If you’ve been following our blog for a while (Thank you!) you’ll know that our travel in 2018 has been split into two parts. 100 days in South East Asia and 3 months in Europe camping in a tent. Precisely 89 days in Europe due to visa restrictions.
We spent 68 nights in our tent, 2 nights sleeping in a cave, 1 night in an incredible mountain hut in Switzerland (waking up to the sound of cow bells), 2 nights in a garden room / shed in Switzerland, 3 nights in an old monastery in Italy, 1 night in a Portuguese hostel, 1 night in a French farmhouse and the remaining nights in a variety of farmhouses and family run hotels in remote corners of Spain, Portugal and Italy.
The purpose of the one night stays in hotels or B&Bs was to get us from one place to the next quickly when we had a longer stretch of driving to do. Our campsite set up was quite a big job and not worth it for a one night stay.
Long term camping in a tent
So it wasn’t all tents and camping, I can’t quite write a post titled “90 days in a tent” but after 68 nights in a tent with my husband and 2 children we’ve come out the other side alive and well and we haven’t killed each other. I feel qualified to provide some insight into long term camping trips!
I’ve still got loads more destination posts to write about our trip, and then lots that we’ve learned to write up as tips and advice for the sort of travel we’ve done, but I wanted to pause and write this, for fun and because it’s not all like it looks on Facebook and Instagram.
The weather matters a lot more when you live outside
We started in Bordeaux in late May with some lovely spring weather, warm enough to sit outside in the evening. Then it started to rain as we drove into Spain, it rained every day for 18 days. It rained so much in San Sebastian our pitch became a mud pool and the car got stuck. When we finally got it out the resulting skidding sent mud flying all over the tent. When the weather is bad it is very important to check that the dryer in the laundry works before you wash all your clothes. Otherwise your tent will look like this…
This day was a new low and we came very close to abandoning the tent for the night in favour of a hotel. The weather must have sensed this as it brightened in the afternoon then sent a thunderstorm at 2am. We were on the top of a mountain with thunder pounding down the valley. It would have been amazing if it wasn’t so scary!
Bad weather also brings out the worst in people, we encountered the dryer wars in Portugal, where fights almost broke out between people trying to get their clothes in the one working dryer. Turns out the F word sounds much the same in Dutch, German and English…
We discovered there are other ways to dry your clothes if you’re in a hotel or apartment: chairs lined up in front of fans, coat hooks draped with washing under heat pumps or air conditioning. I once ironed an entire load of washing dry, it took 2 hours! I have been known to make the kids sit with socks and hairdryers to get the last of the damp off them.
Europe Camping From one extreme to the other
The sun came out in the South of Portugal and it wasn’t long before it was too hot. Temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius became the norm for the rest of the trip. Camping in the cold is easier as you can add more layers and blankets, camping in the wet isn’t fun at all, but camping in relentless heat is possibly the worst as there is no escape.
Lots of cold showers and frequent swims were the answer. This was when we changed to a more European timetable. You can walk through towns and villages in Europe on a summer afternoon and not see a single soul, there are no children in the playground, no one outside at the cafes. The smart people are inside their cool stone walls.
Just as I’d start telling my kids to go to bed their friends at the campsite would be coming round to ask them to play football. Not wanting to deny them the opportunity to form friendships I usually let them go. Bedtimes of 10-11pm became the new normal.
When we live outside we become much more in tune with nature, temperature and daylight. We don’t have modern conveniences to overcome the discomfort so we have to adjust our day and our expectations. There was an article published about us in the NZ Herald recently, the writer made a lot up, including that we have “afternoon siestas”.
You cannot have a siesta in a tent when it is 38 degrees outside, you’ll get heatstroke!
A place for everything
Camping for long periods requires next level organisation. Countless hours will be wasted looking for things if you don’t have good systems in place. This was quite similar to our time in Asia, living out of backpacks, so we’re getting good at this.
Within the tent itself we’d have zones, areas for clothes, cooking / kitchen, toiletry bags and towels and sleeping areas. There would be a charging station for electronics and the portable cooler box. Every item had a home, there was a bag for dirty laundry, packing cells each for clean clothes.
Each person had their own wash bag with toothbrush and paste, soap and shampoo, comb etc. This meant you could theoretically pick up your bag and have everything you’d need. In reality the kids lost things. L was a serial comb misplacer. He’d go to style his hair, put down his comb and leave it behind. He lost 6 combs and 3 bottles of shower gel. He also had a habit of going to shower without his towel, he’d have to wait in the bathrooms until he heard footsteps and then start calling out in the hope it was his Dad. This strategy worked surprisingly often.
The kids had one backpack with all their school workbooks and a pencil case with supplies. We had everything from glue to a needle and thread and most of it came in useful at least once! When I was called upon to mend a teddy that had a leg falling off, I was well equipped.
