Planning a camping holiday
Cheap, but very cheerful, camping holidays get the thumbs up for family holidays. They're a chance to remember and indulge in some of life's simple but important pleasures: fresh air, board games, singsongs round the fire… and best of all the chance to open wine at lunchtime, sit back in a picnic chair and watch as your children hare around like maniacs, without having to vacuum up behind them or remind them to use their indoor voices. Here's how to get prepped for a camping holiday.
Practice makes perfect
If you're new to camping, it's a good idea, before you set off for a fortnight under canvas, to do a test weekend somewhere local with borrowed gear. Or, even simpler, do as several Mumsnet users have, and have a 'trial camp' in your back garden first:
“We put our tent up in the back garden for a week. It rained the whole time but we still lived in it. We treated it as a holiday, despite being only a few feet from the back door. It was really good fun and the kids slept so well. We rediscovered board games, reading books, puzzles and generally having family fun!”
A trial run is the fastest way to discover exactly what you'll need when camping – mainly because all the things you'll inevitably have forgotten will be steps away in the house (mildly irritating) rather than 150 miles away (extremely frustrating). It's also a good chance for the kids to get used to the novelty of sleeping bags and the like, so they can be Actually Useful when you're setting up camp as opposed to running round a field with a sleeping bag over their head (because nothing is so subtly and edgily funny as pretending to be a giant maggot when you are 10. Apparently).
Where to go
This obviously depends on whether your budget is more 'Bognor' or 'Biarritz' and whether or not you're seasoned campers. Thankfully, Mumsnet users have done the hard work for you and we've compiled this handy list of the top UK family campsites which might give you a few ideas.
Decide whether you want a site with lots of facilities – and probably lots of other families – or something a little less organised – but quieter. How gregarious/misanthropic you are will determine your attitude to other campers (remember, nylon is not soundproof). But bear in mind that the upside of all those other people (rowdy or not) is the potential for holiday playmates.
It's also worth doing your research first about what the usual clientele is like. You won't want to be camped within inches of a large stag do when you're trying to get your children to sleep. And equally, the stag do won't want to be camped within inches of you at 6am when your children are throwing Cheerios at each other and cracking on with the first water fight of the day.
Campers fall into different, well, camps. Hardy souls regard anything beyond a tent, a sleeping bag, a penknife and a box of matches as somehow not 'proper' camping. But, if you're camping with children and don't want to forsake all home comforts, you'll quickly amass a dizzying amount of gear.
To help you whittle things down to roof-rack-friendly proportions, we've started a camping packing list for you.
Of course, your biggest camping expense will be your tent. Whether you're on an established campsite or a field in the middle of nowhere, that tent is the only protection between you, the elements and the insects. So it pays to choose with care – again, our family tent buying guide should be your first stop, but if you think you're going to get a lot of use out of it, go for as big and as flash as your budget will allow:
“Definitely get something that has at least one more person than you intend to fit, if not two. So if you are a family of four, you're looking at a five- or six-berth tent. A sitting area inside is very handy too, especially if it's tipping down.”
It's worth considering extras, as well as size of tent, to give yourself extra space – a porch is fantastic for keeping the rest of the tent clean and clear, while space to stand up fully is an absolute blessing.
Once you've invested in a tent, some sleeping bags and mats and a bit of cookery gear, it's time to think of the extras. Here are a few items that Mumsnet camping guru users count as simple but essential items:
“Newspaper – lots of it. Use it for putting wet wellies on by the 'front door' entrance, for making fires, for drying the tent before packing away. You can never bring enough!”
“A bucket for night time wees (with cat litter to absorb it).”
“A hot water bottle for each adult… and an eye mask and emergency foam earplugs.”
“Some large shopping bags; we use IKEA bags. They have many uses: holding dry clothes and towels while you shower, especially if there is only one hook on the back of the door, carrying beach stuff, as a shoe bag in the tent, carrying washing up, a laundry bag and for dirty/damp clothes and towels on the journey home.”
Packing for camp cooking
Cooking on a camping stove can be a culinary challenge. In your head it'll be like a Rick Stein programme, nonchalantly chucking foraged mushrooms into a pan over a sizzling fire. In reality, it'll be more like an episode of I'm a Celebrity (with the emphasis on 'Get Me Out of Here') as you try to eke out one tin of beans between five people because the damn things take so long to heat.
The key is to keep it simple and allow yourself plenty of time. One popular solution is to get a fish and chip supper for night one (saves faffing around setting up the cooker), take a pre-made frozen dinner from home (spag bol, curry etc) for night two, plus a disposable BBQ and even tinned curries for the rest of the trip. You can normally buy milk, eggs, bacon and butter from the site shop, or a local farm.
Don't try and get fancy, it's not what camping's about. And everything tastes better outdoors anyway, even tinned curry. You might also like to take inspiration from these Mumsnet users' go-to camping menus:
“Cook up some chilli in advance and reheat it. Microwave rice pouches cook really quickly with some water in a pan: about five minutes.”
“For food, we go very simple. I wouldn't necessarily eat them at home, but tins of hot dogs, beans with sausages etc are my camping friends. We barbecue a lot and eat things like pasta with pesto and omelettes. We eat lots of fruit (to prevent scurvy) and I buy bags of ready-grated cheese to put on pasta or omelettes.”
“I take cereal and long-life milk, croissants, quiche, prepared salad, cans of tuna and baked beans, as well as flavoured couscous which you can just add water to. The key is keeping it simple.”
