Camping is like having an affair with a tempestuous lover. Utterly seductive on the one hand; an absolute devil on the other. It’s capable of reinvigorating your life and bringing you to the edge of contentment. Or it can leave you damp, dispirited and dishing out swear words you’ve never used before in your life.
I’ve sat in pubs and dinner parties and refereed debates that have generated some serious heat on one side or the other. Actually, heat, or the lack of it, is one of the staples of these passionate back and forths.
My partner loves camping. She’s warm blooded and her body runs way hotter than mine. But she hates the cold. She tried a hundred and one different solutions before hitting on the answer – an electric blanket.
I used to look down my nose at such frivolous luxury, pointing out how brilliant our sleeping bags were. But ever since she’s owned one a cold night under canvas has become a thing of the past. I’m too far down the road of manly posturing to admit this to her face. But there have been moments I’ve quietly envied her coziness.
The reality is nothing in life is perfect. Camping is no exception.
Top of the list is being outdoors. Psychologists have long identified the positive effects of nature. It’s a soothing balm for the soul. So much of what weighs us down in our daily lives is magically lifted. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Japan. There is a beautiful expression the Japanese use which truly captures it – shinrin-yoku. It translates as ‘forest bathing.’ Taking in the whole calming experience of being in the forest.
It can be applied to pretty much any setting in nature. The places we go, the sights we see, the air we breath. Camping gives us the opportunity to get away from our daily surroundings and out into the beauty of the natural world.
Another huge plus is our lives slow down. There’s time to pause and think. That’s a rarer commodity than you might think. Outdoors, away from it all, much of the white noise which fills our heads melts away. We can pause and reflect. Camping is the perfect antidote to stress. The health benefits aren’t just mental. Getting out and about, seriously hiking or just taking gentle walks, it all helps.
We also escape tech tyranny. Many of us spend our daytimes in front of computer screens and our nighttimes in front of tv screens. The moments in between can be taken up by staring at our phones. Camping gives us an opportunity to escape our devices. Hitting the off button is truly liberating.
This is particularly true for kids. Camping is an opportunity for them to disconnect from the digital world which fills their existence. The outdoors is an unplugged playground. Adventure, new experiences and potential new friends around every corner. It also means reconnecting with family time. Doing things together and sharing experiences.
Camping can also be cheap. There’s plenty of inexpensive gear to be found, and it can be done with the absolute basics. There are endless miles of hiking trails; coastal walks and beaches; rivers and forests; hilltops with breathtaking views. Pay your campsite costs and the rest is free of charge.
There’s also the amazing alchemy in which camping magically turns the mundane into something much more enjoyable. Take cooking as an example. Breakfasts taste better, barbecues replace microwaves. We sit in front of campfires holding skewers of meat or marshmallows on sticks. We get back to basics and it’s truly satisfying.
The list of downsides is potentially quite long. In reality it all boils down to two main categories – comfort and climate, and they’re often intertwined.
Bad weather can make the whole experience hard work. Listening to the rain belting down on your tent has its attractions – but they soon wear off. Being stuck in a small tent in a downpour is very restricting. I’ve also been drenched on more than one occasion frantically digging channels to prevent water from drowning the tent and its occupants.
Returning from a hike with wet gear is also no fun, especially if you don’t have a large tent. Getting clothes off and on can require Houdini-like skills. Wet clothes and boots also have their own unique smells.
Then there’s the kids issue. Rain often kills the chances for adventure and bored kids in a tent is a killer. The devices you’ve worked so hard to wean them off might be your only hope to avoid hours of tears and tantrums.
Along with the rain there’s the cold. My partner’s electric blanket aside, camping in the cold can seriously chill your bones and your enthusiasm.
Comfort is definitely in the cons column. Over the years camping comfort has improved out of sight. It’s possible these days to have quality mats and airbeds for sleeping. However, the older you get the more comfort tends to be an issue. Bad backs and sore muscles from sleeping in awkward positions are a regular complaint. It doesn’t matter how much things have improved, it’s never going to match your own bed.
Last but not least are the communal toilets and showers. These days facilities in some sites are excellent. But there are still too many where hygiene is… a little lacking. They can be dank and dirty affairs, especially at the end of the day. They might also be a long walk from where you’ve pitched. I’ve had my share of bumps and trips on nighttime journeys.
There are other cons for sure but these top my list. But for me the pros heavily outweigh the cons. The secret, if there is one, is to take a positive mindset with you. The right state of mind is as important as anything else you’re going to pack.
Arthur Penlington is the former Senior Editor of the BBC TV News Channel. He spent 18 years with the corporation. He covered three wars from the frontlines and stories from five continents.
He’s passionate about travel and the outdoors. After moving to Australia he sold his house and travelled the world for almost eight years. He’s written a top 3 travel humour book – Around The World In Wonder Socks – based on a year backpacking the world with no plan. Destinations were decided by the toss of a coin.
He’s camped in Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa and spent time with a former headhunter tribe, deep in the Borneo Jungle.