Ask your friends and I’ll bet very few of them have chosen to tow a mobile home behind their vehicle in favour of the modern comforts of a hotel suite. But if it wasn’t for caravanning, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Our family were devout members of the Caravan Club for many years and I spent the entire six weeks of every summer holiday (bar one) from my tiny twos to the age of 16 travelling through Europe and parts of Britain with my family and a caravan, and those trips hold some of my most precious memories.
The misconception vs the reality…
There is no doubt in my mind that the time we shared in our little white box brought my family closer together. Living in a confined space without the distractions of electronics forced us to find other ways to occupy our time.
We used to sit around the double bed come dining area giggling as my dad read out my mum’s diary in a silly voice. We spent hours playing Ludo and Scrabble underneath the awning, listening to the sound of summer rain drum down on the canvas above our heads. My sister and I found it exciting to share a linen tent in the awning outside, reading our books by torchlight and occasionally rushing inside in the middle of the night when the damp seeped in.
One inflatable dinghy provided more entertainment than a Nintendo or iPad ever could. We’d paddle across beautiful French lakes or turn it upside down and hide in the small pocket of air underneath. We spent hours sitting in deckchairs around a fold-up table painting, writing diaries, or talking about our parents’ lives before we were born.
As most of our holidays were in France, we woke most mornings to the sound of a bakery van pulling up, and the smell of freshly baked baguette and croissants. Bonne Maman jam, pate, smelly cheeses and red wine (from a plastic 5-litre barrel that would later serve as a spare petrol holder) were staple items.
We’d arrive at a new emplacement and busy ourselves winding down the legs of the caravan onto wooden blocks, airing the ground sheet, sliding the awning along the side of the caravan, pegging it out, collecting a water supply in our ‘Aquaroll’ (my sister and I always fought over that job) and finally collapsing onto garden furniture to share some Ritz crackers and a miniature glass bottle of Heineken (yes, we were weaned onto alcohol from an early age!).
And it’s because of these caravanning adventures that I found my passion for travel. My sister and I may not have always realised it at the time – occasionally resenting being removed from our friends for the whole summer break – but we were learning to appreciate the simple pleasures in life. We came to understand that, often, the best memories involve working as a team to make things run smoothly and finding unique ways to pass the time while cooped up in a car on long road trips. Not everything went our way, but we dealt with setbacks and laughed – a lot – about them later. And believe me, these are lessons that have been invaluable on my more recent travels.
This might sound crazy, but despite the amazing places I’ve been to in adulthood, I’ve never been able to rekindle that same sense of awe and anticipation I used to feel every July as we spent the night parked on the tarmac of Dover’s ferry port, sharing reheated home-made stew, the silence permeated sporadically by the drawn out bellow of a ferry fog horn.
I’ve digressed though. The aim of this post was to explain just why caravanning is such a fantastic travel option. So, without getting too distracted by fond memories from childhood, here are the reasons why I think you should give it a go.
1. You meet people
When you pitch your caravan on a campsite, you become part of a community of independent travellers who are generally eager to mingle. You can step straight from your front door into nature, so you will spend the majority of your time soaking up the fresh air. It’s not uncommon for campsites to have swimming pools, tennis courts or a bar and restaurant area. You will chat to people as you wash up your plastic plates and do your laundry at the communal washrooms. Sometimes, there are organised events, from discos to karaoke or live bands. The amount of social interaction you experience will be vastly greater than in a hotel, but you still have the option to remove yourself from all the commotion when you need some solitude – something which can be tricky in hostels.
2. You can pitch in some of the most serene locations
Some of the most stunning places I’ve ever stayed were campsites. By their very nature, they tend to be out in the wilderness. I imagine it’s much easier to turn a patch of pristine land into a camping and caravanning park than it is to get planning permission to erect a hotel or holiday resort, which might be why many of the campsites I’ve stayed were right by the beach or surrounded by woodland or rolling hills.
