The most comfortable camp I have ever experienced.
Cool Camping Gear for the Wild: Connemara Dreaming Part 3
Maddy and Tim put camping equipment – beds, tents, stoves, and cooking pots – to the test on holiday by the Atlantic in coastal Connemara, Ireland.
We love camping and especially in the wilds or on modest campsites with few facilities, good people, lots of wildlife and wonderful views. We got all of these in abundance at Acton's Eco-Caravan and Campsite Park reviewed in my first 'Connemara Dreaming' blog.
This blog is about some of the equipment we took with us and tested. Some of it we sell on Green Shopping but by no means all. It is the PM team's job to test GS products to ensure they are good enough to sell. If they are not we do not select them for the website. This is a peachy part of our jobs as we regard this part as 'play' and we think we are really lucky to have the opportunity to do this. We also like to report back on stuff we do not sell. Some we buy like anyone else and some we are asked to test. We are not paid to endorse so what we think is entirely unbiased. I hope you find this useful.
We have bought and used tents of all shapes and sizes since early childhood. Our current small tent for festivals and one nighters is a Vango 350. It is billed to sleep three so for two people plus bags (and sometimes a border terrier), it is comfortable. The tent has a porch area large enough to sit in on rainy evenings and you can also stow your food and cooker there. The tent itself takes 10 minutes to put up or take down and easily withstands bad weather. It was well tested on our last night at Acton's when we had to pack up in a torrential storm at 3 a.m. and leave to catch the ferry home! It is also reasonably priced.
As we were spending two weeks in Connemara we took our canvas bell tent for the main part of our stay (main picture). This is a four metre (12 foot) 'Ultimate' with a ground sheet that can unzip so you can 'fly' the tent in the traditional bell tent way on a hot day. The zip also means it is very snug in damp, cold weather. The canvas tent itself is well made with multiple vents which help keep the space cool on days (or nights) that are warm but not hot enough to 'fly'. It is easy to put up, having just one central pole, and once you get the hang of it, it only takes about 15-20 minutes from start to finish to erect. Like the small Vango this bell tent was tested in the 'best' of Irish weather and spent a happy 24 hours in a Force 6 by the Atlantic. The sound of the canvas seemed so much more natural, giving and comforting than the snapping of polyester.
We also took a canvas awning. This was strung from our van to create an outdoor cooking area and was also attached to the front of the bell tent to create a sun shade 'porch' area. As we were camping on the shore by the Atlantic we actually used it mostly in the opposite way to a sail: to deflect the wind and weather over our tent doorway. This way, we successfully cooked outside and were able to leave the bell tent door open, even on rainy and windy evenings.
A great benefit of using white canvas for tent and awning is light. At night it seemed to amplify the ambient light and we were able to read until 10 p.m. whilst it was already too dark to do so outside.
Canvas is also durable if looked after and so we hope therefore our tent will last for years. It was a lovely experience living in the round in this way, and so much better than the usual polyester. I can't wait to go camping with it again at the Weald Wood Fair in September.
Woodburning Stove: Glamping?
As a huge treat we invested in a small woodburning stove for the bell tent last year (very popular weith dog). I thought this might be a bit of a toy after using our thoroughbred Clearview woodburner at home, but I was wrong. The stove box is small but robust and works a treat. As well as providing ample heat for the bell tent space, the top plate can boil a kettle or cook food efficiently, you simply have to control the heat with the amount of wood you use. The set up has a floor plate and back plate to protect the canvas and floor against heat and sparks and this works perfectly adequately. You do have to be exercise common sense and care, however, as with any naked flame. The whole assembly is easy to set up once you've learned how to do it and it is dismantled into small components for easy transport; the stove legs unscrew and the flue pipe, collar, ground plate and back plate all undo easily into manageable pieces without the need for any tools.
We could have bought logs locally to burn in the stove but we took some logs from home as we had plenty of room in the van to burn. A lot of the time though we used driftwood we collected from along the shore. We couldn't bring ourselves as visitors to burn peat as many locals do, evidenced by the stacks outside rural houses. As a traditional source of heat I am sure it was relatively sustainable in small quantites. Itt is the scale of the horticultural industry's peat excavations that has denuded Irish peat bogs.
We split our wood with my most favourite tool: a Gransfors Bruks Splitting Hatchet. This is a beautiful hand forged axe from Sweden with the individual forger's initials pressed into the head. It has a hickory handle and is made from high quality steel. It is weighted adequately to split 10 inch rounds and the handle is long enough to put some power into the splitting action. It is not specifically for kindle though it works well for that too. The blade is razor sharp and holds its edge well. Well looked after and carefully sharpened, it should last long after my lifetime. A real family investment.
