I couldn't afford the rent so moved into a tent with my husband and two childrenMay 2, 2022
I gazed up at the mountains of Great Langdale in the Lake District and I thought how cold, hard and imposing they looked.
There was no mobile signal or Wi-Fi at the campsite, cutting us off from the outside world. As we handed over enough of our dwindling funds for a month’s camping, I wondered how my husband, two children and I would manage.
But, as with so many of the places we stayed over the year we lived in a tent across England, Langdale soon felt like home. The mountains no longer seemed hostile, instead they encircled us as if in protection, a reassuringly familiar skyline.
If you’ve ever been camping with young children, you can probably begin to imagine what our wild year was like.
The highs and lows, the laughter and tantrums, the nights spent wondering if the tent was about to blow away, and those precious moments we wished could last forever. In short, everything you’d expect from a family camping trip, only longer, and with some extra mud and weather thrown in.
The decision to move into the tent was borne from necessity.
When my fixed-term job came to an end, I found myself with a baby and a toddler in my care, no access to maternity pay and little time to write. Our income halved but our outgoings steadily increased.
Trying to make up for the shortfall, my husband, Sim, worked long hours, missing out on precious time with our children. At home, I struggled through without him, life became a blur of exhaustion and worry.
By spring 2014, we were struggling to afford the rent on our tiny bungalow in Wiltshire, spending sleepless nights searching desperately for a way to make things better.
Needing an escape and some time together, we went camping in the Peak District. For two whole weeks, life felt perfect – living, working, playing together, surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of the natural world.
Lying in the gathering darkness on the final night of our trip, dreading the looming return to normality, an idea gradually took shape: could we do this longer-term?
Years before, Sim and I had met working in an outdoor shop, spending our pre-child days running, mountain biking and rock climbing together. When it came to camping, we had both kit and expertise.
We could also see that this was our best chance of creating a more balanced and fulfilling life for all of us, and an opportunity to turn the writing and photography we loved into our livelihood.
People were generally supportive when we announced our plans to leave that autumn. We reasoned that lots of families camp for a couple of weeks at a time – why should a year be so different?
From the moment we made our decision, everything felt better. We had found an answer where we had thought there wasn’t one; a way to gain control over our lives, to do something exciting and positive for the future and, hopefully, to work our way out of crippling debt.
We sold our few possessions, swapped our sensible family car for a pickup truck, and bought a bell tent and a woodburner. As we set about planning where to stay, the sums made sense: at the very least we would be halving our outgoings.
It was at once terrifying, exciting and a huge relief to finally be on our way in November 2014, the truck packed with everything we needed other than the provisions we’d stock up with on the way.
We started out in the South Downs and New Forest National Parks in southern England. I’ll never forget that first evening, pitching our new tent in darkening woodland, serenaded by a chorus of tawny owls.
It took us a while to get used to hearing night-time sounds through the canvas, so different from the insulated experience of being in a house. Sometimes, I’d lie in the darkness listening to the rustling and squeaking of nocturnal visitors while the children slept soundly – we’ve always found they sleep best in a tent.
We used the woodburner for cooking and heating over the winter months, cutting a hole in the tent roof and attaching a metal and silicone flashing kit to allow the flue to pass through safely without letting the rain in.
Keeping the fire alight took time and effort, but it was worth it for the heat and a constant supply of hot water – for everything from coffee for us to baths for the kids.
We stayed at each site for between one and four weeks, exploring each day from the tent door. Money was still tight, so we were lucky to find some generous campsite owners who allowed us to camp cheaply.
We then made our way west, opting to spend the winter in Devon before heading north in the spring.
Then, after a month in each of the Peak District and Lake District, we were delighted to be offered a pitch in a peaceful paddock in the Wye Valley for six weeks over the summer – in return for looking after the owners’ house and garden while they were away.
I loved the gentle rhythm of daily life in the tent, always starting with coffee, grinding beans by hand as the steam from the camping stove rose into the morning air. We worked hard, drawing inspiration for our writing and photography from our surroundings.
Afternoons were for exploring, climbing mountains, paddling in streams, or simply enjoying being in and around the tent, where our three-year-old would happily play for hours.
It was wonderful to slow down, to have time to really be together and to fully experience the places we stayed. Sleeping with an ear to the earth, tuning in to the natural rhythms of light and dark, there’s nothing quite like being in a tent for total immersion in a place.
But with that immersion comes vulnerability.
Some of the hardest times were when the weather battered our flimsy canvas home; when a delayed payment for our freelance work left us with less to spend on food; when the everyday ebb and flow of family life was played out on a busy campsite for all to hear.
If we ever really had doubts, though, we needed only to look at our children. They were so clearly flourishing, surrounded by our constant love and attention and captivated by the wonder of wild things.
Being so young at the time, we didn’t need to worry about formal education, although they were learning from their surroundings all the time.
After we moved back into a house, we chose to homeschool, watching how effectively our children learnt by being immersed in, and engaging with, the world around them.
Now they’re older – aged seven and 10 – we do a mixture of structured and free-range learning, spending as much time as we can outdoors.
For anyone considering longer-term family camping, tent choice is crucial. Having enough space is important, but our first tent was too large and was badly damaged when a storm hit the south coast only a few weeks after we’d moved in.
In the end, we downsized from a six-metre to a four-metre model, which was spacious enough and far better in high winds. Bell tents are fantastic – they’re easy to pitch, incredibly durable, and beautifully light and airy over the summer months. But, having only a single skin of fabric, they do get cold in winter.
A separate bedroom tent, which hangs inside the main tent, adds a surprisingly effective extra layer of insulation. It’s also great for keeping clean bedding well away from muddy boots and sticky hands.
Before we left, I worried about how the children would cope with a nomadic, outdoors life. But kids are great at adapting and, to them, it’s one big, amazing family adventure.
Around 18 months after we started our camping adventure, we were able to afford to rent a house again.
These days we work for ourselves as outdoor writers and photographers, a job we love. Life is richer and more rewarding, and we wake up each day excited about what lies ahead.
Money is still tight, and we are constantly aware how precarious freelancing is. Like so many others, we’re watching the rises in rent and cost of living with trepidation.
But if the worst did come to the worst again, we know we’d get through: we have plenty of camping kit and we’re not afraid to use it.
The Wild Year by Jen Benson is published 3 May with Aurum (£16.99) and available online and via all good bookshops.
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