Friday, November 4, 2011

The Myth of Comfortable Camping

For Tom Palmer and Rory Sellar, whose enthusiasm is boundless and almost...but not quite... infectious
For Abbotsholme students past and present who have suffered, sweated, cried, endured, loved, hated and laughed their way through camps and hikes.
I started a new job at a new school in January 2007, after living for eight years in the Middle East; the incredibly warm and sunny country of Qatar to be exact. I had camped in Qatar but the sunshine was pretty much guaranteed. As a consequence of living in a hot country for eight years my supply of waterproof clothing was limited and inadequate and my collection of long johns, fleeces and hats negligible.
I was thrown into camping again as I was about to hit my 40s, after eight years of heat and sun. I am not colour blind but maps throw me into a small panic and a compass is a foreign object. I don’t mind a walk, even a long walk but preferably not in the rain and without carrying everything I could possibly need for camping in Wales on my back.
I panicked a bit.
I was working at a school that promoted independence, holistic values, leadership, teamwork and getting away from home comforts and creature comforts and any comforts at all really. The school promotes camping, walking long distances, cooking on small stoves, not using i pods or computers or Wiis, staying at places with no access to T.V. or internet and little or no mobile signal at all. Driving restive children long distances in smelly mini buses, getting wet, working together and perhaps, along the way, having a bit of fun.
The idea of camping is an abomination to every part of my comfort loving soul. Somehow, however, I ended up camping in the darkest stretches of distant Wales, for three nights, with too many teenagers and five other adults (the other adults were outdoors types who were quite comfortable with maps and compasses, with canoeing and climbing and pitching tents – I have a deep rooted fear of maps and an aversion to compasses- thankfully they didn’t make me use either). This torture I endured not once, but twice...
I am built for comfort not for speed
I am a joyful consumer of beautiful clothes and pretty shoes
I take pleasure in good food
I love feather pillows and a good supply of books beside my bed
I like a lie in on weekends and an afternoon nap
I enjoy a warm shower, body lotions, luxurious facial cream and a bit of lipstick every now and again
I drink water cold from the fridge on a hot day and good, hot coffee from the machine on a cold day
So, I was going camping, in Wales (I am Welsh by the way and love the place, it’s just that its bad weather reputation is fully justified, along with mountainous non mobile receiving areas , rural distance from commerce, and large camp sites with not so warm showers.)
I did what any self respecting consumer would do. I went to the shops.

Camping shops are great. They really do a very good job of promoting the myth of comfortable camping. They weave this illusion of the possible comforts you can experience in the beautiful outdoors. The photographs are all rugged hills and rugged people smiling or looking formidably determined. All the landscapes are sunny. The people wearing branded walking gear in the photos are looking happy atop beautiful mountains, sunny again but with just a little hint of snow peaked backdrop for romance. They have rosy cheeks and sun kissed brows, windswept hair and trendy sunglasses (they were looking a lot like the majority of staff at my school).

The clothes inside are colourful and comedy hats abound.
The labels on the clothes boast hyperbolically scientific facts. You’d think that all Scientific Endeavour over the last century had been devoted to finding the lightest, most water resistant, pocketed, windproof, warm yet cool and sweat sucking fabric in the world. These shops have it all, they can defend against wind, water, sleet, hail, mosquitoes, dust, sweat, sun. They equip you for deserts, jungles, crevasses, mountains, snow scapes, sludgy marshes and Wales.
In the shop I felt the pressure gathering like some dark natural force because when you start reading about what these clothes and kit can protect you from, the realisation starts o sink in, that you’re actually going to be walking for miles with nothing but your clothes and a tent for protection. And you could encounter blazing sun and torrential rain and high winds and sleet and maybe even snow. What would be worse – actually experiencing hail, sleet, wind and rain (all possible in June in Wales) whilst walking or in a tent -or, worse, encountering these weather conditions WITHOUT ADEQUATE CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT?
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” was the famous quote on display in the camping shop. It’s useful for them because it sustains THE ILLUSION...we can all camp comfortably if we just buy the right stuff. The bill may well run into hundreds of pounds but it’s worth it, isn’t it...
Yes, I bought the illusion, the myth of comfortable camping.  I couldn’t quite buy all I needed owing to budgetary constraints. Thankfully I was also able to borrow some pretty cool stuff from my generous weather beaten, experienced and well kitted colleagues. Unfortunately, being a 5’4’’ woman in the company of mainly taller men and women did not really help...but we cobbled together my list of comfortable camping necessities:
·         Very good (read expensive) waterproof top (with pockets and air vents and wire hood thing to keep drips off your face and Velcro for making the wrists fit properly and pull cords to make the fit cosy)
·         Very good ( guessed..expensive) waterproof trousers (with pockets and air vents and zips up the side for getting your boots on and a fleecy lining and poppers with a flap to protect the zips and stop water leaking in)
·         A few thin take your sweat away but also keep you warm tops
·         A small waterproof bag to hold the mobile phone, money and mini bus keys in while canoeing
·         A large waterproof bag to put all my clothes inside in my rucksack to keep them all dry in torrential rain
·         A good big ruck sack to carry all my stuff
·         A smaller day sack for those days when I wouldn’t be carrying everything
·         3 decent pairs of walking socks
·         Old shoes for canoeing and coast steering (sea level traversing)
·         A swimming costume
·         Skinny long johns in some sort of super thin but warm fabric
·         Magic fabric walking trousers that dry super fast and are also zip away shorts with multi pockets and handy zipped pockets for mini bus keys
·         A warm hat
·         A sun hat
·         Sun cream
·         The smallest, thinnest, most absorbent camping towel in the world
·         A good sleeping bag
·         Two fleece jumpers
·         A good pair of boots
·         A head torch
·         Another torch (bigger)
·         An inflatable roll mat for sleeping on
·         sunglasses

