Family Travel

Family camping: The expectation vs reality

21 August, 2015

We are on a summer family camping holiday on the South Coast of England right now. That is to say we are actually in a traffic jam in the pouring rain on our way to slot an endless amount of copper coins into the two penny machines in a smelly arcade on the end of a pier with a million other families at their wit’s end.

We have had a good few days, where we were living a dreamlike life where camping fully met our grand expectations. And then the rain set in, and now it feels like it has been raining solidly for a year, even though it’s only really been three days.

 Here are all the ways a camping holiday is different in reality from expectations.

Expectation: The campsite is only 100 miles from home- we shall set off at 9:30 am, arrive in the late morning, quickly set up camp and spend the rest of the day on the beach skimming stones, reading novels and revelling in our scout-like efficiency.

Reality: A multitude of external factors thwart our ability to get out of the house, and then when we are finally sitting in the car, little Juno finds a jar of tumeric (!) that has been last-minutely thrown in and rubs a fistful in her eye. After sorting that out, a full fifty minutes is then spent “just dashing in” to the house for those necessaties such as:
A deflated My Little Pony balloon

The barbie leg that fell off

The massive donkey on wheels

A spare Minnie Mouse onesie (hello? Don’t the kids know we are going on a seaside camping holiday and it’s going to be super hot the whole time?) (We will end up not regretting these mad-dash warm clothing runs…)

The wooden flute that whistles like a train (we will regret this with every milimetre of our ear canals)

We’ll be in traffic for almost the entirity of the M4, will arrive at dusk, panic about the best spot to pitch the tent and end up sticking it on a hill.

Expectation: Erecting (huhuh you said erecting) the tent will be a family team building exercise- the girls will joyfully hand us the pegs, each one of us excelling at our appointed roles, spurring each other on through the darkening sky.

Reality: The girls go absolutely nuts with glee about the fact that mum and dad have so willingly, despite a day stuck in traffic and a quickly setting sun, put on the ultimate activity for their benefit- PARACHUTE GAMES! We know this one! We run under the flappy material and we try and grab it and hold the ages and run in circles then we sit on it and run over it and try and tear it from each other’s grasps thanks mum and dad oh thank you we LOVE THIS oh why are you crying? The whole thing made bearable only because we keep finding different reasons to say “erecting.”

Expectation: Meals are like “Jamie Oliver visits River Cottage” – we forage for some herbs and throw them in to the fish that we caught that’s baking on the embers of the fire we built.

Reality: The pan of pre-cooked rice mixed with baked beans and a tin of sweet corn topples off the precariously balanced Bunsen burner thingy and is scooped back into the saucepan because the three second rule is not a myth I don’t care what you say.

Expectation: we fly a kite and sing the song from Mary Poppins and connect as a family in our kite flying joy.

Reality: the parrot kite we bought is neither ornament nor function and by the time we have it in the sky the girls have lost interest but in order to keep it in the sky I have to run with it and yet still, every 20 seconds it’s enormous carnival coloured head outweighs its body and it comes crashing down, narrowly missing small children.

Expectation: I’ll manage a few days without embarrassing myself. (How can this still be an ambition of mine? With everything I know?)

Reality: I walk past the loo in the middle of the field and notice that the foggy Perspex windows actually reveals an awful lot of what is going on and I’ll remember how just that morning I decided that I didn’t want to sit on the loo with my Kermit the frog onesie around my ankles because the floor looked wet in a dubious sort of a way so I took the whole thing off and then got tangled up as I put it back on a few minutes and stumbled around a bit. And I imagine other campers referring to me as Nudey Kermit or something.

Expectation: The sun is going to be so deliciously sunshiney that we’ll have to smother ourselves in this ludicrously expensive non toxic sun cream.

Reality: rain. The sort of rain that makes me think it might never stop. Like when I went overdue and I began to feel like I genuinely might be the first woman in the whole of history to be pregnant forever. This is definitely the start of The Everlasting Rains.

family camping Expectation: swimming in the sea at every chance, because genuinely the coast around here is as beautiful as any I’ve seen in the world.

Reality: I swim once and although I LOVE it it takes me three hours to get warm despite putting every spare item we have on down there including a Dora The Explorer towel cloak. In fact, I only get warm back at the tent when I put on my Kermit onesie.

Expectation: sitting around a fire as the sun sets.

Reality: sitting around a fire in the drizzle, the sun could be setting but who knows as we haven’t seen it for yonks, the smoke changes direction every time I move- who KNEW my face was such a smoke- magnet. There are marshmallows, caught alight and black on the outside, perfectly rubbery on the inside and campfire songs are replaced by the deep, raging howls of the children that missed out on the last marshmallow in the packet.

Expectation: Balmy nights sitting on our hill top spot, counting shooting stars.

Reality: Falling asleep when the children go to bed because it takes too much energy to get up from the deflated air bed.

Expectation: Lolling on fields filled with sunshine and wild flowers and fellow campers all drinking tea or locally brewed cider. Like a festival but without the expensive ticket and loud noises.

