Camping is good for the soul. It’s a fresh air tonic for mind and body. It leaves you exhilarated and relaxed all at once.
Which is just as well as camping in mid-April is B-L-O-O-D-Y freezing.
But with a propex heater, a 40-year old campervan, a double height queen-sized inflatable mattress and a bell tent, camping in mid-April is quite fun nevertheless.
Now we’re no camping experts, but we’re gradually getting the hang of what works and what doesn’t when you camp with children. I greedily absorb every blog post on the subject in an effort to improve our experiences so I thought I’d share here a few tips we’ve gathered along the way.
First and foremost is comfort and warmth.
We take enough pillows, blankets and sleeping bags to give us multiple sleeping options. Normally the boys sleep in the campervan pop-top (a fold-out boarded floor with little mattresses makes for a super cosy sleep pod) but on our most recent trip to Suffolk this Easter it was just too cold for them, so we variously all bunked in the rock-n-roll fold out double bed below or in the bell tent.
Whatever the weather forecast, we pack for a Siberian expedition, because when the sun goes down, the temperature plummets and there’s nothing worse than going to bed already cold to the core. We therefore always take hats, gloves, scarves, sweatshirts, thick socks, thermal undies and the all-important hot water bottles. Popped into the boys’ sleeping bags an hour or so before bed - usually as they’re toasting their marshmallows - and the over-tired ‘I’m freezing’ complaints tend to diminish significantly…
Next comes fripperies.
Crazy I know, surely good shelter, a good campsite and good food should come next? All I’ll say is that we drive a 40-year old bone shaker in the shape of a blue VW campervan with red polka dot curtains. Making our camp look and feel pretty is a big part of our my camping enjoyment. And a happy mama makes for a happy family no?
So in go crocheted blankets, twinkly solar lights, bunting, faux fur throws, rush matting and wine boxes (upturned they make brilliant side tables at just the right height for the bell tent and used as a box, they house all sorts of items on the way down).
Then there’s food and drink.
Whenever possible, we try to stay at a site which allows campfires. They add so much to the camping experience, especially after dark when nothing makes me happier than seeing my boys’ exhausted but happy little faces shining in the amber glow of the fire as they clutch marshmallow toasting sticks in their grubby little hands. Plus, a campfire is a great social tool - pulling up a chair for a fellow camper and sharing a nicely-warmed bottle of red after sundown is a fine way to end the day.
However, we tend to do most of our cooking either in the van - we have a 3-ring gas burner in there - or on our little portable camping gas stove. We’ve cooked many a sausage and burger on an open fire but equally, I have fished out more than one ash-covered pizza following a slight grill imbalance so I now opt for the simplest solution; one that involves matching enamel cookware and a nice G&T balancing on a flat surface in the van as I cook.
For us, breakfasts are the most important meals whilst camping. A good, tasty, larger-than-you’d-have-at-home-breakfast is the perfect way to kick off a day of adventure and often means the boys only need a simple snack at lunchtime, then wherever we are, we gather a few provisions for an evening feast. Obviously, bacon & eggs play a significant role in our camping breakfast menus, along with boiled eggs, cereals with fruit and awesomely easy and oh-so-impressive pancakes - no-one need know its a Betty Crocker mix as you’re casually flipping them out of the campervan door right?).
Next comes entertainment.
Not every site we stay at has facilities for kids. In fact, because we prefer the smaller sites, many don’t. But fresh air and acres of green to explore tends to create its own entertainment, so as long as the site is safe and the weather’s dry, the boys tend to schlepp off and make friends and their own fun most afternoons when we return to camp.
However, wet weather camping often presents an entertainment challenge so we keep a stack of board games in the cubby box above the back seat in our van for just such days (and nights). Scrabble is our family favourite - we have one of those boards with raised grooves in it to hold the tiles firmly in place (a camping godsend), but we also play Dobble, Guess Who and take plenty of books for cosied up reading sessions. If we have an electric hook-up - and often even if we don’t - I have found the iPad, preloaded with a few downloaded Dennis the Menace cartoons helps the boys wind down after dark - but it stays firmly locked away during the day. After all, who goes camping to play on an electronic device all day (*coughs* instagram addict *ahem*).
Don’t forget the tools and gadgets.
When we first got our van, I went mad investing in all sorts of camping 'essentials’ - some of which we now wouldn’t be without, and some of which we’ve never used (the ever so expensive boho-print windbreak springs to mind). Trial and many errors have helped us gradually work out which are vital to a successful trip and for us this includes:
- our inexpensive battery-powered lantern which beats the wind-up lantern we originally bought that runs down too quickly and has a tendency to jettison its winder at inopportune moments (usually when you need the loo in the middle of the night).
- levelling chocks - we sniffed at them initially but you only need one night camping on a sloping pitch with your knees in your chin to realise they’re a total necessity.
- a battery-powered airbed pump - again, we tried the foot pump version first. Madness, especially when you’re trying to inflate a double-height mattress in the restricted headroom of a bell tent.
- a rubber mallet. Useful for so many things, not just banging tent pegs into firm ground, for which they are essential. On our most recent trip we watched a chap bang his tent pegs in with a small woodworking hammer as his wife looked on scornfully. There was a lot of swearing.
- a comfortable mattress - ours is awesome. You can clip the two together for a double-height bed or position them side-by-side for four people to sleep on. Layer on a fitted sheet, bedspread and faux fir throw, accessorise with a couple of pillows and a book or two and you’re done.
Choosing the right campsite.
In the short amount of time we’ve been campers, we’ve learned an awful lot about what we like and what we dislike. The list is different for everyone, but I’ve been surprised by what we’d now consider pretty important. Top of the list (perhaps surprisingly) is a campsite that is small, but not TOO small. An infamous trip to a teeny tiny campsite in Devon remains firmly lodged in my mind. Never again.
Next comes marked-out pitches. Especially important in the holidays when campsites tend to get rather full and fellow campers are invited to pitch where they like. Recently we returned from a day out to find another tent pitched where our van chocks were laid out, meaning nowhere for us to park the van (our main sleeping area) in a now half-sized pitch. Not fun.
Then there’s the need for decent facilities. Its one of the first things I check online as however nice it is to be outside and laid back, its also nice to feel clean and refreshed. An on-site washing machine is a bonus (I think back to our first trip in the van when Louis had a stomach bug and was sick into his sleeping bag…).
A ban on motorhomes or a dedicated area for them away from everyone else for us, is a good sign. They tend to be ugly, massive and have their own source of electricity which normally means satellite dishes, TVs, beer fridges and noise. No thanks. Or at least, not as the first thing I see in the morning.
An honesty shop. Not necessarily for the provisions, but for the sentiment it conveys. A campsite with an honesty shop is normally a pretty good place to stay. It implies trust, decency and community and those are good things in my book.
A site that allows campfires. For all the reasons I’ve described above. A campfire is a source of food, warmth, comfort, chat and light. After all, not much beats rising to early morning bird song and retiring to bed with campfire smoke in your hair when the sun goes down does it?
So, that’s how we do camping, but we’re always learning. Do you have some tried and tested camping essentials you wouldn’t be without? Or a site you love? If so, do please impart your wisdom!