Child-Friendly UK: How to (and how not to ) camp with kids in England

Camping with kids can either be utterly wonderful or completely hideous – a triumph or a tragedy. Having had both types of camping ‘experiences’ including one where things got seriously Shakespearean – think A Comedy of Errors meets The Tempest – I know from experience that when camping goes wrong, it can go very wrong. A bad anything can put you off for life and so, following a particularly bad trip involving a tent, young children and an unexpected two day howling gale, I have avoided camping for the last few years. In fact, in the interests of aesthetics, most of the pictures in this post are from the our only triumphant camping trip to beautiful Dorset, a place we love.

But putting howling gales to one side, it strikes me that as my boys are getting older (and I no longer need to watch their every move) that camping is something they’d adore; they’d embrace the freedom to charge with wild abandon across fields, tripping over tent ropes and kicking footballs into the heads/faces/groins of unsuspecting strangers. I know they’d love toasting marshmallows over the fire and sitting under the stars wrapped in blankets, playing gin rummy and ‘gambling’ with coppers (money not police officers – that would be a weird camping trip.) And so recently I have to admit I’ve been ignoring my long-suffering inner voice, roaring caution at me like King Hamlet’s ghost from beneath the stage, and instead have been merrily rootling around in the shed looking for the camping stove, shaking the spider webs off the camping chairs and seeking out my mallet, like Thor searching for his hammer. Reader,  I’ve been looking at the Mountain Warehouse site again.

The problem is that I know that the reality of camping is very different from the dream. The British countryside is so beautiful, but do I want to erect a tent in it ever again in my life? How do I feel about sleeping on a slowly deflating air bed? Am I ok with my children – or worse, me – urinating into a mixing bowl in the dead of night because the toilets are too far away? How do I really feel about mud? Before I jump right in, I need to think about this seriously? Camping, is it really worth it?

Problem #1: The Cost

I’m not actually convinced that camping is the cheaper option when it comes to family holidays. A family of four will need a good sized family tent with two bedrooms and a living space to camp in a degree of comfort for any length of time. A decent extra-large tent can cost anything from £200 to over £1000, so let’s take £500 as an average. That’s a lot of money to spend on something that will get covered in mud and rain, only to be pulled out of its bag a year later covered in mildew and immediately hurled into the wheelie bin. You’ll need a double airbed, two single airbeds and a battery operated pump – let’s say £100. Assume the beds will have to be replaced every year as one or all of them will puncture because they’ll have been jumped on and/or pierced by a stone. With the tent and airbeds and bedding, there’s no space for anything else in a normal car, so you’ll have to buy a new car which will set you back at least £12,000.  Or you could buy a roof rack and then work out how to fit it which no one in their right mind can ever be bothered to do.

So far, we’ve spent £12,600 and we haven’t even left the house. You’ll need fleeces and walking boots and waterproof trousers and cagoules because that’s what sensible campers wear, costing at least £100 each so we’re now up to £13,000. A pitch for a week in a decent campsite costs about £400 a week. Even without the car, getting set up costs at least £1500 and there’s a strong possibility that you’ll never use any of it ever again. You can have a week in Barcelona for that.

Problem #2: The Erection

Erecting a tent is the world’s worst job. Assuming you are a normal family where the rot sets in after spending anything over three hours in a car together; imagine how much more irritated you’ll all be after the drive to the campsite with only your heads visible above all the bedding and clothes and tea towels and camping chairs and tables that you’ve somehow managed to cram into the car.  Upon arrival at the campsite, you’ll inevitably discover that ‘someone’ has forgotten to pack the mallet and so you have hammer in the tent pegs using a rock whilst simultaneously exchanging vile, unspeakable insults with your partner. The toddler is running towards a camp fire. The older child needs a wee. Everyone is starving hungry. Nothing fits where it should and once you’ve got the tent fully erected, a fellow camper trips over the tent rope coming back from the toilet in the middle of the night, bending the tent peg forever meaning you have to reassemble one corner using a twig. THIS IS NOT A HOLIDAY!!!

Problem #3: The Dismantling

Not as bad as erecting because at least you’re going home. The tent obviously won’t fit back into the bag without everyone wrestling it in and you’ll never get it dry, meaning when you pull it out next year to repeat the farce, it will be covered in mould spores rendering it completely uninhabitable. Nothing will fit back into the car so you have to dump half of your belongings before you embark upon the journey home; the car inexplicably still more cramped than the journey there. Decision made: the only way I’m camping is to a place where there is a pre erected tent, with beds already there waiting for us. And if you say that isn’t real camping, I’ll hit you with my mallet. Once I find it.

Problem #4: The Weather

If you are camping in the UK, the weather will be rubbish unless you are very, very lucky. We were lucky once. The weather looked fine for the weekend so we packed up the car and drove two hours to the beautiful  Tom’s Field in Dorset. There was room for a small tent to pitch and we had an idyllic three days in the August sun. We walked down to the village pub for dinner, picnicked on the beach and ate apples in camping chairs.

