Tips for Happier Camping
from Six of our Worst Camping Nights Ever
To do or not to do; that is the question. I don’t mean whether to go camping; you know I think that’s a good thing. But when it comes to encouraging people to get out and enjoy camping, is it more helpful to tell them ‘what to do’ or ‘what not to do’? We received a copy of Halford’s Ultimate Camping Guide this week and it’s full of all great ‘what to do’ tips. So I’m going share some useful not to do’s. Because we’ve learned from bad stuff happening and don’t see why you should have to do the same when you could just grab a cup of tea and learn by reading about our misery. So, here’s to happy camping with our six of the worst: six places I really recommend you don’t camp and the lessons we learnt that I hope will help you have a much better time.
Are you a Happy Camper?
It’s not easy finding the perfect place to camp. You’d think with 30 years of experience I might have nailed it. But I’m still learning. Still making mistakes. And still laughing about it. At least afterwards. I think that makes me a happy camper.
When you camp and travel the way we often do – lightweight, hiking or biking, in out of the way places – you don’t always come across the perfect camp site. You have to take what you get. Or find the best you can in the circumstances. Over the years we’ve ended up camping in some quite unusual, inappropriate, uncomfortable places; places I usually wouldn’t recommend. But I am going to recommend them to you because, even in the depths of camping hell, they all had one great redeeming feature; they taught simple but important camping lessons.
So if you’re looking to learn about camping, here’s six of the worst of our camp spots, six of the worst nights sleep we’ve ever had. And to save you the agony, the six lessons they taught us about finding great places to camp. Learn these lessons now and we think you’ll enjoy happier camping.
Six of our Worst Camping Nights Ever
1. Country House Camping on the Lawn
Beautiful is not necessarily benign
We’re not averse to a spot of easy camping. Who can resist a site with a beautifully mowed lawn? Especially if it’s in the grounds of a country house with access to all facilities. What could possibly go wrong in such a beautiful and benign environment? And so it was, encouraged by a summer sun and clear overnight forecast, we decided to sleep out under the stars at a fine country house in one of the UK’s National Parks; no tents, just sleeping bags and tarps. We set up camp in the afternoon sun, picnicked on the lawn and lay down to wait for shooting stars. Two hours later we beat the retreat, hardly able to see the stars for swelling midge bites. We never saw that coming.
2. High Mountain Camping in the Pyrenees
Remote does not mean peaceful
The high mountains can be an amazing place to camp, with few people, clean air and amazing views. On long cycle tours we often stop overnight on mountain passes to break a gruelling climb, take in a sunset or position ourselves for a morning descent. It’s not easy to find a flat camp spot on a winding pass though, so when you see a level patch big enough for a tent, experience has taught us to grab it, especially if the sun is anywhere near setting.
High in the central Pyrenees on the road to Laguarta, with the sun almost set, we found a flat shady copse off a trail heading down to a river. I thought we’d hit the wild camp jackpot until a thirsty pack of wild horses came to check us out as they headed down to the water hole. Fortunately they didn’t stay long. Unlike the herd of bell-wearing cattle that arrived after dark to graze all night in the woodland while we took turns trying to keep them a safe distance from our vulnerable little tent. Probably the most stressful and noisy mountain camp we’ve ever had.
3. Camping in the Icelandic interior
The wild heart can be crazy
I’d always assumed the further you get from civilisation, the quieter things become. And what could be quieter or less civilised than camping in the wild Icelandic interior? Landmannalaugar is a remote spot on the edge of a lava field in the highlands of Iceland, known for its geothermal springs and colourful landscape. It’s a minimum three hour drive in a 4WD vehicle from Reykjavik, involving rough stone roads and river crossings. It’s not a journey lightly undertaken but said to be a peaceful place to get a feel for the heart of Iceland.
We expected to find a mountain hut and a camp site with a few dozen tents. We arrived to find a giant car and campervan park, tents pitched as far as the eye can see and people partying in hot pools. We were lucky to find a camp spot! While it certainly wasn’t a wasted visit, it was definitely quieter on the back streets of downtown Reykjavik.
