Following a recent camping trip to the lovely town of Ambleside in the Lake District, our party of 22 was virtually split down the middle between those who find camping an enjoyable experience, and those who hate it.
If you’ll excuse the pun, I fall into the former camp: I’ll take off to new places at the drop of a tent peg, and sleeping under canvas is second nature to me.
I had my first camping experience when I was eleven-years-old. Two friends and I cajoled parents into allowing us to camp overnight in the back garden of our house. With permission granted, we retrieved my dad’s old, musty-smelling canvas tent from the loft, and pitched it on the lawn. We loaded up with such essentials as bedding, food, drinks and board games. There was no fly sheet to protect us if it rained, and the lack of a fitted groundsheet opened up the tent to ‘every creeping thing that is alive’, but we loved it.
The thrill of being unsupervised, and staying up way past our bedtimes was quite heady. With the tent doors tied shut (this was a pre-zipper tent), we ate sandwiches and drank fruit juice, and we scared ourselves silly with ghostly tales told by torchlight. We even managed to get some sleep, so my first venture into the great outdoors was a success, but things didn’t always run so smoothly, and looking back on my early camping experiences, I find it remarkable that I didn’t grow up with a strong aversion to sleeping under canvas. But I persisted, and I’m glad I did.
A Miserable Trip
A year or two after the above experience, I ventured on a camping tour of the Scottish Borders with my parents and younger brother. Our equipment was woefully inadequate and, on pitching the tent, we realised that we had neglected to pack the groundsheet. Our improvised solution was to spread sheets of newspaper on the grass.
My sleeping-bag, which belonged to one of my father’s friends, had a most unpleasant smell about it, and during the night I was so cold that I moved into the back of my dad’s Reliant van. After two nights of this unpleasantness, the trip was cut short, and we headed home.
On another occasion, a pleasant night singing songs around a campfire to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar turned into a wide-awake nightmare, as I spent the night on bare groundsheet, with only a thin candlewick counterpane for a blanket. I couldn’t get comfortable on the lumpy ground, and I was so cold I never slept. I was chilled to the bone, and so tired that as soon as the sun came up I crawled from the tent onto the dewy grass to doze in its weak rays.
Many people have at least one similarly negative experience to report, and for some this ends their interest in sleeping under canvas. Camping during a spell of rain can so dampen the enthusiasm of novice adventurers, that they turn their backs on the great outdoors forever. Those with a little more mettle, who persevere in the knowledge that the good times will come, are rewarded with a relaxing environment, wonderful scenery and the freshest of fresh air on tap.
So, I got wise.
Equipment is the Key
When great explorers trek across the Arctic wilderness, or climb snow-capped mountains, they sleep in tents. This set me thinking that, if they can survive such harsh conditions under canvas, then surely I could achieve a reasonable level of comfort during a British summertime. And thus, I learned that the key to comfortable camping is decent equipment.
Before continuing, however, I must point out that there are two types of camping: wild, and what I will call and luxury. Wild camping is the Bear Grylls/Ray Mears proper outdoors experience, where tent, bedding and cooking equipment are all carried by the camper, and food is foraged or fished for.
Luxury camping is for less than robust souls like me. For us, everything is packed into the car, including duvet, pillows, and even pyjamas from home, a cooler box to keep the beers chilled, and enough tech stuff to make up a prize on The Gadget Show. We are a fragile breed, but a happy one.
(Of course, there is a third type of camping called glamping, but we won’t even go there.)
And so, on to the equipment:
One thing to bear in mind when buying a tent is that its size is entirely relative to the number of people it is built for. For example, a two-man tent will probably have room for two sleeping-bags, with perhaps a tiny porch area, but no more. There may not be a great deal of room to eat meals or play cards when it’s raining outside.
My own tent in the photo at the top of this hub is a four-man structure, but I’ve only ever used it alone or with one other. There is room enough to move about, and a spacious porch area for things like wet boots and cooking equipment. So if you like your comfort, then you might be better off buying a tent that will accommodate more people than you expect will use it. With larger, multi-bedroom tents, space is generally not an issue.
A Tent Poll
I currently use a single self-inflating mattresses for camping. As the photo shows, I got these at half-price, a bargain indeed. Of course, self-inflating does not mean that they automatically fill with air like a life-raft; they hardly take in any at all. They do need a little inflating, but this is easily done, and they are very comfortable.
