The best thing about camping with a toddler

As you may have guessed from my previous posts, camping with a toddler can be rather ‘challenging’. Sleep deprivation, constant demands for ice cream and baths in washing up bowls (for toddlers that is…) are just some of the challenges you will face when enjoying a few days under canvas. 

After our last camping trip earlier in the year, both my wife and I came home totally exhausted. 

The toddler loving a spot of camping
The toddler loving a spot of camping

So, having just returned from, and survived, another couple of days away in the the tent with the rapidly growing and energetic toddler (helpfully grandma and grandpa were on hand this time to help entertain/tire out a hyperactive two year old) I started to contemplate what the best bit about camping with a toddler was. 

The answer struck me at 5am in the morning. It literally struck me. In the face. On my nose to be precise. 

You see, 5 am was when I woke up, snuggled next to my daughter and wife on the floor of our tent, with the toddler casually smacking me in the noggin as she tossed and turned in the early hours of the morning. Once I came too, I couldn’t help but smile. 

Waking up and seeing my daughter’s beautiful little face, still calm and peaceful, half asleep was amazing. I just lay there and gazed, safe in the knowledge that there was no rush to get to work, no routine to follow and a few hours of peace and contemplation yet to be enjoyed. Such experiences are not something that I get to experience too often during the standard working week.

In my mind, it is this experience that makes camping so special and so much fun.
Hands down these kind of experiences are the best bits about camping for me. Staying up late as a family, forgetting about routines and cot beds, enjoying nights snuggled up on painfully inadequate inflatable mattresses and waking up next to the two most important people in my life.  

My rose-tinted spectacles were perhaps darkened somewhat when we got home and had to deal with an extremely knackered child and mountains of dirty washing (we only went for three days – how is there so much STUFF?!), but I know that I would, and will, go through it all again just to see that little face, have an early morning hug, and lie back and feel the world tick by. 

But next time she could give the smack in the face a miss. I’m looking haggard enough as it is…

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I know that video is king – so why haven’t I been filming my outdoor adventures?

Lets get one thing clear from the start – I know how important video is in an online world.

I know all the facts and figures regarding optimal YouTube video length, the millions hours of online content viewed daily and just how many people regard video as their preferred way to consume information. I know that good videos can significantly enhance a social media profile and drive viewers to a site in their thousands.

But even though I am aware of all that, I still cant bring myself to film my adventures and produce the videos that I know would help promote my blog and garner more interest in Wild(ish)dad.

And heres the main reason why – my time outdoors is too limited.

With an ever increasingly awesome – but also increasingly demanding – toddler, I have such limited opportunities to get outdoors and have some time on my own, or with friends, that I can’t bring myself to spend precious minutes, let alone hours, of my rationed outdoor time documenting my experiences on film. I make videos regularly as part of my day job and know all too well the time and the hassle that goes into producing a decent video, and I cant bring myself to do it when out in the ‘wild’.

When I get outdoors, I want to savour every tantrum free, awesome second of it. Enjoying the sun on my back, the squelch of bog underfoot, each lung busting hill climb and gust of the wind on my face. I don’t want to be thinking about shutter speeds, aperture and optimal camera angles.

And I guess if this means that I don’t get as many followers or as much interest in my blog, at the moment, so be it.

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Just enjoying my time outdoors

If I am being honest, not making videos is also in part due to laziness. The simple option when I strap on some walking boots for an overnight microadventure or cram all my gear into my bike panniers is to forget about tripods, cameras and audio equipment. For one thing it makes my bags a heck of a lot lighter, so i don’t have to work quite as hard when I am out exploring the outdoors (win), but it also means that I don’t have to faff around recording anything, with the inevitable extra effort this entails. This is especially true when self-filming and having to walk/cycle past the camera, only to then retrace your steps and retrieve it!

There are a lot of people out there making some excellent outdoors/adventuring videos and, fairy play to them. Actually, THANK YOU to them, as I enjoy watching an inspirational video as much as the next time-limited, outdoors obsessed person. However, sometimes I do wonder – does the filming experience detract from the enjoyment of what the video maker is doing? Wouldn’t it be better if they put away the camera sometimes and just enjoy the time they are spending outdoors?

