Whether you go away in a tent or a campervan, family camping can be a wonderful experience. From letting the kids run wild on a rural campsite in France to holidaying in a UK park with all the trimmings. And with typical family friendly campsites charging anything from £10 per night for a family of four, this is one of the cheapest ways to take your family away on a holiday, and some would argue, one of the best.
But if you're a beginner with little knowledge of the products and associated terminology, there are many potential pitfalls that can make or break your holiday, from sleeping on cold airbeds to buying a tent that takes a degree in physics to put up.
And the world of #vanlife is no less daunting, with a baffling array of considerations for awnings, furniture and accessories.
In this guide we walk you through some essential equipment to help you on your way to camping or campervan heaven.
Get a self-inflating mat
When I was a kid our camp beds consisted of nothing more than a cheap sleeping bag on the cold, hard floor. 'It builds character' I hear you say, but no, it just put me off camping. With a young family though I rediscovered the joys of sleeping under canvas and quickly learnt the importance of a decent sleeping mat. We started with a cheap, supermarket bought airbed and, although reasonably comfortable, it was COLD. The warmth from your body simply moves around freely and mixes with the cold air from the ground underneath so you feel like you're sleeping on top of a half open cool box. We soon discovered the joys of self-inflating mattresses, or SIMs, which can not only be as comfortable as your bed at home but also offer excellent warmth. Self-inflating mats are constructed of foam, this foam has tiny air pockets inside which is why they 'self-inflate' when you open the valve; as the foam expands, the air pockets open up which draws in air. But these air pockets also trap warmth given off by the body and provide a barrier against cold from the ground. If you want to get really techy, insulation is rated in r-value, a typical lightweight backpacking mat designed to be used in winter months might have an r-value of 5.0, a 10cm thick self-inflating mat designed for car camping is likely to have an r-value closer to double digits. In short, if you want to stay warm and comfortable at night, buy a self-inflating mat.
Recommended kit: Vango Comfort 10 Grande | £100
This single size mat is filled with 10cm of sumptuously comfortable foam with a soft-touch flocked finish to the top. Inflating and deflating is easy through the updated Cyclone Flip Valve and the mat packs down to a reasonable size and weight. A width of 76cm is generous for a single mat and there's also a double available for £40 more.
Use good quality sleeping bags
Many people make the mistake of buying sleeping bags based on looks or price without considering warmth. Think of your duvet at home and its tog rating, sleeping bags are rated in a similar way. If you camp in spring and autumn (and that's when two of the half-terms are, so why wouldn't you?!) then you will need a good quality three-season sleeping bag which covers spring, summer and autumn conditions.
But even then, not all sleeping bags are created equal, it's vital that you match the coldest temperatures you're expecting overnight with the 'comfort rating' of the sleeping bag. This is the minimum temperature at which you'll feel comfortable, if it drops below this, you're likely to feel cold. And with spring and autumn temperatures regularly as low as two or three degrees, you'll need to invest if you want to stay warm. Another option, and one which I favour for sleeping with a partner is to pile duvets on from home, but this takes up a lot of space in the car.
Recommended kit: Outwell Camper Lux | £95
Look towards the backpacking world and you can find much lighter sleeping bags for the temperature rating but they tend to have narrow mummy shapes and are lined with shiny technical materials that aren't very comfortable to sleep in. This little number however is shaped just right to retain heat on cold nights but still allow you to toss and turn without feeling like you're in a straight jacket. A sumptuous 100% cotton lining and built in pillow, as well as a comfort temperature rating of zero degrees all help ensure you have a warm and comfortable night's sleep.
Choose the right camp lights
It's easy to build up a dizzying array of lights for camping, from head torches to lanterns and hand held torches. Most now have efficient LED bulbs which consume far less battery power and still give a decent glow. At a minimum you'll need a lantern of some sort for inside the tent or awning and a hand held torch for late night toilet trips. A head torch is also a very handy addition for task lighting - think tweaking your guylines at night. Most are now rechargeable; we use a combination of solar chargers and power banks to keep them all fully juiced up and carry spare batteries for the ones which also use this power source.
Recommended kit: Coleman Batteryguard 300 head torch | £25
I take a headtorch with me on all camping trips and have recently been using Coleman's Batteryguard 300. This is a lightweight option offering 300 lumens of light on the highest mode, and decent battery life all at a great price.
Easy pitch tents and awnings
Whether you need a cathedral-like family tent big enough to host a wedding in, or a small awning for your van, we would recommend going for one with air beams rather than poles. And the simple reason for this is ease of pitching, when a large family tent takes 20 minutes to pitch start to finish you can get on with enjoying your holiday a lot sooner.
