10 Things I wish I knew before my first camping trip

Experienced camper turned campsite owner Amy Woodland shares her top 10 tips on camping for beginners…

Apart from a fairly disastrous trip to a French Eurocamp in the 1980s, my family didn’t go in for holidays in tents, so I was almost an adult by the time I discovered the joy of camping. With no wise outdoor guru to guide me, I had to make my own mistakes and learn from them. Luckily, for any beginners out there, I’m going to share a few things I wish I’d known before my first camping trip, so you can be prepared for yours.

1. It gets very cold at night

A friend who’s recently been on her first camping trip told me that she was so cold at night she couldn’t sleep. Bear in mind that this friend lives in Australia and it was summer. Wherever you are when the night-time cold strikes on a camping trip, it is an upsetting state of affairs: you can think of nothing else and the next day will be a fug of tiredness. To stay a happy camper, I suggest preparing for the arctic. In this instance, it’s better to have too much than too little. At the very least sleep off the floor on an inflatable ground matt or blow-up mattress, invest in a decent sleeping bag, take a heavy blanket and, I kid you not, a hot water bottle. When your campfire is going strong: boil a kettle, fill the hot water bottle and slip it in your sleeping bag. When it comes to bedtime, there’s simply nothing more comforting. If you’re roughing it (wild camping or backpack camping) you won’t want to lug a heavy rubber bottle around but there is a natural alternative suggested by Bear Grylls for survival situations. I’ll let you look that one up.

2. You still need to wash up

You might be on holiday but you still need to wash up, which means you should take the things you need to do the job. In short, don’t forget a washing-up bowl, washing-up liquid, sponge and the all-important tea towel. I used to try and save on space when packing for a camping trip by not using a washing-up bowl. Believe me, it doesn’t work. For starters, many campsites don’t supply plugs for their sinks and, secondly, you’ll feel like a prize fool when traipsing across the campsite with a precarious tower of kitchen utensils and plates. And an even bigger one when retracing your steps for dropped knives and forks.

3. If you’re taking a tin, take a tin opener

Sounds obvious but it’s so easy to forget: likewise, for bottles and bottle openers. There’s little more frustrating than not being able to open that can of beans – except for not being able to open that post-pitch bottle of beer of course. These days I have a little box of kitchen stuff ready to go at all times with all the basics. The plus side of forgetting such essential items is that borrowing stuff from better-organised campers is a great way to get to know your neighbours, so it’s not all bad if you’re a sociable camper.

4. Canvas is not soundproof

Having spent a large number of nights under canvas on campsites, I’ve not only seen it all but also heard it all. Often that’s meant the amazing sound of the dawn chorus in spring, the pitter-patter of light summer rain or the rustling of leaves in autumn. These are some of the amazing experiences that make camping special but occasionally you hear something you’d rather not – fellow campers having a late-night heart-to-heart, your neighbours’ music or a deep sleeper snoring like an elephant seal. If these are things that might bother you, try to choose a campsite with no amplified music allowed and one where there’s plenty of space between pitches – and don’t forget your ear plugs, just in case.

5. Practice makes perfect

It’s always a good idea to try putting up your tent at home a few days before you go on holiday. That way if the poles are missing, the tent’s gone mouldy or if it’s a bit of a puzzle to put together, you can attempt to rectify it before arriving at the campsite where that will probably be a lot more difficult. Thankfully, thus far in my camping career, I haven’t yet fallen foul of any of the above but they’re all things I’ve seen happen to other campers and it doesn’t make for the best start to a holiday.

6. A campsite shower is worth it

If you’re a bath-once-a-week kinda person this advice does not apply but if you like a shower every day, why deny yourself the pleasure when camping? I often hear people on campsites saying that they’ll just wait until they get home to get clean and I have to admit sometimes it feels good to be grubby but, much as I love campfires (and I love campfires a lot), I’m not a fan of smelling like one. For this reason, I’ve learned that to really enjoy a camping trip, no matter what the facilities are like, a shower in the morning is always worth it. For me it’s up there with a good night’s sleep in terms of its impact on enjoyment.

7. Sometimes less is more

Larger sites may have more facilities but it’s my experience that they are often less enjoyable. It’s all down to personal taste of course, but my advice to first-time campers would be to start with a small, independent site. The thought of an on-site swimming pool and fancy facilities is always going to be tempting but often, to afford these, the campsite will have to squeeze in lots of campers – and guess where they’ll all be headed? Choosing a small site doesn’t mean you have to rough it though. There are plenty of small glamping sites where, like their camping counterparts, smaller numbers usually mean a friendlier service and a little more charm.

8. Sometimes more is more

When you’re camping for the first time, setting up your tent and relaxing in to campsite life can take a little while; usually until the kids are fed and you’re sitting around the campfire toasting a marshmallow. If you’ve booked in for a single night, this moment of relaxation usually arrives at exactly the same time that you have to start thinking about setting the alarm. After all, you’re going to need a little while to take the tent down again before check-out. In this instance, more is most definitely more. You need to take the same amount of camping gear whether you’re staying for one night, two nights or a whole week (give or take a t-shirt or two) so give yourself a real break and stay a little longer.

9. A two-man tent is a one-man tent

The world of tents can be a confusing one: there are domes, tunnels, ridges, bells, pop-ups, air beam and more. It’s too big a subject to discuss in any detail here but know this, if you’re thinking of buying a small tent for your first trip be warned: a one-man tent is just that – big enough for one man to sleep in. Sometimes it can be a squeeze to even get your bag in alongside you; fine for when you’re on the trail and want a tent that packs down small and weighs next to nothing but not quite right for a holiday. A friend of mine returned early from her first camping trip. She and her husband had “splashed out” on a three-man-tent, thinking it would be amply sized for the two of them, their baby and their belongings. I’m afraid it wasn’t. What they needed was a family tent – or at least a four-man tent. My advice is to buy a tent that’s advertised as sleeping one more person than you intend to fit in it. Or, better still, take a trip to a tent showroom so you know what you’re getting.

10. It might rain

Regardless of how good the weather forecast looks, be prepared for a spot of bad weather. This is Britain after all. Even those on their first ever camping trip will probably have the foresight to pack an anorak, wellies and even an umbrella but my advice for bad weather goes further. At the end of an evening, put everything away including those towels you’ve hung up to dry and your canvas camping chairs. A bit of overnight rain or a sudden gust of wind can soak your belongings or whip them away. Keep your tent pitch ship-shape and everything will be right as rain again in the morning.

Amy Woodland is a long-time camper, a campsite warden and also runs the 28-day, pop-up campsite Pete's Field in Kent.