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There is still always time for a photo now and then!

I guess it is different if you are a full time adventurer, if your livelihood relies on keeping people interested in what you are up to and your next, exciting project. I am always amazed that Dave Cornthwaite manages to do day-by-day videos and uploads during his latest expeditions (he is currently cycling along the coast of Norway – on water…), which must require a huge amount of effort and, ultimately, be a timely distraction during an arduous expedition. But I can understand this effort; sponsors need to be kept happy, social media followers updated and interest in a quest maintained.

Anyway, I digress.

In conclusion – fair play to the likes of Ed Pratt (who is producing some excellent videos of his current adventure unicycling around the world) and co., but at the moment I wont be joining their video producing ranks. I may be missing a trick and I may regret my decision in the future, but at the moment I am just going to concentrate on making to most of every second I have outdoors and selfishly savour every immediate experience, just for myself.

The first time camping with a toddler – 5 key lessons learnt

Since my daughter was born, two wonderful but sleepless years ago, I have been keen to get out camping with her. The idea of spending some quality time with my wife and daughter in the outdoors, enjoying BBQ’s and a peaceful campsite in the sun was very appealing – especially during the cold, dark, sleep deprived months of winter.

However, I was too much of a wuss to give camping with a baby a go. I read lots about people who had, and had a great time, and those who had and appeared mildly traumatised by the experience. In truth, my main fear was trying to deal with a screaming, teething baby in the middle of the night and royally pissing off any other campers.

So, it wasn’t until this summer, when my daughter was over two years old, that I felt confident enough to seriously contemplate camping. And it wasn’t until earlier this summer that my wife and I packed – or rather jammed – our car with tent, travel cot, sleeping bags and toddler and set off for a few days under canvas.

We had a fantastic, if not utterly exhausting time, and there were a few important lessons that we learnt. I hope that these lessons may be of use to some other parents with young children out there, considering giving camping a go:

1) Get a decent sized tent

Up until this summer, I have always made do with tiny one or two man tents when on camping trips. When it rains, it is miserable. When the weather is good, it is only slightly less cramped and miserable (smelly socks+small space = bad times).

So, viewing it as a long term investment, my wife and I got ourselves a large 5/6 person tent this summer and I am very glad we did. There was loads of room for our gear, a nice ‘porch’ area for toddler based activities (YEY – more colouring!) and spacious sleeping compartments that could easily fit all of us bunking down together.

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Plenty of room – and not a bad view

Even when the weather wasn’t so good, we could all easily chill in the tent with a bit of personal space and none of the claustrophobia induced tent grumpiness that would have afflicted us in a smaller setup.

Sure the larger tent wasn’t super cheap – but it was well worth it.

2) Choose the right campsite

My wife and I are not ‘serious’ campers and don’t like really formal sites with lots of rules. Naturally this means that there tend not to be that many facilities on the more relaxed sites we choose. But with a toddler in tow, we knew that we needed to compromise this time round, so whilst we still looked for a nice, chilled out site, in a rural setting, we knew that we needed to make sure that we picked one with some key facilities on site.

I am a big fan of the Cool Camping website and they came up trumps for us this summer, with Beryls Campsite in South Devon offering a great, toddler friendly place to stay. The pitches were limited in number and really spaced out among grassy paddocks, other families were on site, no caravans were allowed and there was even a small kitchen area with a fridge – a perfect place to store gallons of milk for the toddler.

For us it ticked all the boxes and was a very relaxed place to stay. At this site, we didn’t have to worry much about toddler noise, as tents were so spaced apart and we could easily keep an eye out on the little ‘un as she roamed around the paddock we were camping in. Picking the right site made the whole experience a lot more enjoyable and chilled for all involved.

3) Be relaxed about routine 

We knew before going camping that our toddler’s usual bedtime routine would have to go out the window – there was no way that a 7pm sleep time would work when it was still light outside!

