The weird and wonderful reality of post-lockdown camping holidays

Gideon Mendel / Getty Images / WIRED

In March, freelance social media consultant Jacqueline Buckland was due to jet off to Australia with her husband, her 18-month-old toddler and her parents for their first ever family holiday. But as coronavirus put the world on lockdown she was left with flight vouchers and a ruined family vacation. Instead of going without a holiday this year, Buckland, like thousands of other people up and down the country, will instead be heading into the great outdoors to go camping.
In September, Buckland will pack up some sleeping bags and head to a campsite in Lake Windermere with her husband and son. “I was just keen to do something in the UK and I thought something outdoors might be a little bit safer. We can do our own thing, space out a little bit more, so I thought camping could be quite a good idea,” she says. “As a family, we’ve never done it, and my little boy will be two in September, so we thought we’d combine it for his birthday.”


Manchester-based Lee Simpson had the same idea: he will be heading to Herefordshire with his wife and two young children, along with three other families in August for a spot of glamping. “We would normally go to a shared house, which is what we’ve done in the past, but we just thought camping would be better,” he says. Persuading his wife to agree to the trip was hard, he admits. As well as convincing her that it would be fun for the kids, he pointed out that camping could be safer in terms of coronavirus. “Everyone can be outside, and everyone can be in their own tents,” he says.
Buckland and Simpson aren’t the only ones opting for a campsite staycation in the UK this year. Ever since June 30, when prime minister Boris Johnson announced that lockdown restrictions would be eased further from July 4, people have been booking pitches at campsites in droves. Campsite booking site says that shortly after the announcement, a booking was made every three seconds on its site. Since June 23, has recorded 84,000 holidaymakers making 29,340 bookings, 59 per cent higher than this time last year.
On June 30, bookings on camping bookings site Cool Camping were up 400 per cent on the previous weekly average, and up 750 per cent on the same day last year. The company says bookings were at an all-time high. The company says that many people booking have spent more on extras, suggesting an increase in first-time campers but also that people are replacing more expensive overseas holidays with a couple of weeks in a damp English field.
In rural Cornwall, Tony and Lesley Hedges, the owners of the Pleasant Streams Farm, are too busy getting the campsite ready for its reopening to discuss how they’re preparing for the influx of campers this summer. “The past week has been crazy. We’ve never seen so many bookings come through in one period. The phone has been ringing constantly, emails coming through constantly,” says Jo Hedges, Tony and Lesley’s daughter, who looks after the farm’s marketing and advertising. “They’re a mixture of excited and stressed. I think they’re very, very happy that we’ve been allowed to open.”


The short timeframe between Johnson’s announcement and July 4 has been difficult for the family-run business. Hedges describes the campsite as a bit of a “back to basics” experience: there’s no Wi-Fi, there’s no communal area, merely acres of field. She adds that the couple didn’t want to invest a lot of money into putting up signage and getting the campsite ready if it wasn’t going to be opening this summer.
With the go-ahead, the Hedges are now in the midst of putting up signs reminding people to social distance, placing hand sanitisers by the bins, compostable toilets and shower blocks, installing two-metre markers by facilities, and reminding campers to pitch their tent two metres away from others. Pitches have been reduced by ten to allow for better social distancing and an extra field not usually allowed for camping has been opened up for people to stay. Ultimately, Hedges says they will be upping their cleaning regime. “Ideally, it’d be sanitised after every person’s touched [something], but we can’t do that,” says Hedges. “We’re going to put some cleaning products in there and ask people to use those to clean the surfaces before and after they use them.”
Other campsites are opting for more extreme hygiene measures. Oliver Catgill runs the Catgill Farm campsite in the Yorkshire Dales and has a comprehensive list of measures he is implementing to help keep guests safe. These include everything from banning campers from brushing their teeth in the communal bathrooms, forcing campers to wear face masks in the shower and toilet blocks and reducing the size of the pitch so that guests can social distance. He has also stopped the use of fridges and microwaves, and hired more staff so that the site can up its cleaning regime. “I guess the whole point of everything we do is we want to be the best at what we do,” Catgill says.
For many campsites, this unusually busy period will help them gain back any earnings lost over the course of the lockdown, despite the challenges of social distancing. There are an estimated 5,000 camping, glamping and touring sites in the UK, as well as up to 3,500 small certificated sites, according to data from The Camping and Caravanning Club, which represents 103 sites across the UK and 1,400 smaller certificated sites, says that it lost £25 million during the entirety of the closure period, but that sales over the last three weeks are up 70 per cent over this time last year, with sales in July and August already ahead of 2019. Catgill hopes that over the length of the year, earnings will equal those in 2019.


Pleasant Streams runs seasonally rather than all year round, operating primarily in the summer months, with only a small portion of income being made in the Easter. “That small amount of income that we would get in the shoulder seasons had dried up completely, so it’s a big relief that they can open now,” says Hedges. “Because the bookings are so busy, if everything goes to plan and there isn’t any further lockdown, they should be able to claw back the earnings that they would have earned in the spring.”
Joe Putman, owner of the Wardley Hill campsite in Norfolk, says that bookings are the highest he has ever seen, with enquiries beginning to roll in from mid-May. The Easter months would have been tough, but Putman says that many of the guests thankfully accepted refund vouchers which were valid for two years. This allowed the site to keep its booking capital and, along with the government’s small business grant, invest in a new water supply to build more showers and sinks, invest in extra sheds, put up signage and purchase everything it needs to make the site Covid secure.
Putman says he is fortunate because his campsite is already built for socially distant campers. “We have mown pathways, which I’ve now widened, and there are mown pitches in the grass,” he says. “So when people arrive, they can choose a mown area to pitch their tent. Each one of those is separated by a patch of long grass.”
But the avalanche of campers and the local campsites that welcome them will need to grapple with local communities, who will be nervous about the sheer number of people arriving in their area. During lockdown, local residents in rural areas put up signs telling visitors to go home, while beautiful locations such as Snowdonia National Park, Durdle Door beach in Dorset and Bournemouth beach were flooded with people during lockdown.
A National Parks spokesperson advises that visitors follow the latest government guidelines, as well as looking at the local National Park website. “Everyone in National Parks understand the need to connect with nature. It’s why we work there so we know why people will be keen to visit as soon as possible,” says the spokesperson. The advice for visitors is to take their litter home with them and prepare to have a fallback option if the area is crowded. “Respect social distancing and remember that National Parks are the homes and shop floors for local residents and businesses. They have a right to feel safe and you – not the police or other services providers – are the most important person in helping them enjoy that right.”
Still, as the lockdown is eased, businesses and even local residents are keen to get back to normal, but want that to be done in a safe way. Earlier this week, villagers in Wester Ross in Scotland took down a sign held up by a scarecrow brandished with the words ‘go home’, and replaced it with a notice urging people to wear masks and wash their hands.
While campsite owners themselves are taking their responsibility to look after their local area seriously. “I don’t want to see what we saw at Durdle Door and Bournemouth recently. It’s just reminding people to be respectful of each other whichever situation they’re in,” says Putman. “If it feels too busy, then it probably is. Come back to your tent.”
Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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