Over the years I have tested all sorts of camp beds from the Coleman's double mattress (we have had two in too quick a succession) to generic inflatables and self-inflating bed rolls. We were given a rather large double inflatable mattress to try out in the bell tent that sits quite high off the floor, useful for stepping down out of bed onto the floor without the need for hauling oneself up from floor level, as with most normal airbeds. It is in fact two airbeds which zip together, one on top of the other, that creates the height - but you can of course just as easily use them as two separate airbeds. It came with its own battery pump (very useful at festivals if a hand pump for a whole family's airbeds exhausts you and the car is miles away so you can't hitch your 12 volt pump to the car battery). The pump worked well. I was less keen on the mattress. It was good to be off the floor and if you had a bad back I am sure this would be useful in the morning, but for me it was a little too high. I also didn't find it as comfortable as I would have liked, though this might have been exacerbated by the fact that the bed wasn't completly on the level. I reckon this porduct would work better for me as just one large mattress, without the height. It is much better quslity than the usual double air bed found in camping shops.
After a week we then tried two single organic cotton bed rolls made by a UK company that makes mattresses for babies. They are handmade in Devon from recycled denim and are more expensive than PVC or plastic mattresses, but they don't offgas like PVC, will never puncture and deflate, and if you look after them they will last years. You can use them as toppers at home on your bed and you can also use them like a futon lounger in the evening before unrolling them fully for bed when camping. As mentioned, they come as singles but a velcro strip down one of the long sides on each mattress allows you to join them together in a double. It is somewhat like sleeping on a futon, so if you are a creature of comfort and are unaccustomed to this form of bed it does take a little getting used to, but I loved therm. A big plus is that they do not smell of plastic. They also roll up and two attached cotton straps on each bed allows you to easily tie them up into rolls. They are surprisingly not too heavy (unlike a futon) and are therefore easy to carry and transport. Best of all, they feel NATURAL. In the damp Irish climate they do need airing someitmes during and certainly after use or they would go mouldy, but that is a reflection of just how natural they are. If you are going to camp for life like me and you want easy-to-stow beds for guests at home or on a boat or you need a topper, they are worth the investment. I will never have to buy a blow up bed or self-inflating mat (that all sooner or later refuse to inflate) ever again. With the addition of a few rugs and sheepskins, they also make the bell tent look like a palace.
We took a Campingaz stove too – because some days it was too hot to light the woodburner and an open fire in a nature reserve full of exquisite wildflowers is not an option. We didn't take a kelly kettle because we didn't need one, though on short trips I would take one with a billy can, or indeed my honey stove. They are all ideal for travelling light. We also took a small Webber bbq, capable of cooking our supper in a Force 6 with careful positioning of our awning.
We did take a Tatonka Family Cookset. I mistakenly thought it would be good for two. I was so wrong. I have bought stainless steel cooksets for families before and been disappointed by their small capacity but this set is pretty big. The largest pot weighs 855g and is 26 x 15cm and holds 6 litres. The next pot down is 740g and 23 x 14cm (4.5l). The smallest (and most useful for two!) is 585g and 21 x 12.5cm (3.1l) and the frying pan is 370g and 26 x 4.5cm in width. The whole set packs away neatly in its bag like a Rusiian doll and weighs 2550g. The steel used to make it is 18/8 – good for heat distribution. It works on a fire, woodburner or a gas stove. The pans, because the steel is good quality, don't burn, are durable and clean up well. The frying pan I was less impressed by. Cooking fried eggs on it just isn't as easy as a non-stick in all honesty. The handles are well made and the lids have a good handle that is heat resistant – so important for camp cooking. I like the set but I would buy a slightly smaller one in retrospect for when it is just Tim and myself, or use a set of billy cans. This large cookset, however, is a generous size for a family.
We also took a 12cm Zebra billy can with us which I love. It is small, versatile, great for boiling water, making sauces, cooking pasta and rice and is also made with high quality steel. It has the added advantage of a small bowl that packs within the lid, so useful for a variety of things. The lid itself fits snugly so you can store food in the billy as well as cook in it. Billies are happy on an open fire but work equally well on the woodburner plate or on gas. They are a real hit with me and I am after the 16cm version now. That will be adequate for Tim and myself on a camping holiday.
Taking To The Water: Kayaking
The last thing I will mention is my Christmas present from Tim, one of the best gifts I have ever received. It is a two person kayak with a difference. It is inflatable, made of military grade rubber, so deflated and packed in its carryable bag you can chuck it into the boot of a car and pump it up on location using a footpump or 12 volt pump. This also means it isn't as heavy as a Canadian-style canoe but even so it is still very tough and is fit for up to grade 4 white water rapids - not that I suspect we will ever test it to that degree! We had a really wonderful time exploring our local estuary, Killary Harbour, Ireland's only fjord, and the open sea. I learnt so much about the behaviour of fish and seabirds and, of course, you can throw a line out the back and catch your supper if you eat fish. Kayaking is full body exercise and makes you sleep well at night. Bluey the Terrier loves it too and sits in the prow watching birds. Naturally she has her own lifejacket.
Maddy's last blog on Connemara will be the poignant story of returning to a childhood haunt, Loch Corrib, and the surprise she had in store when she got there.