A First-Time Camping Guide For People Who Thought They’d Never Camp

Photo by Andrew Solok.
As tempting as it may be, this isn’t the summer for poolside cocktails, Greek salads, Italian spritzes and hot tans — without the risk of two more weeks inside, at least. Instead, it’s the summer we rekindle our love of the great outdoors and all that the UK has to offer. But if you’ve left it ‘til now to plan your summer getaway, no doubt you’ve found every country bedroom, yurt, shepherd’s hut and wagon is booked up from now ‘til May ‘21. Shucks. The solution: camping. 
Now I know what you’re thinking. Most people don’t associate camping with ‘idyllic summer holiday’ but we’re thin on options and I’m telling you, you should give it a(nother) chance. Let me be quite clear: a camping holiday is not the same as festival camping. Waking up with a stinking hangover to someone pissing on the side of your hot, sweaty tent isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time and certainly not what canvas-lovers would ever associate with their style of camping. A good camping trip can be totally luxurious. A different kind of luxurious from waking up at Le Sirenuse, sure, but waking up to birds tweeting, eating breakfast outside, drinking wine under the stars, roasting marshmallows on a fire and feeling totally, utterly connected to nature will leave you in awe of a simpler life. 
Now that I’ve sold it to you (right?), let’s figure out how to make it happen… 

How do I find a campsite?

This summer more than ever, you definitely can’t just pack your bags and rock up to a campsite. You need to book a pitch and alas, you aren’t the only one who’s thought of camping so places are busier than usual. That being said, there are plenty of great options available and lots of sites are open year-round or at least right into October. Your best bets are Cool Camping and Pitch Up. Like you would book a hotel, you just pop in your dates, location and number of people, and it will let you know what’s available.
If you’re straight-up camping, a grass pitch without electricity is perfectly fine — just don’t forget portable chargers for charging your phone! There aren’t plugs in the great outdoors…
If you’re going with mates, you’ll have to book multiple pitches — you can’t just cram a bunch of tents into one pitch, Glastonbury-style.

What camping equipment do I need? 

I like to think I’m a pretty well-versed camper and let me tell you, organisation is key to a good trip. You need to think about meals in advance, how you’re going to cook, plus obviously remembering all your kit. If you plan on making camping a regular thing, you’ll build up your kit over the years but for a basic camper, here are the non-negotiables you’re gonna need to take: 
A tent: There’s no shortage of tents to choose from but my main piece of advice would be to scale up. Two-man tents are too small for a couple to actually have a nice time in outside of a festival field. If there’s two of you, aim for a four or five-man tent so you’ve got a bit more room and living quarters. Eurohike does some great cheap tents, otherwise Vango is the very best in my opinion. Look on eBay for some great new or secondhand deals. 
Airbed or camping mats: Don’t even think about going camping without an airbed or camping mats: you won’t enjoy it. Camping mats are super compact but pretty pricey (and not very practical in any other circumstances bar camping). I’d recommend getting a £20 airbed (ideally with an inbuilt pump) which is perfect for camping and also great for your mates to kip on in the lounge whenever we’re allowed to go out and have fun again.
Sleeping bags or duvet: Again, sleeping bags are the traditional camping choice and I’d recommend Vango, though Lidl and Aldi now sell cheap-and-cheerful versions in their glorious middle aisles. If you’re on a budget, just take your duvet — but remember a sheet as well to go over the airbed or else you’ll wake up stuck to it! 
Pillows: Pillows are the comfort difference between shitty festival camping and holiday camping. Don’t forget them. A rolled-up pair of jeans is not the same. 
Camping stove: Whether you plan on eating at the pub most nights or not, a stove is pretty important on any camping trip — plus, ugh, so satisfying to make your own grub in the great outdoors. A Trangia 25 or 27 stove is my ultimate go-to. It comes with a gas burner (which you just need to buy fuel for) and includes two pots and a lid which can be used as a frying pan. Otherwise, portable gas stoves are super cheap, you just need to remember to pack pans. 
Washing up equipment: Don’t forget your marigolds! A trusty sponge and a bottle of washing up liquid are definite camping necessities. Most campsites have sinks or kitchen areas specifically for washing up — eating off the same dirty plate for three days is no one’s idea of a holiday.
Picnic blanket/camping chairs: So that you’re not stuck in the confines of your tent the whole trip, I’d recommend a picnic blanket to spread outside your tent and/or picnic chairs for comfort. If it’s rainy, you can just pull them inside and cosy up.
Water bottles or collapsible carrier: You’ll need water for cooking and drinking so don’t forget reusable water bottles or a collapsible carrier (to save you trips to and from the communal tap).
And don’t forget:
Lighter or matches
Fuel/gas for the stove — make sure to check in advance what fuel/gas your stove needs.
For a full packing list, head over to my blog.

What food is good for a camping trip?

This ain’t a festival so don’t go expecting food trucks and sourdough pizza onsite. Similarly, if you want a coffee the likelihood is you’re gonna have to make it or drive for it. Planning meals ahead is essential so you don’t forget ingredients or go hungry. 
If you’re taking a stove, I’d recommend sticking to simple one-pot dinners where possible. Pasta and pesto is always a safe and satisfying camping option (especially when you remember to pack parmesan and a grater). Spaghetti with olives, anchovies, capers and a tin of chopped tomatoes is another simple delight. Or whip up an easy Thai curry with a jar of curry paste, a tin of coconut milk and a pack of pre-marinated tofu. 
If you’re not planning on taking a stove, options are slightly more limited but you don’t need to settle for a tin of tuna à la Reading Festival 2008. Why not make a lasagne in advance, store it in a cool box and have it for dinner? Otherwise a picky picnic tea never disappoints: bread, brie, olives, pasta salad and a bottle or two of prosecco…
As for breakfast, eggs are easy enough to cook — you just have to be careful transporting them. Otherwise, vegetarian sausages don’t really suffer from not being refrigerated for a night, and portobello mushroom and halloumi breakfast burgers are a personal favourite… 
Snacks are always important but don’t pack anything that could melt or needs refrigerating. Crisps and jars of olives are great for evening aperitivos and of course, you can always stock up during your trip at a local supermarket.   

What about washing?

Most campsites have pretty decent showers and toilets. They ain’t always 5* but they’ll keep you clean enough. Pack a pair of flip-flops if you’re funny about communal showers, and it’s always worth taking a toilet roll in case they’re out. In the age of COVID, some sites aren’t opening their communal showers and toilets but you’ll be able to find this out when you’re booking. It’s probably best avoiding these sites unless you have a camping loo — they aren’t really up for people pissing in the bushes.

What is wild camping? 

Wild camping would be a pretty adventurous step for any new camper and probably not the most relaxing adventure for easing you into camping. It’s fun but you have to pack extra light and be much more organised. Don’t forget your poo trowel (no toilets or showers in the actual wilderness) and you’ll have to remember to pack all the water and food you will need. There are many limitations on where and when you can wild camp in the UK so make sure you’ve read up so that you don’t get moved on. 

Okay, back to normal camping. Any big no-nos?

Suitcases are as inefficient at campsites as they are at Glastonbury. Pack light, and use a rucksack or a holdall. If you’re driving, you can always keep this in your car to free up space in your tent.
It’s not really a no-no but be mindful of campsite rules. Everyone wants to have a nice time, so there are often noise restrictions past 11pm and no wildfires or Chinese lanterns. 
Happy camping!

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