On our first night though we probably clung on too much to that routine, trying to get our daughter off to bed before she was completely zonked. The result? An hour of tears and tantrums before my wife and I eventually gave up, crawled into bed next to our daughter and eventually soothed her to sleep. Bed at 9pm on holiday – rock and roll!

But over the next couple of days we were much more relaxed, and whilst we still stuck with the whole bath, book, milk, then bed routine, we just stopped worrying about the time. So what if our daughter hit the hay at 9pm? She just had a longer lie in instead and seemed no worse off for a few days of change.

The key thing was that she went to sleep with minimal fuss.

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Plenty of factor 50 and enjoying the sun

4) Pray for good weather!

Whilst there isn’t much you can do about this one, camping in dry weather certainly makes life easier. If its forecast to chuck it down on any of our future camping trips, I’d be tempted to give them a miss.

That may make me a wimp, but I don’t care! I have put up with enough sodden solo adventures to know that camping in the rain isn’t too much fun and makes everything slightly more stressful and a hell of a lot more unpleasant. And lets be honest, looking after a toddler is pretty stressful anyway, so having to contend with being confined to a tent (no where to dry wet clothes, limited space to cook, no where to hide…) will simply make things worse. You want to enjoy your family holiday and crap weather can put a real dampener on things. Literally.

We were really lucky when we went off for our few days away and it was dry, with a couple of days of decent sun. It was great – we could spread out around the tent, let the toddler run free, cook outdoors, dry clothes and generally live the outdoor life. Perfect – and so much more relaxing than if we had had to endure the standard British summer weather.

5) Prepare to be knackered

I can’t actually remember the last time that I wasn’t tired, but going camping brought on a whole new level of exhaustion.

Not only was our toddler waking up early in the morning, but she was going to bed late at night. So we had a few extra hours every day of toddler entertainment/supervision, and this, coupled with all the extra work you have to do when camping (cooking on a tiny, TINY stove, walking to get water and spending forever trying to find any random item of clothes/gear in your tent) as well as going out for the day, leaves you feeling totally pooped.

Whilst we had a really great time, and loads of fun, it would be unfair to gloss over just how tiring the few days were. I guess we are a very active family, so we were doing stuff all the time, but even if we had just chilled on the campsite, we still would have found ourselves falling asleep, books in hand at the wild time of 9.30pm.

So, with this in mind, if you are planning on your first trip with a little one, maybe air on the side of caution and just go away for a fews days to start. I think a week away would have broken me…

toddler camping by beach
A happy toddler and one happy, utterly knackered dad!

Four reasons why every road cyclist should visit Exmoor National Park

One destination that I would urge all cyclist to visit, is Exmoor National Park. If you are looking for a haven of quiet, rural roads, great views and brutal climbs, then Exmoor is the place to go.

Now I may be a little bias, as Exmoor is right on my doorstep, but having cycled all over the UK, I reckon I can say with a certain level of confidence that Exmoor has something very special to offer the road cyclist; be you a casual day tourer or hardcore, powermeter-slave, speed demon.

But what is it that makes Exmoor so unique and why it is a ‘must visit’ cycling destination?

Stunning scenery

Exmoor has some of the most amazing scenery that I have been fortunate enough to see; providing the visual goodies to keep your eyes shining bright and a big fat grin stuck on your face.

You like rugged, wave-crashing coastline? No worries!

Open moorland with awesome views? Yep there is that too – and we can throw in some deer and Exmoor ponies for good measure (Dunkery Beacon ticks all the boxes here).

Quiet villages, ancient bridges, fords, and centuries-old woodland? They’re all over the place.

Exmoor
Valley of the Rocks. Photo credit: Pete Rae

No matter where you go on a bike it is so good to know that, bar from a few exceptions, you are guaranteed to be riding in some stunning scenery.

Which is just as well really, as hopefully the the views will help distract from the pain caused by Exmoor’s other big draw for cyclists….

