If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Camping Taxonomy

Jim's comments on the last post got me thinking. As I have said before, people who go camping, whether in caravans, motorhomes or tents, are generally nice people. A busy campsite in summer is a friendlier place than any hotel or guesthouse that I have ever seen. People are willing to chat with perfect strangers, will help each other out, and generally tolerate each other in a way that seems to have vanished from urban life. As far as I am concerned, camping (however you do it) is a Good Thing.

I have camped (in the tent sense) all my life, and succumbed to the luxuries - remember all things are relative - of a caravan only in the last ten years. Over that time, I have noticed a few correlations between the type of person you meet and the mode of camping they choose. Here are a few observers' notes for your perusal:

1. Small Tent

This is usually the accommodation of choice of the student, backpacker or bike camper. To be honest, you can't get anything much bigger than this on a bike unless you go down the GoldWing and trailer route, and we don't want to go there, children, do we? People whose priorities are being there as cheaply as possible rather than showing how wealthy they are, and therefore usually good company. This is the roof over my head when I am away on the bike. GFGN sociability score: 8.

2. Large Tent

Families with kids, or older couple who like the tent thing but appreciate the space. Almost always good to know, as they rarely have pretensions or a competitive streak. Some of the nicest people I have met camping have had something like this. On the site in Brittany there was something like this, occupied by a young Belgian couple with two children under 3. The amazing thing was that they had arrived in a sidecar outfit, pulled by a fully-customised Yamaha FJR1300 with Earles forks and tyres that would not have looked out of place on a Lotus Elise. Here's a photo of them leaving the site, just for the record - amazing bit of kit:

GFGN sociability score: 9

3. Small Caravan

There's a paradox here. Logically, in the light of the general correlation between caravan size and dickheadedness, these owners should be among the angels. But, as I said in the previous post, these things aren't linear and in fact I have never met someone with a really tiny caravan who wasn't a bit weird. I think it's the conscious anti-consumerist attitude (we have a caravan, but it isn't a caravan, you know) that marks them out. We have one staying in a field near us at the moment. It's so tiny they must take it in turns to breathe. You don't get into it, you put it on. I had a quick look while I was cutting the grass there the other day and their car was absent, and not only did they have the fish-symbol and huge stickers with scary quotations from the Bible on the back (and the only book in evidence on a quick glance through the windows was a huge leather-bound, gilt-edged volume with lots of place-markers between the pages, presumably left from morning prayers), but in the back of that caravan was a cage and a parrot. I moved away, fully expecting the parrot to see me and start squawking "Lest Ye Repent ..." Those owners of these bijou residences that I have met have usually been rather arrogantly dismissive of the plebs around them - "Don and I don't really see the need for electricity, do we Don?" - so I try to avoid them at all costs. GFGN sociability score: 2-6, depending on level of weirdness.

4. Large Caravan

I think Jim says all that needs to be said here in his comments to the previous post. Twin-axle, size of a double-decker bus, automatic this and hydraulic that, satellite dishes, barbecues the size of a commercial kitchen range, illuminated cocktail cabinets, all there for one of two purposes: to say "I have more money than you", or "I like camping but I want the experience to be as close to living at home as possible". Now the first we can dismiss as plain dickwittery, but the second needs some unpacking. Seeking comfort and convenience is natural; it's what got us out of the trees and onto inventing stuff like the steam engine and the pop-up toaster. But there comes a point, in my view, where the search for ultimate comfort starts to negate the whole experience. If you can rock up at a campsite, plug into mains electricity and mains water, and have all the conveniences of home, exactly what are you achieving, apart from a different view from your living-room window? (And who goes on holiday to watch telly anyway?) I suppose we all slice this one a different way, but for me there has to be some inconvenience, some reminder that you are not living in 39, Acacia Avenue, or the experience has gone. Take water, for example. The latest "Super Pitches" have a constant mains water supply, and the latest caravans have an inlet so that, once you are plugged in, you have the same access to water as you do from the tap at home. Where's the fun in that, unless you are so elderly and infirm that you can't carry a bucket of water? Water that you have walked to a standpipe for, and carried back (even if it in one of those roll-along things to save your crumbling spine) is water that you appreciate. When you have carried it, you conserve it. It may only be a reversed millimetre down the thousand-mile road Back To Nature, but it's something. It seems to me that some of these huge caravans reach the point where you are not camping at all (but I guess the tent campers say that about any caravan - I know I did - so each to his own). In terms of personality, I have found a simple formula: the bigger the caravan, the bigger the twat who owns it. Owners often like to engage you in deep discussion about the merits of their satellite-finding laser-driven remote-control gadgetry, and frequently with the purpose of pointing out the inadequacies of your own arrangements. GFGN sociability score: 3.

5. Small Motorhome

Chinky, dinky and massively claustrophobic, these are almost always owned by retired couples who use them to avoid taking the grandchildren away. GFGN sociability score: 2.

6. Medium Motorhome

If I had a motorhome (or campervan, or camper, or RV, or whatever you like to call it), I think this would be the one. Large enough to live in, but small enough not to dominate the landscape for several hectares, and generally owned by people who are just - well - going on holiday. There's no statement here, no one-upmanship, no my-paella-pan-cum-griddle-cum-barbecue is bigger than yours. They go fairly well on the roads, so rarely hold people up, but they are big enough for a couple to live in for a week without going mad with cabin fever. Most owners I have met have been pretty nice people, neither censoriously low-footprint nor arrogantly materialistic. Often seen with bicycles on the back, which is generally a good sign. GFGN sociability score: 8.