Space, light and storage are also primary concerns, and the likes of Vango offer large crystal-clear windows in living areas, while Coleman have excellent blackout bedrooms, so you don't have to rise with the dawn chorus. Some form of living area is a must with a young family, and we think that bigger is better. We also like tents with an awning out front, which is a handy space to relax and eat in shaded from the sun and rain. Some also offer side doors with small porches. Quality of fabrics usually varies with cost, but it's unusual to find a tent from one of the big manufacturers that doesn't offer good all-round protection from the elements.
Van awnings come in two different forms, driveaway and static. Our first taste of a driveaway awning was a little confusing, but unlike us, if you do your homework and maybe watch a few Youtube videos before you go then you should have less trouble! We've now decided that taking my wife's small car is preferable to using our large 6 berth motorhome for daily sightseeing tours, so a static awning that attaches directly to the van makes more sense.
Recommended kit: Vango Airhub Hexaway II Awning | £675
Vango's Airhub Hexaway II drive away awning offers versatile space from its innovative hexagonal shape. It goes up in no time thanks to a single inflation point for all the airbeams, and the interior space has a bright and airy feel, with room for a family of four to eat and relax. If, like us you camp as well as holiday in a motorhome you can simply roll away the connecting tunnel and use the Airhub as an excellent stand-alone event shelter.
Get your house in order
Get this part right and you'll be preparing and eating food with ease and in comfort. For camping with a family, we think it's essential to have a decent dual burner gas stove. Look for one with integrated windshields on both the burners and case itself, as you won't be using it inside your tent with the doors closed unless you want to risk carbon monoxide poisoning. Also check spacing of the burners as some of the more compact stoves struggle to house a saucepan and frying pan side by side.
Us Brits love a barbecue but wonder around any campsite in the UK and you'll see more of the gas variety than traditional coals. Various options are available, but we still love our portable Campingaz Party Grill 600, in fact it's so good we use it at home too.
Make sure you get good, non-stick pans, and if space is at a premium look for nesting sets. The same goes for crockery, we started with cheap plastic plates and cutlery but soon tired of roughing it and have upgraded to a space efficient bamboo set for camping and proper china in the motorhome.
Recommended kit: Campingaz Party Grill 600 | £170
Campingaz' Party Grill is a great option thanks to its portability, versatility and ability to cook a mean burger. We've been using the Party Grill 400 for years and have recently upgraded to the 600 which is altogether a bigger beast, offering full length legs and a temperature gauge in the lid with the same great versatility and lovely grilled taste to your burgers and sausages as the Party Grill 400.
Use packable/foldable furniture
Camping with a family can be a truly messy business and you'll quickly learn to compartmentalise all your kit into logical spaces. We find a folding camp kitchen invaluable for storing tins, herbs and snacks as well as all our cookware and of course the stove and kettle. Somewhere to put your clothes is also handy and most of the popular camping brands sell some form of portable storage solution for this very purpose.
A set of folding camping chairs and table is vital, if space is tight look for a compact set with its own carry bag or you could buy seats that work for both eating and relaxing. We're big fans of Helinox chairs and tables, which are ultra-lightweight and have tiny pack sizes, making them great options for space conscious campers.
Recommended kit: Vango Orchard Table and Chairs Set | £90
We use Vango's Orchard table and chair set and rate it mainly based on the neat little package it presents when fully folded and stowed in the included carry bag. It takes up very little space in our car boot or motorhome and is fantastically lightweight but folds out into a small table and chair set capable of seating four.
Keep it fun
Everything else on this list is pretty practical, but it shouldn't be all hard work. Think beach games, swimming kit, footballs and bikes. We also like to find campsites which allow fires, and now pack a portable fire pit for evenings sat toasting marshmallows around the fire.
Recommended kit: Primus Kamoto OpenFire Pit | £133
A massive fire pit is tricky to squeeze into a packed car or campervan, so we absolutely love the practicality of the Primus Kamoto. It folds down and even has a little carry handle. Its compact nature makes it ideal for campsites when open, as it keeps the fire small enough to be safe but still big enough for heat. As a bonus the Kamoto comes with a grill for the top for impromptu beach barbecues. An ash pan protects the ground and the air inlet and side wind guards ensure your fire stays flaming hot for longer.
The little things
I guarantee you'll come back from every trip with a list of must-buy kit for your next trip. This is part of the fun of camping and campervan holidays, although it can get addictive. To get you started, here's a cheat sheet of items we've bought along the way that you might not have thought of;
- Clothes line and pegs
- Collapsible water container
- Dust pan and brush
- Tin opener, corkscrew/bottle opener, knife set, cheese grater, peeler, chopping board, tea towels
- Mobile internet device
- Power banks
- Solar charger
- Gaffa tape
- Zip ties
- Multi-tool with screwdriver bits
- Rubber mallet