My first thought about camping is that I don’t want to do it: it’s cold and wet outside and even thinking about what I would need to pack sends a shiver down my spine. So much easier to sit in my warm room, go to work and meet a friend for a pizza this evening.
Then I imagine that I’m in the mountains. Within an hour of hiking I would be roasting hot (regardless of the outside temperature) and by the evening I’d be feeling on top of the world. I could be heating up a soup on a little gas stove, reading by torchlight and feeling like I had escaped the rat race.
There’s no way I’m going to do it – at least not today. Maybe next Spring.
But if you – the reader of this article – want to become an independent traveller I can’t think of a better way to prepare. The fact that you have to get out of your comfort zone, worry about what to pack, go out into the cold, spend hours on dodgy public transport even before you get anywhere – is all good practice for the real thing.
And it’s all on your doorstep. Wherever you live there are mountains, countryside and even wilderness within a few hours. Think of LA and those big mountains just a few drive away, London with its fast train connections to all parts of England and Bucharest (where I’m writing this article) where the Carpathian Mountains are just two hours away by slow train.
There are two types of camping: family camping and what they call “wild” camping.
Family camping involves a car, arguments about what to take, going to a campsite and setting up a tent a few yards away from the vehicle. It’s easy to be dismissive of this type of holiday but you can learn a valuable lesson from it: camping is complex and preparation is key. There are so many things you need to take – portable equipment for sleeping, eating & dealing with the elements – and getting it all organized (and into a car) can be really difficult, especially if you’re the only one doing it and your kids want to bring board games, computers, toys, too much food and all the useless paraphernalia we surround ourselves with at home.
It’s complicated enough organizing your own gear for a camping trip but organizing it for others is – for me – a bit of a nightmare. And when your loved ones start complaining about the cold, heat, dirt, insects, discomfort and indignity of the whole thing it makes it hard to repeat the experience. I admire those families that can organize camping trips year after year – it takes investment, determination and management skills.
What happens on most camping trips I’ve been on is you forget something – like a lighter or a torch or even salt– and that one tiny items creates a big problem . That’s why you need to practice it, do it all the time, so you create a checklist in your head and just know what you need. The less you do it the more likely you are to take too much stuff and forget the essentials.
Wild camping is where the real lessons are to be learned. My definition of wild camping is carrying everything you need on your back, going for a trek that will take many days, finding a suitable location every evening, cooking over a portable stove and sleeping soundly in a warm sleeping bag. I generally avoid campsites and set up shop in a discreet place where I won’t be observed and which I can leave in the morning – but some campsites have food, showers and other luxuries you appreciate greatly after a few days of wild camping.
I remember cycling through Montenegro and spending hours every evening looking for a flat place where I could pitch my tent. It would take ages to find the right place as that country is so rocky that there are very few flat locations, even small ones. Nobody ever saw me come or go and it felt wonderful to be so discreet.
I also remember camping in Devon, South West England, when I worked as a book rep for Canongate Publishing. By day I would drive around the small towns of the region, visiting bookshops and urging them to buy the latest Scottish poetry and as evening approached I would find a car park near the sea, dump my cheap suit in the boot, get into jeans, grab my rucksack and head for the beach. There I would cook dinner with a petrol-fired Primus stove and sleep under the stars in my waterproof sleeping bag. I felt I had a foot in two very different worlds and it was good practice for the next two years – which I spent travelling through Eastern Europe and deep into the heart of Asia.
It’s wonderful to be carrying everything you need and to have the energy to travel indefinitely under your own volition. Even though I travel alone I meet people constantly and never feel lonely. One day I want to travel round the world like this – on foot or on a touring bike.
The main challenge about any type of camping is getting the right gear. For the kind of wild camping I described you need lightweight gear and it’s expensive. A general rule of camping is that the lighter the gear the more expensive it is, and this is particularly true of sleeping bags which can cost up to 500 Euro. When you’re hiking all day you really appreciate this as there’s nothing worse than carrying extra weight that you don’t need – often I have visited a post office and sent home a box full of books, shoes and useless clothes.
The solo tent I want costs about 400 Euro but I ended up getting one from an outfit called Gelert for just 40 Euro. It was ten times cheaper but twice as heavy, weighing in at 1.2kg.
Family camping gear can be cheap and I remember buying a sleeping bag in a big British supermarket last year for my niece – it only cost a tenner. She used it for our beach camping trip and has probably lost it by now. You can also get big tents for peanuts but the problem with this gear is that it’s bulky and takes up a lot of space in the car and your attic. Chances are it will sit there for years, gathering dust and being explored by moths and mice.
A day has passed since I started writing this article and I’ve worked out a compromise with myself: this evening I’m going to drive with my kids into the Romanian mountains, to a resort called Calimanesti, where we’ll stay in an old Communist-style hotel which has hot baths (an old fashioned spa).
Tomorrow we’ll have breakfast with hundreds of old ladies and then go for a long walk in the Carpathians. It’s not camping but it will get the kids out of their comfort zone, into the fresh air, up into the mountains for a few hours and away from the stultifying power of online entertainment.