A nation of happy campers

With the communal tent-fest that is the Electric Picnic just a week away, John Cradden offers a fool-proof guide to slumming it in The Great Outdoors

It’s already that time of the year when tens of thousands of revellers are preparing to descend on the Laois countryside for Electric Picnic next weekend. But before all the music and mayhem can begin, festival-goers have to first successfully pitch their tents in the designated campsites.

This will be no problem to seasoned campers used to braving the elements and getting close to nature, dude, but for novices who rarely venture out of the Great Indoors, it can be a sobering experience.

Especially when The Waterboys are on the main stage and you’re still trying to figure out which peg goes in which hole — and why the blasted cover sheet keeps blowing in the wind.

Aside from the summer rock festivals, camping is not exactly embedded in Irish holidaying culture, mainly thanks to our less than predictable weather.

Indeed, you’re more likely to find foreign visitors camping in some of our most spectacular spots than we are.

But new research commissioned by car parts and leisure retailer Halfords suggests that a surprisingly large number of us are considering going camping. The retailer surveyed 1,000 people in Ireland about attitudes to camping and found that no less than 81% of them were thinking (in general) about it.

So how come we’ve apparently transformed into a nation of happy campers?

“This may be due to a range of factors including the difficult economic climate or simply a return to good old-fashioned values,” says Bob Parker, Halford’s Ireland country manager.

Camping may now represent the ultimate credit-crunch holiday experience, but if Halford’s figure seems very high, then it probably is.

For a start, the survey was commissioned by a retailer that happens to have some quite good special offers on tents and camping equipment at the moment.

But it’s also worth noting that the survey was conducted when we happened to enjoy a rather marvellous period of sunny weather and temperatures that rose to over 27 degrees Celsius.

What the survey does suggest is that the idea of camping can be far more appealing than the act itself, particularly when it’s sunny.

Indeed, it won’t be clear until the very end of the summer if campsites owners are enjoying a bonanza in bookings, according to the Irish Camping and Caravanning Council (ICC), but so far sites have been enjoying a busy period.

“Campers by their nature are late bookers if they book at all,” said ICC secretary Aideen Flynn. “Usually they wait to see what the weather forecast is like before they plan their trip.”

Ask your friends and family how they feel about camping and opinions will likely divide into the ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ camps (no pun intended).

Those who love it will wax lyrical about being closer to nature and the countryside, the satisfying feeling of achievement after successfully putting up a tent, and simply just being (and eating) outside.

“Eating good food in the outdoors will put a smile on anyone’s face and make any camping holiday memorable,” says Dealga MacAree, a veteran camper from Dublin.

But then there are the alternative realities that leave many campers less than happy: the smelly sleeping bags, the bugs, no hot water, sometimes filthy campsite toilets and showers, and cheap tents that leak like a sieve in the rain.

“As I get older I would be more cautious about going camping from a security point of view,” adds Laura Mulligan from Dublin. “It’s that fear of not being able to sleep behind a locked door. Even hiring a camper van wouldn’t make me feel safe. Then the weather would be a huge factor.”

Camping can end up bing a hellish experience if you are unprepared, so here’s our top five piece of advice campers should note before packing up the tent.

1. The Tent

It’s definitely worth paying attention to your choice of tent. After all, it will be expected to withstand heavy rain, strong winds and threats to their structural integrity from wayward farm animals.

“When I was camping in Poland in 2007 a chicken jumped on my tent and somehow broke an aluminium pole,” says Barry Kennedy from Limerick. A temporary fix was managed with good old duct tape. “Unfortunately, the guilty chicken was able to escape into the next field uncooked.”

Prices start from next to nothing: Dublin camping specialists Capel Camping offers a two-person dome tent for as little as €19.99.

Mind you, it’s clearly aimed at cash-strapped music festival kids for whom quality is far less important than cheap beer. What’s more, it’s clear many regard them as disposable items, as evidenced by the many dome tents left abandoned at Oxegen or the Electric Picnic when the music’s over.

If you pitch your budget even a little higher, you could snap up a special-offer four-person tent from Aldi for €89.99, while Halfords has a four-person tent ‘pack’, including some camping equipment, that used to retail at over €300 but which is now on sale from its website for just €119.

Up to €400-500 will get you a very good quality item that can accommodate up to six people.

But if you’re really broke, someone, somewhere in your circle of friends and family probably has a tent you can borrow.

2. Read the instructions

Nearly 80% of those surveyed by Halfords said they were confident they could pitch a tent.

Confidence was clearly enough for the young couple at the Oxegen festival last year who managed to pitch their tent inside-out, and which had Galway man Fergal O’Hagan and his mates in stitches.

“They didn’t twig at all what they had done wrong,” he said.

3. Stay in a campsite or go wild?

Prices for campsites start from as little as €10 a night and you’d struggle to find one that charges more than €30.

If you haven’t visited one for a while, you’ll be amazed at some of the mod cons now available, such as handy power points and even Wi-Fi.

But you should consider camping in the wild, too, says Nick Russell from Cork, who has camped all over the world.

A huge amount of camping activity in other countries is restricted to campsites, he says.

“The great thing about camping in Ireland is that that you can choose to avail of campsite facilities or find your own idyllic spot to spend the night.

“This freedom makes the whole experience much more enjoyable.”

If you do camp in an area that isn’t specifically dedicated to camping, such as a forest, make sure that you leave no trace of your stay, says MacAree.

“We are blessed in Ireland to have countryside that is perfect for camping so it’s important to keep it like that.”

4. Equipment to make life easier

More than half of the Halfords survey respondents said they didn’t know what to pack for a camping holiday.

As well as the old reliables such as Swiss army knives or portable stoves, there are several items that many seasoned campers now can’t do without.

“Without question my headtorch is my desert island pick,” says MacAree. “I bought a good one about 10 years ago and still have it.”

He regards it as essential for reading in the tent, cooking meals at night and for midnight walks in the woods.

Air mattresses have come to be regarded as an essential rather than a luxury item, and there are now self-inflating ones that roll up tightly enough to fit in a rucksack.

Russell suggests clear, plastic bags with zip-locks to store anything that needs to stay dry. “There is nothing more miserable than wet clothes, shoes or sleeping bags,” he says.

5. Bring a sense of humour

No matter how prepared you think may be as a novice camper, Murphy’s Law can still take effect, if only because you’re out of your element.

A sense of humour about the pitfalls that can bedevil you definitely helps.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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