I borrowed
·         A good tent
·         A special thing for holding your glasses on if you roll out of the canoe
I fretted about the tent incessantly because of my inability to follow tent erecting instructions and my lack of spatial awareness (not knowing which bit went where and ending up with an inside out tent – not beyond the realms of possibility)

I also took along for comfort, knowing I would only have to carry them from the mini bus to my tent:
·         A warm fleece blanket (I feel the cold)
·         A pillow
Things I did not take:
A chair
A book
I did not think I would have time for sitting or reading.
Does it sound like a lot of stuff? That’s because it is a lot – and that’s the thing about comfortable think that if you’re well equipped you can make the whole thing fairly comfortable, with the things to keep you warm, things to keep you dry and some cushioning. You think it will work. In fact the myth of comfortable camping is just that, a myth, a story told by clever marketing people to make you buy stuff. It’s an illusion sanctioned by outdoors types who think you should tolerate discomfort as part of the learning process.
The truth is that camping teaches you many things; you can be over equipped and underprepared for everything.

It doesn’t matter how warm your sleeping bag or how great your tent. You’re still sleeping on the ground. It doesn’t matter how sunny it is when you set off on your 7km walk. It will rain at some stage and if you’re really unlucky, you will put up your tent in the rain and be woken, at 3 am to the sounds of a thunderstorm beating harshly against your tent while pondering the probability of your tent being struck by lightning (low) and the possibility of you escaping a flaming thunder hit tent (extremely low to no chance at all).
Despite the rain and thunder likelihood, you have to take your sunscreen on the walk because it’s sunny when you set off. So you have the smallest possible tube of the stuff and, when you’re a teacher, make sure all your students are sun creamed too.
The bag will be heavy, you will probably be carrying your own teeny tiny scientifically engineered, lightest in the possible universe tent, but it will still feel heavy. Thankfully, in my experience, there are always willing students ready to help carry stuff, some people are happy packhorses, they like this stuff, they revel in the walk, the carry, the challenge. All credit to them, they don’t give the teachers who want to share the load any grief at all.
Sleeping outside is only made marginally more tolerable by good equipment and the fact that you are so exhausted at night that you fall asleep immediately and are only occasionally awoken in the night when you roll onto the uneven, rocky piece of ground that seemed smooth and flat when you pitched the tent.
Camping basically means loads of stuff to carry, pack, unpack, put up, clean, put down and re-pack and no matter how waterproof and technologically advanced your stuff is, if you’re mountain biking through the Welsh hills on a rainy day you are going to get wet – a moment of clarifying wet here.
Wet may conjure up images of getting out of a warm bath and wrapping yourself fin a nice fluffy towel.
Wet may also make you think of the sea or a swimming pool on a sunny day.
These are not the types of wet I am referring to. I mean wet as in soaked to the skin, waterproof drenched, next layer sopping and underwear cold and moist from the outside in. If you’re lucky, your socks may be dry but more likely than not, they are soggy too and enclosed in your wet, muddy boots.
Mountain biking with a group of reluctant teenagers in the rain is also great fun because it’s all your fault and they all want to unburden their misery on to you in an attempt to make you end it. Meanwhile, you are finding it difficult to cope with your own cold and wet, aching calves from cycling the first time in a decade. Thankfully I had a colleague on the wet cycling who loved it so much he was gleefully in his element.  Manically laughing at the rain, the cold, the wet and miserable students and carrying us all along the cycling trail with his boundless enthusiasm and promises or short cuts.

Finally, when you haven’t slept much, when you’re wet, feel sore and get back to your wet and cold campsite in your cold wet clothes and have to find some way of getting warm in your tiny space. There’s probably no hope of drying much of your clothing so the stuff you don’t need is thrown into a plastic bag to be dealt with at home. And then you have to cook on four gas rings for yourself and 6 hungry wet, cold adults and dish out food for 20 cold, wet students – if the students have had  a really bad day, you may have to cook for them make that four gas rings and 26 people, in a big tent, five saucepans and a lot of help chopping and washing up.
Was it comfortable? No
Did I enjoy it? Yes
Would I do it again? Probably
It’s not comfortable camping, it’s camping as an allegory for life because if you can go camping and survive and take a little bit of enjoyment from the process then you are on your way to enjoying life.
It’s also camping as an allegory for life because it’s the people around you that keep you smiling, as you exit your comfort zone and enter the scary world of cold and damp and wet and discomfort, the people around you who are doing the same, without moaning and with a smile on their face...they are the ones who make the discomfort worth a smile...they will never ever make camping comfortable, comfortable camping  will forever remain an illusion or a myth...but they will help make the process a lot of fun.


  1. Oh Sian, you are so much braver than I am. I always, always always find some excuse to prevent going camping. It's not so much the cold and rain that I would have to contend with, it's more the heat and the creepy crawlies - ych y fi! Well done you for battling through. x

  2. Lightweight!There's nothing better to send me to sleep than the hypnotic patter of rain on your tent at night! x Eleri


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