If there is one positive thing to take from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that people are discovering the wonders of the outdoors. These days, the popular trails are filled with crowds of people exploring their back yard. It may be a casual wander along a manicured trail, or a goal to reach the summit of a local hill. We all have our own Everest and it’s just good to get out there, breath some fresh air and escape reality for just a little while. As we become more comfortable with our new surroundings, it’s natural to start to think about exploring further afield. And this is where the idea of taking the family camping may come to mind.
However, if hiking your local trails is a new adventure, then spending a night under nylon may seem quite daunting, especially when planning a family camping trip. But if you’re intimidated by the idea of planning your first family camping adventure, don’t be – it’s not as difficult as you might think.
Whatever your family camping style, we have some of the tips you need. Whether it’s finding the best places to camp without the crowds, or tips for saving on outdoor gear, consider this a roadmap for planning your next family adventure.
Start small and establish goals
You don’t need to venture into the wilderness with a compass and 30kg backpacks to have a camping adventure. Some of the most successful camp-outs, especially if you have young kids, can be in the backyard of your home. Or if COVID-inspired lockdowns require a change of scenery, look for local campsites in your area. Once you find your camp mojo, you can start thinking about bigger projects – make for a nearby nature reserve or look for a campsite in a new town you haven’t visited.
Communication is key to managing everyone’s expectations. So put out a bowl of trail mix on the kitchen table and get the family to throw around a few ideas. Not everyone will have the same desires from the trip. Mom may want a secluded private campsite and to summit a mountain. Dad might want to be close to civilisation so he can escape to the local pub and catch the Boks on the box on Saturday afternoon. Young Johnny might want to spend the weekend fishing from a lake or a stream. And little Sarah may want to look for elves and fairies in a forest. However diverse your needs, having at least one initial family conversation will help you locate the right destination, getting everyone involved to keep the excitement high.
You can camp anywhere!
Whenever someone mentions camping it seems we all think of remote spaces and far off places where a tent is the only option if you want to survive the night. But camping doesn’t have to be a cross country expedition and neither do you have to disappear off the map.
The key is to keep it simple – it’s mostly about a change in environment and doing something different. You don’t have to hump your gear for hours to get to a clearing on the side of a mountain. It’s fine to drive 20 minutes from your house to a municipal campsite. You don’t need to sleep on the ground and dig a hole for your morning ablutions. It’s perfectly acceptable to sleep on a stretcher under a duvet, with a hot shower, flushing loo and communal kitchen just beyond the tent flap.
Camping can be an introduction to the great outdoors or it can simply be a fun and cost-effective way to explore the rural countryside or a character-filled town in your province. We have curated a few suggestions for easy-to-reach camping destinations in South Africa. Here is a list of countrywide camping locations that are suitable for families with children. If you are based in Cape Town and are looking for a weekend away, take a look at these options. And the ultimate list of campsites in southern Africa can be found here.
Hack your packing list
We head outdoors to leave everyday life behind, so resist the urge to fill the car just because it’s there. Rather, focus on being well-prepared (and organized) with the right essentials. Use a packing checklist and don’t wait until the last minute to run through it. US outdoor retailer REI provides an easy checklist to assist their members. South Africans love to camp in lavish style. Here’s the ultimate camping checklist for a Saffa campsite.
Remember that unless you are planning a big hike or truly stepping out into the wilderness, you probably will not need expensive technical gear. A few essentials, such as a good rain jacket will make your time more comfortable. However, most of the clothing you already own and you don’t mind getting a bit dirty will be fine for your first few forays under nylon. And your home kitchen will yield most equipment you need to prepare those delicious meals. Build up your camp kit gradually. But don’t let the “I don’t have anything to wear” excuse stop you from getting out there.
Get the gear basics
Obviously there are a few basics that you will need to have in your arsenal. The larger retailers offer reasonably-priced entry level camping equipment, while more specialist retailers will offer more technical – and expensive – provisioning. Think about where you are likely to camp now and in the future. Take into account the potential weather, topography, and any activities you’d like to pursue. Purchase your basics with this in mind. And then test out the gear in your backyard or local park well before the big trip. This ensures no items are defective and gives you a chance to make changes if needed.
Tent – pup or palatial?
If you are new to camping a tent seems the obvious place to start, although there are many campsites out there that offer tents or composite structures in situ and all you need to do is bring your sense of discovery. South Africans seem to be fond of canvas, and there are certainly some great designs out there. But canvas is heavy, especially when wet. Moreover, it takes up a huge amount of space and can require the presence of a divorce lawyer to set up your campsite. You want to be spending more time having fun and exploring your new environment and less time trying to erect the Taj Mahal of tents. So we feel that roomy, airy, wind resistant, rain proof and easy-to-assemble nylon tents are the way to go.
