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Get started camping: everything you need to know


Whether you are planning a weekend trip a few miles from home or a big family camping holiday by the coast, making your first camping trip can be a bit nerve-wracking.

But do a bit of advance preparation, learn the jargon and respect the rules and you’ll soon be swapping stories round the campfire like a veteran

Which tent should I choose?

The first thing you’ll need to do is buy (or borrow) a tent and your choice will depend entirely upon the kind of camping that you plan to do and who it’ll be with.

It is usually wise to choose a tent with a sleeping capacity designed to accommodate at least one, and usually two, more people than is actually required. So if there are three of you camping, you’ll probably need a four or five berth tent etc.

Think also about how and where you will be storing all your clothing and equipment. You might want to use one of the bedroom pods as a storage area/dressing room. Check the packed size as well because you’ll need to be sure you can fit the tent – and all your other gear –  into the boot of your car or trailer.

Although it may be tempting to buy a very cheap tent for your first outing, unless you can guarantee it won’t be raining or windy you’ll probably be better off spending a bit more on your holiday home.

A tent that’s not suitable for the conditions can result in a miserable holiday and put some people off camping forever.

If money is an issue, consider buying a second-hand tent of better quality – you can always sell it again in the unlikely event you decide camping isn’t for you.

Tunnel tent (image: Outwell)For family camping, the tunnel is currently the most popular and common type of tent.

They are easily pitched and come with plenty of room for both living and sleeping. Some models have extended porch sections that can be used to store bikes and gear or for cooking.

Another popular family option is the vis a vis tent, with two inner tents at opposite ends separated by a central living section. These are popular among families with older kids as they offer more privacy.

Pod-style tents have a central living area with several sleeping pods leading off it, allowing everyone to have their own personal space in the tent while still having plenty of room to congregate at meal times.

  Learn more about the different styles of tent

Another big question is whether to go for an inflatable or traditional poled tent. All the styles mentioned previously come in both.

Rather than using fibreglass, steel or alloy poles, these tents are supported with air-filled chambers that you pump up, meaning you can have a large family tent pitched in a few minutes.

  Inflatable tents v poled tents

Practice pitching before you go

Always pitch your tent at least once before you set off on your first camping trip. This gives you the chance to check there’s nothing missing and also means you can get used to the pitching sequence before you’re in full view of your holiday neighbours.

Many manufacturers now produce pitching videos online so it’s worth taking the time to watch the experts pitch your tent before trying it yourself. And please note – it’s not an admission of failure to read the instructions before you start!

Ideally, you’ll be able to pitch your new acquisition in your garden but if there isn’t space try contacting a local campsite. Most will allow you to pop over for an hour or so to try a test pitch for little or no charge.

When you pack away after the first pitch you may like to make a list of the components in the tent - especially if they come in separate bags - so you can check you have everything before you travel. It’s surprising how many campers arrive on site without a vital component, such as the tent poles or bag of pegs.

Find the right campsite

Once you feel confident enough to go it alone, you could just head off into the sunset and see where the road takes you.

It’s a romantic notion and very much part of the camping ideal, and not so long ago, simply turning up at a site ‘on spec’ would usually be fine, as they’d almost certainly have a few vacant pitches.

But recent years have witnessed a dramatic increase in demand for camping pitches - even outside peak season - meaning space on popular sites is often tight.

So to avoid disappointment, our advice is always to book ahead. Both the Camping and Caravanning Club and the Camping And Motorhome Club now operate efficient online booking systems and if you want to speak to a real person, you can also do it over the phone.

Black Rock Sands campsite

Independent sites are increasingly accepting bookings via their websites or email and are usually happy to accept a telephone reservation without a deposit. Many campsites also use booking websites, but remember these will add a premium to the pitching fees to cover their costs.

When you’ve identified the destination point for your maiden voyage, the process of finding a campsite is a lot easier than it was a decade or two ago. Club members can search both organisations’ websites for the nearest site and book online and more and more of the large groups owning multiple sites have easy-to-use websites.