We visited a local farm and fed the lambs and frolicked in the sea at Swanage. It was perfect.

The following year – buoyed up by our great camping experience at Tom’s Field – we decided to pre-book a week again in beautiful Dorset. If we are the tragic heroes in this tale of woe, then booking ahead was our fatal flaw. It was the middle of August – what could possibly go wrong – there was an outside chance that a wild Atlantic storm could blow in and literally rip our tent apart and blow it away. But that wouldn’t happen in August, right? Well guess what? Exit holiday, enter howling gale. Luckily we weren’t in the tent at the time. Instead we were sheltering from the storm in the Mary Anning Fossil Exhibition in Lyme Regis in an attempt to escape the camping element of the camping holiday which was – by the day – beginning to resemble a survival training course rather than a vacation of any sorts. Upon returning to a fully abandoned campsite in the late afternoon, we found what was left of our tent – now a giant, sodden canvas dish rag – flopping and slopping in the wind like a sad flag, the only remaining tent on the campsite. With no option but to salvage our belongings that weren’t broken or covered in mud or soaked, we drove home through the night arguing furiously and nearly crashing into a cow that was inexplicably wandering in the road.

You can’t beat the weather, so you’ll need to embrace it. I’d advise camping somewhere where there are a lot of rainy day activities, wellies all round and plenty of bin liners and towels to avoid spreading mud throughout the tent and on to all your belongings. Or go to France. Usual camping scene in UK in the summer pictured below – no sun, grey skies, rain, jumpers and wellies – everyone in their tents or at a shell exhibition or a tea shop wishing they’d gone to Spain.

Problem #5: Other people

I want to spend time with my family on our holidays and know from experience that kids, once they’ve met mates, want to spend all their time with them. It’s totally understandable but rather misses the point of what I feel a family holiday is all about. Plus, you are then forced to converse with their new friend’s parents. What about if they say things like, ‘Our children aren’t allowed chocolate, they only eat carob,’ and they look shocked when we swear and they start playing Levellers songs on a guitar and then we have to spend the whole holiday hiding in our tent from them? Going camping  with friends is the best solution so that your kids will play with their mates, you don’t have to mix with people you don’t know and you can hang out – drinking box wine or tea with UHT milk – with people you actually know and like.

Problem #6:The dream verses the reality

We camped at the Latitude Festival when our eldest son was 18 months old. How stupid cool were we? The dream of a festival with young kids is about as far from the reality as it’s possible to get; babies screaming in the family camping area, hungover parents hissing insults at each other, and pretending to enjoy the ‘toddler craft tent’ whilst your childless friends are all watching bands and getting slowly sozzled. Also toddlers, oddly enough, aren’t keen on watching bands in the rain or being crammed into comedy tents or listening to poetry slams. Preferring instead to shout, ‘Run please mummy!’ Or yelling ‘Out! Out! Out!’ whenever you try to strap them into their pushchair. I’d like to give more detail than that but I think I’ve blocked it out forever.

So what’s next? Despite my many, many reservations with camping, I have a plan to make it work; some non-negotiables if you will:

  1. Pre-erected tent only. No more erecting or dismantling. Tent must be pre-erected with everything I need already there (including beds and possible bedding.) Does that kind of thing even exist?
  2. Embrace the rain. I’ll never learn to love mud, so pre erected tent must have some kind of ‘lobby’ element for muddy boots/coats/children.
  3. Camp near some shelter. Avoid being exposed to the elements. Minimise the risk of your tent blowing away.
  4. Learn about camping in France. I have an in-built fear of camping in France. It sounds an awful lot like caravanning (which I also hate) but with cheese and wine.
  5. Go with mates. Mates are key to the enjoyment. Mates provide the Dunkirk spirit.

I’ll let you know how I get on. In the meantime – and in the interests of being mildly useful – here are some helpful lists.

Here’s my camping checklist:

Take the following:

Blow-up beds with battery pumps and ground sheets, duvets and pillows plus emergency sleeping bags in case they get damp. Take a washing up bowl, loo roll, anti bac, fairy liquid, box wine x 80, variety cereal packs, UHT milk, disposable crockery and cutlery, bin liners, camping stove, frying pan, oil, pepper, salt, herbs, tin foil, a large container for water, a cafetiere, coffee,  tea bags, camping chairs, camping tables, a gazebo, pegs, blankets, candles, garden twine (for a washing line), bottle opener, baby wipes, disposable barbecues (do not bring them in the tent with you), matches, enormous car, large tent, dry shampoo, mugs…

And here are some sites that CoolKidsTravel followers have tried, tested and loved:

Best Of British to you all. Campers, I salute you.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Patsy Watson says:

    A great rollickin laugh on this bright frosty Norfolk morning, brilliant …. felt I was with there with you ….. all so true !

    Liked by 1 person

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