Reality: Fog. Fog so thick it is like a stew with lumps of canvas poking out of it. Dismembered limbs and heads appear calling for their children. The once-playful sound of kids shooting machine guns made of sticks becomes deeply sinister and the fog carries high cortisol levels from tent to tent until it actually feels like the start of Zombie Apocolypse: Camping in Britain.

(The benefit of this fog is that I can’t see all those beautiful kites flying perfectly in the sky judging our pathetic parrot with their wistful tails.)

Expectation: Packing down is a seamless affair because we are camping legends. Tim and I actually have arguments about who is the most legendary camper. However:

Reality: We pack up the tent and all of our gear into the car WITH OUR CAR KEYS STILL IN THE INTERNAL POCKET OF THE TENT. Twice in a row.

Funnily enough, despite all this terrible weather and real-life rubbishness we have totally enjoyed ourselves. We are camping with good friends and that helps. (Blimey, imagine this with bad friends.) I have felt our friendship deepen over the hardship in a way soldiers in a muddy trench might. The whole campsite seems to have a World War like camaraderie. Or perhaps we’re feeling the bond natural to those moments just before a Zombie Apocolypse.

(I find myself deciding which of the other campers I’d like in my zombie fighting team. The older couple who are stealth camping in the bushes seem to have a survivalist mentality that would be handy. Perhaps other campers would choose me to be in their team because my Kermit suit means I’m probably fun and could lighten the mood in the moments of impending, gruesome zombie death.)

There is a certain stoic sense of pride in our ability to weather a rainy summer. Unlike my experience of camping in other countries no one here is taken unawares by the stormy gales. Oh no. The campsite is like the Winter catalogue of but with more driving rain. Puffa jackets, woolly beanies, cagoules, cagoules for legs, welly boots, gaters, cagoule onesies.
We raise our eyesbrows and laugh as the thunder rumbles around us and step in to help each other’s vehicles out of the swampy fields.

And I guess that’s partly why we will be camping again next week, and at every opportunity. Because really, it wouldn’t be a proper camping holiday without the desperate misery of days of rain. I think we all love it, deep down.

In lieu of the epic strawberry-and-pimms-summer joy we hoped for the parents are able to find joy in life’s true simple pleasures:

A dry picnic table

A boiled egg that peels really easily

Narrowly missing stepping on dog poo

and without being able to wile away the hours splashing in a warm sea children discover the ability to delight in the small things:

Bouncing on the air beds until they spring a leak

Balancing biscuits on head

Swapping raincoats

 So, high fives to all damp campers and other holidaymakers digging deep and making the most of one of Britains most cherished traditions: Belligerently Eating Ice Cream By The Seaside In the Pouring Rain.

One day we’ll have a summer where fleecey onesies and cagoules have no place.

And we’ll discover it’s not all that.

Have you had a great or terrible family camping trip? Would love to hear your experience!

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  • Alice 21 August, 2015 at 6:59 am

    I’ve just returned from Cornwall … A week with two small children in a tent. A week in which we discovered a) a camp site practically ON the beach is probably one of the windiest places on earth,
    B) my daughter has developed on phobia of sand (camp site ON the beach)
    C) sitting in a car eating chip in the rain can get boring after about day 5.
    D) the kids don’t get so tired out by fresh air that they are asleep by 7… Nor 11 either it seems.
    We did find a beach full of seals tho, therefore making the entire holiday a huge success.
    Doing it again next year 🙂

  • Sue Denim 21 August, 2015 at 7:43 am

    Nudey Kermit hahhhahaha! I have a story a little like that, but no need to go into it. I chuckled a lot reading this post. I love your blog. Thanks x

  • Carie 21 August, 2015 at 8:57 am

    Oh this made me giggle- far too much of it is vividly familiar as we sit outside our tent in the Black Forest. We’ve been traveling for the last few weeks and it’s rained on us too. Fingers crossed for sunshine all round 🙂

  • Liz Burton 21 August, 2015 at 8:58 am

    This made me laugh so hard. It’s like Bridget Jones goes camping.

    We’ve also packed the tent away with the car keys inside the internal pocket. No worries we thought, it’s a new fangled car thing which works merely by having the key present rather than having to put it in the ignition. We felt all smug with ourselves unil we realised we’d also left the cash to pay the farmer for the campsite in the pocket so we couldn’t leave until we unpacked the tent from the boot and unwrapped it all anyway.

    I’f you’re muddy camping on a hill side site, there’s only one thing for it – MUD SLIDES!!!!


  • vicky myers 21 August, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    Thanks for bring ing a smile to my face… particularly after a rather tricky experience camping with three mums and eight children with different parenting styles – grist to the mill!!!

  • Michelle 21 August, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    Haha, this made me chuckle a lot – and reel in horror at the same time 😀 We are not children of the rain in this household, and it’s the one thing that puts me off camping….. but if it is guaranteed sunshine, then I’m a-ok! Am camping in a couple of weekends time, I’m not holding out much hope of dry weather, so I may return saying “never again”!!

