As a two-summer veteran of camping with multiple small children and animals, I’m going to share some tips on what works well for us.
Choose your tent
For our first ever family camp, we borrowed a tent from a friend before investing in all the kit ourselves. It was the kind where you walk into the middle, and then have two rooms on either side that slope down to the ground, creating an armadillo-type shape (I’m sure it has a more official name!). You can also get the tunnel kind, which have more height and a longer footprint. Decathlon and Go Outdoors are good to visit during summer, as they have lots of different kinds of tents set up outside that you can wander in and out of.
I had my heart set on a bell tent, though, so that’s what we bought. I’ve written more about why we love our bell tent on this post, but as a short summary:
Warmer during cool weather, cooler during warm weather.
Looks pretty. Camping can be a bit grim if you let it, so pretty things are essential in my opinion.
Very easy to pitch - footprint down, peg out the groundsheet, stick the centre pole out, peg out the guys. I can pitch ours by myself in about 30 minutes in good conditions. If it’s raining, windy or the ground is baked hard or very stony it takes longer. On a good day I’ve got ours pitched and am busy faffing round with fairy lights and supping gin in a tin, while our mates are still having various domestic incidents over which pole goes where.
Open-plan inside - we love sleeping in a big family scrum, dogs and all. It feels very spacious.
Very sturdy in inclement weather.
Cons - heavy, expensive, if you get it wet then you have to leave it to dry on your dining table. But it’s so pretty :-) We also have an awning for ours - a 4m x 2m canvas rectangle with extra poles and guys, that we fasten to the top of the A-frame.
Choose your site
There are various reasons to camp. Get back to basics. Spend time in a beautiful natural location that you can’t sleep in otherwise (not many cottages to be found deep within a bluebell wood, or perched on a cliff overlooking a wild beach). Cheap accommodation. Festivals. Your reason for camping will determine the type of site - do you want basic features with an amazing view, or do you want a big campsite with a swimming pool and full services?
Our list of preferences goes something like this: smaller boutique site. Dogs allowed. Campfires allowed. Raised bbqs allowed. Shop on site. Hook-up pitches. Gorgeous views. Beach, stream or lake within a few minutes. Occasional visits from food vans such as stone-baked pizza. Communal freezer for ice packs. Fresh croissants available in the morning (Catgill is great for this). A lax attitude to rules - we are a family of five with three dogs and are pretty noisy, so campsites with a lights-out policy at 10pm are not for us. We also like to camp with friends, so need sites that allow groups and welcome families with small children. Oh, and a pub nearby is nice. We don’t really care about whether the facilities are clean - having lived through a major house renovation, it’s hard to feel fussy about these things, but I know it’s certainly a deal-breaker for others if the showers aren’t cleaned multiple times a day.
Our favourite site is Aberafon in north Wales, but we’re also looking forward to trying Bert’s Kitchen Garden this year, which is a few miles further down the Llyn Peninsula.
Cool Camping is good for finding the kind of sites we like. I always check reviews on TripAdvisor (ignoring the ones from people complaining about noise and grubby showers). There are various camping groups on Facebook such as Family Camping, Welsh Camping and Bell Tent Camping that are great for personal recommendations.
Assume it will be stressful, take longer than you expect, and require you to leave something behind as it just won’t bloody fit in. I actually enjoy the challenge of car tetris, so I leave the kids in my husband’s charge, and spend a peaceful hour wedging everything into the car like a ninja. Trying to pack as a couple will only result in a major domestic incident.
I have a master camping list on Trello - in the week prior to a trip, I copy and paste it into a fresh list, and edit it to exactly what we need to take with us for the particular location. I then cross-check as everything goes into the car (not foolproof; last summer we camped for a week on the Isle of Wight and I forgot both my glasses and my sunglasses like a total idiot, but less stressful than trying to remember everything from scratch).
A great tip for pitching in the rain is to wear as few clothes as possible - leggings, t-shirt and crocs. If you wear a coat and thick boots, you'll never get them dry. I learned this the hard way while pitching in a storm on the Isle of Wight last summer - it felt too cold to dive outside in a t-shirt, so I wore my raincoat and snow boots, and wasn’t able to get them dry for the whole week. I was also sweating within the first five minutes - pitching a tent requires some pretty intensive manual labour. If I’d taken the t-shirt and leggings advice, I’d have either been able to dry them out, or else chucked them into the back of the car in a plastic bag and not worried about them.