The most basic camp bed is the simple padded roll. Great for wild camping, this offers enough cushion and insulation to allow for a good night’s sleep. The advantages are that these bed rolls are inexpensive and lightweight, but on bumpy ground, they can be uncomfortable.
Probably the most popular bedding for luxury camping is the inflatable mattress. This is like taking your double bed to the campsite with you. Such mattresses are very comfortable, but they take a lot of pumping up, and in smaller tents they can be inhibiting. I tried one in the 4-man tent above, and it was so thick, my face was uncomfortably close to the roof of the tent.
Also worth a mention is the steel framed canvas camp bed, one of which provided me with my first really good night’s sleep in a tent. Two steel poles are slid through the seamed edges of a canvas sheet, and these are supported on four w-shaped feet. Easy to assemble, and very comfortable to sleep in, I was saddened when my camp bed gave up the ghost.
Despite the best efforts of Bill Oddie and the Springwatch team to bring ornithology to the masses, I remain hopelessly clueless when it comes to identifying our feathered friends. My ignorance in this department runs so deep that if you were to ask me to define the difference between a great tit and a coal tit, I could offer no better answer than the latter wears a helmet with a lamp on the front.
There is one area of bird identification in which I am well up to speed, however, and that is our feathered friends that wake me up when camping. As I will soon be dusting off the old tent for the summer, here is a checklist of my top five squawking sleep destroyers.
#5: The Rooster
The traditional dawn cry of the British countryside, the rooster’s familiar ‘cock-a-doodle-do’ is known to children from an early age. This crowing can go on for several hours, the general belief being that the bird is warning all rivals within earshot that this is his territory. According to my research, however, roosters will sometimes crow just for the heck of it. Sadly, for those of us behind the thin walls of a tent, this incessant din is a real sleep-buster.
#4: The Seagull
A slight misnomer these days - I once saw seagulls following a tractor in the West Midlands, miles from the sea. These screeching spitfires are bad enough individually, but in a group they become kip killers extraordinaire. They are birds of little brain, but they do enjoy some social activities - like holding early morning competitions to see who can best imitate the music from the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho.
I currently have a good quality mummy sleeping bag, but, unless it is particularly chilly, I rarely use it in the way it was designed to be used. I find the mummy shape constricting – I like to starfish when I’m in bed, so I’m always sticking a limb out here or there. I’m on the lookout for a double-sized sleeping bag, or at least two regular singles that can be zipped together. On luxury camping trips, I sometimes take a duvet with me anyway, so I can toss and turn like I do at home.
Mummy sleeping bags are ideal for wild camping trips, being warm, comfortable and lightweight.
The jury is still out on those camping pillows.
#3: Air Sea Rescue Helicopter
This was one flying critter I did recognize. Early one misty morning at a campsite on the north-east coast of England, campers were treated to a fly-past by an air-sea rescue helicopter from RAF Boulmer. The craft flew very low, its engine noise waking up everyone on the site. I may be over-cynical, but I imagine the following conversation taking place inside the helicopter.
Crew 1:"The training exercise has been cancelled due to poor visibility. What shall we do now?"
Crew 2: "What time is it?"
Crew 1: "Six-thirty."
Crew 2: "How about we go wake some campers?"
This is not a bird but a human warbler, so named because he is up with the larks. This is the camper who whistles a merry tune as he potters about soon after daybreak. He chirrups and chirps his way to the toilet block, while a far less cheery sight is witnessed under canvas, as campers are stirred from their slumber by this sprightly Sandman slayer.
#1: The Woodpigeon
The doyen of disturbance; the sultan of sleeplessness, Woody Woodpigeon is enemy number one to a good night’s slumber. From its lofty perch in a treetop, this nuisance utters its unmistakeable whoo-hoo, hoo reveille ad nauseum.
Again there is a world of difference between luxury and rugged versions of cooking while camping. Those in the former category can enjoy meals prepared on multi-burner stoves, while those opting for the rugged version might prefer the portability of a fold-away, firelighter-fuelled gadget like the one in the coffee pot photo at the bottom of this hub. It all boils down to what you can carry (excuse the pun).
I currently use a single burner butane stove, but I have one of those coffee pot burners on standby. These are inexpensive, and they are useful for such jobs as keeping a sauce hot while I boil pasta.