  • Evanthia 21 August, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    Haha! I so feel you! I’ve just come back from England to my home town in Greece and the weather was… well cold and wet. Good to be back and wear shorts and vests being hot the whole time! Enjoy your holiday!

  • Lara Green 21 August, 2015 at 7:58 pm

    Oh thank you that was like reading about our 16 years of family camping rolled into one blog!
    Kermit Onsie I salute you ……for I fear we all have a similar story! ( getting ready for bed in a tent with a lamp on , then realising that the world can see your shadow……moving swiftly on).
    Like you we will do it all again in a heartbeat.
    Ps my face too is a smoke magnet you are not alone x x

  • Michelle Twin Mum 21 August, 2015 at 8:25 pm

    You are very, very brave. I’ve not camped since I was about 14 and a Girl Guide. Mich x

  • ThaliaKR 21 August, 2015 at 8:38 pm


  • ThaliaKR 21 August, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    I am REALLY not a camping person, though I could stretch to glamping. We camped my whole childhood and gosh it was just like you describe, but, well, not so HILARIOUS 🙂

    May there be sunshine around the corner!

  • Polka Dot Family 22 August, 2015 at 1:03 am

    This is why I will never get my husband camping, the beautiful picture they paint on the TV and in the camping stores is far from the reality.

  • Kate 22 August, 2015 at 1:08 am

    Ah ha! I was looking at you in the guinea pig petting area thinking, I know that woman, where do I know her from? This post makes it all clear, wish I had realised in time coz I would have told you how much I like reading your blog!

    • Lucy 22 August, 2015 at 9:33 am

      Ah! How crazy and cool! Hope you managed to weather the weather! x

  • Naomicass 22 August, 2015 at 3:22 am

    All too recognisable, we had a holiday like that once, in the ‘Golden Valley’! should have known. Husband still scarred years later. Still, managed to have fun prancing around a wooden gazebo, the only dry place, with the girls, singing ‘I am 16 going on 17’.
    I think camping is a bit like marmite, either you love it or hate it, it’s in your blood whatever the trials. Will try to re-read this post next year as I plan our holiday, inevitably with all your ‘expectations’, not to give up, but to remember to pack extra onesies.

  • Steph 22 August, 2015 at 8:59 am

    Hahaha! What a giggle. We’ve just got home from camping in the netherlands, and whilst we had fairly decent weather, a lot of this rang very very true 😉

  • Andrew 22 August, 2015 at 9:38 am

    Reading this after a week’s camping in the rain (about 20 different types of rain at last count) in North Wales with a two year old and a six year old. Was finding it difficult to find any positives. At least your post (grabbed on a rapidly dying phone from some illicit WiFi) reminds me this is supposed to be fun. Thank you!

  • Rob 22 August, 2015 at 8:44 pm

    Brilliant. Exactly what it was like. I was one of the campers in the photo above – the whole thing when the weather sets in appears to be an excercise to show the British spirit. Some of us decided to find the wettest places we could be to thumb our noses at the weather, so we ended up on a boat ride round Portland harbour and a visit to the Jailhouse Cafe in the prison on the top of Portland, which felt like being marooned in a cloud… However, this is the fourth time we have come to Eweleaze, with it’s precarious single track entrance and the walk back from the beach that feels like torture. It has utterly captured us in some kind of spell. And somehow, the screaming and bickering of our assorted children is easier to cope with, with the knowledge that the friendships built in this way are similar to those of trench warfare, and will last forever…

  • Adele @ Circus Queen 27 August, 2015 at 2:06 am

    Ah, this made me do a belly laugh. It’s good to know that camping is like this for other people too.

  • Jess @ Along Came Cherry 1 September, 2015 at 4:31 am

    Haha this is why we’ve never attempted camping with the kids but I really do want to try it at some point, maybe 😉 x

  • Jan Spary 18 July, 2016 at 8:14 pm

    fabulous . we too have now moved to New Zealand ( well 8 years ago ) and thought we had left the damp camp behind in Devonshire …. but oh no , we went away in January this year , also thankfully with good friends , only to be rained on solidly for 5 days and temperatures of 12 degrees YAY camping . we found wine and chocolate to be of great help and did alot of colouring !;0O and we are definately going again :0)

    • Lucy 18 July, 2016 at 9:11 pm

      Those things help!!! Hehehehe

  • Toni 18 July, 2016 at 10:47 pm

    This reminded me of a trip my husband and I and our dogs took to the Sierra Nevadas in California in the United States of America. It rained so hard day and night that we had to dig two trenches in the ground around the tent to keep the water from running under the tent. We couldn’t get a fire going at all, it just sat there and smoldered and smoked. There were no fish in the lake, which was why we were there to begin with. It thundered and there was lightning and hail which was extra exciting because we were high up in the mountains so it seemed extra dangerous! Our dogs were even depressed. Finally we packed up all of our soaking gear, drove to my husbands parents house set up all of our equipment around their swimming pool and spent the rest of our vacation floating in the pool, sipping gin and tonics. Our next camping trip involved a Native American burial ground, police, and some surprisingly deep snow…..