4. Camping with a guidebook
You can only trust a guidebook so far
Whether held in the hand or tapped on the app, our guidebooks are our best friends. Many’s the time they have saved us from hunger or homelessness with an apt and timely recommendation for a place to stay or something good to eat. But just as the map is not the territory, it’s useful to remember a guide, however authoritative, is not reality. We were reminded of this while touring Latvia. Having been chased through Latvian forests by horseflies the size of goblins, we were glad to be approaching Riga and excited to read about Camping Nemo, a giant campsite and waterpark with horsefly-proof camping cabins.
We pedaled hard to reach it before the day’s end, only to discover it had been moth-balled and now resembled a Scooby Doo ghost town version of its former self. There were tears and tantrums as hopes of a good time rolled down disappointed cheeks. Luckily the guidebook listed other camping options in town. Unluckily they were in the grounds of a spooky, abandoned sanitorium. Still, at least it was open.
5. Camping with the hooligans
Watch out for skidding
Some places go to sleep at night. Others come alive. As we picnicked just off the Spanish coast road in the late afternoon sun, looking out over the Bay of Biscay, we had no idea the quiet spot we were eyeing up for camping was also perfect for practicing wheel spins. All afternoon we’d only been visited by two pensioners, who got out of their car, sat on the bench for 10 minutes to take in the view then headed home. The road was minor and very quiet. The car park large but empty. Mundaka, the nearest town five miles or more away. But of course we only saw the day shift.
The night shift arrived long after we’d pitched the tent and gone to bed. The first we noticed was headlights playing on the tent. Then came the engines and the pumping music. Then the wheel spins. Round and round and round they went. The kind of thing a large, gravel strewn empty car park far from town is perfect for. Who knew? Most of the locals probably. And now us.
In the morning the signs were more obvious; the beer cans and bottles around the litter bin, the scorched firepit and cigarette butts, the doughnuts carved in the gravel. We know to look in advance for those now!
6. Family friendly camping on the French Atlantic Coast
Families welcome isn’t always family friendly
We saw the overweight squirrel from across the road. She was dancing the Macarena, leading a troupe of kids away from Reception in the direction of the swimming pool. We should have cycled on then; we knew there were dozens of campsites along this stretch of the La Velodyssee. But this one said it welcomed families. And it had a swimming pool. And restaurant. And entertainment. And was next to the sand Dune du Pilat. The kids loved the sound of it.
What we didn’t know is that the kids club ran all night, all over the campsite. That karaoke, talent shows and dancing were practically compulsory, since they could be heard all over the site. That a pitch was a sandy piece of scrub about 2 metres by 2 metres wide, half a metre away from the next pitch. That the restaurant was intimately involved with the entertainment. That the swimming pool was already closed for the night and when it opened would be holding aqua-aerobic classes in the pool while a yoga class took place pool side. All as advertised. Except the kids didn’t love it.
We would have got more sleep on a sand fly infested beach with a bunch of hoons carving doughnuts. There’s something about this close quarter, family-friendly, entertainment-rich Euro camping that just doesn’t work for me.
Your Top Tips for Happier Camping
If you’ve got a horrible camping story, a lesson you learnt from a miserable night under canvas or some other useful tips for happy camping with or without the family, then do please leave a comment and let us know. It’s always good to know we’re not alone in our misery. And we’d much rather learn the easy way.
More tips for Happier Camping
If you want more tips and ideas for happy camping, then do check out the Halford’s Ultimate Camping Guide. It’s a useful little publication with information on some tourist hot spots around the UK and ideas for both camping sites and events that could inspire a camping trip. Other sections de-mystify glamping (do you know the difference between your tipis, yurts, pods and gyspy caravans?), will help you choose a tent (they have a new range of tents this season), entertain the kids or have a stab at camp cooking. There’s some useful tips for newbies, including do’s and don’ts for beginners and a festival survival guide. You can pick up copies in store or download from the Halford’s website.
More Useful Camping Posts
Disclosure Note: This post is brought to you in a collaboration with Halfords, who asked us to share some of our camping experience and help promote their Ultimate Camping Guide. As ever, the practical experience, hard won lessons, photography, tips, opinions and uncomfortable nights in inappropriate camp spots are entirely our own.