‘In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man,” said the philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. And who doesn’t want wild delight? So, with the pandemic making international travel, and even hotel stays, less appealing, many holidaymakers are turning to camping – some for the first time. Sales of gas stoves at Halfords are up by 300%, while camping chairs are flying off Tesco’s shelves.
To beginners, camping may seem daunting, or even unappealing. But camping’s reputation for noisy neighbours, dodgy loos and bad food is undeserved. Here is how to do it right, according to the experts.
What basic kit do you need?
“This largely depends on what kind of camper you are,” says Shell Robshaw-Bryan, who runs the blog Camping with Style. For starters, she recommends a tent that won’t leak, something comfortable to sleep on and cooking equipment, particularly as many campsite shops and restaurants are closed.
Always opt for a double-skin tent, says Robshaw-Bryan – with single-skin, “the slightest bit of rain and you’re likely to be wet through”. (This is a common problem with pop-up tents.) James Warner Smith, who edits the Cool Camping guidebooks, recommends buying a tent one person bigger than the number of people who will be sleeping in it: “that allows room to bring your bag”. Robshaw-Bryan advises a standing-height tent to give you more interior space.
When it comes to the sleeping mat, Robshaw-Bryan recommends investing in a self-inflating one with memory foam cells: “They’re much more comfortable, with much better insulation.” Get one with a thickness of at least 5cm – decent models start at about £50. If you take a cheaper standard airbed, “take a pump and be willing to pump it up every single day – and make sure you’ve got a puncture repair kit”.
Now to the sleeping bag. Regardless of the time of year, Robshaw-Bryan takes extra blankets. She thinks camping pillows are “useless”, so she takes regular pillows from home.
Warner Smith recommends a sleeping bag liner, too: “When it’s cold, it keeps you that bit warmer, but when it’s really hot, I just sleep inside the liner and have the bag unzipped.”
He also recommends a head torch, a small bottle of washing-up liquid, a pan scrub, a tea towel, fold-out camping chairs, a cool-bag, matches and a pack of cards. Plus, he always packs a first-aid kit and he swears by his Swiss army knife.
Colin Towell, the author of Survival for Beginners and a former Royal Navy chief survival instructor, advises taking spare clothes (in case you get wet), maps of any areas you intend walking in, a compass (and the ability to use it) and a spare battery pack for charging your phone.
And yes – everyone advises pitching your tent at home to practise.
Can I borrow kit?
If you have friends who are willing to lend you their tent, Robshaw-Bryan says go for it. But draw the line at more intimate items such as sleeping bags.
If you can’t borrow kit and aren’t willing or able to buy it all, you could try a campsite with pre-pitched tents. Robshaw-Bryan thinks these are safe despite the pandemic, having recently glamped in one.
Is it worth investing in a blackout tent?
For Robshaw-Bryan, the answer is 100% yes, particularly if you are camping with children. “The big benefit is that, when the sun comes up at 5am, the little ones aren’t waking up … otherwise you have a very long day.” Coleman, Vango and Outwell all offer a blackout option, she says.
What food and drink should you take?
“I think there is still a common misconception that you’re going to be drinking warm beer and eating tins of beans,” says Robshaw-Bryan, but “it’s absolute nonsense” – as long as you prep.
Cook some meals in advance; she recommends curries, casseroles and pulled pork. Towell suggests soups and stews, as well as healthy snacks. Freeze them and take them in a cooler – Robshaw-Bryan says Coleman has a good range that will keep ice frozen for five days, “as long as you pack them correctly”. When it comes to cooking at the campsite, they recommend one-pot dishes such as prawn stir-fry and risotto, cooked over a small gas stove.
In terms of kit, Robshaw-Bryan strongly urges avoiding disposable barbecues – but a reusable camping barbecue is great in summer, if your campsite allows them. Warner Smith swears by his MSR PocketRocket stove kit. For first-time campers, he recommends a bigger, dual-hob stove – he has the Primus Onja – as well as a set of camping pans and crockery. And don’t forget the gas canisters.
For the wild camper, food may have to be more basic. Nick Hayes, the author of The Book of Trespass, is a big fan of wraps – “they’re lightweight and I make a load before I go”. Alternatively, he will skewer sausages with willow (which is green, so doesn’t burn) and cook them over a fire.
Do you need a car to go camping?
No, but without one you need to be even more organised – and accept that you will not be able to take as many creature comforts. Warner Smith recommends taking a lightweight tent and a roll mat – although the latter adds bulk, “it’s important to keep you warm”. He also suggests ditching chairs and cool bags.
Is wild camping legal?
Wild camping without permission is against the law in most of England (including on beaches).
It is worth noting, as Hayes does, that the UK government is making moves to criminalise trespassing in England and Wales. This would have knock-on effects for wild campers.
What do I need to wild camp?
Hayes is not keen on wild camping’s machismo image. He would like it to be less Bear Grylls and more Octavia Hill – the social reformer and key figure in the foundation of the National Trust – “whose idea was that nature should be an outdoor living room”.
