Family Camping

Helpful advice and information for families heading for the campsites or the camping shops.

Section Index (this is a big page!!!)


Introduction

There is something about camping. Be it in the Baden-Powell style or amongst the luxuries of modern equipment, there is much satisfaction to be gleaned from this soft adventure. No hotel or B&B regimentation and no hostel-style communal living; just you and your tent in the outdoors. Although principally a backpacker I do enjoy the comforts of camping in large tents when staying in an area for any length of time. Utilising campsite facilities and the capacity of a car to carry home-comforts always ensures a civilised end to a good days walk. With feet gently throbbing, my friends and I sit back to enjoy a river-cooled beer while the day's supper sizzles on the Bar-B-Que... bliss!

You see, camping is as cheap as you want to make it and, being brought up in Britain where accommodation is fairly expensive, we had to camp. In fact, it is still the least expensive option to explore both the UK and the Continent. Yet you do not have to forgo comfort. Top campsites offer superb facilities for a family, and modern gear makes up for those sites lacking in this department. A little thought and investment will equip one with gear which, with appropriate care, will provide years of use.

The basic questions for someone just starting out are what to take and where to go. The where is easy; choose an area or country that you would like to visit and contact the relevant tourist boards. Most produce literature which lists many of the sites to be found around their area. A visit to a good bookshop should also pay dividends for many stock site guides published by organisations such as the RAC. Some sites are luxurious and even boast their own bar and restaurant on top of the normal shower, shop and laundry facilities offered. Some even bring electricity to your tent so that you can watch television while drinking your 'fridge-cooled wine.

Many sites cater for families by providing children's playgrounds. And the price for all these services? A family with two children would expect to pay around £10-00 to £15-00 a night in high season. At the other end of the scale are sites that offer the barest of facilities. Unlike the larger sites, these sites only cater for a minimum of visitors and this may only warrant the provision of a toilet and running water. It is not unusual to find yourself sharing such a site with only a couple of other campers. With the right gear these sites can offer very comfortable and peaceful havens at only around £3 to £4 per night.

Given cheap site fees and pleasant site locations it is not surprising that camping is popular. It certainly pays to book your pitch in advance especially in peak season. In fact, larger sites often demand this and ask for a minimum booking of three days. Yet it is still possible to pack the car on the spur of the moment and find an empty, small site on which to pitch. These are rare, joyful finds and should be jealously guarded from the hoards.

Having chosen where to go and found an appropriate site, it is now time to choose the equipment to take. The minimum equipment needed covers shelter, sleeping and cooking; thus the basic items taken should be a tent, sleeping bag and cooking gear. Of course, if you just took these items life would be Spartan indeed and there is no need for that when there is a wealth of equipment to choose from and use.

First, let us consider cost. Obviously many items serve a dual purpose and can probably be found at home. Pots and pans can be taken from the kitchen - as can cutlery, condiments and food. Nearly everyone has a torch. Deck chairs and collapsible picnic table can be taken from the garden shed. You will also find uses for items that you have to purchase. Gas lamps will provide you with emergency lighting in power cuts; coolboxes can be used to protect food when de-frosting 'fridges and freezers. Use sleeping bags as emergency bedding for the unexpected guest. Even frame tents have uses other than for camping. I have used them as a covered outside eating area at parties.

You can obtain enough camping gear for between £500-00 to £1000-00 to equip a family of four. This may seem expensive until you break it down. With care, you should expect your investment to last around 10 years. This gives you an outlay of between £50-00 to £100-00 per year for your accommodation! Even if purchasing mid to top-end gear and using it only once a year, you could still take your family for a seven day holiday, staying at a top campsite, for around £170-00 plus food and petrol!

Now, the costs talked about so far may still appear high to beginners; especially if they are unsure about the thrills of camping. The answer to this problem is to borrow or hire the necessary equipment. Once you decide to make the investment, talk to your specialist retailer for there may be special re-payment schemes available on expensive items in order to soften the financial blow.

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Tents

Over the years the faithful ridge and pyramid tents have lost their popularity to the more spacious continental-style frame tent. Now even these are under threat. The introduction of hoop technology into the larger tent market has produced some very popular and radical designs.

So what do we look for? Unlike their lightweight brethren, these tents are carried from car boot to camping ground where they are pitched and left. They do not have to be light - just roomy, comfortable and hard wearing. No matter the design all share a common feature; the division of the tent into separate living and bedroom accommodation. Position of doors and windows (Yes, windows!) are dependent upon design.