When pitching the tent with kids around, we keep the kids in the car with their screens until the tent is pitched (ours are too small to really be any genuine help, and the little one goes wandering off if not closely supervised). That way we can get the tent pitched as quickly as possible, and then it’s screens off, and they help unload the bags into the tent and get everything unpacked.
We use self-inflating mattresses (sims) rather than air beds. The latter tend to deflate in the night, will be used as trampolines by the kids, annoy person A whenever person B rolls over in the night, and basically mean you’re sleeping on cold air overnight so aren’t very warm. I find sims far more comfortable, but it’s very much a personal choice. Again, trying things out in Decathlon is helpful. Some people put sims onto camp beds, but we don’t have room in the car for the latter.
A great tip that I read on Mumsnet for staying warm at night is to take the kids for a hot shower last thing (don’t let them get their hair wet!). Into pyjamas with a onesie on top - final romp around the site, hot chocolate, campfire, then grubby onesie off revealing clean pyjamas underneath. The trick is to not get cold. It’s easy to stay warm with layers, campfire or charcoal, hot drinks and movement - but if you get cold, it’s hard to warm up. The pyjamas and onesie trick works for adults, too :-)
My kids tend to run warm at night, so they sleep in their normal pyjamas in sleeping bags with blankets on top, as it’s easier to kick a blanket off in the night than take a onesie off. When we use electric hook-up, I will admit to taking our beloved faux fur electric blanket to snuggle up under.
We take eye masks and use ear plugs (the kids don’t use the latter) because otherwise you’ll be up at about 4am in the summer, please may I.
I take our normal pillows - I put them into spare pillow cases for transportation so they don’t get gross in the car, and then put them back into the spares during the day for when the dogs and kids walk all over them with muddy feet.
Are you sitting comfortably?
I prefer moon chairs; others prefer chairs with higher backs and head rests with cup holders. You can get chairs in lovely bright colours online, so don’t feel you need to have dark green and blue everything. I love camping with lots of pretty colours around me, it helps to counter the sleeping in a cold field thing :-)
We have recently invested in a large folding slatted table thing - we generally eat with plates on our knees, but need a table to put the stove and all the general cooking stuff on.
We use an MSR pocket rocket as our stove - it’s teeny tiny, and so much easier to fit into the car than a big traditional gas camping stove. It also controls the heat from huge rocket flame to gentle candle, so is pretty good for cooking. My dad made a lovely wooden base for ours as it can be a bit unstable to cook on (it’s really intended for hikers to warm up tins of soup on).
I recommend taking a good quality non-stick Tefal saucepan and frying pan, rather than a rubbish old pan. Cooking in a field is hard enough; why make it harder by using a pan that glues your fried egg to the base. Remember to take wooden spoons and spatulas as metal will damage the pans.
We also take our mocha pot for coffee, and if we have hook-up, I take our little milk frother as a luxury item :-)
I have various lovely tin plates and mugs that I’ve been collecting for a while. We have five of each item - no more. I also take various vintage forks, spoons and knives. Some folk take paper plates, but part of the fun is washing up.
We always take a big curry or chill for the first night - I transport it warm, and then it only needs some gentle heating up. Naan or pitta bread is a lot easier to eat with it than diddling around trying to cook or warm up rice. On the second night, we have a braai - we usually take frozen meat in the coolbox (boerewors, obviously) and it will normally have defrosted by the time we need it. We also take camembert (ready wrapped in foil) and sweet potatoes (ditto).
Camping breakfasts - bacon, obviously. Cereal decanted into plastic zip bags (you want to minimise rubbish and save space, so while those little mini cereal boxes are cute, they’re not very practical). A squeezy bottle containing pancake mix made up at home (don’t forget the nutella). I’ve seen some folk taking bottles of ready-whisked egg for scrambled eggs, too. Our kids love brioche - quick and easy to eat when they wake up starving, with minimal crumbs.
If I’ve been organised enough, I take a big tin of homemade ginger biscuits, and a homemade pizza (delicious cold). Marshmallows obviously, haribo, and crisps. Tins of rice pudding (plus strawberry jam).