With that in mind, he advises bringing a pillow, “a spare pair of clean socks for the journey home” and a wooly hat. He doesn’t bother with a tent, though, preferring a tarpaulin “or not even – just check the weather”. He uses river water to keep drinks cool: “I’ll keep beers in a plastic bag tied to a root in the water.”
If you are inexperienced, though, Towell says a tent “will give you the best protection against wind and rain and make you feel safer”.
If I go for a hike while wild camping, should I take my tent or leave it pitched?
In Scotland, “it’s acceptable to leave your tent for, say, two to three days,” says Warner Smith. Otherwise, eliminate the problem by arriving late and leaving early, then pitching elsewhere if you are staying for a second night.
Hayes always rolls up his stuff and hides it, perhaps in a patch of ferns, “just because it kind of spoils that Wind in the Willows vibe”. “No one has ever nicked anything of mine,” he says.
What if I am wild camping and need the toilet?
Bring-your-own flushing camp toilets are popular, says Robshaw-Bryan, who compares them to those used on small boats and caravans.
When wild camping, the experts all advise digging a little hole; bring a small trowel. Becky Angell, whose blog, Becky the Traveller, includes a guide to wild camping, advises bringing biodegradable dog poo bags and disposing of paper at home. Hayes suggests finding a bit of grass rather than using paper.
How do I wash while wild camping? Can I use soap or detergent? Are communal shower blocks always terrible?
While the words “communal shower block” are enough to provoke panic in some, many campsites have genuinely swish showers. The beautiful wooden blocks with mirrors, hooks and powerful hot water at Woodfire Camping in West Sussex feel almost spa-like, for example.
Some campsites’ shower facilities aren’t open at present. If this is the case where you are going, Robshaw-Bryan recommends bringing a small camp shower (which usually includes a water receptacle to hang up high, plus a shower head) and a collapsible washing-up bowl. Most campsites where showers are available have introduced Covid-19 measures, such as assigning shower cubicles.
If you are wild camping for just a few days, the experts agree that washing is not top of the list of priorities. If you plan on dipping into a stream or river, do not use soap – even the biodegradable kind – in the water. To wash pots, Warner Smith uses his water bottle – “just give them a quick scrub”. He recommends Ecover washing-up liquid. Make sure never to put food waste into water sources.
How do you find the best camping spot?
For first-time campers, he recommends places such as Pete’s Field in Kent, where the two people in charge are “proper campers and happy to help people out”; Cuckoo Farm, near Rutland Water, where “they’re really focused on families”; and the eco-focused Quiet Site in the Lake District.
If you are wild camping, Warner Smith advises finding land that isn’t boggy or covered in nettles, away from a footpath and ideally next to a little wall, for shelter. Angell recommends finding somewhere hidden, but with phone signal, in case of an emergency. Hayes advises that “the closer you are to water, the more midges”. However, he concedes that his considerations run to the more poetic: he goes for “somewhere where the dawn is going to look gorgeous – I just base it on aesthetics, really”.
What about campsite etiquette?
It has been more than 40 years since Keith complained to one radio-loving camper in Mike Leigh’s film Nuts in May that they were trying to get away “from the hustle and the bustle of living in an urban conurbation”, yet noise is still the main sources of frustration on campsites.
“Even normal conversation really carries when you’ve got canvas walls,” warns Robshaw-Bryan. It is best to check a campsite’s policies for quiet hours before going, just to be sure no one will harsh your mellow.
What are the best camping activities?
Don’t let this question fill you with angst. Sometimes the best way to pass the time while camping is to do not much at all.
Robshaw-Bryan recommends kites, scavenger hunts and nature identification books for kids: “Anything that’s going to get them tuned in to the natural world and away from their iPads.”
What do you need to do to stay safe while wild camping?
Towell advises people to be aware of the Countryside Code, of which there is a short version that was introduced during the pandemic. The advice includes taking all litter home and not having barbecues, which, along with discarded cigarettes, are “some of the main causes of out-of-control wild fires”.
“Always let someone know where you are going and when you will be back,” he says. He also recommends knowing a bit of first aid, especially anything specific to members of your group.
Angell, who has done a lot of solo wild camping, says she went with her sister on her first outing: “We were both a bit nervous, so we did it together.” Now, when she goes out alone, she chooses spots that are relatively well hidden and takes a khaki green tent, “so it’s nicely camouflaged”; she has always felt safe.
How do I keep mosquitoes and midges away, and avoid ticks?
Beyond using insect repellent, Towell recommends avoiding scented soaps, perfume, aftershave and, yes, deodorant. In terms of ticks, he says, they are a “big subject, as they can give you Lyme disease”. To reduce the risks, you should stay out of the undergrowth, especially ferns, and check yourself and any pets for ticks several times a day. If you find a tick, there are tools available to help you remove them.
What if I see a snake?
The first thing to know is that you are unlikely to be harmed by an adder – only about 50 to 100 people are each year. It is the only venomous snake native to the UK, but Towell says “they will only use their venom as a last means of defence” – usually if trodden on.
If someone in your party is bitten, call 999 or get to a hospital immediately. In the meantime, keep the bitten part of the body as still as possible.