It is a remarkable feeling to take to the road with ample provisions, shrugging off the day-to-day and household responsibilities, in search of high adventures and a need to reconnect with the world beyond our front door. We are creatures who have roamed for millennia, after all, and deep in our collective make-up is a need to look up at the stars in the sky – or rather, and perhaps a more current phenomenon (certainly for me), a need to switch off from work and spend quality time with my family.
Camping offers a more hand-to-mouth existence and, even if you are staunchly the sort of person who requires running water and electricity to enjoy yourself, living outside, whether for a night, a week or more, allows for a different sort of reality. Freer, certainly; more weathered, definitely, with the rhythm of your day then subject to more base conditions – the need to eat, the need to keep warm and the need to sleep. It is this nascent sense that I so enjoy when it comes to camping, with the heat of the day beginning to fade. Fires are lit for warmth, illumination and also for cooking. People gather, food and heat sources are shared among friends, old and new, and stories are told. There are also those opportunities to camp when you might prefer to go it alone, or at least with fewer people, in search of proper wilderness. When you arrive, as night begins to fall, there is the joy of swinging shut the doors on the camper, setting up the table within, blankets, a deck of cards, some drinks, a meal prepared, the van a cosy beacon in an empty landscape.
I’m quite aware how romantic the notion of all this sounds. And, truth be told, I became a convert to camping only in recent years – since becoming a parent, I suppose. My husband is a Kiwi and, by birthright alone, is a massive fan of camping. Matt delights in telling our three children about his experiences as a child, the entire summer holidays spent under canvas, roaming the outdoors. Hotels can be a pain with a young family, not to mention costly and perhaps even stressful with the exhausting regime of having to temper children’s (teenagers’, even lively adults’) more exuberant and boisterous conduct – behaviour better suited to wide-open spaces.
And so it is that my family and I have found ourselves these past five or so years driving off in a camper van in search of secluded camping spots and, in contrast, the occasional music festival. Beaches, rivers, mountains, forests… having the camper van bolsters my confidence as the more apprehensive, fair-weather camper. Rain, wind or shine, I prefer the sturdy format over canvas, for when we all do (finally) drift off to sleep.
More often than not, our camping party will swell with the odd tent or awning (for hardy friends or plucky children, who have no need for walls) nudging up beside the van, our camp spilling out to accommodate more people for the night, the week, whatever. A flexible space, a movable feast, it is the sense of independence that camping offers that I find compelling. I enjoy the days being punctuated by the making of food and the conviviality of sharing it. I also happen to think that our camping diet should not be inferior to the one we enjoy from the comfort and reliability of the home kitchen. Different absolutely, more portable perhaps, or more likely to be eaten off your lap at the very least, but it is always my aim that it must never be anything less than completely delicious.
From my experience, cooking well on a camping trip is primarily about being well organised, so much so that your aim is to become one of those people who merrily declare “a place for everything and everything in its place”. Perhaps not, but you get the gist. It’s very tricky to find a corkscrew in the dark if you haven’t put your head torch in the place where you first think to look for it.
Cooking whilst camping demands a different energy, it has to be relaxed, cold drink on the go, children running amok, the sun sinking; it is this moment in the day that I most anticipate when camping, it’s when memories are made and my children are happiest, truly. No screens, no phone signal, just us and the crackle of the fire. Camping is the rare time when we will all head off to bed together at the same time, whispering our goodnights to each other, and best of all, is when these are accompanied by the odd hoot of an owl, or more recently for us, the braying donkey, for company.
Breakfast is an up-and-at-it experience: kettle on, tea, coffee, the children already back to it running around on the campsite with newly made friends, leaving us adults cobble breakfast together, and plan adventures for the day ahead.
Camping is freedom from the usual slog, and this summer especially, I’m really looking forward to it.
Claire Thomson lives in Bristol with her husband and three children. She is a chef and food writer, and food and travel with her family is what makes her world go round. 5oclockapron.com
Edited extract from Camper Van Cooking: From Quick Fixes to Family Feasts, 70 Recipes, All on the Move by Claire Thomson and Matt Williamson, photography by Sam Folan, published by Hardie Grant.
First published in Issue 74 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.