I feel a little duplicitous placing this in the Fabulous Things section, as I have had a long and tortuous love/hate relationship with camping. Every trip presents an emotional roller-coaster that starts with the packing, because there is so much STUFF (lots of people in the world don't even own as much as we take camping!), and it takes so long, and I hate it, I hate it, I hate it! Finally we're in the car, and after a while I'm enjoying the view out the window, thinking, "gosh, it is nice to get out of the city!" Then we arrive and unpack (so much stuff! I hate it!) and by evening I'm settled in with a glass of wine, and maybe a campfire, looking at the stars, saying "this is lovely, we should do it more often." But then it's off to bed, and the mattress is uncomfortable and I'm tangled in the stupid sleeping bag and the crickets are so #@$* loud, I hate it, I hate it! But in the morning the air is crisp, the light is magical, the birds are singing and we are eating bacon sandwiches for breakfast, and I think "oh, this is great!". Repeat this for a few more days, then it's time to pack ALL THIS #%*@ STUFF again, and unpack it all again at home, and I'm never doing this again! Until the next time...
So what is fabulous about camping?
The night sky
Forget 5-star accommodation, this is 5-million star accommodation. Away from the light-pollution of the towns and cities, the night sky reveals its unfathomable enormity and breath-taking grandeur. Spectacular!
Time away from technology
On a recent trip we made an arduous climb to the top of a rocky outcrop which presented us with a stunning 360 degree view over untouched natural park. We stood in awe and wonder...until our 14 year-old squealed "OMG I've got coverage!" Cutting yourself off from the outside world can be a bit of a wrench initially, but it forces you to slow down and pay attention to the natural world and the people around you, and enjoy some simpler entertainments.
Not caring about how you look
Camping trips are the time to let go of all pressure to look presentable and allow your inner dork out to play, wandering up to the toilet block in your PJs, throwing on any old mismatched clothes and realising you haven't bushed your hair properly for days. Make-up? Pffft!
Kids LOVE it!
On our first family camping trips we packed loads of toys, which went untouched as our children spent hours scrambling up trees, making cubby houses out of sticks and throwing rocks into water. Everything about camping is a big adventure for kids - the natural world, the teeny tent-houses, the camp-fire, being out in the dark, playing with torches. Their joy and enthusiasm can almost make you forget all the effort and discomfort involved (almost...).
Seeing really fabulous things
Even my cool-cat daughter was overcome by a wave of emotion at the top of a mountain, spontaneously declaring "oh, I love you Mum!"
So, yes, there can be some very good reasons to go camping. But what about all the hassles and discomfort? Well, here are my ingredients for a happier, easier camping trip:
Camping is the time to embrace all that minimalist dogma you've read about. Every item you pack has to be shifted at least four times - packing the car, unpacking at camp, repacking the car, unpacking at home - so make sure everything earns its place. (A copy of my camping packing list, honed over many years and aimed at balancing comfort, convenience and minimalism, can be found here.)
Stuff that does it's job well
This doesn't mean that you have to rush out and buy a whole lot of specialised camping gear. It does mean choosing wisely, so that your equipment suits your needs and will get maximum use, both while camping and in your everyday life. Sure, you could fork out for a fancy washing-up stand, but a plastic bucket on a folding table will do the job nicely, and you can always use the bucket in the garden and the table for picnics. A doona can work just as well as a sleeping bag, and unless you are doing some serious backpacking, you probably don't really need folding cutlery and collapsible bowls. Start with what you've got and only branch out into the specialist gear if 1) you will do loads of camping and 2) the specialist gear will make a really significant difference to the camping experience.
Strong contenders for my most disliked aspects of camping are 1) packing and 2) scrambling around looking for things at our campsite. If you plan to do any amount of camping, consider getting a ready-packed camping kit together. Kitchen utensils, buckets and dustpans can be purchased so inexpensively that it is worth buying extra just to keep them in your kit. Sheets and towels that are past their prime can also find a home in the kit. A well-stocked camping kit can save you hours in packing time!
Plastic crates are useful for storing your camping gear - opt for 1 or 2 larger ones for the bigger items and a shallower one, ideally with dividers inside, for the smaller items (this makes it SO much easier to find things).
Once set up at your campsite, make sure that everyone takes a few seconds to put things back where they belong after each use. As the guardian of The Camping Storage System you must zealously battle the thoughtless, irresponsible villains (ie. everyone else) who carelessly leave things all over the place and then call you names like 'control freak' when you point out that they put the tongs in the wrong box, yet expect you to help them find their casually-tossed headlamp in the dark. Breathe deeply and remind yourself that all great visionaries are misunderstood by those around them.
