A beginners guide to camping in France. If you’re looking for a reasonably priced holiday, then camping in France could be the answer. French campsites are, generally, well equipped, with a pool being pretty standard. A ferry and camping in August can still work out cheaper than a cottage in Cornwall. Within a day’s travel, you can be deep in France, with a greater guarantee of sunshine.
Fresh Bread in the morning
One of my (many) favourite things about camping in France is fresh bread and croissants in the morning. Waking up and ambling out into the fresh air and picking my way through a quiet campsite. There is a relaxed ‘joie de vivre’ in joining a queue of others, also in pyjamas, to collect pre-ordered patisserie baked goodies. Just as a patisserie in even the smallest of hamlets is a French norm, morning campsite deliveries are to be expected.
We’ve camped in France for three consecutive summers. There is a wealth of choice of campsites, with facilities and options from novice campers to the committed. France offers plenty to do in-land and on the coast. Easy to get to from the UK with numerous ferry crossings and (mostly) the weather is better than the UK. For tips on saving money look here.
Ferries from Dover to Calais offer the shortest and cheapest crossing. Newhaven to Dieppe takes around 4 hours. Plymouth, Portsmouth, Poole, and Weymouth all have longer ferry options. Expect a reasonable choice of food and entertainment for the children on longer crossings. With cabin options for overnight and longer crossings.
Driving is straightforward the roads are good quality and well signposted and outside of cities, much less busy than in the UK.
Which ferry port?
Motorway Map of France is a clever website that calculates the cost of petrol (based on a light vehicle) and tolls. A longer crossing can cost in excess of £600 (based on a small vehicle and 4 passengers), while Dover to Calais is around £150. However, tolls between Calais and La Rochelle, for example, are 60 Euros each way. Between Roscoff and La Rochelle they are around 8 Euros, with shorter driving time and less fuel used.
If you want to eat out, lunch is the main meal of the day in France and we’ve found ourselves, slightly stuck when trying to eat early evening in a small French town. Busier more tourist-focused towns will be different.
The beauty of camping is organising your own food. Many campsites permit BBQ’s or offer hire and it’s worth enquiring. Otherwise, a couple of small camping stoves can produce simple meals.
Ask at reception for information on days and location of local markets. Tip: enquire about size because they can vary from small produce only (think a handful of stalls) to larger very busy affairs where everything from fish to a mattress is for sale.
Markets start early and can be packed up by lunchtime.
If you want the experience of a slice of French life and the opportunity to pick up fresh local produce; cheese, olives, vegetables, clothing and a straw basket head to the market. Can’t recommend enough.
Normandy and Brittany are just over The Channel and can reflect British weather. Drive a few hours further south and average summer temperatures are higher.
What sort of campsite?
The choice is vast with thousands of campsites to choose from, with many having both traditional camping pitches and glamping options for ease, or the camping-squeamish. Glamping options include pre-pitched tents, complete with everything you might need; family sized canvas safari tents with beds or more up-market simple chalets, with small kitchens and shower room. Glamping might be a good choice for beginners, rather than commit to the expenditure of a tent and all the kit.
For a beginners guide to camping equipment, you’ll find a useful list here. Ebay or Gumtree for second-hand tents. Go Outdoors and Decathlon are one-stop-shops everything you might need. Or ask friends and borrow. If you’ve not pitched a tent before, try before you leave. Pitching a modern tent is, generally, straight forward. However, at the end of a long drive, on a hot day, pitching an unfamiliar tent can be testing.
Evenings can get cool and it is worth preparing for rain. You will be grateful for a warm jacket for long nights enjoying local wine outside your tent. If it does rain, bring some in-tent activities; felt tips and paper, cards, games, books.
Many campsites hire out electric fridges (yes really!). The campsite will deliver a small under counter size fridge for use during your stay. If hiring a fridge seems excessive, purchase an electrical cool box, ideal for keeping basics fresh. Electrical hookups are pretty standard but do check. You can buy an adaptor in the UK, for more info check here. We take two camping stoves very much like this one and pans from our kitchen. Bigger camp sites can have a choice of dining. On smaller sites, there is usually a cafe selling simple food; pizza, etc.
France loves camping and you’ll find massive sites with bells and whistles; various entertainment options and water-parks. To small family run sites. Most sites have a swimming pool, which is the big draw and offers hours of on the doorstep entertainment for children. Some have rules around what swimwear is acceptable; men must wear tight fitting speedo style trunks, so check.
Finding a campsite
Our previous trips to Normandy are here and here. We’ve also camped in Brittany. We took a different ferry route and rolled off an overnight ferry, arriving France in the light of a summers morning. Heading south on empty roads, passing banks of hydrangeas in full bloom and stopping to pick up sticks of warm bread.
Our Brittany campsite was a lovely surprise. I’d like to say our choice was based on hours of research, it wasn’t. Picked in haste, having decided that 90% of everyone had organised their holiday and somehow we had not.
Cool Camping France has proved a really reliable starting point for selecting sites. I’ve previously picked sites based on their recommendations and a nice looking pool in the photograph, and each one has been a winner.
Camping is popular in France, and standards are expected to be high. Trip Advisor is a good place to double check before you book.
Book before you travel
August is The month in France for holidays and many businesses close, combined with school holidays for much of Northern Europe. Campsites get full, book ahead rather than turning up on a whim and prayer.
Our Britanny campsite was found through Cool Camping but is a chain called Huttopia, a small chain of limited sized sites, Douarnenez is 145 pitches. For us, the camping gods delivered: nice pool, sea views from the site, easy access to the beach. Market and bakeries within walking distance. The odd low key evening activity; crepe night in the cafe, a magician on another evening, film night for the children. Which, suits us. For water parks, evening discos and even foam parties try; Eurocamp, Yelloh or Siblu.
Huttopia’s focus on nature-based sites, our site was set amongst trees, which offered welcome shade in a very hot August. Number pitches divided by bushes and trees give everyone ownership of their own little plot without feeling encroached.
Tip: it’s convenient to book through Cool Camping as they have good, well-researched suggestions in every region. However, there is a small surcharge. Booking direct avoids that.
In August, due to French holidays, many towns organise car boot sales. If, like me, you love browsing vintage or picking through unwanted stuff, then seek these out. In my experience (last year I visited 5) in one day. They vary from locals selling unwanted household items from a trestle table to more professional vintage sellers. There is almost always food and wine for sale, a big community turn-out and haggling is definitely acceptable. Look out for signs advertising ‘Vide-greniers’ and ‘Troc et Puce’. This website has dates and sizes of markets across France: Vide-greniers.