Traditional frame tents offer the luxury of room which makes them ideal for families. You can stand up and walk around in them. Large bedroom apartments, stretching from floor to ceiling, mean that you can dress standing up. There is room for hanging wardrobes; an eating area; even small kitchens, with flame-retardant, easy-clean window and walls, which allow you to stand and cook in comfort. Typically, frame tents are constructed from water and mildew resistant cotton. The lower wall of the outer tent is made from a wipe-clean material to protect it from mud and dirt. There is often a large front facing door complete with windows. Windows also appear in the side walls. All this is placed over a spring-connected metal frame and pegged out. Once up, lightweight cotton sleeping compartments are suspended from the ceiling and their groundsheets pegged out.

Frame tents have definitely improved over the years. Frame designs are more "user friendly". They are more stable. Unfortunately, they are still heavy and require at least two people to pitch them with ease. Although cotton treatments have also improved, these tents still require a bit more care and take longer to dry than the man-made fabric alternatives. A new cotton tent requires "weathering" i.e. getting it thoroughly wet and then allowing it to dry naturally. The best thing to do is practice pitching the tent in your garden and then leave it there for a few days.

Hoop and dome-style tents offer plenty of ground area for the weight. However, headroom is limited with the highest part of the tent occurring along its centre line. These tents tend to be constructed from man-made fabrics and have either fibreglass or aluminium poles. The design is normally kept fairly simple to keep costs down and make pitching easy. Ideal for a couple, the lack of headroom will make them snug for larger groups. It is the hybrids that are of most interest. Designs which were once associated with ridge tents are now being applied to hoop and dome amalgamations. One example of this is the Vis-à-vis; a design that puts sleeping quarters each side of, and in line with, the living area. Hoop and dome equivalents are popular tents.

One notable tent manufacturer is Kyham Leisure Ltd. This company produces a range of self-erecting tents. These tents have self-locking poles inserted through the outer tent's sleeves. The inner tent is attached to the outer. All you need to do is open the tent out and it all lacks into place - just like an umbrella! Speeds for erecting these tents are incredible. It is claimed that 2 people can pitch the largest tent in the range (the Ultradome) within 120 seconds! The Ultradome is based upon a very large dome tent. Trefoil like in appearance, half-domes spring from its wall to form 2 three-berth sleeping compartments and entrance, equally situated around the central living space. This excellent family tent will certainly attract attention from fellow campers.

The final tent to consider is the toilet tent. This tent, with its portable toilet, is vital when using sites without facilities. They are also a godsend for parents with small kids - at night it is far more convenient to use your own toilet than having to walk children across the length of the campsite.

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Tent Care

Good camping practice will help prolong the life of your tent. For a start, get to know your tent and learn how to pitch it correctly. Incorrectly pitched tents can cause damage to the seams and zips. Do not use guy ropes or rubber tensioners to remove tent pegs from the ground. Use the proper peg extractor. Before pitching the tent clear the ground of anything that may damage a groundsheet.

Do not pitch under trees. These may shed branches or drop sticky sap onto your tent. Further they can attract lightening strike and also drip water long after a rain storm finishes. Dismantle the tent carefully. Push poles through sleeves - do not pull out. Try to pack tent dry and clean with the zips closed. If you have to pack the tent wet then DRY IT OUT AS SOON AS YOU GET HOME! If you do not do this you run the risk of permanent damage from mildew. Pack the pegs and poles separate from the tent to avoid damage.

Once home and the tent is dry, store it clean and loosely folded in a dry, well aired place. Store the pegs and poles separately. Lightly oil metal poles. Clean off when re-using them. Damaged poles can either be repaired or replaced using easily obtainable spares. Major fabric and zip repairs can be undertaken either at home or by a specialist repair company such as the manufacturer. Dirt and stains can be removed either by brushing or by gentle washing with a mild soap solution. Do not scrub or use detergents. Rinse well and dry thoroughly. If necessary, re-proof using a good proprietary product such as those produced by Grangers and Nikwax. Mildew is a curse. Stop small patches from spreading by treating with a weak solution of Milton. Dry the tent thoroughly, brush carefully and re-proof. Unfortunately, I do not know of anything that will remove the stain. Where severe damage has been done it may be necessary to patch or replace panels.

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Bedding

Early morning mist will soon sap away the heat, and cold nights can be experienced in summer. The moral is do not skimp on your bedding for there is nothing worse than waking up feeling chilly. Do not worry about overheating on hot, balmy nights; good bags will provide ample ventilation - just concentrate on keeping warm. Luckily, you do not have to look at expensive lightweight bags designed to give optimum heat for low weight and bulk.

The door is open to look at some of the less expensive bulkier bags - remember you have a vehicle to carry your equipment. A good two/three season sleeping bag should be adequate to service the summer camper's needs. Features and fillings will be the deciding factors when buying a bag. Look for a large bag that gives ample head protection through the use of a drawcord. It is great to be able to snuggle down into your bag (pulling it tight around the ears) on a cold morning. A two-way zip running the length of the bag will provide ample ventilation on hot nights. Further, this should allow you the facility to zip two bags together - just remember to make sure that your partner has a bag with a zip on the opposite side to yours if you want to enjoy night time snuggles! A sleeping bag's filling will either be one of the numerous synthetic fibres or down. Down is renowned for its warmth to weight ratio, however, being so delicate it requires special care. It will loose its properties when wet and many people are allergic to down.