Portable or disposable barbecues are a great way to cook while camping. If you do opt for open fire cooking, check site regulations beforehand, and always be very careful with naked flames.
Even if you have to rub two sticks together to make fire, nothing should come between a camper and his or her coffee in the morning.
If it Rains...
While lounging around in sunshine or eating alfresco on a balmy evening are two of the more pleasant aspects of campsite life, the great British weather will, on occasion, dampen your mood.
These days, periods of adverse weather can be whiled away with various gadgets, such as DVD players, smart phones and media players, but not everyone has access to such luxuries. If miserable weather has you confined to barracks, and you have to entertain yourself the old-fashioned way, here are five non-techie ways to beat the boredom.
1: Deck of Cards
Card games can help while away the hours if you get caught up in a deluge. Remember to take suitable lighting for playing under those leaden skies.
2: A Good Book
A paperback book takes up very little space, but it can be an absolute saviour when you’re confined to the tent. Take an unread one in case it’s a long shower; the last two chapters will not keep you going for long.
If a tough cryptic crossword or a baffling suduko is your bag, then take a book and a pencil along. If you have nothing with which to occupy yourself, the campsite shop will stock various puzzle magazines.
3: Travel Games
From Scrabble to Frustration, travel games can keep you absorbed while the rains fall. These games are easily packed, and they can be a godsend when the weather turns. My personal favourite is travel Yahtzee. It might be wise to leave the Twister at home though.
4: Transistor Radio
There’s usually something worth listening to on the radio. Picture yourself lying on your camp bed, listening to the rain falling onto your fly-sheet, while the radio plays Walking on Sunshine.
5: The Cafe or Pub
If the above scenario is too much to bear, it might be time to abandon the tent and seek shelter amid more homely surroundings. Eating and drinking in a warm, dry environment can be just the tonic to a soggy site.
For those partaking in luxury camping, the cleanliness of toilet blocks varies from site to site. I've seen some poorly maintained toilet blocks on campsites, but also some pristine examples, such as the one in the video below.
Rugged campers see little variation when it comes to bodily functions; they go where they can.
Showering is important when camping, whether to cool down on a hot day, or to to freshen up after a night in the tent. This is one area where rugged campers can have it as good as their luxury counterparts. There are several models of camping shower on the market, many of which are extremely portable. They work on the same principle; a canvas bag, or bucket, is fitted with a shower head at the base (or, in more basic models, just holes). The bag is filled with water and raised up and secured to a tree branch. The camper then stands underneath as the water is slowly released.
To Get You in the Mood...
What better to stir your cravings for the outdoors than an inspiring movie or TV show? Sleeping under canvas has featured in many movies over the years, but to these senses, there is only one winner.
So step aside The Blair Witch Project, and go home Ernest Goes to Camp, to these senses, the camping experience is best defined in Mike Leigh's toe-curlingly funny Play for Today from 1976 Nuts in May. Catch it if you can.
Whichever type of camping you embark on, luxury or rugged, there are some things you should bear in mind.
On campsites,respect the rules, and show consideration towards other campers.
If you prefer the wilderness to the restrictions of a campsite, let common sense be your guide; take care with naked flames, don't leave litter, and respect Mother Nature. She'll pay you back if you do.
Have fun out there.
Joe Young (author) from Blyth, Northumberland, England on May 28, 2014:
You reminded me that I had intended to include a few paras on winter camping in that hub. I hope the Alaska trip goes well - I trust a detailed hub will follow. Thanks for commenting.
Judy Specht from California on May 28, 2014:
Your adventures were enjoyable. I can identify with some of the disasters. My husband had a very inexpensive tent when we went on our first camping trip. It rained about 4 inches overnight (we were on a tropical island) and we were soaked to the bone. We got into our car, and waited until the sun came up. We enjoyed a wonderful breakfast. A swim in the ocean and were home by noon for a nap. I am headed to Alaska for a three week camping trip in July. I will let you know if I choose the right equipment.
Joe Young (author) from Blyth, Northumberland, England on May 28, 2014:
Thanks for commenting freecampingaussie - I'm glad you liked my camping tales. I will check out your camping hubs, particularly the crocodile one. That's one hazard we don't have here in the UK.
freecampingaussie from Southern Spain on May 27, 2014:
I enjoyed your stories about camping ! We love camping and I have a few different hubs including one about Camping near crocodiles ! My girls love it as well as we took them when they were growing up. Something every child should experience !