Independent sites are sometimes harder to locate, although dedicated site search engines such as Campsite Finder can help here.

Even a simple Google search using the locality or nearest large town together with the word ‘camping’ and will usually throw up some useful results.

Simply select a site which appeals and give them a phone or send them an email to secure your space.

Aim to reach your campsite when it’s still light. It’s possible to pitch by torchlight, but it’s not recommended – especially when you’re just starting out.

If you are held up in traffic and look likely to arrive late – ring the site to notify them and check their arrangements for late arrivals. Likewise, be sure to check out on time; often you can settle up your bill the evening before you leave.

Campsite etiquette

Most of what we could call site etiquette comes down to a combination of common sense, courtesy and mutual respect.

Written rules on sites are usually prominent and easy to follow and the unwritten rules are usually based on mutual consideration. The simple advice is: be aware and if in doubt - ask.

When you arrive at a campsite, take some time to read and understand the rules and make sure the others in your party are also in the picture.

Some are obvious like speed limits, vehicle access hours and pets on leads, others less so. Keeping your pitch clean and free from rubbish benefits everybody and there really is no excuse for litter around a tent. Apart from looking scruffy, it might attract vermin and, of course, is inconsiderate to your neighbours (who might be a lot closer than those at home).

Be sure to tidy up after yourself when using the loos, washrooms, showers and washing up sinks. Look out for huge squeegee mops to mop out the shower after use.

Most campsites expect noise be kept to a minimum after a certain time, usually around 10pm. It is not only loud music that needs to be considered but also loud voices, laughter and arguments as well as car door slamming. On an otherwise quiet site, the noise ricochets around. If your neighbours complain, you might be asked to leave.

Staring at people eating a meal is just plain rude even if you are fascinated by the aroma of their culinary efforts. Better to smile, wish them "bon appetit" as you pass and find out about the meal later.

Check out where the fire safety alarms and equipment are located as well as being clear about exactly where the site is if you need to ring for a doctor or ambulance in the middle of the night.

Keeping your eyes and ears open in strange environments will help you make the most of your holiday. Being a thoughtful and considerate camper helps to make your stay and that of those around you relaxing and enjoyable, which is what it is really all about.

Campsite life

Even small sites may run social events and informal barbecues, wine tastings and live music events are a great way to get to know people who you might otherwise spend a week just nodding at amiably.

Most campsite shops are modest in their stock and hardly aim to compete with local supermarkets. Items such as fresh bread, breakfast pastries and milk, amongst other items, may need to be ordered – and collected by a certain time – rather than being plucked from the shelves at any time.

If you have any problems at all, tell site reception as soon as you can as, in the main, they will want to help make your stay as enjoyable as possible. If you wait until you leave to comment or complain, then it is too late.

Essential kit

The range of camping equipment on offer these days has never been wider and most retailers will usually put together some very hot deals to attract customers to their showrooms and websites.

We’ve based the guide prices on typical costs for equipping a family of four for a two-week break in summer, but you may decide to invest a little more in your camping kit if you want to use it for spring and autumn breaks. And remember, the spend on equipment is a one-time only outlay... until you inevitably decide to upgrade!

You can buy a basic four-berth family tent for less than £100 but we’d suggest spending a little more than this (£300 - £500) to get something that will be better quality and ensure you are warm and dry. A six-berth model will provide extra living space and take the cost up again - you could spend between £400 and £800 depending on the features. Traditional poled tents tend to be far less expensive than inflatable models, although the cost of these is coming down. You can now buy a six berth inflatable for as little as £600.
Expect to pay: £300 - £800

Kids’ sleeping bags can cost as little as a tenner, with very basic adult bags costing only a little more, but again, it’s worth spending more for better quality bags which will be warmer and last longer. For spring and autumn use, it’s important to get bags that provide enough insulation – so expect to pay upwards of £40.
Expect to pay: £80 - £280 (family of four)