Camping is a great way to get scurvy - my secret weapon against this is cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, and bags of spinach. Wilt the latter in a pan, serve with an egg, and you’ve got an excellent plate of scurvy deterrent.
One of my friends asked recently what we do all day when camping. I explained that we get up, make breakfast, eat breakfast, clean up breakfast, have showers, and get dressed. This takes 4-5 hours in total, and by then it’s time for lunch. Camping is slooooow….. which is the whole point.
We take a good number of colourful plastic tubs - I use these in the tent to store food, wellies, and outdoor clothes. They’re great for holding bathroom equipment as you can put them on a wet floor without any problems. I also use one as the washing up bucket - all the dirty dishes go into the tub, and then get carried up to the sinks for cleansing. Swill the tub out, clean dishes back into the tub, and carry back to the tent.
We each have a clothes sack, identified by a coloured ribbon for each member of the family (“what, you haven’t hand-stitched everyone’s name onto them?” dead-panned a cheeky colleague recently). Sacks work very well for clothes - chuck everything in, wedge into the car into odd spaces, and then pile in the tent. Take a couple of spares for dirty clothes so you don’t get things mixed up. Oh, and take a lot more socks than you think you need.
I also take wicker hampers and woven belly baskets.
We take a crate for the two smaller ones (the big one refuses to go into it), and tether them using sturdy tent pegs. Dogs can overheat easily so keep them in the shade - we take a sun tent for the beach when we go to Aberafon so they have somewhere cool to retreat to. They sleep in our sleeping bags at night, obviously :-) And cross fingers there is no wildlife at night - I’ll never forget being woken at 2am by Cookie hurdling round and round (and round and round and round) the internal perimeter of the tent, trying to get to a fox outside.
You gotta keep the tent tidy, otherwise it’s pure anarchy. I like tidying the tent so it’s no hardship for me (I wish I were Nancy Blackett from Swallows and Amazons, but more realistically I’m Susan). I even take a little dustpan and brush to sweep crumbs, grass and sand up….
No runnin’, fightin’, screamin’, shoutin’, whinin’ or arguin’ in the tent.
You make a mess, you tidy it up.
Keeping the kids busy
We take swing ball, foot balls, tennis balls, books, felt tip pens and new notebooks, magazines, Lego, Dobble, and whatever random items the kids can squeeze into their little backpacks. Mostly they run around the site making friends with other kids, but it’s good to have back-ups.
A box of Ferrero Rocher goes down well in the evenings :-) Gin in tins (don’t forget the lemon). I take a small antique mirror and tie it to the centre pole, so you don’t have to trek up to the shower block every time you want to remind yourself what you look like. Mocha pot and milk frother, with really good ground coffee. Halloumi for grilling. Lots and lots of fairy lights and bunting. Lovely fluffy socks. Rainbow crystals to throw onto the campfire that turn the flames into amazing colours. Faux fur electric blanket. Really comfortable pillows. Rag rugs to go on the floor. Sheepskin slippers. Something to put wild flowers in for the table.
As many blankets as you can fit in the car. Lay them on the back seat and sit on them if necessary. Fibre towels - Decathlon have a good, cheap range. Coolbox - we have an electric one and a normal one. Label your icepacks so fellow campers don’t nick them accidentally from the communal freezer. Battery charger thingie if you don’t have hook-up. Long hook-up cable if you do. First aid kit, including Calpol. Mini air humidifier to counter tent condensation. Bbq, charcoal and tongs - we take our baby Weber; friends last year brought a folding raised bbq that looked ace. Matches, firelighters and a gas lighter thingie. Lemon scented candles to ward off insects when sitting outside at night. Bucket and spade if you’re near a beach. Marshmallow tongs - we have a fab extendable set. Torches. Suncream. Toilet roll. Kitchen towel. Tea towels. Foil. Baby wipes. Grill for cooking on a beach bonfire. Penknife. Potty… no way am I trekking to the toilets at 5am with a child who needs a wee…. Rucksack. Coolbag rucksack. Mallet x 2 (so we can both pitch if need be). Portable bluetooth speakers - I did say we were noisy… but we only visit family sites where everyone is doing the same, and switch any music off once people start going to bed. In Aberafon everyone parties on the beach for hours, which is why we like it :-)
Hope this is helpful - please feel free to share tips below.