What are the best camping games and outdoor toys? And should we have folding bikes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards? We’ve been looking at what we’ll buy, borrow or hire for our next camping trip.
If you’re bored sunbathing and you’ve finished your book, you need to play! Well, you need to play even if you haven’t finished your book.
Boules (petanque) is easy, quick, fun and packable. Plus you can play on sand, grass or gravel. The cheaper steel boules tend to rust after a while, but they’re more traditional than coloured plastic. Most come with etched lines so that you can tell whose balls are whose. The Jacques set is treated to resist rust for a ‘lifetime’…or you could go professional and opt for intimidatingly black Obut carbon boules!
We love skittles too. You can find some funky sets, but decent weighted pins are a must or you’ll find they flop over in a breeze or on uneven ground.
Molkky has been recommended by lots of readers. It’s a Finnish version of skittles using numbered peg things. You have to get 50 exactly, so there’s some strategy as well as throwing skill.
Spikeball (Rebound or Slammo) is great fun. Two players or teams bounce a ball off a floor-standing net. Rules included so you’ll know how to play!
Kubb is a great outdoor game, with a bit of strategy thrown in too. It’s a Viking game of knocking down blocks and whacking a king. Go for a heavyweight set – pine and lightwoods are too flimsy for real fun.
Wind isn’t a problem for games you play with a hacky sack. Invent your own, or simply see how long you can volley the hack between players before it hits the floor. The aim is for each player to get a touch (called a hack, and then a double hack). And it’s a chance to show off your acrobatic (ish) skills. No hands allowed!
And for a fantastic game that needs no special equipment – just a ball and seven stones – it has to be Pittu Garam. We saw two teams of Pakistani picknickers – men, women and kids – having a wild time at Bolton Abbey in North Yorkshire and just had to ask if we could join in. You get to throw a ball, tackle, run and laugh A LOT. See the rules at the end of this article.
Wet weather camping games and travel games
Here’s a shortlist of our favourite portable board and travel games. Ideal when the weather isn’t great, for whiling away an evening by the campfire or even for taking to the pub.
Articulate – a nice mini-sized version of the fast-talking description game. Great fun. For two or more players, or teams.
Accentuate – can you say “Open the bomb bay doors, Hal?” in a Swedish accent. You’ll soon find out you don’t know your Mumbai from your Mevagissey with this hilarious game for four or more.
Dobble – a game of speed, observation and reflexes. Find matching images on the special cards. It’s harder than it looks!
Yahtzee – good old Yahtzee. So addictive I’ve been known to invent a solo game! Just five dice and scorecards, so super-portable.
Codenames – now this is interesting! Try to get your team to choose the right words by finding a connecting idea. Hard to explain, but easy-yet-compelling to play. There are lots of editions of this game too, including a Disney and a Marvel version.
A bike, for sure
If you’ve got a campervan or motorhome, then you’ll know how good it is to set up camp and then not have to move your van again for a few days or longer. Trouble is, that means you can only explore the local area, take long walks or use public transport (which is lacking in many places). Unless you have a pub, shop or restaurant nearby, you’ll also have to plan your meals well and buy en route.
In the south of France last month, we borrowed the world’s most uncomfortable bikes – and had the best two days of the holiday. We cycled into Arles, pedalled through streets crowded with photography festival-goers with a warm wind blowing. We freewheeled down ancient alleys and through elegant squares, stopped at a bar to hear a jazz band, pedalled on into the dusk and into an evening of African music and food. We cycled back along the Rhone and never wanted to stop.
So, we need bikes of our own. The question is: do we want to carry them on the back of the van or do we buy folding bikes? And, given that we live in the hilly Pennines, should we have some electrical assistance to make sure the bikes get used.
We’ve tested the Birdy and Montague folding bikes in the past. The Birdy is beautifully engineered (over-engineered, some would say) and looks stunning. It’s expensive and felt slightly too precious. A great ride, though, and lots of admiring stares. The Montague, also expensive, is unusual in that it’s a folding bike with full-sized wheels. Its problem was that the brakes needed lots of realigning (not always successfully) every time you reattached the front wheel.
We tested the Brompton
It’s (almost) universally accepted that the British-made Brompton is the best when it comes to neat folding. It has tiny wheels, however, and some would say it’s a clown bike or a bike just for city commuters. The fold is perfect, though. No other folder is as fast or well thought-out. They’re lovingly made, they hold their value and they’re light.
What’s it like to ride? Like a real bike actually, but with a nippy feel that gives you a sense of travelling with minimum fuss. Gears are a bit sticky at first, and the plastic levers seemed a bit flimsy. We needed to add better grips – the Ergon GP2 (S) – for real comfort. It’s very customisable and costs from around £900, but you won’t stop at that…you’ll add on easy wheels for rolling it along when folded, luggage and more. Second-hand ones are available, but few and far between. So what about an electric Brompton. We tested one of those too. Read our special feature on electric Bromptons and the options available.
