With campsites re-opening, scores of hardy outdoor types will be stuffing car boots and roof boxes for a long overdue change of scenery. But what if you’ve never been camping, and the closest you’ve got to sleeping alfresco is dozing off on a sun longer? Where do you start when you don’t know your Trangia from a tent peg?
With the help of the Scouts Association’s Simon Carter, and Caroline Thomas, operations officer, The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, we’ve compiled the ultimate first-timer’s list, debunking myths and explaining how to choose the finest camping gear guaranteed to keep you warm, dry and comfortable, plus revealing those invaluable extras you won’t realise you needed to pack until you’re in a field, in the rain, hungry.
Choosing a tent
With prices varying from £20 to £2,000 there’s a mind-boggling number of options available, but on the whole the more you pay the better the tent, whether that means weight, square footage, durability, packability, storage or style. Your circumstances will dictate the type of tent you need, but a trip to Decathlon (or any camping showroom) is highly recommended for a chance to look at pre-pitched designs.
“You don’t necessarily need a big tent with a communal area if you’re camping near your car,” suggests Caroline Thomas. “You can keep most of your stuff inside it, leaving your tent space for sleeping, and making the most of being outside and living minimally.”
Simon Carter has three tips when choosing a tent: “Check the zip and the poles as they’re a common weakness. Cheap fibreglass poles split easily, and zips get stuck – and always look for a decent air gap between the inner and outer sections. Some have very small gaps, and if it’s wet and windy and one touches the other, you’re in trouble.”
Vango Cuillin 300
One of our top tents of last year, the Cullin 300 is not a cheap pop-up, but remains wonderfully straightforward to pitch, has room for a couple with plenty of kit, weighs 4.2kg (50 x dia22cm bag) and has light and Yunan Eco Alloy Poles, plus a 5000mm (camping code for really waterproof) ripstop weave flysheet with taped seams.
The flysheet and inner compartment are attached to make pitching even easier, and the geodesic dome is reassuringly stable. It’s not cheap, but is intelligently designed and built to last countless trips, whether you’re camping or glamping.
Once you’re onsite, if you get a choice in where to pitch, Caroline suggests “pitching your tent facing into a treeline away from everyone else as it allows a sense of privacy, not to mention the chance of seeing more wildlife”.
Quechua 4 Man Inflatable Blackout Tent Air Seconds 4.2
Whether you choose the unbeatable value Arpenaz 4.2 (£119), upgrade to the blackout bedroom version (£169) or invest in this instant-pitching inflatable iteration you won’t be disappointed. The layout gives a generous communal area with 1.95m head height and two double bedrooms with space enough for two 70cm-wide mattresses. There’s loads of pockets for keeping kit organised, a tough ground sheet and excellent insulation thanks to the gap between bedroom compartments and flysheet. The ideal choice for a family with small(ish) kids who also have a smallish car.
Price: £299 | Decathlon
What’s the secret to a good night’s sleep on a campsite? It’s a mixture of good sleeping bags, duvets, mats, ear plugs, eye masks and possibly Malbec. A bad night’s sleep can ruin your camping. “I never go without my normal pillows and earplugs,” warns Caroline.
But it’s unrealistic to think you’re going to sleep in the same way you do at home. If you’re a light sleeper, get some ear plugs. Wearing an eye mask is also a good way to not get woken up at dawn, but Simon suggests an early start isn’t always a bad thing. “The hour, or even just 30 minutes, just after dawn, cup of tea in hand, is one of the great joys in life.”
Flare Sleep Pro
Our favourite earplugs for long-haul travel are also perfect for cutting out campsite chatter. They’re absolutely tiny, have super-soft memory foam tips and a 13mm solid titanium core. The twin-tip design allows the wearer to put a larger size on the outside to act as a large cushion on the ear. And right now they are 40 per cent off, too.
Outwell Dreamboat 16cm
The thickest self-inflating camping mattress available, and arguably as comfortable as a spare bed. At 3.9kg (L200 x W86 x D16 cm) it weighs more than many tents, but when compromising on comfort isn’t an option, you’ll be hard pushed to find better. Outwell also make a 12cm thick 14cm wide double (£349) that’s good enough for unexpected guests at home, too.