“Take bacon. Bacon sandwiches cure all ills.”
Keeping perishable foods cool is another issue. There are coolboxes that work off car batteries (but beware of getting so into the idea that you drain the battery and can't actually drive home when the holiday's over) while others work off the mains. Lots of campsite wardens will also re-freeze your cool packs if you ask.
Don't eschew the idea of taking a bit of equipment. Campfire cooking is great but we aren't all Bear Grylls, now are we? Sometimes the way to make camping cookery a bit easier is to take tools from home. Mumsnet users recommend decent pots and pans, a George Foreman grill if you have one and even a slow cooker to make help make life under canvas easier.
“Take a proper non-stick frying pan (for cooked brekkies – much easier to clean than camping cookware) and a three-tier steamer saucepan set. I cook on the two saucepans and strain stuff or keep stuff warm in the steamer.”
And if in doubt, cheat!
“We have an electric hook up cable and always take the toaster, microwave and kettle with us. Tea and toast in the morning is fab!”
Last but absolutely not least…
“Wine, wine, wine… Did I mention wine?”
And for the love of God, don't forget the corkscrew.
Shivering from dusk till dawn does not a pleasant holiday make, so pack lots of bedding, fleeces, warm PJs and hot water bottles. “Once you get cold of a night you will not get warm again,” warns one experienced Mumsnet camper. “Hats, socks and fleeces should go on as soon as the sun goes down – then you can stay up warmly much later.”
Don't forget your knees, too. It's not as cosy round the campfire as you think once the sun goes down: “Take a couple of extra fleecy blankets to go over anyone who's cold and to sit on in folding chairs in the evening. You can get surprisingly cold sitting drinking wine on a thin sheet of fabric late into the evening.”
For bedtime, the key is layers, both on your bed and on your body: “Keeping warm at night is essential. Take your winter weight pyjamas and have a warm top. If you haven't got sleeping bags, take as many quilts as you can in the car as these can be used underneath and on top. Airbeds are good as they get you off the cold ground.”
And if you really want to be sure of maintaining even body temperature, try the advice of this Mumsnet user: “Foil blankets are my new top tip, one under the mattresses/mats and if it's really cold, one between blankets/quilts.”
Course, now we've said all this, you'll have record-breaking temperatures for your camping trip, but it pays to be prepared, and if it's cosier under canvas than you were expecting just get some of those cold drinks out of the cool box and take a step back from the campfire.
The combination of bored children, particularly young ones, and rain is a whole new type of holiday misery. In terms of wardrobe, it's best to assume the worst and take plenty of dry clothes (especially pants and socks) and lots of plastic bags for wet and muddy clothing. If you have small children, or just children who like to play in the rain (well, we ALL love jumping in muddy puddles, as Peppa says) take some good waterproof trousers so the weather can't get in the way. Even if it isn't raining, they're useful for early mornings when the grass around your tent is still wet with dew.
Most seasoned campers impose a no-shoes-in-tent rule to prevent living quarters getting covered in muddy bits of grass. Crocs and flip flops tend to be de rigeur, as they're quick to get on and off. Chuck a plastic crate just inside the 'front door' so everyone can de-shoe as soon as they enter the tent. It prevents shoe-creep too, so you don't spend 20 minutes each morning trying to locate everyone's footwear. But in the event of foul weather, anything you can do to prevent your tent becoming a swamp is a plus:
“Buy a cheapie doormat and put it just inside the tent door. It stops muddy feet spreading muck in the tent.”
If it does bin it down you'll be glad if you brought a few things to combat boredom. Small packs of cards and travel games will come into their own. Let's face it, it's not often you actually have the time to sit and play card games with your children, so a few hours' enforced hunkering in a tent with Happy Families might actually be fun if you throw yourselves into it. Pack plenty of books, comics and colouring stuff, too.
To avoid tempers getting frayed, give yourselves as much space as possible. If you decided not to splash out on that slightly larger tent, a long downpour is when you'll regret it most, but you can always add 'an extension':
“Buy or borrow a gazebo for sitting outside and cooking, it's a godsend when raining. I was camping at the weekend in storms and a gazebo made it all easy.”
Of course, you can always just let them play in the rain. If they're in wellies and waterproofs, they'll be fine. You can watch from the tent window. Or, if you're a realist and are happy to change plans last minute, take the advice of this Mumsnet user:
“Keep an eye on the weather forecast; if it's rain, don't go. You'll be bloody miserable.”
Most campsites have shower blocks, but toddlers (and some older soap-dodging children) are notoriously shower-phobic, so alternatives are the shower block sink, going swimming a lot, or washing them in an inflatable dinghy or small paddling pool next to your tent.
Alternatively, stand young children in a washing-up bowl and sponge 'em down for a 1930s vibe that's fun for all the family. Fill it from the shower block, or use water from a standpipe with boiling water added from your kettle. As one Mumsnet user says:
“Shower gel all over and voila – clean kids. Much easier than traipsing to and from the showers.”
Don't forget to make full use of any off-site facilities, too:
“If you go out for the evening, for example for a pub meal or similar, get the kids to take their toothbrushes and toothpaste with them and do the loo and teeth before going back to camp.”
Failing that, if you're only camping for a few days, let them get gleefully grubby. And wear dark nail varnish yourself, so you can't see the grime under your fingernails.
Find more advice on the camping Talk board.