Planning the perfect camping road trip in the UK
A camping road trip gives you the freedom to explore – simply work out your route, pack your tent then hit the road. Our guide tells you everything you need to know about planning and enjoying your road trip
Words and pictures by Iain Duff
- Introduction to camping road trips
- Planning a road trip: where and when to go
- Plotting a route for a road trip
- Choosing your campsites
- How much will it cost?
- What sort of tent do I need for a camping road trip?
- Should I take the full camping kit on a road trip?
- Packing your car for a camping road trip
- Hitting the road
- In the car
- Camping road trip inspiration
- About our magazines
An introduction to camping road trips
A road trip is all about freedom and nothing gives you more freedom to explore than camping. So it stands to reason that combining the two is the ultimate way to discover a place and see everything it has to offer.
It’s not just about driving all day and taking in the scenery through the windscreen.
Instead, the changes in location let you to increase the scope of your holiday by taking in walks, activities and visits to attractions in different areas – perhaps off the cuff or planned as a theme and sorted in detail.
In our guide to planning the perfect camping road trip, you’ll find all the important information and advice you’ll need to plan a successful tour in the UK or overseas.
Whether your camping road trip takes in an entire continent, a single country or just a particular area, you’re certain to have an adventure that creates memories that will last forever.
Planning a camping road trip: Where and when to go
A road trip can be a simple affair but even the most straightforward tour needs some advance planning.
If you are lucky enough have an unlimited amount of money or time for your road trip then you could simply choose where you want to go and hit the highway.
Unfortunately, most of us don't have that luxury, so to maximise your budget and time it's essential to come up with a detailed route and a plan for overnight stops. Not only does that help you make the most of your trip but it ensures that you are able to get onto the campsites you want at busy times.
Don't be put off by the thought of researching and preparing a trip, though. Planning is all part of the adventure, and for some people it's the best bit!
Where to go
This is the first thing you need to decide and the options are endless. Do you want to tour in the UK or in Europe? If you want to go abroad, remember to consider any travel restrictions relating to Covid and Brexit.
You could go for a recognised 'official' route such as the North Coast 500 in Scotland or the Wales Coastal Way. Or you could create an itinerary of your own, simply by deciding on somewhere that you really want to explore and researching a route taking in as many interesting places as possible.
Have a look here for some more camping road trip inspiration.
When to go
As tempting as it might be to take your road trip in the height of summer when the weather is likely to be at its best, it's worth considering earlier or later in the season.
Popular routes, such as the North Coast 500, can be extremely busy throughout the summer, which makes driving far less enjoyable, especially on the sort of back roads that make up many of these routes.
Campsites are also quieter and cheaper in spring and early autumn, which is another very good reason for avoiding the peak times.
When you're deciding when to travel, make sure to check whether there are any big events planned to take place when you want to go. Get the timing wrong, and a music festival, for example, could unexpectedly turn that sleepy Suffolk A-road into something that resembles central Birmingham at rush hour.
Plotting a route for your camping road trip
On a road trip, the journey is the destination and an integral part of the holiday rather than something to be endured.
Normally when you’re going on holiday, you’d try to find the shortest and quickest way to get you from A to B. Usually that would mean travelling along motorways, dual carriageways and major A-roads.
But on a road trip the route you take is as important as the final destination. When you sit down to plan your journey, instead of choosing the fastest highway, look for the road that offers up the best views. Think slow – perhaps a meandering coastal road or a snaking mountain pass. Make time to stop and take in the sights.
Scour the internet and guidebooks to find the most interesting attractions and places to visit in the area, and factor them into your route.
When it comes to actually working out the route you want to follow, there’s nothing quite like poring over a traditional paper map or road atlas. Spread the map out on the floor and spend a couple of hours looking at all the alternative options.
The amount of time you have for the trip will obviously have a major bearing on your itinerary. But don’t forget to factor in getting to the start of the route and getting back home at the end. Depending on where you want to go, that could mean adding two or three days onto the start and end of your holiday.
If you can build it into your itinerary, take a break from driving and pick a place to stay for a few days so you can really get to explore in some more detail.
While paper maps are great for giving you a feel for the area, Google Maps is a brilliant tool for working out how long it will take to drive between destinations.
What might seem on the map like a short drive, could in reality take twice as long, and that might throw all your plans out of whack. Plotting the proposed route on Google Maps, or similar, should flag up any issues like that and let you really plan your route in detail.
If you input starting times, the website will be able to tell you when you are expected to arrive at your stopover. Don’t forget you’ll need time to set up your tent on the campsite before it gets dark.
Choosing your campsites
On many of the most popular road trips, it is important that you try to book your camping accommodation well in advance.