Lightweight, low slung hiking tents made of technical material are essential for real wilderness experiences where you are carrying your gear into your campsite. However, for most family camping adventures out the back of your vehicle, choose something that is tall enough to stand up in. We recommend a single unit with separate sleeping and cooking/chilling areas. Alternatively, you may prefer a couple of smaller separate tents with a gazebo for cooking and dining. You will be thankful for the space and there is no need to be crawling in and out of tents. Be sure to include a ground sheet to protect the tent floor and keep out moisture. And if you’re using a gazebo, don’t forget the side walls.
Sleeping bag or duvet?
Like tents, sleeping bags are synonymous with camping. But they’re absolutely not essential, especially if “tail-gate” camping. Your favourite duvet and pillow from home will do just fine, although perhaps go out and buy some cheap cotton duvet covers and pillow cases that will take a bit of rough handling as we wouldn’t recommend bringing mom’s finest linen… That said, there is something about diving into a sleeping bag that is quintessential camping, especially for kids. Furthermore, don’t under estimate the convenience that comes with a sleeping bag.
The right sleeping bag should deliver on breathability, wiggle room, insulation, and water repellence. Your pocket will decide on whether you opt for a full down filling or a synthetic composition, but essentially you want to make sure its warm. Remember bags are designed to handle different temperatures so make sure you select the right one for your environment. There is no point buying a bag with a temperature rating of -15°C if you are camping in the dry heat of mid summer… And an important insider tip: make sure you have a sleeping bag liner – this adds insulation and keeps your bag clean. On the return home, the liner can be thrown in with the dirty laundry and your sleeping bag packed away.
There is no need to sleep on the ground if you don’t have to and lightweight aluminium stretchers/cots are great for a good nights sleep, especially if you add a thin foam mattress, otherwise air mattresses on the ground are fine. Leave the expensive technical sleeping mats for more remote camping expeditions when weight and space is a consideration.
Take the stress out of mealtimes
Outdoor cooking is nothing new for South Africans and the braai will take care of most things food. But for the rest, your first camping trips should be about easy, no-fuss meals. There are plenty of resources online such as Fresh Off The Grid’s outdoor food blog to bring some inspiration to your camp meals. Here are some budget-friendly family camping meals to whip up on your next camping trip.
The key is to keep meals simple – no one wants to be menu planning for days before a trip. Not to mention spending hours on preparation and cleaning up when there are trails to hike and rivers to swim. Snack a lot and plan for easy meals.
Fire is the quintessential cooking medium for camping, but it’s not always practical for quick meals or rainy days. A good gas cooker is perhaps the biggest purchase you will need to make for your camp kitchen. Lightweight burners used for hiking trips are invaluable if living out of your backpack, but for the vehicle-based family camping trip, a table top double burner with gas bottle is a lot more practical. Some of our favourite lightweight camping stoves are listed here and are reviewed by Getaway. For the larger campsite, Camp and Climb offer a range of larger camping stoves.
Pretty much everything else can be borrowed from your kitchen. However, if you are camping regularly over time, it’s advisable to build a small collection of dedicated camp kitchen equipment. Store this in a crate, ready to go when needed. All too often an essential item can get left off the list. Perhaps more important, if all your camp gear is in one place, it takes away the challenge of corralling it all and you are more likely to get out on the road more often..
Keep the kids engaged
Nature knows how to wow kids of all ages and camping trips are great opportunities to educate kids on the natural environment. So binoculars, nature guide books, magnifying glasses, compasses and maps are great replacements for toys that both entertain and educate. Of course, if you’re camping near a river or lake, there is no replacement for canoes and inner tubes. And many camp sites will be close to great bike rides, so don’t forget to make space for the bicycles. In order to maximise enjoyment, be sure to know what is on offer at your chosen destination and come equipped accordingly. Camping is also about family time, so creating campfire games should be part of the fun. Remember that keeping it simple is the objective. Here are some fun campfire games to try.
Prepare for the best, plan for the worst
Unfortunately things can go wrong. Both the outdoors and the act of camping exposes you and your family to risks you might not experience at home, so it’s a good idea to go prepared in case it all doesn’t quite pan out as you expected. For starters, make sure you have a comprehensive first aid kit. You should have everything you need from treating blisters to temporarily caring for a major wound. Clicks and Dischem sell pre-packed first aid kits, or approach your local pharmacy to assist you with putting together a suitable kit.
Familiarise yourself with the environment you are camping in: does it have cell phone reception? Where are the nearest emergency services? How far are the nearest shops or pharmacies? Where is the last fuel station before your campsite? Is the water at your campsite drinkable? What is the weather forecast for the duration of your camping experience?
Certainly don’t overthink the possibilities of what might happen to you or you will never get out of the front door. Camping is meant to be an adventure after all, but it pays to be prepared for your surroundings. While planning your trip, spend a little time understanding what to do if things go wrong. This effort will serve you well if they do.
No matter your style, a family camping holiday or weekend could be the secret to making many future happy travel memories.
If the bug has bit and you need to scratch the itch a little more, here’s some additional reading: