By rights, camping should really be a young man’s game. The exposure to the elements; the lack of home comforts; all that bloody stooping and kneeling; these are all things much better suited to youth than to my own creaking demographic.
Yet as far as I can tell, the young are lukewarm about it. Sure, toddlers and children find it exciting. And teenagers will camp when they have to, like during a music festival. But generally, if you tell one of your younger colleagues you chose to spend your weekend in a tent, you’ll see a look of bemused pity on their faces.
To be fair, I once felt the same. But the urge to camp is something that’s slowly crept up on me like ivy as I’ve aged. Whereas once I wouldn’t have had the patience for it, these days I can’t seem to get enough. And if it seems odd that a man in his late 30s should have developed a sudden urge to sleep on uneven ground… well it’s taken me by surprise, too.
I suppose as I’ve grown older, the call of the great outdoors has become stronger. There’s something wonderful about leaving a London office on a Friday afternoon and finding yourself in the middle of a large field only a few hours later. Of course, if it’s the countryside you’re after, you could just head to a cottage or rural retreat and do it in style. But nothing can match camping for making you feel you’re really in the country — not just passing through it or observing it, but living it, breathing it and, crucially, sleeping in it.
When I’m this close to nature I often feel a sort of tranquil euphoria. The best thing about camping is it delivers this feeling the moment you arrive, and keeps delivering it all holiday, whether you’re sat round a fire, swimming in a lake or walking through a forest towards a country pub.
But there’s more to it than simply getting outdoors. For a start, it’s amazing how much easier parenting seems when you’re in a field. It’s not just that my three-year-old likes being among the trees and flowers. It’s also that she enjoys the freedom she’s suddenly afforded. As long as I can see her, she can roam at will, which leaves me free to sit back and enjoy that most elusive of treats — an uninterrupted conversation with friends.
Of course, camping holidays aren’t always as idyllic as I’m making out. For a start, you really are at the mercy of the elements, especially in this country. Camping can also be a fiddly business — whether you’re putting up a tent in the wind, trying to chop wood or desperately failing to get a camp fire going.
It certainly helps if you have the kit, not to mention a car to transport it in. And therein perhaps lies the secret as to why camping has only grown on me in middle age. When I was young I’d never equip myself properly for anything. On the few occasions I did go camping, I bought the cheapest, smallest tent I could get away with, and brought only what I could comfortably carry on the train.
But these days I’m all about comfort — decent-sized tents, air bed, camping chairs, cool boxes filled with ice for cocktails — and all thrown into the boot of a car.
Some go much further than this. I’ve seen families setting up tents that look like small cathedrals. They cook their meals on massive barbecues and serve them up on foldaway pine tables. Others need no luxuries at all and will happily pitch a tiny tent on the edge of a windswept cliff and use a hand-dug hole as their latrine.
I suppose, when it comes to the great outdoors, there’s a great spectrum of tolerance, and, whether young, old, fit or creaking, we all sit somewhere along it. At one extreme there’s the delicate and the squeamish; at the other, the hardcore bush people.
Then, somewhere near the middle, there are people like me, sat on their folding chairs with their cold G&Ts, quietly wondering where their three-year-olds could have vanished to this time.
Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)