We all know the story. By rights, camping should be the simplest and most relaxing of holiday options, a chance to bond with loved ones, commune with the splendour of the natural world and sleep out under the stars. (Well, technically under the impermeable waterproofing of modern tent fabric, but you get the point.) And yet things always seem to go awry. The vision of a restorative simple pleasures-filled break quickly turns into a horror show where everybody is whining about being too-hot or too-cold, starving hungry and uncomfortable.
But holidaying under canvas doesn’t need to be that way. Most errors are rookie and avoidable with just a little advance planning. Here are ten common mistakes you should avoid if you want to be a happy camper:
1. Choosing the wrong size tent
What kind of weird Oompa Loompa world do tent designers and makers live in? One thing’s for sure, never trust their advice on sizing when buying your canvas, especially if doing so online. For a “three man” tent, read one man and his kit or, at a push, a happy couple prepared to spoon; for a “two man” read one cramped man and half his kit. And for “one man”, think giant condom. Unless backpacking, always go two or three capacity ratings higher than the actual number sleeping in it.
2. Not testing all your equipment beforehand
Yes it sounds a bit nerdy but trust me, the time you don’t want to discover missing tent pegs, a broken sleeping bag zip, a snapped washing line, a leak in the air mattress or a cooker that doesn’t work is when you’re four hours drive away from any means of sorting out the problem. Before you set off, pitch your tent somewhere and pour water over to check it is still weatherproof. Likewise get to know the rest of your gear by putting it through its paces, especially if it’s new and untested.
3. Arriving late to the campsite
Anyone who’s ever pitched a tent in the dark will know the nightmare it can be. You can’t see to put the thing up, you invariably select a terrible spot next to the toilets and having woken up the neighbours, you almost certainly have to move in the morning. Plan to arrive in good time so you can spend a while looking for a good patch of flat, dry grass with no overhanging branches that won’t flood if it rains. Familiarising yourself with the site and its important conveniences – such as showers and water supplies – is also much easier in daylight.
4. Relying on a campfire or barbecues for cooking
Everyone loves the pleasure of outdoor cooking, but don’t let it go to your head. Even the most staunch sausage fan will be sick of flame-charred meat after a few days. What’s more, starting a cooking fire or lighting a barbecue every time you get peckish or want to boil up water will go through your resources quickly, take a long time and leave you frustrated and hungry. As well as checking in advance that you’re allowed fires or barbecues where you’re staying, always take insurance – pack a decent gas cooking stove and spare gas canisters too. Oh, and matches, ideally kept in a waterproof container.
5. Going too basic in the bedroom
I’m a light packer by nature; happy to double up my warm layer as a pillow to save space and weight. But that’s when I’m mountaineering. In a campsite that’s going to be home for a while, being too survivalist is a mistake. You won’t sleep well and you’ll hate going to bed. If you know you’ll long for pillows, pack them. Ensure sleeping bags are going to be warm enough for the weather forecasted and that you always have an air-filled layer between your bag and the ground. Thermarests are great for weight and warmth but for ultimate comfort an air mattress probably wins out. Or a camp bed. Earplugs and eyemasks are also a good idea should you want to sleep past 7am.
6. Going too Gordon Ramsey with dinner
Well before you set off, sit down and plan out your daily meals. But whatever you do, don’t make them too complicated. Confit guinea fowl with fondant potato and a red wine reduction is probably pushing it when your work surface is a log. Cool boxes have come a long way but they won’t keep meat for four or five days. Sticking to “one pan” dishes is not a bad idea to lessen sink time. Plan a menu around non-perishables and shop accordingly, incorporating tinned produce and dry goods like rice and pasta. Same goes when thinking about breakfast. Peanut butter, bread and jam are easy foods that will fill you with energy. Remember to bring bags for your rubbish too. And washing up liquid.
7. Cooking in your tent
Unbelievably, I still hear of this one quite a lot. At best, cooking inside causes condensation; at worst, death. There have been some tragic cases where people have asphyxiated themselves using a stove (sometimes even temporary barbecues) inside tents for cooking or warmth. Obviously there is the risk of fire, but carbon monoxide poisoning is a swift and silent killer in unventilated spaces. There are nature risks to cooking inside as well: in bear country the smell of cooking wafting from a tent is practically suicide. Some tents have vented vestibules designed for stove use but, as a rule, it’s wise to never cook inside your tent.
8. Bringing insufficient lighting
The nights can get pretty long under the stars and unless you want to turn in as soon as it gets dark, battery-powered or solar lanterns are a good idea. At a minimum, a head torch is indispensable and leaves your hands free to do other things – like reading or (more likely) the washing up. Again, check it works before leaving and pack extra batteries.
9. Forgetting books or a ‘bored box’
Crucial in bad weather, on long evenings and whenever you’re camping with the family are games, books, cards, toys, telescopes, pen and pencils – whatever you can fit in the car, really. Basically these are the things that will keep you all sane if the heavens open for two days straight, confining you and the little ones to canvas. It pays to go quite old-school here – no one wants to hear Disney films blaring out from next door’s tent. Little iPods loaded with audiobooks are OK; Kindles less so, as they easily get sat or stood on, shattering the screen. Oh, and if the rain doesn’t shift and you begin to suspect cabin fever setting in, you’ll be grateful for waterproofs, so make sure they’re on the list too.
10. Failing to enforce a rigorous “no footwear inside the tent” policy
It might be onerous to remove them every time you enter the tent, but muddy or sandy boots or trainers can turn your sleeping space into an unpleasant place. Mucky and wet kit is miserable and unnecessary and woe betide if sand find its way into your sleeping bag – it’ll have you heading for home smartish. Make sure all footwear is removed before entering but remember to store it undercover in case of bad weather. Have an extra pair of thick socks in your bag for when lounging inside the tent.