In 2015 Jen and Sim Benson swapped their house for a bell tent and set off to explore Britain’s wild places, camping for a year with their two young children.
The decision to spend a year camping in Britain with a baby and a toddler might not sound like a straightforward one. But in 2014, shortly after the arrival of our second child, we sold all our furniture, swapped our family car for a pickup truck and moved out of our comfortable rented house and into a bell tent. Happily, we’ve never looked back.
Instead of letting our situation get us down we should turn it into a big adventure
Our departure from normal life followed several months of battling rent and bills on one income (as a PhD student I wasn’t eligible for maternity pay), while only seeing each other for brief, sleep-deprived moments in the evenings and at weekends. We’d had a taste of a freer, more nomadic life while writing our first book, Wild Running, and we wanted to see if it might be something we could do longer-term. We lived simply anyway, prioritising experiences and time together over possessions, but the one thing we did have plenty of, having spent many years holidaying under canvas whenever we had the chance, was camping kit. And so the idea gradually formed, crystalising into something like a plan in the sleepless early hours of a late spring morning. Instead of letting our situation get us down we should turn it into a big adventure – but could we really camp for a whole year?
I’ll never forget our first night in the wild: a moonlit, windless clearing in the New Forest in November. We had made it our mission to camp in as many of the National Parks as we could, discovering each place from within, sleeping with an ear to the earth, listening to its deepest secrets. There was a security light and a metal bin not far from where we’d pitched and, in the quiet of the night, we were frozen with fear as the light flicked on and off and the bin lid rattled, scraped, and finally fell to the ground, shattering the stillness with its nightmarish clanging. We lay there, side by side beneath our piled blankets, horribly aware of the thinness of the canvas that separated our peacefully sleeping children from… whatever it was outside.
Only a month after we set out on our adventure, gales on the south coast snapped the main pole of our tent in half
There were a couple of other occasions when we definitely felt the weight of responsibility for our young family lying heavily upon our shoulders. In November, only a month after we set out on our adventure, gales on the south coast snapped the main pole of our tent in half. Luckily we weren’t in it at the time, but we realised we needed a more weather-proof tent if we were to survive the winter. And then, in February, we all succumbed to illness and had to retreat indoors for a week to recover, renting a barn with a woodburner from a friendly farmer.
Looking back on our Wild Year, however, our memories are overwhelmingly positive: warm summer days in a sheltered, grassy field on the Welsh borders – ours for free for six whole weeks in return for a bit of manual labour; cooking on our Frontier Stove, watching the thin plume of blue smoke snake into the sky; exploring the Lake District from our base deep in the Great Langdale valley; January sunshine in South Devon, playing on deserted beaches and brewing up tea in the Kelly Kettle. We mixed sociable campsites, where our daughter ran wild with other children, and peaceful, solitary spots where it was just us and the wildlife.
Perhaps most surprising of all was the feeling of being home: that warm, safe, contented sense of complete belonging that came with us wherever we pitched. I’d walk back from washing up at a campsite kitchen, arms laden with warm, clean pans, and I’d see our tent, gently aglow in the evening light, and hear the familiar, precious sounds from within: music, laughter, the explaining of a new idea to a small child, even the occasional tears and tantrums. And I’d realise that, wherever we were, as long as we were all together, we were home.
Our top tips for winter family camping:
- If you’re camping over the colder months make sure your tent is robust enough to stand up to strong winds. If you’re going for a single-skin design such as a bell tent, an inner tent creates an extra layer of canvas for warmth and keeps your bedding separate from your daily living. We use a SoulPad 4-metre bell tent with a half inner for most of our family camping trips.
- Pitch your tent with the main opening facing away from the prevailing wind. Find a good, dense hedge for shelter if you can and make sure you use all your pegs and lines.
- When you’re out adventuring in wet, muddy weather, especially with younger children, it’s essential to have somewhere to warm up and dry out. If you can arrange electric hook-up then a small convection heater warms up the inside of the tent quickly and safely and makes all the difference. In a larger tent a wood burner, such as the Frontier Stove, works well too. You’ll need a flashing kit so that the flue can exit through the canvas safely.
- Make sure your cooking setup is as windproof as possible, otherwise it will take forever to cook dinner (not popular when everyone’s ravenous). If you’re using a gas canister insulate it from the ground as it will work better when warmer. NEVER cook inside your tent.
- Be prepared for long, dark evenings. Music, DVDs, games, plenty of lighting and a good bit of imagination make for cosy, fun times.
Read more about Jen and Sim’s adventures at www.jenandsimbenson.co.uk.
And check out their awesome (and super inspiring) new book The Adventurer’s Guide to Britain.