The complete guide to camping

Just us, our tent and the great outdoors... Ben Ross makes a pitch for the holiday under canvas and chooses a few sites for sore eyes. And as for those pesky mozzies - well, these days we have the technology
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO CAMPING?

WHY GO CAMPING?

There's a peculiar satisfaction to be had from successfully erecting a tent. New designs have made them far less complicated than they used to be (the Swallows and Amazons were forever doing devious things with stones and heavy canvas), but it's still an achievement to transform an empty glade into a sheltered bedroom using only a few square metres of fabric, some string and a bendy pole. There's also an emotional connection to be made with Mother Nature. Unless you've pitched your tent at the Glastonbury Festival, you'll be breathing fresh air and enjoying the delights of the countryside around you. What's more, you'll be doing so in an amazingly flexible form of accommodation. After all, what hotel room allows you to rotate your view on a nightly basis?

Finally, there's a practical benefit to camping. Even after the cost of your equipment is taken into consideration, it's still one of the cheapest forms of holidaymaking there is. With pitches at basic sites starting from as little as £2 per night in the UK, a tent is a perfect base from which to hike, cycle or visit local attractions. It's certainly a popular pastime: around three million camping holidays are taken by Brits each year, representing some 15 million nights under canvas.

SO HOW DO I GET STARTED?

First things first: seek professional help at an outdoor or camping shop, but don't get carried away by all the gizmos. The most important thing to bear in mind is whether the gear you're choosing will be suitable for the area and climate you are travelling to. There's no point buying an expensive four-seasons sleeping bag if you only ever intend to camp in France in July.

These days, you can buy a good tent for surprisingly little. To give yourself a better idea of the options, visit Blacks (01604 441 111, www.blacks.co.uk); Ellis Brigham (0870 444 5555, www.ellis-brigham.com); Millets (0800 214 890, www.millets.co.uk); or Cotswold Outdoor (01666 575 575, www.cotswold-outdoor.com). A basic camping set-up amounts to a tent (two-man geodesic versions start at £40); a sleeping bag (from £20 for one that will serve you during the summer months) and a sleeping mat (from £40 for an inflatable Thermarest, which packs up easily, or from £5 for a foam multimat).

Millets also sells striped tents, Union Jack tents (available from mid-June, and tents with flames on them. Some Millets staff are apparently trained to erect a standard two-person tent while blindfolded, a skill you will probably never require.

Unless you plan on eating out every night, you'll also need something to cook with. Basic single-burner camping stoves start at £20. Everything can, of course, be upscaled according to your needs: family-size tents have porches and separate sleeping compartments (prices start at about £150), and family-size stoves, with four gas rings and a grill, start at £60.

As far as camping accessories go, there's a huge array of devices designed to make your trip that little bit easier, from waterproof matches to folding tables and collapsible pans. But probably the most important single item is a torch: vital for locating a discreet thicket in the dark night of the countryside.

IT ALL SOUNDS TERRIBLY PRIMITIVE...

That's entirely down to you. Of course, at its core, camping is all about necessity. Hikers who travel with two pairs of pants and three pairs of socks (for careful rotation) have made travelling light their first priority. For these hardy souls, a bivy bag (basically a sleeping bag with a hood, prices start at £150) represents luxury. But the British Holiday and Home Parks Association (BH&HPA), to which 3,000 UK holiday parks belong, has identified a fast-growing market of "born again campers" - couples and families who have tired of luxury hotels and who now want to rediscover "the pleasures of waking up to birdsong and fresh country air".

Jon Boston, a spokesman for the BH&HPA, says: "These people are anxious for their youngsters not to miss out on the type of experiences they themselves enjoyed as children. They also worry that their offspring might be getting too used to leisure that relies on artificial surroundings and ready-made entertainment." As a result, some "countryside discovery" parks sell themselves on the basis of beautiful locations and a complete absence of pubs, clubs and noisy distractions, while at the same time offering quality assurances, such as grading standards from tourist boards, good-quality toilet and shower facilities, and a park shop. For more information, call 01749 870 639, or see www.countryside-discovery.co.uk.

The Camping and Caravanning Club (024 7669 4995, www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk) also runs lots of graded sites across the UK, some of them providing the most basic facilities and others being more upmarket. Membership costs £27.50, which includes discounted rates at certified club sites, and access to other sites abroad.

If you prefer "wild camping" - pitching up at places other than parks and other licensed sites - then you must ask the landowner's permission before raising your tent, otherwise you may be guilty of trespass. It's unlikely you'll get a hot shower, either.