Epic hills

There are three hill climbs in the ‘Top 10 of the Britain’s 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs’ located within Exmoor National Park (Exmoor Forest, Dunkery Beacon and Porlock Hill in case your’e interested) and the difficulty of these climbs sets the tone for the whole region.

Exmoor cycling
The annual Porlock Toll Road Hill Climb run by Minehead Cycling Club

Whilst the three climbs identified are particularly epic, I assure you from first hand experience that there are plenty of less well know, but equally lung-busting hills to enjoy. The road from Elworthy Cross to the Ralegh’s Cross Inn is a particular favourite and the gradual, long rise from the beautiful medieval town of Dunster up to Wheddon Cross, taking in mile upon mile of wonderful woodland, along peaceful A roads, is another.

Cyclists soon get used to seeing lots of single, and more often than not, double chevrons on their OS maps, harbingers of challenging ascents and descents.

The legs are going to hurt, but it is so much fun!

Peace and quiet

One of the things that I can’t emphasise enough is how wonderful it is to cycle along the lanes of Exmoor and just enjoy the peace and quiet.

Sure there are some stretches of road near the bigger population centres that are a bit busy (the popular tourist resort of Minehead for example), but even a few miles away from these and you can find yourself cruising along with the bother of only the occasional car.

Deer on Exmoor
Photo credit: Heather Lowther

Whilst even most of the ‘main’ A roads are pretty chilled, if you move on to the smaller, minor roads you can find yourself cycling all day and only bumping into a hand full of traffic. Some of the really minor roads may be a bit pot-holetastic, and have grass growing down the middle, but it is well worth the putting up with the challenges that these conditions pose to enjoy some car free miles.

And drafting behind tractors is a LOT of fun!

Perfect pubs and cake laden cafes

Exmoor is also blessed with having a plethora of pubs and cafes; catering for both the holiday crowd and locals alike. The joy of this is that most villages will have somewhere where – probably depending on your cycling goals – you can either find a restorative flapjack and coffee or pint of real ale with Scampi Fries.

A couple of my favourites include The White Horse at Exford (Exmoor Ale or Thatchers Gold – how am I supposed to choose?!) and the Tantivy Cafe in Dulverton (gluten free cake – winning).

Wherever you go, you are likely to receive a warm welcome – even when you clip clop along in your cleats, resplendent in full lycra.

peterae
View from Dunkery Beacon. Photo credit: Pete Rae

Exmoor has a lot to offer the cyclist and over the years I have noticed a marked increase in the number of cyclists around and the positive attitude that most people in the area have towards us velocipede fans

For me the real draw of the area is the perfect combination of challenging terrain, peace and genuinely jaw-dropping beauty of Exmoor. It is a first class cycling location and I hope to see some of you reading this out on the roads of Exmoor National Park one day.

I’ll be the one with the giant smile on his face, pretending that I haven’t opted for the Scampi Fries…

An outdoor dad’s dilemma: do I really want to head off outdoors when spending time with the family is so much fun?

After a brilliant weeks holiday away with my wife and daughter, I really started to question my constant desire and scheming to get out and explore the outdoors. After all, the time I spent with my family was so much fun and so rewarding in its own right, did I really want to use up my limited free time bumbling around outside when I could spend more time with them?

Since growing up and getting a ‘proper job’ (plus mortgage, bills etc.), I have always beaten myself up about not getting outdoors more frequently and having more adventures. Whilst browsing the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of my favourite adventurous types (Alastair HumphreysSean Conway and Tom Allen to name but a few) I used to feel that I was always flaking on potential days, weekends or even weeks away due to the seemingly unending stream of work deadlines, household jobs and family commitments.

I was a wanna-be, but failed adventurous type.

But, since the birth of my daughter, (she’ll be two soon…where does time go?!) I have found that this failed-adventurer ‘guilt’ has become less and less of an issue. It is incredibly rewarding to watch my daughter develop and so awesome to have the chance to spend time with her and share many great experiences together (see a previous post for just one example). I want to be at home at the weekends to spend time with her and my wife – it’s great fun and we always get outdoors anyway, just on smaller, less epic scale than I used to desire. And my recent week away was so good, and so rewarding in itself that I left our holiday cottage seriously questioning myself: why bother always thinking about getting time outdoors, going off on microadventures and day dreaming about long trips in foreign climes? Things are awesome just where you are.