A dustpan and brush are essential
In a tent you do battle with dirt every day. Sand, dust, mud, grass and stones will enter your tent through any means possible. Even though you all take your footwear off outside. The only way to keep on top of it is to sweep every day, when staying near a beach twice a day. This was usually the kid’s job but we also took turns to do a big sweep when packing up and setting up.
Camping in general is a lot of work. There’s no vacuuming or cleaning bathrooms but most other chores have to be attended to. Sweeping, dishes, rubbish and recycling, preparing and cooking meals, grocery shopping, making beds, tidying the tent each morning and evening, washing and drying clothes, towels and bedding.
In Europe camping, we found we had a lot less time than in Asia as we had a lot more ‘housework’ to do each day. It was quite challenging to fit in regular school work and blog writing after sightseeing and chores. Late afternoon would be hot and the kids were tired. Campsites offered a wealth of activities and other children to play with, all more appealing options than workbooks. We had to schedule more quiet days for everyone’s sanity.
The battle of the bugs
When we weren’t battling dirt and sand we were battling insects. Specifically mosquitoes and at some places wasps. Our family is divided about mosquitoes, I don’t usually get bitten. Paul does and itches terribly, S and L end up covered in bites but it only bothers them sometimes. I hate to sleep enclosed in the tent on hot nights, I want it left open for air. Paul and S would rather sleep in an oven than be bitten, L is prepared to put up with some bites as the price to pay for fresh air.
In Venice the mosquitoes reached crisis point as did the heat. Beds were switched around. S moved onto the double airbed with Paul and they zipped themselves completely into our separate room, L and I spent the evening with all the doors open, breathing, but a bit itchy the next day. This was L the next morning.
We found the best thing to repel the mosquitoes is the coils that you can light and they produce smoke. Placed strategically around the tent they worked in most places. You smell like you’ve sat next to a bonfire all night but it is a small price to pay! They worked to a certain extent on the wasps too.
Not all campsites are made equal!
We stayed at campsites that were like 5 star resorts, with wellness zones, spas, hair salons, water slides, splash pads and multiple swimming pools. Many sites had bars, restaurants and grocery stores equipped to meet every need. We also stayed at campsites that were old and rundown with no facilities and people having drunken arguments outside our tent at 3am. Price wasn’t necessarily an indication of quality.
We stayed at campsites with weird rules about swimwear.
At one French site the lifeguard was evicting men and boys from the pool left right and centre. Paul and L were sent out. Their crime? Wearing swimming shorts, like board shorts or what they call cabana shorts. In this pool only speedos or tight shorts were allowed. The local outdoor shop was doing a roaring trade in speedos. There were some very uncomfortable looking men wearing new, small, tight shorts. Turns out the French have separate departments for swimwear for the beach or the pool. Italian campsites on the other hand are fussy about swimming caps.
What about bathrooms?
With a few exceptions we found the campsite bathrooms to be good. In the days of social media and online reviews a campsite with dirty bathrooms would quickly earn a bad reputation. As we got to peak season we found some places struggled to keep up the cleaning in busy periods but things got done eventually.
Yes the kids did need to go to the toilet in the night at first, but they soon adjusted. Because they stayed up later at night, if they did wake needing the toilet it was usually 5-6am and day light, then they were happy to take themselves. I got into the habit of asking with every booking, to be near the bathrooms, most of the time we were.
L could easily shower himself, S could in theory, but due to lack of thought at some sites she struggled. Things like putting hooks really high up and not having a bench in the shower cubicle meant she couldn’t reach anywhere to keep her things dry. One place had push buttons for the shower but you had to push so hard she couldn’t manage it. She is an independent girl and not being able to do her own shower frustrated her. When she could shower herself she was in her happy place. I would sometimes come into the bathrooms and hear her singing in the shower. Anyone else there would give me a big smile.
Would we do it again?
Asia had many positives, being so much cheaper we could pay for services. Get our laundry done for us, eat out all the time, stay in hotels where our room was cleaned most days. In Europe it would be far too expensive to do that for 3 months. On the other hand Europe was cleaner. Camping and travelling in our own car meant we weren’t exposed to nearly as many germs on planes, trains and boats. We could also prepare our own healthy meals. We all came back tanned and healthy from so much outdoor living.
People have asked us if we were very relieved to get back to ‘real life’ at the end of the trip. Were we craving a house and a real bed? For me the honest truth is ‘No’. I could have stayed another month. A few weeks back and I already miss the freedom of our camping lifestyle.
The kids loved the camping but were ready to stop moving around so much. Paul told me he was ready to have some creature comforts again too. But after a short time in England we were already thinking about a camping trip to Scotland. It definitely hasn’t put us off camping!