Cheap camping – it is still an option?


A Temporary Holiday Site (THS) in Cornwall can cost just a few pounds a night

Saturday’s Guardian Money supplement held a reader’s question:

A camping condundrum – is a tent still worthwhile?

so I thought I’d add up some figures to find out.

I started with a few assumptions, taking a two-adult, two-child family who are looking for a few creature comforts and a fortnight’s holiday. I’ll go for a campsite rather than wild camping, so there are some physical site boundaries for the children and perhaps a few new friends to play with, giving the grown-ups a bit of time to relax.

To keep costs to a minimum for the first season, I’d suggest borrowing a family-size tent with decent headroom and living space. Really cheap tents can be fine for perfect sunny weeks, but with more basic materials they can be a challenge to pitch, have been known to leak and there may not be much space if you need to spend a wet afternoon inside.

The people who lend you their tent probably have airbeds and a camping stove you could use, so I’m allocating £20 for a ‘thank you’ gift for them after your holiday.

There’s plenty of stuff you can take from home, such as bedding, cutlery and washing kit. Sleeping bags are easy, but sheets with duvets or blankets do the job just as well – and can be more comfortable.

For meals outside you’ll probably want unbreakable kit, so I’ll allocate £5 for a basic picnic set. The base of a standard saucepan can be a bit thick for use on a camping stove so it will cost £6.50 for a cheap set of pans with thin bases. A £1 washing-up bowl will suffice for cleaning (both people and kit) and the adults could probably do with a chair each – £12. Top this up to a total of £27 with a couple of basic torches for night-time trips to the toilet.

For a route to cheap campsite pitches you’ll need to splash out around £40 for a year’s membership of The Camping and Caravanning Club. This gives you access to hundreds of Temporary Holiday Sites (THSs) and more than a thousand Certificated Sites (CSs) where you can stay for a few pounds a night. For example, there’s a THS near a private beach in Morvah, Cornwall where a pitch during the first fortnight of the English school holidays is £6 a night, though you’ll need your own toilet facilities (a product like PopALoo costs around £115 new, though there are cheaper options). Some similar campsites have a toilet block though, like the THS near Skegness, Lincolnshire, where you’ll pay £10 a night.

By my calculation, this comes in at just under £230 for a fortnight’s holiday for four at the seaside in the school holidays – or £300 if you choose a cheaper campsite and take your own facilities.

And assuming this gets you hooked, you can invest in next year’s camping kit (tent, airbeds, camping stove and anything else you’ve fallen for) at the end of the camping season, when tents often come up on websites such as Freecycle and in classified ads or you can look for end-of-season bargains at a camping dealership or online.

So, is camping still a cheap holiday in the UK? I’d challenge you to find another fortnight’s family holiday at less than £250 all in!


First published on The Camping and Caravanning Club blog 15 May 2013


Even more practical than I realised – from Wacky Practicals


The Pack-Away Bucket in situ

There’s a certain inevitability that you will discover the perfect use for a product just after a review has gone to press.

This month it’s an unexpectedly practical use for a Wacky Practicals’ Pack-Away Bucket, featured in a Gear Guide on collapsible kit in March’s issue of Camping & Caravanning.

It was one of those please-get-me-a-container-quickly-or-you’ll-be-mopping-the-floor-for-hours moments. A standard bucket would have been too tall and a breakfast bowl’s capacity was too small (yes – I tried). Fortunately, a half-extended Pack-Away Bucket was perfect for catching the water as we removed the kitchen tap.

How did I ever manage without one?

Other uses for this bucket are available. Please see March’s issue of Camping & Caravanning…

First published on The Camping and Caravanning Club blog on 11 February 2015

The top three camping essentials for 2014 – so far


The recent National Camping and Caravanning Week (NCCW) has had me thinking about some of the interesting things that have passed my way in 2014 – so far.
Here are three of my favourites.

1. Possibly the best camping road atlas in the world
Recently I’ve been using the new road atlas created from a collaboration between Philip’s and the Club. It’s not the lightest one on the market but that’s because it’s got so much in it.
The scale is 1:100,000 (about 1.6 miles to the inch) and it’s wonderfully clear. I’ve only had it a short while, but it’s already saved me an hour by finding a route round a traffic jam between Minehead and the M5, helped me swiftly pin-point a remembered spot from a previous photoshoot and found me the perfect Certificated Site for our front cover photoshoot – none of which would have been easy with my trusty Snooper satnav.