For general information on camping in the UK, Visit Britain's guide, Caravan and Camping Parks in Britain 2003 (£6.99), is available from bookstores or from fulfilment@ visitbritain.org.

IS THERE ANYTHING I SHOULD BE SCARED OF?

It's a jungle out there. Or a forest. Or maybe just a field. Wherever you pitch your tent, nature has a habit of biting back. Mosquitoes are the traditional plague to befall campers, especially in Scandinavia. Anti-mosquito incense coils and citronella candles are effective, along with liberal doses of mosquito-repellent on exposed skin. Craghoppers (available from Blacks) produces a range of anti-mosquito garments called NoSquito, from shorts (£24.99) to socks (£13.99), which are treated with a non-toxic insect repellent that is effective against a range of insect bites. But the best defences against airborne attack are to be obsessive about zipping up your tent, and to avoid camping near stagnant water.

In more exotic parts of the world, bear in mind that spiders and scorpions love the dark comfort of sleeping bags and footwear, so remember to shake out your shoes and beds before using them.

Weather-wise, unless you're already a serious camper, you're unlikely to have to deal with extremes in temperature, so the worst the elements are likely to throw at you is rain. Always observe the golden rule: never pitch your tent at the bottom of a hill, or you'll wake up in a lake.

Finally, for obvious reasons, security can be a problem while camping. Make sure you never leave money, passports or other prize possessions unattended in a tent.

IT DOESN'T SOUND TOO GRIZZLY...

Well, at the other end of the scale is California's Yosemite National Park, where campers are urged to watch out for hungry bears. Food - and toothpaste, which bears apparently love - must be left in bear-proof lockers, never in your tent or car. But don't let minty-fresh carnivores put you off. Yosemite is a spectacular place to camp, with stunning waterfalls and well-marked hiking trails. Special half-tent, half-cabin constructions with canvas roofs are the most popular option for visitors, so you don't even need your own tent. For more information on camping in Yosemite's 13 campgrounds, call 00 1 209 372 8502. Prices start at about £12 per night. For general information on staying in the USA's National Parks (where you need permits to park and camp), call 00 1 202 208 4747, or see www.nps.gov.

WHERE ELSE CAN I GET BACK TO NATURE?

Don't let the midges put you off; Sweden - a vast evergreen countryside strewn with lakes and rivers - is almost a paradise for campers. Allemansratten (the right of public access to the countryside) has existed here for centuries, which means that you're allowed to camp anywhere that is more than 70 metres from private land - just so long as you respect the environment around you, which means no fires with live wood and no litter.

Having said that, there shouldn't be any need to rough it in Sweden: even the most basic Swedish campsites often have chemical toilets, shelter and firewood, and the professionally run plots are luxurious. A DFDS (08705 333 111, www.dfdsseaways.co.uk) car ferry from Newcastle to Gothenburg costs £582 for a four-berth cabin (£474 for two adults and two children). Camping vouchers are £12 per tent per night.

If you're feeling a bit more intrepid - and fit - then one adventurous option is to combine camping with canoeing. A three-night trip on Canadian Canoes costs from 500Skr (£40) per canoe (camping equipment not included). For more information, see www.camping.se, or contact the Swedish Travel and Tourism Council (00 800 3080 3080, www.visit-sweden.com).

WHAT ABOUT SOMETHING FURTHER AFIELD?

You can arrange a camping trip almost anywhere, from Ayers Rock to Africa. Mulgas Tours (00 61 8 8952 1545, www.mulgas.com.au) in Alice Springs, Australia, runs a three-day trip that takes in Ayers Rock, Kings Canyon and the Olgas. For A$325 (£130) you'll see one of the most spectacular geological features in the world while you camp out under the stars (no tent required, just your sleeping bag, or "swag"). Alternatively, if you're taking in the scenery on the Queensland coast, try the campsites on Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island, with its spectacular fresh-water lakes. One of the many travel agencies in Hervey Bay will be able to arrange a shared 4x4, permits and tents at backpacker-friendly prices. For more information, see www.seefraserisland.com.

A camping holiday can also be a chance to experience different cultures. Travelbag Adventures (01420 541 007, www.travelbag-adventures.com) runs a week-long Desert Adventure trip to Morocco, which includes four nights camping in communal Bedouin tents in the desert. The next departure is for the 26 October-2 November trip and costs £629 per person including flights, accommodation, transport, most meals and a guide.

