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First-time Camping

Have you heard the news? Camping’s grown up. Once the domain of boy scouts, backpackers and festival-goers, camping has shed its hiking jackets and mud-caked wellies, and now mixes with a more mainstream crowd, says Laura Sands.

But although it’s grown up, it’s true to its roots; a cost effective, outdoorsy experience is guaranteed. Camping remains one of the best ways to get away with friends and family for very little cost and maximum enjoyment. A camping trip creates memories that you’ll talk and laugh about for years.

If you’ve never been camping, or you’ve been scarred by festival-camping, then it’s time to think again. Follow these five foolproof steps to camping bliss.

Pick a Date
Before you do anything else, work out how long you’ll be staying under canvas. A one or two night trip is long enough for the inexperienced camper to whet their appetite. Many campsites will insist you stay for two nights during peak season. If you want to just dip your toes in and stay for one night, then face up to paying for two nights of camping but just going for the one night. Or wait and see how you feel. Save the week-long trip for when you’ve worked out what you like, what you need and what you don’t need.

Find the Perfect Site
Or should that be; find the perfect site for you. You need to know what you want. Is a quiet, unspoilt site more important to you than an on-site café? Or are you prepared to trade-off peace and quiet for the benefit of a kids’ entertainment complex? Make a list of your non-negotiables and then take a look at the sites that match your requirements. We used to discount better equipped sites and seek out quiet sites with wild beauty and basic facilities. Now we have two small children in tow, the thought of staying anywhere with basic facilities fills me with horror, so a well-equipped playground and laundry facility are now top of my list. Other things you might want to consider are whether campfires are permitted, whether or not large groups are permitted (if they do, then it might be a noisy site in the evening – this might or might not be exactly what you want), and proximity to local pubs and restaurants.

There are some beautiful sites within easy reach of the local area. Our family loves the Graffham campsite, just south of Petworth. Set in woodland, the pitches feel private yet the site is well equipped enough for comfort. If you want full-on comfort, then consider a site that offers glamping. Pop Up by the River, in Steyning, and The Green Escape near Dorking both offer ready pitched tents or shepherd huts; perfect for the nervous camper. Check out the Cool Camping series of books for honest and informative campsite reviews – from no-frills to glamourous glamping escapes.

Get the Right Kit
It goes without saying that you need a decent tent. A small dome tent is fine for an overnight stop, or for adults or teens. But if you’re camping with small children or have back or joint problems, a stay in a dome tent will be enough to make you want to pack up and go within three hours. Either invest in or borrow a tent you can stand up in. Many have separate sleeping compartments, which are handy should you feel you need a spot of extra privacy.
Remember that you need more than just a tent. Bring along sleeping bags, comfortable pillows and inflatable mattresses. Remember that bigger isn’t always better – the thinner, self-inflating style mattresses can often be more comfortable than the more conventional airbeds we’re used to seeing. They’re quick to set up as well; a bonus when you really want to just get out, toast marshmallows and drink cider.

Regardless of whether you think you’ll be cooking up a storm, or eating at the local pub, you’ll need to bring some basic cooking equipment. This should certainly include some mugs, a kettle and a gas hob of sorts. If a morning without tea or coffee is unbearable at home, then imagine the desperation you’ll feel after a night under canvas with one too many glasses of red wine the evening before. If you plan to eat out for each meal then you don’t need much more in the way of cooking equipment, but for the effort of digging out some pots, pans and picnicware, you can save money and hassle and make some of your own meals on site. Nothing tastes quite as good as a bacon sandwich cooked outdoors or a BBQ after a day in the sun.

You’ll be more comfortable with picnic chairs and a table it’s true, but you can certainly get away with picnic rugs and a coolbox to create a makeshift dining area if you’d rather not fork out for additional equipment straightaway.

There are several very well equipped camping shops locally. The Family Tent Shop is at Sutton Green Garden Centre and has a good range of tents for you to look around, and plenty of camping equipment to stock up on. Halfords is also a great place to pick up affordable picnic chairs and camping stoves. And don’t forget eBay, Gumtree and other second-hand selling boards as a great source for second-hand and barely-used camping equipment. Start looking early enough in advance and you’ll be sure to pick up some bargains.

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Check the Weather
For some, weather doesn’t matter when camping. Generally, these are people with caravans and motorhomes. But if you are staying under canvas, or are not as hardy as a mountain goat, then it’s wise to check the weather before you set off on your trip.

As much as we’d all love continuous sunshine, a temperature of 26°C and a light breeze; this isn’t guaranteed in the UK. Don’t be put off by grey clouds and the odd rain shower (what a good excuse to find a pub to shelter in), but do think about rearranging your trip if heavy or continuous rain, or strong winds are forecast. If it looks like it will be chilly at night, then pack bedsocks, fleecy onesies and hot water bottles. And make up a flask of hot tea or coffee in the evening, ready to drink in the morning.

Kick Off the Entertainment
Go to the right campsite, with the right people, and entertainment will look after itself when camping. Family games of cricket and frisbee, toasting marshmallows over a campfire or telling ghost stories – a camping trip gives us the chance to escape from the daily grind and bond with those we love. But don’t think that means that you don’t need to worry about bringing along entertainment. A pack of cards or a simple game such as Uno is a camping essential. And bring along colouring or sticker books for kids who wake up early and need entertaining until a time that it’s acceptable to make noise (most campsites are quite strict about being quiet between 10.30pm and 7.30am).

Tablet computers can be a brilliant solution for entertaining kids in the early hours of the day, or while you are setting up the tent – but remember that a limited battery life will mean it should be used sparingly – and after all, if camping is about being with those you love, and having a time you love, then an iPad has only a very limited role to play in that.

Eating is a huge part of entertainment while camping. If you’re lucky enough to be on a site that allows campfires or firepits then have fun making s’mores (check out the internet if you’re not familiar, they’re an American campfire speciality), and baking potatoes in the embers.

Or get going with a legendary BBQ with some juicy sausages fresh from the local butchers. Even if all you have is a little camping stove, you can whip up a smashing bacon sandwich which tastes better than anything you’ll have ever had indoors.

And finally… Remember that camping is about having fun with those you love, and getting away from the daily grind. Get researching, pull together a bunch of your nearest and dearest, beg, buy or borrow some camping equipment and make the most of our beautiful countryside. See you there – we’re the ones with the estate car, two kids and a large bottle of red wine. Oh and a massive bag of marshmallows ready for toasting; we’ll save you a few…

Laura Sands lives in Godalming with her family and works as a freelance copywriter and blogger. When not toasting marshmallows in the great outdoors, she writes effective marketing materials, websites and blogs for small businesses. Find out more at www.laurasands.co.uk.

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