Synthetic fibres will take more abuse. They are less expensive when compared to down and this makes up for their shorter lifespan. They have a psychological warmth to them which arises from their bulk; a feeling enhanced if your bag has a brushed cotton lining. Synthetic bags will retain heat when wet. This fact, and their relatively easy maintenance, make them ideal for the rigours of family camping.

There are a number of companies offering children's sleeping bags. These are a good idea when camping with younger children for the bag size prevents them from slipping to the bottom of the bag at night. If you cannot buy a children's bag then use an adult's bag and limit its size by tying it off in the middle. Being smaller, children's bags are easier to wash and dry. Once you have bought your bag consider what you are going to sleep on.

Look at pump-up beds such as lilos. These come in various sizes and are very comfortable. They also double as an emergency bed for visitors. Remember to purchase a footpump or an electric pump to inflate your bed. If you are going for comfort then buy one of the camp pillows that are on the market. These are as comfortable as your own pillow, pack into a small space and are easy to maintain.

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Sleeping Bag Care

Down sleeping bags are notoriously difficult to clean; synthetic bag's only slightly less so. The shared problems are the sheer volume of the things, their weight when wet and drying them. In fact, don't get them dirty. This may sound impossible yet using a sheet sleeping bag will help greatly in keeping the sleeping bag clean. These are simple bags that tie into the sleeping bag. They are made out of light cotton or a man-made fabric like Pertex.

You can purchase both single and double size sheet sleeping bags; or you can make your own. Not only do they keep your body from dirtying the inside of your bag but they will also double as a sheet sleeping bag for hostelling. When the sheet sleeping bag gets dirty just remove and machine wash. The easiest bags to maintain are pile sleeping bags manufactured by Buffalo. They are warm and comfortable...and very hard wearing - a fact appreciated in extreme conditions. Their ability to withstand abuse is legendary. Mud; dirt; spilt coffee; baby's dinner; just wash, squeeze out and put out to dry.

When washing bags never use detergents. Use either soap flakes or a proprietary cleaner purchased from a specialist retailer. Try to wash bags by hand; rinse well and gently squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Place on a sheet of plastic and move to the drying area. Do not remove the bag without such support or the weight of the filling could ruin the internal baffles. Dry the bag on a level clothes horse in a well aired position (synthetic bags can be dried in a large commercial tumble drier). As a down bag dries break up clumps of down by hand. Once more dry than wet shake the bag regularly to distribute the down and aid drying. This process can take days!

Specialist dry cleaning and down cleaning services are available. If you have a bag cleaned this way then MAKE SURE THAT THE BAG IS WELL AIRED BEFORE USE TO PREVENT BEING OVERCOME BY FUMES. Store bags by loosely hanging them in a warm, dry place.

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Cooking

This is a subject dear to my heart. When camping I will often purchase a disposable Bar-B-Que to recapture the delights of outdoor cooking which, alas, has become harder to enjoy with the increasing prohibition of campfires. However, the practicalities of gas or petrol fired stoves are appreciated - especially first thing in the morning. Features and fuel are the main considerations when in choosing your stove.

A couple going camping can get by cooking on a small picnic stove. Families will probably prefer the ease of duel ring burners and a grill. Grills tend to be fairly inefficient; a griddle and toasting rack, purchased with a plain two ring stove, being far better buys. Many packed twin burner stoves have the appearance of an attaché case complete with carrying handle. The top folds back to reveal the burners; two wings unfold from either side of the top to complete an efficient windbreak. The fuel container is connected to the stove and, hey presto, you are ready to cook. But wait! What fuel should be used? Well, both gas and petrol stoves are equally matched when it comes to initial purchase price and safety.

Gas stoves are simple to use and the fuel is safer to store. Unfortunately, gas stoves appear to be more expensive to run than petrol for they have slower cooking times, have pressure problems as the fuel runs out, and gas costs more than petrol. Petrol vapour pressure can be maintained, no matter how many rings are burning or if the fuel is getting low, by manual pumping. In use petrol is not as clean as gas, it certainly smells and you can run the risk of contamination from spillages. So there you have it.

Cleanliness against efficiency. No matter what stove is used it pays to invest in a proper camp kitchen to stand it on. Camp kitchens provide stable cooking and washing facilities at a safe height. They also keep everything to hand. It also pays to invest in two good water containers. Use one for waste water; making sure both are colour coded to avoid confusion. Although expensive, you can purchase drum-shaped water carriers designed to be rolled between tap and tent. They certainly take the back-breaking work out of fetching water.