Oh my goodness! They told us in the shop that we’d be chuckling as soon as we set off on these bikes. They were right. The Kalkhoff German-made electric bikes make you laugh with joy and at the weirdness of suddenly becoming superhuman. Start pedalling and you’re transformed into a powerful cyclist who could go on forever. I even beat a bus up a VERY steep hill.
They’re strong, perfectly made, electronically and mechanically sophisticated (there’s even an on-board efficiency computer) and utterly comfortable. We tested the Sahel Compact Impulse 8 and the Agattu. They cost from £2000. Like all electric bikes, they’re heavy.
While it’s fun to test folders and electrics, we probably won’t be spending thousands. Fortunately, there are plenty of electric folding bikes to choose from if you don’t need every sophistication! And, of course, if you can squeeze ordinary bikes onto the boot, the roof or a trailer, all the better. All hail those who kit up their bikes and leave the cars at home when they camp!
Something to play with on the water? Yes!
So there we were for a third year at the gloriously turquoise Lac Ste Croix and the Gorges du Verdon. And nothing to play with on the water. In previous years, we’d had a tandem inflatable kayak. This time, while swimming, we tried to design the perfect boat-thing.
Stand up paddleboard
These boards are ideal for easy carrying (especially the inflatable ones), but there’s nothing relaxing about standing up with a long pole pushing yourself along. It’s more sport than recreation. We’ve been looking for a small paddleboard that can be paddled sitting down on a comfortable seat (probably not an armchair, of course).
A kayak or canoe
We loved our Sea Eagle inflatable tandem kayak, but the 10 minutes to get it ready for the water and the 15 minutes wiping it down and packing it up meant we didn’t use it as spontaneously as we’d hoped. It was super-sturdy (hit it with a claw hammer and see no damage, they said), had a strong rigid bottom, a removeable skeg, comfortable-ish seats, and stowing straps etc. Packed, though, it still took up a fair amount of boot space.
We also found the tandem a bit sluggish in wind or tides and it took some co-ordination to balance the seating position for paddlers with different strengths. That was also true of the red one we hired first…see the picture. Having two smaller kayaks/boards would also mean we could race (or escape each other for a bit).
The serious option and not the option for anyone with leg-claustrophobia would be a sit-inside kayak. You can paddle these in worse weather and tougher conditions because you’re inside a spraydeck. There’s all that rolling over to do, though.
A sit on top (SOT) kayak is a possibility. There are smaller types, they’re light and the better ones are useable on calm seas, lakes and reasonable rivers. Cheap too.
A canoe would be too big and cumbersome for most campers, and definitely so for us. All that kneeling is hard on your legs too. There are inflatables, though, that could give you packability and the comfort (and sociability) of an open craft.
A pack raft? We’d never heard of these until we saw Alistair Humphreys making a Shetland Isle journey using a pack raft and Brompton folding bike. Bike on the raft at some points, raft on the bike at others. They’re expensive kit because they’re designed for real expeditionists for whom the right kit is vital.
Perhaps it’s all we need – a bit of bendy plastic tubing or floating beds and lilos. Hmm. But don’t you think it’s much more interesting to explore the world of watersports and hunt for the perfect thing?
Out there, somewhere, is a tiny-but-sturdy, light-but-manoeuvrable, multi-sport-water-craft. It will be the size of a belly board, with a comfortable seat, and it’ll be fast and stable…oh and you can probably fit a tiny sail to it as well as paddle it. Steer us in the right direction, please!
How to play Pittu Garam
You need a tennis ball and seven stones you can stack on top of each other. The aim is to break the tower and rebuild it before getting hit by an opponent.
- Divide the players into two teams.
- A member of team A throws the ball to try to hit the tower (decide on your distance and mark it for each team).
- A player from team B is assigned to catch the ball after it gets thrown by team A. The rest of team B are fielders.
- When a player from team A succeeds in knocking over the tower. team A needs to rebuild it while avoiding getting hit by the ball. Team B will be aiming to hit all players with the ball.
- If team B succeeds, it swaps over to their throw. If they fail, the next member of team A throws at the tower.
- After both teams have defended the team with most number of rebuilds wins the match.
A few rules
- When a player from the defending team picks up the ball, they can’t move till they’ve thrown it.
- Each player gets three tries to break the tower. If they don’t, it’s the next player’s turn.
- If the team wins a pittu (a tower rebuild), the player who broke the tower gets three extra throws.
- If a player breaks the tower but the opposite team catches the ball before it hits the ground, then the attacking player is deprived of his remaining tries.