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This train of thought has been incredibly strong and, if I were to follow it, I can see that I will inevitably stop being as active and outdoorsy as I used to be. And as the days have passed since my week away, the sadder I think that would be.

After all, it is important to spend some time on your own, away from your family, no matter how much you love them. Even a short time away, doing something you enjoy, leaves you refreshed and revitalised; ready to tackle the next round of dirty nappies and Gruffalo induced tantrums with a smile on your face.

I also want to keep my passion for the outdoors burning and that desire to do slightly dangerous, fun and ‘character building’ stuff (abseiling down cliffs, sleeping out on Exmoor in a bivvy bag, cycle touring on the cheap…) so that I pass that same passion on to my daughter and encourage her to have fun in outdoors too.

As always, I think it comes down to balance.

I am always going to prioritise time with my wife and daughter because I love them and love spending time with them. However, when I do, its important that I don’t feel ‘guilty’ for not spending that time going off doing daft and adventurous things. In fact, quite the reverse, it shows (I hope!) I am a half decent husband and dad. On the other hand though, I should continue to pop off for the odd half day hike, weekend away or Friday night in a hammock on a hill, and strive to find the time to do things outdoors.

Its a tricky balancing act and one that I definitely need to work on, but as long as my family are happy and I keep that desire to get outdoors going – albeit on a lower burn than years gone by – I think I will ended up being a much happier, more content and less conflicted Wild(ish)dad.

 

A camping hammock convert

Is it time that you jumped on the camping hammock bandwagon?

My bivvy bag and trusty one-man tent have been my longstanding and reliable companions on many adventures, from overnight bike rides to multi-day adventures in the Alps.

So why then did I feel the need to go ahead and add to my array of overnight-adventure sleeping options and buy a camping hammock? And, more importantly, has it turned out to be a good idea?

In short, buying a DD Camping Hammock has proven to be a great decision and resulted in a number of advantages to my outdoor-based bumbling’s.

One of the best things about my hammock is that it is light – only 650g to be precise – and anything that can help keep my pack weight down is a godsend in my eyes. The lighter my pack, the further I can bike or walk in a day and the longer my body can keep going before giving up – happy times!

But an even bigger positive for me is the comfort. Now, there are people who don’t get along with sleeping in hammocks, but I love having a lie down in my green canvas cocoon. As long as it is set up well and you have a well-designed hammock, with enough space for you to side sleep comfortably, you’re sorted.

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Want some advice about setting up your hammock properly? Give this helpful video a quick watch

Whilst I do love my bivvy bag, the major downside for me was the comfort. I am really tall (6 ft 4″ to be precise…), and never fitted that well in my bivvy bag (including the extra long versions on offer, from the likes of Alpkit) and even with a good self inflating sleeping mat, on uneven ground – why do I always end up sleeping on uneven ground?! – I struggled to stay comfy and get decent sleep. In my hammock I know I am going to get some decent rest, despite being over six foot tall.

And whilst a tent provides excellent shelter from the elements and proper sense of ‘home’ whilst out in the wilds, I do miss the connection you have with your surroundings once you zip the tent closed. I know a lot of people (outdoor gear guru, Chris Townsendincluded) alleviate this feeling by sleeping with the door open, but I still feel a bit enclosed.

When chilling in my hammock, I am free to look up at the stars, trees and surrounding wildlife. You feel connected, part of what is going on around you and it is great fun. I know I am just a big kid, but I get a real kick out of that closeness.

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The other great thing about hammocks is that even on a day walk, you can pop it in your pack and you can have yourself a nice, comfy seat (providing you can find a couple of trees…), and if the ground is soaking, a dry seat at that – what luxury!