2. The neat cubbyhole on the Ford Custom Transit’s dashboard
I’m still amazed at this small feature on the new Transit’s dashboard. Why hasn’t anyone thought of it before? And will there be something similar in the new Fiat Ducato?
I’ve tested a couple of Transit conversions – from Wellhouse Leisure and Auto Campers – this year and loved them both. This cubbyhole has been the icing on the cake.
It has a flat top to secure your satnav in a visible position, without obscuring the windscreen, and the clever feature of a gap in the lid so you can plug the charging cable into a 12V socket and keep the cable out of sight.
Put this all together with a U-Grip stand and the Philip’s roadmap you’re all set to find the most remote campsite or intriguing tourist attraction.

???????????????????????????????3. Pocket Wellies
Perhaps this is a little premature since I haven’t tried them yet, but the principle is so good I’m putting them in this year’s Top Three Of 2014 So Far.
Feetz are knee-length overshoes, meaning you can wear something comfortable on your feet but still have waterproof protection if the weather turns. Perfect for a muddy camping field.
I’m off to the Hay Festival armed with some Feetz and will report back – weather permitting.
But here’s hoping I won’t need them…

First posted on The Camping and Caravanning Club blog – dated 29 May 2014

Completing the circle

Last week I enjoyed the final day of the University of Nottingham’s Circling the Square conference. It was advertised as being for scholars and members of the media – sounding interesting – but there seemed few journalists around.

Please may I guess why?

I’m not a typical science journalist as most of my work is in the camping and caravanning world, but I have a background in physics and an interest in the technical side of things.

Today my main contract is as Test Editor for Camping & Caravanning magazine. Although it’s the world’s largest magazine in its field (with a circulation of more than 250,000 copies per month), it’s still only a tenth of that of the country’s favoured red top. In my two days a week I’m only responsible for tents, caravans and motorhomes, but I still receive dozens of relevant press releases every day. I imagine a Science Editor will receive significantly more.

The reality is most will be deleted after I’ve read the subject line. The majority of the rest go the same way after the first paragraph. I’d love to spend longer investigating the latest 150bhp engine upgrade in a Marquis motorhome or a smart black and grey VW campervan seat cover (just two from today – and it’s Sunday!) but the reality is, if I’m not grabbed immediately there simply isn’t time to go further.

I came to the last day of the conference because I was intrigued by Ruth Dixon’s tweets from the event, but the reality is I could only afford to give up one day anyway. As a freelance journalist time is money. Missing a deadline means no pay – and an irate editor who won’t commission you again.

So to all scientists and social scientists out there who are concerned about ‘dumbing down’, ‘churnalism’ or the ‘spin’ put on your research output by your friendly PR associate – spare a thought for those on the receiving end of the release. A weak story could mean fewer pounds in the bank at the end of the month.

And one final point – if any social scientists would like help to make your writing more comprehensible, please feel free to get in touch using the ‘Contact’ tab at the top of the page!

Carbon monoxide alarms in tents – yes or no?

The Club's CO warning poster

The Club’s CO warning poster

Over the last few months the Club has changed its position on the use of carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in tents. If you’ve followed our deliberations you may remember we were concerned the current European standard (EN 50291) didn’t seem to cover the conditions found inside a tent.

My colleague Ian Hewlett and I met with Leigh Greenham from CoGDEM last year. CoGDEM is the organisation for members of the gas detection industry. It obviously has an interest in selling CO detection systems, but its members are also doing significant research into the efficacy of sensors and alarms, sadly often prompted by loss of life. Leigh was able to share with us some ‘company confidential’ CO alarm testing data that’s not generally available.

In cases like these I tend to use my Jonathan Jones test, named after a friend who’s a professional sceptic. I simply ask myself “Would Jonathan consider this sufficient proof in this case?”

In truth, the answer is probably “No”. We haven’t seen data to show that a CO alarm that’s been stored in freezing, damp conditions for a couple of winters will definitely work properly in a tent after a fortnight’s holiday with continuous rain. But I’m now happier that the sensors have been tested in damp conditions and seen little degradation. The reality is that such poor conditions would probably trigger a fault signal because the electrical circuit failed before the sensor stopped working.

As a result, we’ve changed our recommendations about using a CO alarm in a tent.

The best advice – of course – remains to avoid any chance of getting CO poisoning in the first place, by making sure there’s no source of the gas inside your tent. In particular – never take a charcoal barbecue inside, unless it’s completely cold.

If you would like the extra reassurance of a carbon monoxide alarm – perhaps in case there’s a source of CO outside that might blow in – look for one that meets the EN50291-2 standard. This has undergone extra vibration testing (over and above the -1 standard, designed for domestic CO alarms) so it’s likely to withstand journeys to and from a campsite.