When packing up your campsite, make sure that every is packed away clean. Once home, replenish any supplies as needed. The goal is to make sure that on the next trip you can quickly throw the kit in the car, confident that it is complete and ready-to-go.
A tent you can stand up in
Crawling in and out of a short tent is a nuisance, and trying to get dressed while sitting/kneeling/crouching is a frustration you don't need.
When you are young you can bounce up after a rough night's sleep and embark on a 10km hike. Once you get to 'a certain age', a good sleep becomes critical to camping enjoyment.
I've tried a wide range of options over the years: foam mattresses (if too thin, you may as well be lying on the ground; too thick and they fill your luggage space), stretchers (too hard), single air-beds (sprung a leak in the middle of the night) and a huge queen-size ensemble blow-up bed (perfectly comfortable for the heaviest person, rock-hard for the lightest...that would be me.)
The best comfort vs. compactness compromise I've found is a thick self-inflating mattress, as seen in the picture. For a super-luxurious camp-bed, I put it on top of a camping stretcher, which gets me off the ground and allows me to store all my stuff underneath. Almost as good as a real bed!
(Please note: the items pictured aren't necessarily the brand that I use or recommend, they just illustrate the style of product I use.)
As with bedding, we have tried a number over the years, and now we wouldn't go camping without these reclining chairs. They take up a bit more space than other folding chairs, but they are the only ones we take and they are soooooo comfortable! In fact, we use them on our deck at home all year round.
For protection from the sun and rain, the easiest option is a portable gazebo. It goes up in minutes, and the frame provides a useful hanging space for towels and so on. A collapsible mesh toy hanger hooked over the frame provides excellent storage for little bits and pieces.
It's worth investing in a gazebo of decent quality, if you think you will get a bit of use out of it (these are handy for any outdoor event, not just camping. We have even taken our 2.4m one to the beach). If buying one, check how large it is when folded down in its case. While a larger area is beneficial once its up, its no good getting one that doesn't fit in your car or is too heavy for you to handle. It's also worth investing in the custom-made side walls, or packing a tarp that you can attach to the side, because rain and sun always seem to come in at an angle when you're camping.
Plenty of lighting
Scrambling around in the dark is another hot contender for my least favourite thing about camping. Frustrations can be eased considerably by ensuring that you have one headlamp per person, plus one light for the eating area and one for each tent. This compact style is excellent. Make sure you have spare batteries.
A tall table for food preparation
If you want to be really comfortable, take two folding tables - one as a dining table and the other for food preparation/washing up. The extra table means that you don't have to keep shuffling stuff around every time you need a bit of space to eat or work. We recently acquired a folding table that is adjustable up to a normal bench height - so much more convenient for cooking!
Good but simple food
Bring food that is super-simple to prepare, including pre-cooked dishes that just need to be heated through. Make sure you have enough no-cook food to get by if your cooker conks out / it is pouring rain / some idiot has vandalised all the BBQs. After lugging around heavy gas bottles for years, we have been converted to the lightweight cookers with small gas canisters - just make sure you take a few replacement canisters with you.
A few edible luxuries can help to make up for the inconveniences of camping. Ground coffee beans and a small French press/plunger can produce a decent morning brew, and pate on fresh bread makes a lovely breakfast. And of course, there's hot chocolate and biscuits and marshmallows for the fire. Something nice to drink is essential, but keep an eye on the volume or you'll be navigating tricky toilet trips in the middle of the night. Beer is the worst, wine is OK, but the best bang for your buck is provided by spirits (Martini, anyone?) or liqueurs (Black Sambuca by firelight - magnificent!)
Perfect weather and quiet /distant neighbours
The difference between a pleasant camping experience and an unpleasant one is exactly the width of a tent wall. That's right, around one millimetre stands between you and the blistering heat/freezing cold/torrential rain/buffeting wind/weird animal noises/drunken louts/snoring neighbours/screaming children.
You don't have much control over the neighbours you get, although I have a policy of making friendly gestures earlier in the day in the hope of encouraging a considerate approach. I have also, much to the horror of my children, 'had a word' with neighbours who are still making a racket after 10pm (my God people, don't you realise we will all be awake at dawn!)
As the old saying goes, there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Make sure you pack one set of extra-warm clothes and rain-gear, no matter what the forecast says! And don't be a martyr. There is no shame in coming home early if you are really miserable.
Any other handy hints to add?