But despite all the positives, it would be remiss of me not to point out a couple of negatives when it comes to a camping hammock, the first being your reliance on trees.

Whilst I have seen some examples of interesting setups, with hammocks strung up between stone walls/fences/old bits of machinery, most of the time you are reliant on trees. Obviously if you plan to camp out in the middle of a moor or wind-swept mountaintop, you may find yourself in difficulty! Days may have to be cut short, extended or deviated, all in the quest to string up your sleeping space for a night.

And if it looks like rain, then your’e going to have to bring a tarp along for a bit of overhead shelter (after trying a couple, my favourite is the DD Tarp 3m x 3m), and suddenly your pack starts to get heavier again.

However, I still think that a camping hammock is a great investment. Will it completely replace my tent and bivvy? I doubt it – but it is certainly going to get a lot more use this summer and in the right circumstance, provide me with the best combination of weight, comfort and openness, that will only help to further enhance my enjoyment of the outdoors.

Five must have items to ensure a successful outdoor adventure with your toddler

Presuming you have the essentials of food, water, spare clothes and nappies whenever you head into the great outdoors with your little ‘un, I urge you to take along a couple of the items listed below on your next parent-toddler adventure. I have found every one of them priceless when it comes to ensuring a fun filled, tantrum free and mutually enjoyable time outdoors with my daughter.  

The only problem is finding enough room in my pack to fit them all in……… 

1) Waterproof mat 

There is nothing worse for you or your child than being forced to sit on buttock drenchingly wet ground when you have to stop for a spot of lunch or give your child a break from their baby backpack.  

For the rest of your walk, you have the deeply unpleasant sensation of feeling as though you were the one who forgot their nappy.  

Having a bit of waterproof matting (a section of old shower curtain does the trick), means that you can plonk yourself and your toddler down on the ground anywhere for a quick snack and refuel without having to endure hours of discomfort afterwards.  

2) Plastic pots 

This might just be my daughter, but as soon as a child hits the one year old mark, putting things in pots suddenly becomes incredibly exciting and the number one game to play! Have a few plastic pots in your pack that you can whip out whenever you want to have a pause from walking/cycling etc., safe in the knowledge that as long as you can find the odd stick or bunch of rocks to put in them, your toddler will be happily entertained for a few blessed minutes – allowing you a bit of time to sit and enjoy your surroundings.  

Pots are also great for gathering up beetles or any other critters that you may come across. My daughter finds insects fascinating (check out this great identification chart from Buglife) and loves having the opportunity to watch any kind of bug, without it running away.  

3) Spare socks 

There is nothing worse than having to endure a long day in the hills in wet, damp socks. In this, I and my 15 month old daughter are in complete agreement. Soggy feet are a complete morale killer for dad and daughter alike.  

If your child is anything like mine, they will be naturally drawn to muddy puddles, bogs and rivers. And who can blame them? Sploshing about in mud is still one of the reasons that I love getting outdoors. But be prepared and expect the worse – it isn’t unusual for me to head out with three spare pares of kiddy socks.  

4) Wildlife book 

If you are lucky (and your child is quiet enough!) hopefully you will spot plenty of wildlife when you are out and about in the countryside with your kid.  

If you spot any interesting birds or beasties it is likely that it will only be for a fleeting moment. If you can, take the time to then show your child what you just saw in a wildlife book. That way they will see a clear picture of the animal in question and you can always include a – usually awful – impression of the sound that the animal makes. My speciality in crap pheasant noises.   

I really believe that it is never to young to get children interested in nature and I think that this is another way to help spark a child’s curiosity.  

5) Waterproof trousers 

These are a god send, and not just in the depths of winter. By plonking your child in a pair of decent waterproof trousers (my daughter loves her Danish specials you can let them roam free in the outdoors, safe in the knowledge that the worst of the mud/bog/rain wont touch them. They also act as a handy extra layer of insulation when it does get cold, helping to keep your child warm, dry and therefore happy.  

Waterproof trousers also help cut down on the pile of clothes washing that I have to go through, making them a key asset on any trip!