It’s also worth choosing an alarm with a sealed-in Li-ion battery rather than AA or AAA batteries. The Li-ion ones should keep working at a lower temperature so you’re less likely to get a low-battery warning if it gets cold at night.

Also, keep your CO alarm in a warm, dry place. This probably means removing it from your camping kit over the winter and keeping it at home, not storing it in a freezing garage. And finally – always test the alarm when you start using it again.

In any case – we hope the message about the dangers of CO poisoning is getting out on the campsite so we won’t need to be posting about it again during the 2014 camping season!


First posted on The Camping and Caravanning Club blog – dated 14 January 2014

Shake, rattle and roll on the M25?



It was almost a throwaway comment from Duncan Wildman of WildAx Motorhomes as he carried out the handover of my latest live-in test vehicle: “We guarantee our furniture doesn’t rattle. We even go so far as to tell our customers to bring the vehicle back to be checked if it does.”
I couldn’t resist asking about the cooker, but Duncan assured me that as long as the grill pan was stored properly the rest should be OK, damped by rubber insulating feet.

The Europa at Horsley Club Site

The Europa at Horsley Club Site

Perhaps I should learn to be less cynical, but after a fair number of years testing motorhomes and becoming remarkably familiar with their many and varied noises, I wasn’t entirely convinced.
I think my most disconcerting test in the past (manufacturer to remain nameless…) was one where the combination of roof rails, sunroof and TV aerial led to a wail at a certain speed on the motorway. Unfortunately this turned out to be at normal cruising speed. It was a little like driving with a distressed small ghost in the vehicle.

So did the WildAx live up to its silent promise on its way to and from Horsley Club Site? You’ll need to wait for November’s issue of Camping & Caravanning magazine to find out. Suffice to say, however, I won’t be taking it back to the factory…

First posted on The Camping and Caravanning Club blog – dated 12 August 2013

CO monitor – a glass of water or slice of cucumber?

The Club's CO warning poster

The Club’s CO warning poster

In the last week we have been taken to task for the Club’s recommendation not to rely on a carbon monoxide (CO) detector to keep you safe in a tent or awning. As this is such a vital safety subject I thought I’d put our argument online – in the hope someone will prove us wrong and we can change our stance.

At the moment our understanding is as follows:

If you check the instruction leaflet for a CO monitor adhering to the current British and European Standard (EN 50291:2- 2010) you’ll find a specification section. The chances are it will quote a humidity range of 30% to 90% relative humidity (RH) non-condensing, because this reflects the requirements of the Standard.

The reality is, if you’re sleeping in a tent on a rainy night the humidity inside the tent is very likely to be well over 90%. So we’re left with some questions: will the CO monitor still work at these humidity levels over night? And will it still function correctly the next day? Or next week? Or next year?

Last week I persuaded half the Publications Team to stay under canvas overnight at our annual tent testing photoshoot. The temperatures dropped well below freezing. If one of my colleagues had kept a glass of water and a slice of cucumber in his tent porch over night they would both have frozen. The next morning, one would defrost back to a perfectly acceptable drink. The other would have turned to mush.

If a CO detector and humidity can be compared with a freezing item in a tent, after a fortnight’s holiday in the hammering rain, would my detector be a refreshing drink or a pile of mush?

Unfortunately the neat white case of the monitor wouldn’t tell us. Neither would the ‘test alarm’ function as it only tests the function of the electrical circuit that sounds the alarm, not the efficacy of the CO sensor.

There may be data to show I’m wrong and a CO monitor will work perfectly in the conditions found in a tent or awning. If you know of any, please get in touch using the Technical Help and Advice button under the Contact Us section of this website. At the moment, however, I’d prefer to be safe than sorry and we’ll be sticking to our recommendation:

Don’t rely on a carbon monoxide (CO) detector to keep you safe in a tent or awning. They may be useful at home, in a caravan or in a motorhome, but they are not designed for the conditions found in a tent or awning.

First posted on The Camping and Caravanning Club’s blog – dated 27 March 2013

Spreading the word: carbon monoxide from barbecues kills

The Club's CO warning poster

The Club’s CO warning poster

It’s a brutal message that doesn’t sit comfortably with our relaxed holiday pastime, but the reality is a lit charcoal barbecue gives off enough carbon monoxide (CO) to kill – even if it’s not hot enough to cook on.