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Use and Care of Stoves

It must be noted that the care and use of both stoves and lanterns are similar. For safe and efficient use, keep both items clean and maintained in accordance to manufacturers instructions.

  • Always use manufacturer recommended spares.
  • Always use the recommended fuel and allow the unit to go out and cool before re-fueling or servicing it.
  • Always refuel outdoors, well away from any source of ignition.
  • Always operate the unit in a well ventilated area to avoid the risk of fatal carbon monoxide poisoning - this is a very real risk.

Do not use if you suspect the units are faulty - seek expert advice.

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Lighting

Everyone should have a torch. They are vital for those nocturnal wanderings around the campsite in search of the toilet block. A headtorch is also useful to illuminate jobs that require both hands, such as changing gas cylinders. Electric lamps are a safe source of general illumination but are expensive to run; far better to use either gas or petrol. Both fuels produce a bright light; petrol being the brightest of the two. Both types of lamp should incorporate anti-flare features in case the lamp is toppled over.

Size and style of lamp is dictated by the area to be illuminated. You can get gas standard lamps where the lamp unit is mounted on a tube that acts as the gas delivery pipe. This screws directly onto the gas cylinder to place the light source at an ideal level to provide soft general illumination. Twin mantle petrol lights produce a very bright sharp light. I prefer this type of light source when reading or doing jobs like cooking. Coleman produce the Companion lantern; a small electric light in the shape of a Coleman petrol lamp. These are excellent for bedroom lighting and use by the children. These lamps also convert to a torch.


Use And Care

Maintenance and use of pressurised fuel lamps is similar to stoves. Remember that, in use, they burn oxygen so always ensure adequate ventilation. Always carry spare mantles. These are the delicate white globes that glow when subjected to the burning vapours. A damaged mantle should not be used but replaced immediately - always carry spares! They are easy to replace; only becoming delicate once they are burnt in. Once burnt in they should not be touched for they are easily damaged.

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Camping Gear

My own family camping equipment with rough prices (1996) follows;
(Family consisting of two adults and three children)

Special Purchases:

  • Lichfield 6 berth tent £560-00
  • Sleeping bags and mats £200-00
  • Footpump £7-00
  • Coleman 2-burner Petrol Stove £69-99
  • (As above but without Peizo ignition £49-00)
  • Coleman Thermo-electric Cooler £160-00
  • (Standard Model £145-00)
  • Coleman Camp Kitchen £225-00
  • Coleman Petrol Light Twin Mantle £42-99
  • Camping pots and pans £22-00
  • 2 Water Carriers - 1 for waste £8-00
  • Plastic Plates And Cups £15-00
  • 3 Coleman Companion Lanterns £30-00
  • (For the children)Lichfield Toilet Tent £24-00
  • and a Portable Toilet £55-00

Total.... ..............................£1418-98

Taken From Home:

  • Clothes inc Wellington Boots, Wash gear etc
  • Pillows
  • Books and games
  • Torches
  • Deck chairs
  • Picnic table
  • Radio Cassette
  • Cutlery, tin opener, bottle opener
  • Food and drink
  • Pan scourer, washing up liquid, tea towels, kitchen wipes
  • Petrol with funnel, gas cartridges, spare mantles for gas/petrol lights
  • Matches
  • Mallet for tent pegs
  • Repair kit
  • First aid kit
  • Walking gear

Most items carried in boot of car and roof rack. Trailer sometimes used.

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Insurance

Given the cost of camping gear it is worth taking out an insurance policy to protect your investment. Try to get the best policy available. This should, at the very least, cover you against loss, damage or theft on a new for old basis.

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Trailers and Roofracks

Unlike a couple going camping, it will be rare for a family to be able to carry all their gear inside the car. Roofracks and trailers are the answer to the problem of moving heavy, bulky gear.

A roofrack will happily remove bulky items from the car, however, do not overload the weight carrying capacities of the car or roofrack. Use racks for lightweight items such as plastic jerrycans. Ensure that items are well covered and tied down to prevent weather damage and loss when traveling.

If protection is a priority then consider purchasing a roofbox. These are aerodynamically designed polyethylene boxes that attach to the rack and offer the security of a locked lid. Camping trailers are normally made from wood and mounted on a galvanised frame. Again, watch the load carrying capabilities of trailers - some can carry heavier loads than others even though they look identical to the inexperienced eye.

There are some trailers designed around the roof box. These have locking lids and do away with tying tarpaulins over the load. A good trailer will carry most of your gear. To stop trailers being stolen when left unattended use either a wheel clamp or lock the coupling shut.

Happy Camping. Clive Garrett.

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