For smaller, simpler sites, there’s often less need to book in advance. The management and atmosphere can be very relaxed which suits a flexible touring trip. Plus, there’s rarely a need to stay a minimum number of nights during peak holiday times.
While there is a risk in not pre-booking sites at peak times in popular areas, sometimes you can have your choice of pitches, especially if you are not bothered about an electric hook-up.
The campsite you choose will partly depend on the kind of facilities you need, but it will also be determined to a large extent by what is available where you want to stay.
The chances are that there will only be a couple of campsites in the area.
The good news is that you will only be staying one or two nights, so you won’t need a huge amount of facilities and even if the campsite is poor, you’ll be moving on quickly to somewhere else.
How much will it cost?
Budgets for a road trip will vary and ultimately will be decided by how much you can afford and what you choose to spend.
But to keep costs under control and make sure you don't run out of money, we would recommend first working out roughly how much it will cost for fuel and accomodation, then setting a daily budget for food and drink and any other miscellaneous costs, eg visitor attraction entry fees.
One of the attractions of a road trip is that you might find a cheap little café that serves up hearty food at a fraction of the cost of a city-centre restaurant.
These are the places that can make a trip and it's always worth taking a chance on somewhere that might look unlikely, in the hope that it turns out to be a hidden gem.
Although most retailers now accept cards – in fact some now insist on it – in places off the beaten track, you might still find that cash is the only way to pay, so make sure you have some to hand. If you're abroad, always have some local currency on you in case of emergencies.
What sort of tent do I need for a camping road trip?
If you are used to pitching up at a campsite for an annual holiday of a week or two, then taking a touring holiday will require a change of approach.
On a touring trip, where you move from campsite to campsite every day or every couple of days, it makes sense to travel lighter than you would normally.
No one wants to spend loads of time pitching a tent, setting up camp and generally getting organised, only to then have to take it all apart in the morning, move on and repeat the process the next day.
Instead, take a smaller tent that is easier to fit in the boot of the car and can be pitched and packed away quickly – and for faster pitching, you should consider an inflatable tent. Time saved pitching means you have more to spend on enjoying the holiday.
A smaller tent will almost certainly mean sacrificing living space and sometimes some headroom but it’s really a trade-off between space and freedom.
The actual capacity of tent you take will depend on how many of you are camping. If you are touring as a family, you will obviously need more space than a couple or a solo camper.
Perhaps the best option is a smaller tunnel tent for three, four or five people; these will usually give you some limited living space in addition to your sleeping area but have a smaller overall footprint than a large family model.
Look out for tent with a front porch, which is useful for cooking and eating. A windbreak can extend your outdoor living space, as well as doing the job it’s designed for.
Another option, which is becoming more popular especially for solo travellers or couples, is a roof tent. This is basically a pop-up tent inside a roof box, which is attached to the top of your car. It only takes a few minutes to set up and allows you to pitch up pretty much anywhere.
Key points for picking a tent for touring:
- Consider the ease of pitching and packing; ask in the shop if you can give it a go rather than guessing
- Get inside a pitched tent before buying it to check if there is enough space to be comfortable – not just the floor space but headroom as well
- Make sure the porch has enough space for storage and for cooking in bad weather. An extended porch with door to the side offers loads of extra space with relatively little extra weight
- An optional porch extension or awning can significantly increase the size of a smaller tent to make it suitable for the longer family holiday
Should I take the full camping kit on a road trip?
On longer camping trips, you might be used to filling the boot, a roof box and maybe even a trailer full of gear. But for a touring holiday, less is more. Keep furniture and other accessories to a minimum – but make sure you do have enough gear to make your camping comfortable.
Be as ruthless as you can when it comes to packing but as a bare minimum you will need a bed and sleeping bag for each individual camper, as well as folding chairs and a camping table.
Rather than packing a large double-burner stove, take a small, single cooker that can be used for boiling a kettle and cooking simple, one-pot meals. If your budget allows it, you might want to eat out in cafés and pubs as much as possible to keep cooking to a minimum.
That means your tent is really only a bedroom and dressing room rather than a complete home from home.
Packing your car for a camping road trip
When you are packing the car, try to ensure that the last thing you put in the boot is the first thing you will need on the campsite – that will usually be your tent. This will make setting up camp much easier and by the end of a week-long road trip you’ll have it down to a fine art.
Tough plastic boxes with lids, like the Really Useful range, are great for transporting camping accessories like cooking and eating gear.
Soft luggage makes even more sense when touring and space is at a premium. With a smaller tent, it may well be that your car becomes a wardrobe or storage cupboard.
If you do find you need to take more gear with you, or you want to leave some spare capacity in the boot for souvenirs of your trip, then consider a roof box.