Vango Nitestar Alpha 370
Recommended by both the Scouts and Duke of Edinburgh Award, this three-season, mummy-style bag is a bargain, and a sensible choice if you have teenagers who might want to head off exploring on their own. Rated from -5 to 18°C, it has a soft-to-touch microfibre lining and synthetic Alpha insulation that compresses small and doesn’t mind getting wet.
PaiTree Eye Cover
Black-out tents are more popular than ever, but if you don’t have that luxury and really don’t want to be getting up to enjoy the dawn chorus, you need some protection. The PaiTree is designed to fit around your eyes instead of pressing against them, cocooning you in blissful blackness. It’s made from soft memory foam and has an adjustable strap that shouldn’t tangle in long hair.
Price: £5.99 | Amazon
What makes a good camping kitchen? “Keeping meals simple and taking load of snacks,” suggests Simon. “Stick to rice and pasta dishes and one-pot meals, but if you’re cooking for more than yourself a double burner will be much easier. Make sure it has space for a standard saucepan.”
Preparing a meal and freezing it the day before you leave is a great way to reduce stress when you first arrive on site, plus a large block of frozen curry or bolognese keeps your drinks cold for longer, too.
Primus Tupike Stove
Combining the style of a retro portable radio with the high efficiency of a backpacking stove – it uses the same gas canisters – it comes pre-fitted with a durable gas hose, which tucks in neatly under the stove when transporting, has fold-out windshields to improve efficiency, and two supremely powerful burners with reliable piezo ignition. The result is super-fast boiling, simmering and sautéing, and thanks to the bundled cast-iron griddle pan, perfectly seared steaks.
Yeti Tundra 45
With two inches of pressure-injected, commercial-grade polyurethane foam, this 45-litre cool box will keep your drinks and food freezing cold all weekend, and even leave you some ice cubes for a post pack-up cocktail. It’s expensive and heavy (104kg unloaded), but it has enough capacity for 28 cans or 9kg of ice and will last you several lifetimes of camping or garden parties. Some items are just worth the extra outlay.
“Lots of good campsites also offer fire pits, dry wood and kindling at a small cost. They are 100 per cent worth it as you won’t be struggling against damp ground and damp wood,” says Caroline. “Take simple food that can be cooked in tin foil on your fire. Baked potatoes with cheese and beans; bananas with chocolate buttons and the absolute must, marshmallows.’
Snow Peak Titanium Spork
“Buy a spork,” says Simon Carter, “and then you’ve got everything you need to eat and cook with, and never have to worry about who’s got the knife or who’s got the fork – just use them for everything.” In our tests you can find some great plastic sporks, but they do all tend to bend (or worse). No chance of such disasters with this titanium offering from Japan that weighs just 16g. Available in standard metallic or assign one of the anodised colours to sidestep family arguments.
Outwell Collapsible Water Carrier
Outwell has cornered the market in collapsible camping clobber, with washing-up basins, bowls and even kettles that store flat. To avoid countless trips back and forth to the mains tap, this 12-litre capacity water carrier is a must, and unlike the cheaper plastic designs that render the water almost undrinkable, the silicone manages not to impart a chemical taste to the contents.
Despite the daunting number of initial jobs that need doing, you do get a lot of time to sit back and relax while camping. So now’s not the time to scrimp and be uncomfortable.
“It sounds obvious, but buy a camp chair that you’re comfortable sitting in,” explains Simon. “Cheap fold-up chairs look like a bargain, but they can dig into legs after a while, so if you’ve got the space go big and enjoy.”
“Flip-flops or trainers are an absolute must,” says Caroline. “Whether you’ve been hiking all day, or just exploring a local town, there’s nothing worse than having to keep your heavy boots on at camp.”