Over the last year the Club has been at the forefront of a camping safety campaign and I’ve had the privilege of being involved. It’s been tough at times, especially when I spent an afternoon with Danielle –14-year-old Hannah Thomas-Jones’s mum. Hannah died in May 2012 after the family put their barbecue into the porch area of the tent overnight. Danielle is an amazing lady and the power of her testimony underlined the need for an awareness campaign. The family knew nothing about the dangers of carbon monoxide from a barbecue before Hannah’s death.

The Club produced a warning poster that’s displayed at all Club Sites and Camping in the Forest Sites and is available for any campsite to use – free of charge. We also spearheaded a campaign to raise awareness among festival goers last summer. Many festivals displayed our posters in camping areas and others were getting the message out in other ways.

I’ve also just discovered that our campaign to encourage tent manufacturers to include information in tents is also bearing fruit. Several tent brands, including Outwell and Khyam, will now carry our warning symbol.

Wouldn’t it be great if 2013 marked the first year that no-one said: “I didn’t know that”? And as a result no-one felt groggy – or worse – after breathing in the colourless, odourless gas that is carbon monoxide from a charcoal barbecue?

Please help spread the word.

First posted on The Camping and Caravanning Club’s blog – dated 8 Mar 2013

Surely it can’t be ten years?

Next week it’s the Spring Caravan and Camping Show at Birmingham’s NEC. It’s making me feel a tiny bit nostalgic as it marks ten years since my first public appearance on behalf of The Camping and Caravanning Club.

Back in 2003 I was called in to help at the Boat and Caravan Show (as it was then called) because the Club’s Public Relations Officer had left at short notice. The truth is –  I’ve been hooked ever since.

This year I’m scheduled to give a brief presentation on ‘the stories behind the articles’ and it’s given me the perfect excuse to see how things have changed.

Some things are definitely better. Remember when caravans didn’t have a rubbish bin? We ‘made do’ with a plastic bag on the back of the door or kicking around the floor. I’m pretty sure most 2013 tourers will have a proper bin – though it might only be big enough for a matchbox and half a tissue…

I’m also hoping to meet some old friends – Club members and others – and put a few names to new faces. I love catching up with the volunteers who man the Club stand, some of whom have histories with the Club dating back five or six times as long as mine.

Talking of which, I’ve dug out some stuff from the Club’s archive for my talk as it never ceases to amaze me how much hasn’t changed over the years.

Take the technological advances in the Vango AirBeam, for example. We had a Kinetic 500 on long-term test last year and it’s a great tent. But I’ve also corresponded with Club members who enjoyed inflatable-tube tents back in the 1970s. They generally quote the Igloo – a tent that was advertised in our Club magazine way back in 1936 as a ‘real man’s tent’.  What can you say?

The Igloo tent ad - December 1936

The Igloo tent ad – December 1936

So if you’re wandering around the NEC on Wednesday and would like to hear more, come along to the Club’s stand number 4220 in hall 4 for our 12.45 start. And please make yourself known afterwards – it would  be great to meet a real blog reader!

First posted on The Camping and Caravanning Club’s blog – dated 13 Feb 2013

Picnics in the snow

The Stainless Steel Lunchbox

The Stainless Steel Lunchbox

One of the challenges of writing for the magazine is the need to put things together well ahead of publication date. As a result, I’m putting the final rather-later-than-they-should-be touches to a Gear Guide on picnics today, which is scheduled for March’s issue.

It fits well into a spring issue of the magazine, when we hope we’re enjoying bright, lengthening days, roadsides full of daffodils and the promise of a camping summer to come.

It’s less easy to get in the mood when I’m looking out of the window at 5 inches of snow…

Testing is also a bit of a challenge, but fortunately I have an obliging family who are used to being asked to try out objects out of season.

We had a successful test of a Stainless Steel Lunchbox from Bush Gear (pictured) a couple of weeks ago, though the contents were consumed inside school rather than sitting on a picnic mat.

Its sturdy design and two compartments (keeping the pasta away from the salad, so the salad remained crisp) was a great success. The Lunchbox’s big brother, the three-part Tiffin Carrier, will be appearing in March’s Gear Guide.

And finally there’s the issue of photography. I spent a couple of hours with Magazine Designer Roy Broomhead yesterday, photographing kit in one of the conference rooms at Club Headquarters in Coventry.

It’s not quite a sunny campsite – but by the time Roy has worked his magic on the page I’m sure it will put you in mind of long summer days and relaxing al fresco mealtimes.

We can but dream…

First posted on The Camping and Caravanning Club’s blog – dated 22 Jan 2013