Tempting though it is to squeeze in equipment around passengers, do not do it. All that kit will be converted into missiles in the event of an accident or sharp braking.
Hitting the road
You should have sorted out your route in some detail during the planning stage, but before you set off, make sure you have alternative options as back-up, in case of roadworks, accidents or bad weather.
It's likely you'll be covering a lot of miles, so before setting off, make sure your car is up to the job. Get the tyres checked, check oil levels and generally give everything a once-over. If you're going abroad, remember to get all your paperwork in order.
Breakdown cover is vital and make sure you have a spare tyre on board. You should also plan ahead for comfort breaks as public toilets are not widely available along the route. As well as public conveniences, some filling stations will have toilets as well as cafés, pubs and restaurants.
Most of what we've covered here applies equally whether you are driving in the UK or overseas, but there are some important things you'll need to consider when you're travelling through mainland Europe. You'll find more information about driving abroad here.
A sat-nav certainly makes life a lot easier, but on a road trip you need to be flexible, so don’t follow it religiously. Take a traditional road atlas as well, as they can give you a better overview of the area than the electronic map on the sat-nav.
Don’t be afraid to deviate from the main “official” route to see more interesting places. Take your time and you will get more out of a road trip. Make time to stop and soak in the views.
Remember that as well as tourists, you will be sharing the roads with local people who rely on the roads for their day-to-day life. So it is important to make sure you drive responsibly and safely and treat the area with respect.
Set off with plenty of time in hand, rather than set an unrealistic or demanding schedule for reaching your next stopover. Regular breaks ease in-car tensions and help to keep drivers alert.
If you’ve got a pitch booked, give the campsite a call an hour or so before you are due to get there to check it’s all in order. If you get delayed en route, let the campsite wardens know you’ll be late.
To avoid running out of fuel, try to keep your tank topped up as much as possible, so fill up whenever you get the opportunity. As well as the petrol stations in the larger towns, you’ll find independent garages in some smaller communities.
In the car
With your route planned, campsites booked and car packed, you are ready to get your motor running and head out on the highway. The last thing to do is stock up on boiled sweets and gather all your important documents together, safe and handy.
The easiest way to keep track of key paperwork, tickets, credit cards and money on holiday is to use a neat document wallet and stash it in the glove compartment. Keeping it all together focuses the mind on not losing it.
On the road, have plenty of listening options available – download your favourite podcasts and/or audio books in advance, and set up a driving playlist on your phone. If you’re old school you could even make up your own compilation CDs!
Tuning in to local radio stations is a brilliant way to get a feel for the area you’re visiting, as well as providing you with useful traffic information.
DVDs and video games will keep youngsters occupied – but on longer trips, traditional car games like i-spy are good fun for everyone (up to a point!).
Pack a coolbox and flasks with everything you need for something to eat and drink en route; being self-contained saves time, money and aggravation. If you do want to stop for food and drink, pubs off the beaten track beat motorway services for refuelling any day of the week.
A dashcam can give you more peace of mind when you take to the road and it can provide a good video record of the drive as well as coming in handy if the worst happens and you have a crash.
Camping road trip inspiration
(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
Camping the North Coast 500: The ultimate UK road trip
The North Coast 500 is a spectacular 516-mile circular driving route around the most northern tip of the Scottish mainland. It boasts incredible coastal scenery, with a new spine-tingling vista around every corner.North Coast 500 guide
(Photo courtesy of Unsplash)
Exploring the Wales Coastal Way
Camping magazine editor Iain Duff makes an epic five-day journey along the Welsh coast following the 180-mile Wales Coastal Way.Wales Coastal Way
(Photo courtesy of Unsplash)
Camping on Scotland's South West Coastal 300 route
The South West Coastal 300 is a circular touring route around the southwest of Scotland and it's a fantastic way for campers to discover the charms of one of the UK's hidden gems. Here you’ll find a complete guide to making the most of your visit, including a five-day touring itinerary.South West Coastal 300
An unforgettable family camping road trip through Europe
A spectacular family camping tour through the heart of Europe that takes in 10 countries and covers more than 2,000 miles.European road trip
Top tips for a stress-free road trip in Europe
Everything you need to know about driving abroad when you take a European camping road trip
Do you like the idea of taking a camping road trip across Europe? Check out our top tips for driving and camping abroadEuro road trip tips
Essential Guide To Camping 2022
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We know that buying a new tent is not easy, whether you are a first-time camper or a veteran. But in the Essential Guide we have the answers to all the big questions. Should you go for a tunnel, a dome or a vis-a-vis? Inflatable, pop-up or traditional poles? And is a four-berth really big enough for your family?
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