Coleman Deck Chair with Table
If you’re short on space, or need your camping chair to be lightweight and comfortable, We recommend virtually everything from Helinox, but if you’ve got more room and your idea of adventure is opening a second bottle, this classic design is ideal for pulling up to the table for dinner and relaxing in, while the fold-up side table offers a more versatile alternative to a standard cup holder.
Price: £67.58 | Amazon
Quechua Large Folding Camping Table (6-8 people)
Steel, aluminium and wood folding table with a weight rating of 50kg and room enough for at least six pairs of legs, yet it folds down to just 80 x 40 x 22cmw for easy storage and transportation. Smaller versions are also available, as well as a range of storage units and shelves to help keep your camp organised.
Price: £64.99 | Decathlon
Hydro Flask 16oz True Pint Tumbler
Some 473ml of insulated brilliance from Hydro Flask. It’s not the lightest camping cup you can buy – we use Snow Peak’s Titanium mug for that sort of trip – but the 18/8 stainless steel vacuum construction keeps beers cold and coffee hot for an absolute age, and with a sip lid also available, can be used on your commute, too.
You can’t stay in the tent indefinitely, so it’s outside all day whatever the weather. Be prepared for the worst and you won’t regret it.
If there’s one piece of clothing that is worth spending some money on, then it’s a good waterproof jacket. Not “water resistant” or “showerproof”. Waterproof. A jacket with a Gore-tex lining or equivalent is a must. If the weather turns on you then this will make everything more pleasant.
At the other end, your feet are equally important, and as Simon sagely warns, “At the end of August, the grass will be heavy with dew and you will get wet feet if you’re not prepared. You’ve got two choices: you either wear technical sandals and have wet feet, or buy a decent pair of boots.”
But, as Caroline suggests, even with the most advanced protection, “always have something up your sleeve for soggy weather. You might not use it at all, but have it in case, whether that’s a treasure hunt or a secret stash of treats, plus always keep a stash of dry towels and clothes in the car, just in case.”
Columbia OutDry Ex Reign Jacket
Surprisingly affordable (more than 50 per cent off right now in fact), but dependable, even in the fiercest downpours, this waterproof jacket features Columbia’s revolutionary two-ply OutDry fabric which does away with the need for an external water-repellent layer. The result is that no matter how much it rains the fabric won’t get saturated. It lacks some of the breathability of the finest Gore-Tex, so if long hikes are on the agenda, you’ll want to make use of the underarm venting to let the heat out.
Isbjörn of Sweden Light Weight Rain Jacket
If you’re camping with kids, scrimp on their comfort at your peril. Isbjörn of Sweden make high-performance gear for babies through to teens, with fully taped seams and eco-friendly water repellent features. This jacket is especially light, perfect for summer exploring.
On Running Cloudrock Waterproof
If you already own a pair of waterproof boots, pack them to keep your socks dry as you venture to the latrine at 3am. Wellies would also do the job. But for all-day comfort, stability and dryness you’ll never regret investing in a great pair of boots such as the Cloudrock Waterproof. Despite being quite a chunky high-ankle boot, they’re as light as trainers (445g) and a joy to wear for long periods. The thick sole is cushioned but firm enough to give you reassurance on uneven ground, and the rubber sole sticks brilliantly to rocks, uneven ground and even slippery washing-up areas.
Don’t leave home without…
“The one thing that makes life so much easier when camping is a head torch,” says Simon. “It’s the thing you use to get your clothes on in the middle of the night. It’s the thing that you use to get up and go to the loo with. You cook with it on so you can use both hands. It’s a brilliant machine, and camping is a lot harder without one.”
Biolite 330 LED Headlamp
You’re camping for a few nights, not exploring the depths of Wookey Hole, and while the kids will be fine with something simple like the Eurohike 12 LED Torch we recommend the rechargeable Biolite 330 because at 69g it is ultralight, the light only protrudes by 9mm to minimise bounce when walking, the soft headband is more secure than most, making it suitable for night running. It’s powerful too, with 330 lumens and a choice of three powers, and the beam can be easily adjusted, essential for task lighting and not blinding the people around you.
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