Camping without all the carry on

Good planning will ensure a trip with a tent is a delight for you and your children, says Alan Murphy

Camping with children is rewarding. They love the freedom to roam, make new friends and, as a bonus, are shattered at the end of the day from all that country air so you get peace and quiet to enjoy the stars (and a bottle of wine). But how to guarantee a successful family camping trip if you don't know your guy ropes from your flysheet? Read The Independent Traveller's top tips to ensure you and your companions are happy campers.

Get the right tent

Buy the best tent that you can afford. This will be your home for the duration of your holiday, so choose one that delivers what you need. The golden rules of tent buying are: buy one that's bigger than you need; see it erected before buying; and practise putting up your tent in the garden or a nearby park before attempting to do it in gale-force winds with your children wailing in the car.

High Street retailers such as Blacks and Millets offer good value but can't always show your tent erected. Specialist camping dealers often have lots of tents erected in their showrooms. They also offer advice on which type of tent to buy, and can replace broken parts.

Sleeping bags

You are not going to be a happy camper if you're woken at 2am by a child complaining "Mummy, I'm cold". (Especially if you are the father.) Look for good-quality synthetic bags, and give them an extra layer of fleece clothing if it is cold. Air beds are often used by campers but they offer very little insulation compared to foam roll mats or more technical self-inflating foam sleeping mats. If you have small children it's a good idea to put them between two adults to avoid them rolling off the sleeping mat on to the side of the tent and getting cold.

Clothing and equipment

If it rains you don't want to be cooped up in the tent for hours with hyperactive children. Waterproof jacket and trousers, or all-in-ones plus wellies and walking boots are a good idea. Bring quick-drying clothing such as fleece jumpers and trousers. A head torch helps children go to the loo in the dark and is harder for them to drop than a hand-held torch. Other essentials include: a sharp knife, kettle (if you choose an electric hook-up), plates, forks, cups, towels and pillows. If you cook your own meals keep it simple. Bring a fish slice (for burgers), and lots of snacks. And don't forget the corkscrew ... or loo roll.

Before you go

Pick a campsite where there is room for your children to roam safely and that allows you to relax. Avoid campsites too close to rivers, roads or with cliff-top views. Research the area for things to do on wet-weather days. Take plenty of loose change for the showers.

Where to pitch

Once on site you may be shown to a pitch, but if there's a choice take a little care to find the perfect spot. The all-important distance to the toilet block is key; try to get a pitch that's not too close – you don't want to be woken in the night by others – but not too far away. That way you can avoid a long trek to the loo and washing-up facilities. If your children are small you may want to be close to the children's play area so you can keep an eye on them from your tent. But other youngsters may still be playing when your little ones should be asleep.

Hedges and other tents can form great windbreaks. However, don't pitch under trees; the grass can be poor because it's sheltered from rain – it can also be dangerous to pitch under a tree in a thunderstorm. And choose flat ground if possible.

Setting up camp

Plan to arrive well before dark. Setting a tent up with children takes twice as long as you'd expect. Once you've chosen your pitch, check it's free from anything that could damage your groundsheet or tent, including pegs. Try to pitch with the door facing away from the prevailing wind (usually south-westerly in the UK) – a tunnel tent will transform into a kite given half a chance.

More information

What claims to be "the world's first free independent campsite booking site", , was launched this week. It currently has 60 campsites, the majority in southern and south-west England. The website owners retain a 10 per cent deposit for bookings, with the campers paying the balance to the campsite. Alternatively, try , , or .

Alan Murphy is the author of Footprint's Scotland Highlands & Islands Handbook (£14.99)

The UK's cheapest holiday?

* Camping is cheap, and wild camping cheaper still. However, it's illegal to wild camp in England and Wales, so head for the hills – the Scottish Highlands to be precise, where the law is more liberal (see ).

This one-week itinerary takes in a hike up the east shore of Loch Lomond (which is accessed from Glasgow) on the West Highland Way, plus a jaunt up Ben Lomond, then down to the Trossachs and back to Glasgow.

Cost of equipment:

Tent – £25
Sleeping bag and mat – £15
Camping stove and utensils – £33.98 (from )

Travel costs:

Megabus coach London- or Manchester-Glasgow – £22.50 return in August).
Bus Glasgow-Balloch – £5.50
Bus Callander-Glasgow – £12
Food and drink per day – £5 (Porridge, bread, cheese, etc)

Total cost for the week: £148.48

All in it together: Six family-friendly sites

* Our pick of the best family camp sites that still have some availability during the school holidays (excluding August Bank Holiday). Expect to pay between £20 and £30 a night for a family of four.

Coombe View Farm

Near Branscombe in south-east Devon (01297 680218; ). A laid-back site in a pretty spot above the Jurassic Coast, with a cricket pitch for impromptu games and a good pub in the village.

Christchurch Camping Site

Near Coleford in Gloucestershire (0845 130 8224; ). A site in the Forest of Dean operated by Forest Holidays, part of the Forestry Commission. It's immaculately maintained with walking and cycling trails, a shop and camping supplies.

Hidden Valley Park

West Down near Ilfracombe, north Devon (01271 813837; ). An exceptional family-friendly site with woodland trails, adventure play areas and organic farm shop.

Deer's Glade

Hanworth in north Norfolk (01263 768633; ). A level and sheltered site with immaculate facilities. You can spot deer on woodland walks or even see them wandering past your tent.

Glenmore Caravan Park and Campsite

Glenmore Forest in the Cairngorms (01479 861271; ). A superb family campsite in the heart of the Cairngorms. There are bikes for hire and a host of activities for children. There's a shop opposite the entrance and a short walk away is a little café serving breakfasts.

Kennoxstone Camping & Touring Park

Llangennith in the Gower Peninsula of south Wales (01792 386790; ). A perennial family favourite close to the Gower's beaches. Good facilities with on-site shop.

* Further reading

Cool Camping for Kids (Punk Publishing, £16.95), Britain with Kids (Footprint, £14.99)