The Evolution of Camping
It has evolved hasn’t it, camping? At first glance anyway, at rather an alarmingly fast rate I believe. I’m writing this because I have just come home after a week of camping in the Lake District and Scotland with Mr.B and The Boy. During this week under canvas we had a mix of wild camping and campsites, and I got to pondering this whole camping malarkey, and what it really means anyway.
Growing up, my family did a lot of camping, I have vivid memories of what camping entailed for us, as a family of 7, living in the Middle East. We’d load up the car and head off into the desert or mountains, driving for hours along desert highways, passing the occasional settlement of breezeblock houses, petrol pump and tiny village shop (where our dad would treat us to a cold can of Pepsi or Mirinda, possibly a bag of watermelon seeds to crunch on). No service stations, no public toilets, no car parks full of other holidaymakers. These little settlements fascinated me, they were so far removed from the modern, rich, shiny metropolitan Jeddah where we lived. Tumbleweed really did blow by, along with sand and polythene bags. Everywhere was hot, with the hazy white sky that comes with it. After hours of driving on these roads, our dad would turn suddenly, onto a hardly-visible track in the sand, while my mum navigated with the map. Here we would put the 4 wheel drive into good use, bumping along these tracks into the desert, the road soon disappearing completely. We’d reach our destination, often a Wadi or an extinct volcano, once a massive crater left by a falling meteorite, and pitch camp. A proper, wild, back to nature style camp; no running water, shower facilities or dishwashing area; no kids’ play area and power supplies; no camp wardens, gates, or fees to pay. We took all our own water, in huge bottles, our most prized possession and carefully rationed. We scrambled up mountains, explored dried-up riverbeds, lazily watched dung beetles, shaded under thorny Acacia trees, dozed in the midday sun and stargazed well past midnight. We slept in sleeping bags directly on the tent floor, exhausted and dusty. We were isolated and alone, occasionally crossing paths with a lone shepherd and his flock of sheep, or a Bedouin tribe, curious and quizzical, offering us pungent camel milk before they moved on. To be honest I don’t know how my parents managed so superbly, with five children, camping out in the desert, hours away from civilisation, but my memories are all happy ones, wild ones, carefree adventurous ones. Camping was about going back to basics, escaping civilisation and all its constraints, stepping out of our materialistic lives for a few days of freedom. It was also the only way we were going to be able to explore the vast, empty, beautiful country we found ourselves in.
It’s all very well looking back with nostalgia (which I don’t think is rose-tinted) but what is the point I am trying to get at? Ah yes, the evolution of camping. What is it that has changed? I’m finding it hard to put it into words, but let me now describe some of my latest camping experiences, so we may compare.
We packed the car to the brim, drove for hours, and braved Hardknott Pass – the steepest road in England, to get to a remote campsite in the Lake district. Once we had paid we were allowed onto the site, and shown to our ‘pitch’ by a camp warden (in uniform). We were given a list of rules for the campsite, reminded that the gates shut at 8pm and no noise after 10:30 (lights out at 11, remember to brush your teeth). We erected our little tent while The Boy ran off to play in the huge adventure playground, one of the main reasons we chose this campsite, the other being the open fires we were allowed. I looked around, amid a sea of tents, all bigger than our own, and tried to remind myself that we were in the wild, at one with nature, just sharing it with everyone else .
It was strange, that campsite, and like nothing I had experienced before. Tents where bigger than our flat; people had kitchen areas complete with shelves, grills, three hob cookers; living areas with tables, chairs and candles burning; huge airbeds and tent carpet in their sleeping quarters, and I kid you not, I heard, coming from one of these tent palaces, a woman’s voice saying crossly “stop jumping on the bed now!”. Good grief, we could barely sit up in our tent, and I found myself suffering from tent-envy. At about 7pm there were queues of people waiting their turn to wash up in one of the many sinks, and in the morning the bathroom facilities were heaving with people queuing up for the showers, putting on their makeup, and blowdrying their hair. I have to admit that even having toilets in campsites was a novelty that took me a while to get used to, and it was fascinating to watch all this communal grooming, while waiting to brush my teeth.
After breakfast we spent a day climbing an underused route up Scafell Pike, and in our 9 hours of hiking we saw but a handful of other people. We got lost in the breathtaking scenery, complete silence, extreme wilderness, exactly what we had come to the Lakes to experience. But where were our fellow campers? On returning to the campsite it transpired that most of them hadn’t left the campsite all day. At first I didn’t get it, but as I said, I have been pondering for a while, and I think I understand why now.
These adult experiences of camping are vastly different from my childhood ones, and while a lot of it may be down to the different countries, I think it is fair to say that camping has moved with the times. We would never have had access to the vast wilderness of Saudi Arabia were it not for camping, camping was our only accommodation, our only option, much like it was to early explorers and nomadic people. Gone are those days, in the West anyway, and camping has evolved into a leisure activity in its own right, a choice people make when there are plenty of other options. Big tents, specialist cooking equipment, campsites, toilets, showers and washing up areas, play areas, on site shops, the list goes on. But does it matter? Has it lost its essence? Are people failing to experience the camping of old? At first I thought the answer was yes, but I was being hasty and unfair. For the world has evolved, has it not? And why shouldn’t camping evolve with it?
The families in our campsite were still getting away form it all, getting back to basics. So what if there was running water and toilet facilities? Having to queue to use a little washing up sink with a push down tap is still a struggle, compared with the dishwasher at home. Queuing up for a shower, and getting dressed in a tiny wet cubicle is still a struggle, compared with the en suite power shower at home. So what if everyone’s tents are in close proximity to each other and you aren’t the only campers there? So what if there are wardens and rules? It is still a chance to spend time together as a family, forget about the hassles and stresses of everyday life, have a break from the internet, Facebook, mobile phones and always being available to everyone. It offers a chance for people to switch off, sit back, spend time outside in the fresh air and concentrate on the present. It is a chance for kids to experience the outdoors, get dirty, make new friends and stay up late. Isn’t that what camping is all about? Isn’t that what I loved about camping as a child?
So while camping may have evolved, while tents and equipment may have got bigger and fancier, it still offers people an escape. A chance to slow down, switch off and enjoy the great outdoors. Do without the luxuries we take for granted in everyday life, and struggle with everyday tasks.
It is time for me to move with the times, evolve, and upgrade. I want a bell tent (with bunting) and I’d quite like some camping chairs too. But I think I will always prefer wild camping over big busy campsites. But that is a personal preference and there is nothing wrong with campsites. Nothing at all.