Camping is definitely something most families tend to do over the summer months in the UK – and with good reason. Rain, wind, freezing temperatures and long, dark evenings aren’t the first things you associate with a fun-filled camping holiday. But we’ve lived under canvas in some of the worst of the great British weather, and along the way we’ve learned plenty about what it takes to make family camping a success at any time of the year.
One great thing about winter camping is that it’s almost certainly going to feel like a proper adventure. You’ve probably got most of the kit you’ll need too – with just a few tweaks a summer camping set-up can easily be turned into a winter one. It takes a bit of courage/craziness to go winter camping, especially if you’re taking younger kids with you, but take the plunge and it can be amazing.
NB. This article is aimed at those heading for campsites and low-level camping spots over the winter. If you’re going to the mountains or places where there’s deep snow you’ll want to do some further reading. Chris Townsend’s Twenty Tips for Winter Camping is a great place to start.
Top tips for winter family camping
Tents come in two main types of fabric: heavy duty cotton/polycotton canvas and lighter-weight synthetic polyester or nylon. Canvas tents such as bell tents are often more durable and spacious but are also usually single-skinned. In the summer this is great, providing you with a light, airy space, however in winter it’s hard to keep them warm. To convert your bell tent to a winter adventure base camp, invest in an inner tent, which will ensure you stay warm and cosy at night, as well as giving you separate sleeping compartments. Being a taller and more angular design than many synthetic tents, larger bell tents aren’t the best choice if you’re going to be encountering strong winds.
Synthetic tents are usually double-skinned, trapping more heat inside and therefore keeping you warmer. Additionally, the smaller the tent, the easier it is to keep the air inside it warm. Tents designed to withstand harsh weather are usually a low dome or tunnel design, great for keeping warm and staying put in a gale, but not so great if you’re stuck inside for any length of time, especially with fidgety kids. On our wild year we ended up pitching two tents for most of the winter: our bell tent for our living space and our weather-proof mountain tent for sleeping and bad weather.
A good night’s sleep is essential for making sure you’re rested and ready for the day’s adventures. In winter the key is making sure everyone stays warm enough. Check your sleeping bags are up to the job, particularly kids’ ones which don’t come with a rating so may require regular checking on the child’s temperature for the first couple of nights. It’s worth taking a duvet or blankets to throw over the top of everyone too. Merino baselayer tops and tights make excellent toasty pjs, and a hat will keep your head and ears warm. As well as being comfy, a good sleeping mat will insulate you from the ground and make a big difference to warmth. Don’t be tempted by an airbed for winter trips – although they look comfortable they’re filled with ice-cold air making it almost impossible to stay warm. Self-inflating models such as Thermarest are hard to beat, but be careful with the cheaper brands as they tend to puncture and deflate, usually around 2am…. We lay a base of foam mats under our Thermarests to add a bit of extra luxury.
The sounds of camping can be wonderfully restful: a gentle breeze ruffling the canvas or the waves breaking on the nearby pebble shore. Winter, however, can often bring a cacophony that’s hard to sleep through. In strong winds, make sure your tent is pitched well, with the fabric nice and taught, to reduce flapping and swaying. Choose a spot that’s sheltered by hedges, walls or trees, but don’t camp directly under trees, and pitch the main entrance away from the prevailing wind so it doesn’t blow straight into your tent.
There’s nothing better than sitting down to share a good meal after a day’s adventuring, but winter conditions place specific demands on your cooking set up. Make sure you have a burner that’s powerful and stable enough to withstand the weather and an adjustable, sturdy windshield. A porch or tarp (or even an umbrella) makes rainy cooking duties much more pleasant. Go for a fuel that works well in cold weather such as Primus Winter Gas. These optimise the gas mixture and canister construction for colder conditions. Insulate your canister from the ground by placing it on a piece of wood or foam, or use a stove that holds the canisiters off the ground, such as the excellent Primus Onja which we’ve recently discovered. Heating food when it’s cold takes a lot of fuel so choose options that cook quickly, eg fresh pasta (2 mins) instead of dried (10 + mins). If you’re just heating water for hot drinks consider something like the Jetboil or Alpkit’s Brukit, which combine a super-efficient heat-exchanger system with an insulated cup. If you have a bell tent you could also install a stove within it, with a flue that passes through the canvas via a waterproof silicone flashing system. This will provide you with a wonderful place to cook and stay warm, provided you can keep it topped up with dry wood, but can be very stressful if you have small children. Finally, please only ever cook in a well-ventilated place to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
A particular speciality of the great British winter, mud gets everywhere when you’re camping. Many campsites – especially those open over the colder months – have laundry and drying facilities, invaluable when the kids have spent the day rolling down hills. We have a policy of nothing muddy being allowed inside the tent, which keeps things as clean as possible. It’s a good idea to put a plank or palette outside the entrance to the tent as this is the place that tends to get muddiest. A porch or tarp will also help protect the entrance area and means you can take off wet outer clothing before getting into the tent and leave muddy boots somewhere dry. You’ll also want to give your tent a good clean when you get home to avoid rediscovering the joys of winter later in the year.
5. Evenings and entertainment
Long, dark evenings and winter weather mean you’re likely to be spending a reasonable amount of time in your tent. Make sure you have adequate lighting – LEDs are great as they last forever – and somewhere comfortable to sit, with enough space for everyone. Books, games and, for younger kids, Duplo and colouring books all work well. If recharging is available then DVDs, Kindles and music all help make tent time fun. If you’re somewhere with electric hookup a small convection heater will warm the inside of a tent rapidly and feels like a real luxury, whilst being relatively safe. If you’re taking any electrical devices with you, check the campsite’s ampage limit.
A winter family camping trip is a unique challenge that can be lots of fun, particularly if your planned week coincides with a week of crisp, clear weather – perfect for both camping and adventuring. Give it a go and enjoy!