These are more comfortable than the lightweight mats favoured by backpackers, but cheaper than camp beds. Don’t forget to pick up an electric pump, too. An even better option is a self-inflating mat, which can be even more comfortable than an airbed.
Expect to pay: £50 - £100 (family of four)

A basic single burner stove is enough for boiling the kettle and heating up simple meals and they will cost as little as £10. If you fancy being more adventurous, look for a combined two-burner stove and grill with a wind guard. It’s also worth forking out for a folding kitchen unit on which to place it. Disposable, gas cylinders start at around £10; returnable cylinders cost more up front, but work out cheaper in the long run if you are getting through a lot of gas.
Expect to pay: £10 - £200

Most camping shops sell traditional whistling kettles and nests of cooking pots, which are ideal for camping. Plastic or melamine crockery is light, durable and kid-proof and don’t forget some serving utensils, a sharp knife and chopping board, tin opener and, of course, a corkscrew and bottle opener.
Expect to pay: £75 - £125 in total

A basic coolbox is adequate for short weekend breaks, but a three-way fridge which can be run off gas, mains or 12-volt power is a better bet for longer stays – if only to keep perishables such as milk, butter and eggs fresh – not to mention chilling beer and wine!
Expect to pay: £15 - £100

Invest in a decent lightweight table and folding chairs and you’ll get as much use out of them in the back garden as you will on site.
Expect to pay: £75 - £200

A simple battery powered lantern can cost as little as £10 but you could spend up to £25 for something will a little more oomph. Consider a couple of head torches too; these can be picked up for a tenner.
Expect to pay: £10-£45

Pitch fees

These vary enormously from site to site and are also dependent upon the time of year. Some small farm sites may only ask a couple of pounds per night, while full facilities sites in peak season may charge upwards of £30 for a family of four.

Learn the camping lingo

Camping has a language of its own and there are some words and phrases that are vital to know, especially when you’re choosing a tent.

You can add a whole extra room, or even some additional shelter, to many tents by opting for a front or side awning or extension.

A tent floor which is attached to the walls with toggles or a zip.

This shows the maximum number of people a tent can accomodate comfortably.

A slot in the tent wall that lets you run an electric cable to the hook-up point

A way to attach the tent’s flysheet to the poles.

Allow you to match the correct sleeve on the flysheet so it always goes in the right place.

A numbering system for fabric. The higher the number the heavier and tougher the fabric – with many tents having 75 to 150 denier.

Some sites allow you to hook-up a mains adapter which lets you run electric appliances in your tent.

Taped seams give extra protection to stop water getting in through joints in the tent fabric, often through heat treating or the addition of extras waterproof fabric.

The outer fabric of the tent.

A custom-sized groundsheet that goes under your tent to give additional protection.

A covered area outside a tent door used to store gear or as a cooking area.

“Glamorous camping” in accommodation such as pods, yurts, tipis and safari tents.  

Waterproof rating for tents. The higher the rating the more water-resistant the material. A hydrostatic head of 1,000 is the requirement for a tent to be considered waterproof.

Inner tents – or extra rooms, usually bedrooms – that can be set up within the tent itself.

The dimensions of your tent when it is packed away in its bag

A term used for when you arrive at a campsite and set up your tent. Also used to describe the spot where you put your tent.

A breathable flysheet material that combines the long-term waterproofing abilities of man-made materials with the feel of cotton.

A metal pin attached to the tent fits into the end of the pole to give the structure its rigidity

A fray-proof material used in tent flysheets to give extra durability

Camping mattresses that fill with air when they are unrolled and don’t need pumped up.

A tent manufactured with the groundsheet attached.

Tent poles that come in sections and are held together by an internal elastic cord.

Finished reading?

Want more great advice and helpful hints to improve your camping skills?

Our guide to becoming a camping expert is full of great tips and help.

  Camping skills: How to become an expert camper

Expert Camping advice to your door!

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