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.
Latest update: April 2021
Beach and grass outdoor games
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.
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.
Slammo and great fun. Two players or teams bounce a ball off a floor-standing net. Rules included so you’ll know how to play!
Decathlon’s Turnball comes in a standard strength (for kids) and a stronger version for harder-hitting adults.
It’s better than the old Swingball because it doesn’t have the infuriating tangling top. Plus it packs down for carrying.
Get the faster balls if you can.
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.
Recommended by lots of readers. Molkky is 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.
A great outdoor game, with a bit of strategy thrown in too. Kubb is 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.
Badminton and hacky sacks
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.
Abalone is our current favourite game. Simple to learn, tactile, strategic, portable.
You simply aim to push six of your opponent’s pieces off the board by moving one, two or three of your own marbles. Sounds easy, but there are endless challenges and ways to improve your play. There are even tournaments…but we’re a long way from that!
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 of Accentuate for four or more.
A nice mini-sized version of the fast-talking description game, Articulate. Great fun. For two or more players, or teams.
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 Codenames too, including a Disney and a Marvel version.
Good old Yahtzee. So addictive I’ve been known to invent a solo game! Just five dice and scorecards, so super-portable.
Dobble is a game of speed, observation and reflexes. Find matching images on the special cards. It’s harder than it looks!
Nothing beats cards
Do we need bikes when we go camping?
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, this 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 year, 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.
But is it better to buy bikes (with all that entails for carrying them in/on your car or van)? Or is it better to hire? Would folding bikes be the answer?
Folding bikes for camping?
If we decide on 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.
Our favourite place to buy bikes (apart from local and trusted shops, of course) is Leisure Lakes Bikes (11 shops and online). They have an impressive range of Bromptons (both electric and not) and loads of other folders and ebikes. Good service too.
We tested the Brompton folding bike
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.
The bikes are very customisable, but you won’t stop at that…you’ll add more gears, a better saddle, easy wheels for rolling it along when folded, luggage and more. Secondhand ones are available on Ebay and that’s often a great way to get a barely used bike at a decent price.
Highly rated, the B’Twin Tilt electric folding bike is mostly made of aluminium, unfolds in 15 seconds and can carry you 35km in economy mode.
The battery’s built into the frame for sleekness, although it can be removed for recharging off the bike. The whole thing weighs around 18kg. If you’re over 1.85m tall, this is probably too small for you, however. A great bargain buy with a two-year warranty.
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.
All hail to those who kit up their bikes and leave the cars at home when they camp!
Something to play with on the water?
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 come up with a design for the perfect boat-thing.
Stand up paddleboard? Can I sit down, please!
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.
A pack raft?
Bike on the raft at some points, raft on the bike at others. This Klymit packraft beauty (which doubles as a bed) is under a kilo in weight.
A kayak or canoe
We loved our inflatable 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 removable 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. So, we’re going for two smaller kayaks/boards so we can 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 my choice. There are smaller types, they’re light and the better ones are useable on calm seas, lakes and reasonable rivers. Cheapish too.
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.