Imagine the scene: a crackling log fire, you're wrapped up in blankets sipping hot chocolate or a glass of wine whilst gazing at the stars, kids tucked up fast asleep after a care-free day running free in the countryside. Camping can be blissful.
In recent years, sleeping under canvas has become fashionable again. With the rising fuel prices and hassles of flying, simple camping trips close to home have exploded in popularity. Everyone seems to camp these days. It's the festival generation grown up and wanting a slice of the action for their families.
I'm a keen camper and organise regular summer weekends in eco and off-beat country campsites, but the reality of family camping is often in sharp contrast to the dream.
For a start there's the packing. If you like to travel light then camping is not for you. You'll never make a quick escape on a family campsite – not with the mountain of stuff you need to survive for a weekend in the English countryside.
Preparing for a camping trip is a serious undertaking that needs dedication and organisational skills. My fellow camping friend has an excel sheet that she updates after each trip with notes and amendments. Even parents with a military background will still be exhausted by the packing. The advance preparations will see your living room transform into a giant muddled multicoloured mass of stuff, as you pull together bedding, tents, blankets, chairs, tables, and all the necessary gear for a two night outdoor stay.
Last year after our third camping feat I asked my husband whether going away with this much gear and advance preparation can possibly count as a holiday?
Once you've squeezed all the gear into the car, you're ready for your next big housekeeping task: the food. In my experience we eat twice as much camping as we do at home. It must be all the fresh air or maybe it's because cooking outdoors and eating is one of the best parts of the camping experience.
I have a huge old fashioned cool box that I cram with the weekend's food and frozen ice packs. I take down a spaghetti bolognaise for Friday night supper, freeze Saturday night's BBQ which then defrosts over the day ready to cook in the evening. To make life easier, look for campsites with fridges and also local farm shops where you can buy provisions for the evening.
Last time we camped, the neighbouring family spent most of the time unpacking. They even had bunting which they draped around their camp. I honestly don't think I saw the mother sit down. She was non-stop for four days, but then camping is all about being busy and doing jobs. You're either fetching water, tweaking the tent, shaking out rugs, drying clothes, building up the BBQ, stoking the fire, finding children... the list of chores goes on.
It's outdoor housekeeping really without any time-saving mod-cons.
Men love camping as they get to do all those manly things like build fires and burn sausages on the BBQ. I think women just do camping as the kids enjoy it and there's a sense of achievement involved.
Also expectations aren't sky high when camping. The planning and packing alone kills off any pleasure in the build-up.
But would I choose a camping weekend over a hotel? Yes!
I always laugh a lot camping. I love the chats with strangers who become new friends over the weekend and I love to watch the kids running wild in packs around the site finding rope swings, climbing up grass banks and sliding down, over and over again. There's no pressure camping and I think that's why - despite the mountain of stuff and unpredictable weather – people go back for more.
What to pack:
Tent – the bigger the better for family camping as you won't be travelling light!
Airbeds & pump – I might switch to a camp bed this year as my kids used my airbed as a crash mat last summer and it deflated on me overnight. It wasn't a nice experience.
Bedding – double sleeping bags are very cosy for two. Some people pack duvets.
Blankets to wrap up in at night plus waterproof backed blankets for daytime lounging.
Torches/lamps/headlamps for kids.
Book (if you're lucky).
Suncream and hats.
Sting relief and mosquito spray.
Layers of cool clothes for day, warm stuff for night
Wellies and wet gear.
Big tub to store outdoor stuff in and also doubles up as a kids bath/ washing up bowl.
Waterproof sheets/ waterproof backed blankets
Lots of plastic bags and bin-liners for keeping stuff dry plus rubbish collection.
Swiss Army Knife – the ultimate camping gadget
Balls, cricket, tennis rackets – outdoor games. I don't pack toys as they only get lost.
Your mobile - charge it up before you leave. Campsite offices often let you charge your phone or get a car charger.
Kitchen utensils and camping cooking gear.
Pack lots of dry food and snacks. You definitely work up an appetite camping! It's all the fresh air – and booze!
Be adventurous with your menu. You can spit-roast a chicken over the camp fire. Or stick to simple camping fare: bangers, burgers and baked potatoes. BBQ halloumi, veg kebabs for vegetarians. Don't forget the favourite classic camping pudding, chocolate bananas and toasted marshmallows.
The Happy Campers, by Tess Carr and Kat Heyes (thehappycampers.co.uk)
Cool Camping Kids (Punk Publishing) (http://www.coolcamping.co.uk/)
The Rough Guide to Camping in Britain (http://www.roughguides.com)
Canopy & Stars for glamping options (http://www.canopyandstars.co.uk/)
More on Parentdish: Why I hate family camping
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