How to find the perfect campsite
Reflecting the serendipity of life, some sites that tick all the right boxes leave much to be desired whilst apparent losers turn out to be stars. That's a relief, of course, otherwise we'd all be making detailed plans and life would turn out as expected.
That said, even a minimal filter loads the dice in favour of having a good time. All guides will list facilities, location, number of pitches and so on. Happily, many modern campsite guides emphasise character and seek out alternative settings to the classic open level field. Our site info pages will help you make a considered choice and online forums offer up-to-date feedback on other people's experience.
Some criteria in refining your choice are simple. Want to holiday in Cornwall? Then don't bother considering sites in Scotland. Don't enjoy company? Avoid holiday parks. Want to take your dog? Check that they are welcome. A few minutes' discussion and reflection will refine the range of preferences and save frustration and disappointment.
Over time, you'll realise the type of site that suits and how to interpret the descriptions in guides, brochures and ads. Happily, the vast majority of campsites tell it like it is rather than falling prey to estate agent style of weasel words. It can be fun though to step out of the comfort zone of familiarity every now and then. Sometimes, the lure of a pizzeria on site can offset the proximity of pitches – at least for a night or two. Likewise, a stunning location may make up for pretty basic facilities. As the old saw has it, 'you pays your money and makes your choice'. Shouldn't that be the other way around though?
Research is far easier these days than ever before and the range of options allows for many happy hours of indecision and list making. The scheming is part of most camping trips unless you prefer to pack up, keep your eyes peeled and trust to luck and vacancies.
Guides For many years, the Camping and Caravanning Club's Your Big Sites Book (that's big as in book not size of sites) was a staple source of places to pitch in unknown areas; the Club's Your Place in the Country is the guide to its own sites. More recently, the Cool Camping guides have become popular with family and friends as we generally prefer small sites with less regimented layouts and the chance to enjoy open fires. It's handy, too, that the site info has notes on local pubs. Curiously, libraries rarely have campsite guides lurking on their shelves but most bookshops will a have a few options, such as that published by the AA.
Clubs As well as the obvious big names, including youth organisations, there are dozens of special interest camping groups ranging from religious to CB radio. And there is a growing number of rallies, small and large, that are being organised around the country for Club members by Club members using their organization’s Exempted Camping Certificate.
Certificated Sites Each with space normally for only 15 caravans, motorhomes or tents, there are some 1,400 of these small, privately run campsites and they are only available to members of The Camping and Caravanning Club. Other Club’s can set up similar sites if they have an Exempted Camping Certificate and it pays to keep your eye open on-line for clubs that run such sites, temporary campsites and rallies.
Internet You’ll find more than 2,200 campsites listed in our own Campsite Finder. However, a straightforward search for campsites will throw up a variety of options; some are useful in cross-referencing the bald facts in a traditional sites' guide. Tourist boards should be a useful source but continually disappoint; they are appear to prefer promoting hotels and B&Bs. Time and again, tourist board sites only list big holiday parks completely distorting the spectrum of camping opportunities in their area. Perhaps smaller independent campsites aren't members of business associations or don't turn up to tourism development meetings?
Listening Some of our favourite campsites have been discovered by personal recommendation; many more might have been enjoyed if the name had been noted down when mentioned. Swapping site info is useful but if you're talking to people you'd rather avoid in future, don't part with favourites. Social media is rapidly becoming a great way to pick up recommendations, but, again, be wary.
Wild Each year, wild country is getting harder to find in Britain. Happily, it is still possible to find spots that feel remote and offer privacy; if you have favourite 'secret' pitches, you'd best suppress the impulse to share the finds with friends unless you want to lose the peace and quiet. It is quite easy to get bogged down in the legal situation regarding trespass and pitching a tent in England and Wales where, unlike Scotland, there is no right to such access. An exception for backpackers on Dartmoor breaks the rule and the website advice is useful for all outdoor enthusiasts.
All land is owned by somebody and, in theory, permission should be obtained before pitching. In reality, that is often not possible though pitching a small tent on high and remote ground is unlikely to have an irate landowner on your case. Care and consideration go a long way in averting confrontation – as does discretion. A tent that blends into the colours of the landscape will help to ensure that you will enjoy undisturbed nights. If you are not stopping on an organised site, then you must be aware of and practice minimal impact camping techniques - see the September 2010 issue of Camping for full info. 2005 saw the implementation of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and Scottish Outdoor Access Code; the Act established a statutory right to camp and the Code details responsibilities and current best practice.
Backpackers' Club The club is intended for people who enjoy lightweight self-contained camping. Since its foundation in 1972, benefits to members have grown steadily with many services still unique to the club including the UK Farm Pitch Directory and Long Distance Path Site and Pitch Directory.
- "Wilderness begins in the human mind," said American eco-writer Edward Abbey; happily, you can often find a peaceful corner even on busy sites.
- Larger sites usually need more organisation as well as rules and signs. If that is not to your taste then you are better off avoiding them.
- Smaller sites usually have less formal instructions and fewer rules and regulations. At one memorable remote farm site, the owner had no change so we fed the chickens instead of paying cash.
- Use of The Camping and Caravanning Club's sites is not restricted but the Certificated Sites' network is only available to members.
- By and large, electric hook-up facilities tend to be found on larger commercial sites – but not exclusively. The cost of installing the system is commercially prohibitive for the vast majority of smaller sites even if campers were prepared to pay a significant premium.
- maller characterful sites can still offer clean comfortable facilities.
- Some sites pack pitches close together; too close for comfort sometimes. It's worth checking before booking a pitch to avoid disappointment and irritating neighbours.
- Ironically, many smaller sites have huge pitches with more privacy than is usually found on big sites.