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Tips for Happier Camping from Six of our Worst Camping Nights Ever

Camping Tips for Happier Camping from Six of our Worst Camping Nights Ever
Written by Kirstie Pelling

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.

The route to happier camping is learning from experience

Is this the perfect place to camp? Or are we missing something important?

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.

Camp du cerf on Velodyssee

Camp du cerf – camping heaven or camping hell?

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. Read more about our experience of tarp camping.

The lesson: Don’t assume benign looking country gardens aren’t home to flesh eating insects. If you plan on sleeping out or bivvying, don’t forget to take repellent, citronella sticks, an insect head net or a tent with good insect netting, as well as your star gazing app. Just in case.


Terra Nova Tarp and Bivy Bags

Tarps and bivy bags laid out on the lawn of a country house garden. Doesn’t it look lovely? Don’t be fooled!

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.

The lesson: Before pitching, stop, look and listen for signs of livestock grazing, droppings and pay attention to signs warning of cattle on the road etc. Think twice before camping in the only bit of pasture on a mountain road, by the trail to a waterhole or on a livestock migration path and if under attack, organise a rota to keep watch!


Cow sign in Pyrenees

Ignore this sign at your peril when choosing a wild camp spot

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.

The lesson: Don’t assume a campsite in the absolute middle of nowhere will be quiet or have vacancies. Where there are people, don’t expect peace and be prepared for parties.


Camp Site at Landmannalaugar Iceland

The peace and quiet of the middle of nowhere camp site at Landmannalaugar, Iceland

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.

The lesson: Before you get everyone’s hopes up, check and double check your fabulous waterpark campsite does actually still exist, is open and has spaces, before you promise the kids that all their pedalling will be worth it.


Camping at the old Sanitorium near Jurmala, Latvia

Camping at the old sanitorium – not quite what we had hoped for from studying the guide book

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!

The lesson: Don’t assume a quiet spot by day will be the same at night. Look for tell-tale signs of late night revelry before you camp; litter, cans and bottles, scorch pits and rubber marks or doughnuts in the tarmac, sand or gravel.


Sunset Northern Spain near Mundaka

Don’t be fooled by the beauty of the sunset near Mundaka. Look out for the doughnuts not the setting sun.

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.

The lesson: Beware cultural differences in definitions of ‘family friendly’ If you like your peace and quiet or need your r&r, think twice about checking into campsites where you are greeted by anyone dressed as a cartoon character.


French Atlantic Beach

When the beach looks like this and the campsite says family friendly, be warned

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.

Packing for Camping

You can have all the camping gear you want but if you don’t choose the right spot…

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.

Halfords Ultimate Camping Guide - Tips for Happier Camping

Get more tips for happier camping from the Halford’s Ultimate Camping Guide

More Useful Camping Posts


Buying a Tent for Family Camping Gear Guide

For tips on buying a tent for family camping – check out our Tent Buying Gear Guide


Bivy Bag Gear Guide

For tips and review on bivy bags check out our review of the Terra Nova bivy bags

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.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • I sympathise with you. We camped in a peaceful spot one night only to be woken at 2am by an overhead police helicopter and the incessant thumping of rave music. They were still going at 9am 🙁

  • Is it ok to say I laughed out loud reading this? Sorry you had some miserable nights but I suppose nothing ventured nothing gained! I find things can be sub optimal in campsites which have recently changed ownership. We don’t don’t wild camp, interesting to read about that.

    • I am pleased that you laughed out loud! I try to do the same when we find ourselves in these situations. What else can one do? Get up and leave I suppose. Wild camping is a whole different experience. Maybe we should write a bit more about that, the positive aspects! Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  • The one lovely place near Falun in Northern Sweden comes to mind, where we camped right by a lake with our small children. All was peace and quiet until we were almost ready to settle in our sleeping bags. Then the speed boats came over the lake, revved their engines a lot pulling water skis and finally anchored right outside the campsite whose restaurant turned into a night club, the bass of rock music slashing through thin tent walls right into the ears of a crying three-year-old. (It was a speed boat festival, we learned the next day, not an everyday situation…)

    • Oh the impromptu festival. What a treat! Of course it would not begin until you are all in your sleeping gear. What’s the fun otherwise? But at least it’s for one night only. Shame for you it was the night you were staying. Glad it’s not just me these things happen to.

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