3. You rarely need to book ahead
Of course, just like hostels and hotels, campsites do get fully booked from time to time, but at least you don’t need to rely on the availability of a room. If there’s a spare patch of ground, you have a place to stay and, often, campsites are vast fields with plenty of space. Also, if it is busy, you don’t need to wait hours to check in while someone changes the sheets on your bed and prepares your room. As soon as another camper pulls out of a spot, you’re free to set up home.
4. It’s environmentally friendly
Since you spend most of your time outdoors or getting back to basics with books and board games, you don’t drain energy using electrical appliances. Most sites have garbage and recycling areas for you to easily dispose of waste in a sustainable way. And while the idea of a portaloo isn’t exactly glamorous, it saves a surprising amount of water.
5. It’s relatively cheap
Not only is the cost of a camping space much more reasonable than a hotel room, you also have everything you need at your disposal. You can stock up on groceries and cook your own meals, saving a fortune on restaurant bills.
6. It encourages you to learn languages
I have little doubt that my A in GCSE French was a result of the time we spent in France. If I add up every summer holiday we took there, I’ve spent over a year of my life in the country. Our parents used to encourage me and my sister to go and order the morning bread or to ask for directions. I resented it at the time, but it really sped up the learning process and increased our confidence at the same time.
7. You learn to appreciate the effort involved
As with camping, there’s something satisfying about working for your comfort. The cool celebratory beer tastes so much better when you’ve just finished erecting an awning and collecting a water supply, cooking your own meal and doing your own washing up. To this day, I’m still uncomfortable being waited on. I much prefer to put the effort in myself.
8. You hear some interesting things
Caravans and tents aren’t particularly sound proof, which sounds like a negative, but there were so many times when I really enjoyed being able to hear what was going on around me. From the interesting conversations of fellow campers to the hum of cicadas or the trickle of a nearby stream or crashing of waves on a beach, the surrounding noises were a welcome intrusion. When we were young, our dad was a big fan of Dire Straits. We’d listen to their albums constantly in the car as we drove between destinations. One time, by coincidence, we arrived in a campsite for two nights while Dire Straits were performing in a nearby amphitheatre and we could still hear Mark Knopfler working his guitar magic as we lay in our beds.
9. It brings you and your travel companions closer
There’s nothing like spending 24/7 with your friends or family to help build your relationships. You learn how to be patient and accepting of each other’s annoying habits. You also learn so much more about them. Especially when you’re in a confined space and don’t have the distractions of TV, you fall into a pattern of deep and meaningful conversations and silly games that pass the time but provide plenty of entertainment. My family have always thanked those long summer caravan breaks for bringing us together. Of course, we had our disagreements, especially during my teenage years, but these days, my dad, my sister and I are the best of friends. I know that has more than a little to do with the quality time we shared as I grew up.
10. It keeps you fit
Since caravan parks are often in the back of beyond, the sorts of activities you end up doing almost always involve being active. The campsites we stayed in in Scotland were always in remote locations with stunning coastal or mountain walks nearby. I’ve climbed more mountains, ‘monts’, and ‘bens’ than I care to think about. We would go fishing for our dinner or row the dinghy across a lake. We played plenty of tennis matches on site, sometimes against cute Dutch boys, and splashed about in the campsite swimming pools. From the moment we woke to the moment we went to sleep, we’d be expending more calories than any amount of vin rouge and pate could ever replace.
- The Caravan Club offers a wealth of information on places to stay. They offer advice, special discounts for members, technical help and also do insurance.
- For accessories for your caravan, from aquarolls and portaloos to awnings and security gadgets, visit the Caravan Shop.
- If you don’t have space to store your caravan on your property when it’s not in use, CaSSOA has listings for over 500 storage parks across the UK.
- Although a lot more basic in web design, UK-sites.com is like the HostelBookers of the caravan world and is a valuable resource for finding places to pitch across the country.
- If you’re looking to travel further afield, Booking.com has its own campgrounds section with listings worldwide.