7. Large Motorhome

We're getting back into the Large Caravan area here, with the additional factor of boasting about torque, turbo-lag and the benefits of automatic transmission and cruise control on the really long journeys, dear. These almost never have bikes attached - there will be a huge rack at the rear which makes the Forth Bridge look flimsy and insubstantial, and it will carry a matching pair of his'n'hers scooters. After all, what's the point of getting away from it all if you then have to pedal up hills? I long to see one with a pair of really funky lightweight trailbikes, like the Yamaha Serow, or something a bit radical like a Velosolex, but no: it's always those little 50cc scooters with matching helmets. GFGN sociability score: 2.

8. Very Large Motorhome

No, really, they exist. You never see these on European campsites, as they simply wouldn't fit down the roads to get there. God knows how you justify taking one of these on the road, unless you have twenty children and they all need access to the built-in football pitch for mid-season training. I have seen some that come close, however (I was pitched next to one for a few days in France) and I can say with all sincerity that the owners were unpleasant, acquisitive morons with no sense of self-awareness or irony, who believed that the rest of the world exists just to get out of their way. These are the ones that often tow cars behind them - usually a Smart Car or a micro-mini, but I have seen Mondeo-sized cars being pulled along, and this year a Mazda MX5. I sometimes wonder why they don't get their house put on a huge flat-bed and tow that too. They wouldn't miss anything then. GFGN sociability score: 0 to get-me-out-of-here.

One final point: all of the above applies only to Brits. Forrin people, and specifically the French, Belgians, Dutch and Germans, seem to be able to go camping in a sensible and calm way, without feeling that they need to demonstrate all sorts of irrelevant aspects of their lives and insecurities. If you get to a multinational campsite and have the choice, avoid the places where the Brits congregate (you will be able to tell this by the 20m-high masts carrying the Cross of St George and the drunken noises after 11 pm), and none of the above will matter. Head for the Dutch enclave if you can - always nice people and generally great company.

I have just seen this, and it might be the way to go ...


  1. Absolutely love this post. I'm an occasional camper (small tent - partly thanks to the bike, partly because I love the snug feeling of a mountain tent) but this post just rings true with my experiences. I would have added a category though: "Airstream Owners - cocks"

  2. Thank you. Your Airstream comments are noted and will be incorporated into future editions of this handy guide to stress-free camping.

    I still enjoy tent camping (I currently have at least four tents in the garage), but my back and knees appreciate the comforts of the caravan. Never thought I would say that. But my £19.99 Millet's sale special still fits onto the bike in a very familiar way, and I can't see myself giving that up either.

  3. endemoniada_884 July 2010 at 13:19

    Very entertaining piece!

    I haven't camped out under canvas for years, as that seems to be a signal for the nearest biblical deluge to fixate upon me personally, but did for a while own a Medium Motorhome. It didn't go particularly well on the road, must be said - those over-cab berths are both a waste of time and have the drag factor of a small church. I'd like another, one day, but would probably go for a streamlined hi-top style. Toilet and shower proved to be must-haves, other than that, we got by with cooker, fridge and lights: no electro-mechanical fripperies at all. Great fun.

    Touring in the off-season (winter, basically), meant we only ever met Large Motorhome or Large Caravan Brits on extended vacations. None of whom seemed to appreciate our battered old Talbot being parked next to their ultra-expensive knob-extensions. Made the place look untidy, evidently. At least we were spared the horrors of massed Brits abroad, though...

    We did see a Very Large Motorhome in action down near Barcelona. Took them 40 minutes and about a zillion back-and-forths to get it parked, then the same again to get the side pods extended and stabilised, by which time it was the size of a very big thing indeed. Weirdly, we never saw anyone get out of, or go into, it. Perhaps they never did. It had UK plates, naturally.

    You're right about the foreign camping folks though. They were nice.

  4. I'm reading a book about building your own motorhome at the moment. In it, the author advises his readers to consider the paint scheme and overall build quality very carefully, as 'some campsites are not happy about admitting vehicles which are non-standard'. I guess he means the hippy-trippy brush-painted rainbow wagons and rusty old Commers as favoured by our travelling friends. Mind you, if I was parked up next to one of them I would be a bit cautious myself.

  5. Richard, you sound like a toothless broke hillbilly who is green with envy. It just might be that those who "camp" in the huge RV's are full time RV'ers or may use it for work on the road, or perhaps have a big family and plenty of money to go in style. To judge all big RV owners, which I am not, by your experience with one couple who struck you as !@#$%, is high prejudicial not to mention your totally racist coments about Brits!!

  6. Anonymous, welcome to the blog. Thank you for your kind remarks.

    I stand by everything I said here, with my tongue firmly in my cheek as it was when I wrote it. And Brits abroad, with the exception of you, me and a few others like us, are dicks. Fact.

    Spoken as a Brit.

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    1. I didn't really consider trailer tents in this post, but perhaps I should. Usually owned by the nicest people, I have found :)

  8. Thanks for re-linking to this, Richard, good fun to read.

    We see quite a few motorhomes in the race paddock, arriving with the Caterham on a trailer behind. I can think of examples of 6, 7 and 8 immediately. Let's just say that your assessments are spot on, and that they take the attitudes onto the track with them. No. 8 especially... :-D

  9. I would lurve to see a No. 8 on the track. No jockeying for position on the first corner - just pick a line and take it.

    Oh, sorry, you said taking their attitudes onto the track. Hmmm. Yup, can believe that.

  10. Great post. I really had no idea there was a hierarchy of camping :-D

    I'm not much of a camper these days, though I did grow up faithfully tent camping with my parents year after year. They had a big tent, and you know - they're really nice people, too :)

  11. Thanks, Fuzzy :) Big tents make nice people, I am sure. As I said above, "Some of the nicest people I have met camping have had something like this."


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