Camping. Just the word conjures up images of boy scouts and hippies, shivering in leaky tents. But with tents and equipment designed by the likes of Ted Baker, record numbers of women are driving a camping revolution.
The trend is being propelled by a dramatic growth in the number of camping enthusiasts in the UK, particularly young women. This week, VisitBritain will publish new figures illustrating just how big the phenomenon has become. The statistics show a rise in the number of domestic camping trips being taken of nearly a million between 2003 and 2005, to roughly 4.9 million.
By far the biggest increase is among female campers, whose 1.55 million overnight trips in 2003 had risen to 2.2 million by 2005. In total, women now account for 45 per cent of all camping trips in Britain, as opposed to 38 per cent in 2003.
In terms of design, kudos and sales, tents are up. Celebrities are rushing to declare their devotion to nights under canvas; books are being published on the "cool camping" phenomenon, and big-name fashion designers are scrambling for a piece of the action.
Patricia Yates of VisitBritain said the trend - which has also seen membership of the Camping and Caravanning Club rise from 330,000 to 430,000 over the past three years - had been helped by a widespread improvement in campsites.
"A big part of this growth is the fact that camping is better quality: for example, the toilet and shower blocks on sites are much better now," said Ms Yates. "Camping is still fun, but that rise in standards, and people knowing they can go to a site, have a hot shower and not have to dig a hole in the ground to go to the toilet, has made it much more attractive to women. Camping's not only become cool - it's become comfortable."
Another factor in the rise of domestic camping has been a growing appreciation of sustainability and the damage caused by air travel, added Ms Yates. "People are more concerned about the environmental impact of their holidays," she said. "There is more of a realisation that individual actions can make a difference, and we're thinking more about our holiday choices."
Either way, recycled army tents, draughty windcheaters and damp sleeping bags are out; cowboy-print tepees, hydroweave jackets and luxurious Mongolian yurts are in. The designer Cath Kidston is already firmly attached to the cool camping bandwagon, having produced an exclusive range for Millets including tepees, floral-print tents, hammocks, ponchos and windshields. London-based Ted Baker has also been camping it up - launching his own range at Blacks, including bearskin airbeds and tents adorned by formations of flying ducks.
Even celebrities - more often spotted heading for five-star hotels - are getting involved. Quite a few have declared their love for camping over recent months, including Sienna Miller, Jodie Kidd, Jamie Oliver, Kylie Minogue, Tess Daly and Alex James.
As if to drive the point home with a camping mallet, two rival books have been published recently - both entitled Cool Camping. Laura James, the editor of the Collins version, said that people were not only realising that camping was stylish, but that it could be sexy too.
"Camping is different," said Ms James. "There's certainly something elemental about it. Stepping out on to wet grass with bare feet first thing in the morning can be a really sensual experience - the whole thing can be very sexy."
On the high street, the upturn in fortunes of the humble tent has become visible too. Russell Hardy, chief executive of Black's Leisure Group, said the company had seen sales of camping equipment increase by 15 per cent since 2003. "Over the past two years, we've had proper summers," said Mr Hardy. "The weather has been nice and it hasn't rained too much, which has encouraged more people to try camping - and to stay in the UK to do it. Camping in a modern tent is a much easier and more enjoyable experience than it was even five years ago."
Laura Burr, 29, a publishing executive from London, is one of the new breed of campers. Yesterday, she was celebrating her birthday with 12 friends on a camping trip to Banbury, Oxfordshire. "I'd never really been camping before, but I went a few weeks ago for the first time and really enjoyed it," said Ms Burr.
In anticipation of this trip, she treated herself to a Cath Kidston cowboy-print tent. "I think that's why I like the idea so much: because I've got a cool tent," she said. "Camping's great; it's a whole new thing to go shopping for."Reuse content