Or what about camping in Mongolia? Steppes East (01285 651 010, www.steppeseast.co.uk) is running an In the Steps of Genghis Khan trip from 27 July to 14 August, starting in Ulaanbaatar and travelling on to the northern edge of the Gobi desert. Four nights are spent in traditional ger tents (round, wooden-framed tents made of felt and covered in canvas). Prices are £3,095 per person, including all flights, guide, accommodation, tours and transport.

IS CAMPING REALLY FAMILY-FRIENDLY?

Absolutely, not least because of cost. Campsites also give children the freedom and facilities to enjoy themselves. Companies such as Eurocamp (0870 366 7558, www.eurocamp.co.uk), Canvas Holidays (01383 629 000, www.canvasholidays.com) and the Alan Rogers Travel Service (01892 559 898, www.alanrogers.com) specialise in self-catering package camping holidays at locations throughout Western Europe. Fleur Holidays (0870 750 2121, www.fleur-holidays.com) runs packages to campsites in France only. Typically, campsites run by package operators will provide space for tents, as well as areas for mobile homes and caravans, alongside family-friendly facilities such as a pool, tennis, volleyball and mini-golf, creche facilities and children's clubs, plus shops, restaurants and bars. Sites flagged as being good for teenagers tend to have the best facilities and lots going on, including cinemas, discos and bands. Games and events are also run for younger children.

What's more, with a package like this you don't even need to bring your own canvas. If you so wish, a family-sized tent will be pitched ready and waiting for you, with a fully equipped kitchen including gas cooker, refrigerator, cutlery and crockery, and bedroom compartments separated by partitions (you have to bring your own bedding, although beds with sprung mattresses are supplied). This is the closest that camping gets to a luxury hotel: there are even checking-in times (which are usually between 4pm and 8pm).

Prices for a 12-day package with Canvas Holidays in June start at £399 for two adults and all children, including car ferry crossing, gas and electricity, staying in a Maxi Tent (which the company describes as "a three-bedroom canvas bungalow"). Bivi-baggers need not apply.

WHAT ABOUT SOMETHING A BIT OUT OF THE ORDINARY?

The Wild West, for instance? Vashon Island AYH Ranch Hostel (00 1 206 463 2592, www.vashonhostel.com) is a youth hostel set on an island in Puget Sound, near Seattle. It has a huge range of Western-style accommodation, from Indian tepees to covered wagons (although you can also bring your own tent). Barbecues, a group campfire and "recreational barn" should get you into the spirit of things. Summer rates are $16 (£11) per person for a night in a tepee or covered wagon; $9 (£6) per person to pitch your own tent, and the price includes your own "u-fix" pancake breakfast.

If Seattle is a wagon-ride too far, then try a self-catering tepee at Tregildrans in Cornwall. Prices start at £295 for one week (£175 for a long weekend) and you have to bring your own sleeping bags, although the rest of your camping equipment is supplied. For more information, contact Cornish Tipi Holidays (01208 880 781, www.cornish-tipi-holidays.co.uk).

WHAT'S THE ULTIMATE IN LUXURY CAMPING?

Forget your two-man tent. Forget your sleeping bag. Just don't forget your wallet. Abu Camp, on the western side of the Okavanga Delta in Botswana, is billed as "the ultimate safari hideaway". It houses a maximum of 10 guests, with a ratio of four staff to each visitor, and you stay in custom-built Bedouin-style tents, raised on teak decking. The tents have their own verandas and are furnished with mahogany four-poster beds, and all have en-suite bathrooms with bath, shower and flushing toilets. Guests explore the surrounding countryside on elephants, rather than applying sealant to their tent seams. A six-day trip with Steppes Africa (01285 650 011, www.steppesafrica.co.uk) costs from £2,365 per person, including five nights' accommodation, all flights and transfers.

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Ten top tips for an in-tents experience

* Always do a trial run and set up your new tent before you go away. Make sure all the components are there.

* Before you pitch your tent, clear the ground of any leaves, stones and twigs.

* If you can, avoid packing up your tent when it is damp, and after your holiday make sure it is dry before putting it away.

* You can increase the life of your tent by laying an extra groundsheet or plastic sheet under the floor of the tent before pitching it.

* Always use waterproof sealant on your tent.

* Always take duct tape on holiday with you to mend any unexpected rips or tears in the fabric.

* Never attempt to cook inside your tent!

* Do not pitch your tent on a hill, or below one, in case of heavy rain or flash floods.

* If you want to pitch your tent in the open countryside, make sure that you get the appropriation permission: check beforehand with your local tourist information office.

* If you are backpacking, take a roll mat for comfort.

Information courtesy of Millets (0800 214 890; www.millets.co.uk)

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