste is stored in a sealed container.” Many campsites have disposal points, so you can empty your loo every few days.
Staying warm and sleeping well
If you want to love camping, don’t scrimp on bedding. “Take pillows,’ says McGrath, “because rolled-up jumpers just aren’t the same.” And bring a hot water bottle. “I’ve been awake at 3am, shaking, teeth chattering with cold,” says Robshaw-Bryan. “I’ve learnt the hard way how to get it right.”
She recommends a “Sim” – a self-inflating mattress. “Invest in a decent one – you’ll have about 7-10cm of padding. They contain memory foam and automatically inflate.” You might also buy a folding camping bed. “The benefit is that it keeps you off the floor – you tend to lose a lot of body heat through the floor. We pop our big thick Sim on top of our double folding camp bed. It’s honestly almost as comfortable as sleeping on your bed at home.”
A quality sleeping bag is also important; a cheap model will not keep you warm. While £250 might be extravagant, the £20 option probably won’t cut it. “You’re looking for a good ‘three-season’ sleeping bag, which means it’s suitable for spring, summer and autumn camping.” Two-season bags, she says, “tend to be really thin and leave you freezing cold”.
Even in summer, Robshaw-Bryan always takes thermals – just in case.
If space is limited, there are other options. Warner Smith is content with a roll mat and air bed to thwart the chill.
“A lot of people just throw on rugs, but a lot of the cold is coming up from the ground. It’s worth taking a roll mat and air bed and putting the roll mat underneath the air bed to provide insulation.”
But – as my own husband will tell you – do ensure that your children don’t treat your air bed like a trampoline. As Ridgway says: “If you get a puncture, you just end up on the ground in the middle of the night.”
Know, too, he adds, that the countryside isn’t as quiet as some imagine. “There may be owls hooting, woodpeckers pecking, and even noise from campers nearby – snoring for instance.” Indeed. “If you are a light sleeper, it might be worth investing in ear plugs and maybe an eye mask.”
And yet camping is supposed to be partly about appreciating the natural world. McGrath says: “There’s every chance the wonderful dawn chorus will wake you up. Rather than roll over in your sleeping bag and try to ignore it, embrace the birdsong.”
You might even, he suggests, bounce up early to find a nice spot for a breakfast picnic – for which you will of course have brought a flask. It’s going to be a lovely day.
Cooking al fresco
If you don’t live on beans and tinned potatoes at home, says Robshaw-Bryan, there’s no reason to do so when in the field. “I always cook from scratch and that certainly doesn’t change when we go camping. We make curries, stir-fries, lovely fresh food.” But this does require both equipment and foresight.
As well as decent camping pans, “one of my must-haves is a good-quality two-burner camp stove,” she says. “A good cool box is also a must.” Not the little plastic ones – “they generally only keep food cold for half a day if you’re lucky”. Invest instead in a “passive cooler” such as a Coleman Xtreme Cooler. “They’re like a camping fridge without the need for power. They have thick double-wall insulation, you whack some ice blocks in there and they will keep all of your meat and fresh food cool for five days without any power.”
Warner Smith also swears by a good cooking stove (don’t forget the fuel) and a Swiss Army knife. If he’s camping just for the weekend, he says, “I’ll often pre-make a bolognese, then freeze it. Then you can use it as an ice pack in your cool bag. The next day, I’d have a barbecue. If you’re allowed campfires, you can just put a grill over the fire, cook, and you don’t need plates, knives and forks. You just put a burger in a bun.”
Plan meals in advance and attend to detail. “Mix your herbs and spices at home and bring them in one little pot,’ says Warner Smith. “The more you can do before you leave, the easier it is. Don’t forget salt and pepper.”
Ridgway advises: “Take toasting forks for marshmallows, which are an essential part of the fun. And if you’re going all in, a cast iron pot.”
And don’t even dream of going camping without a supply of tea or coffee.
Campsites in England can open July 4, along with facility blocks. Campsites in Scotland were able to open from yesterday but their shared facilities (lavatories and shower blocks, for example) must remain closed until July 15. The Camping & Caravanning Club says on its website that it is awaiting further guidance for its sites in Wales, “though we are working towards a potential reopening date of July 13”.
Not all campsites will reopen this summer, and some will reopen without shared facilities or at a later date. Deep cleaning and social distancing rules need to be in place, and many sites are introducing their own health measures, such as staggered showering times.