a wild ride through Cumbria in a campervan

Camping with a young family can be quite a challenge, especially in Britain, where the weather often goes from sunshine to deluge in the blink of an eye. My additional challenge is that my wife, Helen, cannot join us for our Easter holiday (she is training for her fourth Olympic Games – reasonable excuse). My three children (twins aged four, and an older brother aged less than six) are a tornado handful at the best of times. I definitely don’t want to fly abroad with them, but I do want to give them an unforgettable, wild outdoor experience. So what to do?

Inspiration comes in the form of Wild Camper Trucks, a small business founded by entrepreneur Andrew Clark, which rents out a fleet of four-wheel drive campers from bases in Kendal and Inverness. The vans are robust and reliable, but equipped with enough comfort that they feel like they want to go glamping along the way. Thanks to the extra roof tent, they are suitable for four people, but with children as young as ours we could certainly push that to five. There’s a bijou kitchen and dining area, plenty of reclining and tipping space and a huge amount of storage, meaning we can take all the outdoor toys we want.

Andrew works with the websites Off Grid Camp and Nearly Wild Camping, which connect 4×4, campervan and canvas wild campers with landowners. Campers subscribe to the websites and pay their hosts as at any campsite.

So together with my friend George, who rents a fantastic teardrop caravan, we choose to spend a few days in Cumbria.

Our first location is completely dazzling, a farm in a part of the country I could barely have found on a map. The Howgill Fells are located northwest of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, separated from the Lake District to the west by the River Lune. Cautley Spout, in the south of the Howgills, is believed to be England’s highest above-ground cascade-style waterfall, with a drop of around 200 metres. The higher Howgills, such as the beautifully named Great Dummacks and Randygill Top, are over 600 meters high. Even in midsummer this corner of the north remains quiet, while parts of the lakes and valleys can be overrun. In early spring we have every field, peak and waterfall to ourselves.

Our first night is a tester. A storm rages from the east, with biblical rain and wind

The celebrated conqueror Alfred Wainwright said that the Howgills resembled a herd of sleeping elephants, and it is easy to see why. The hills are bulging, the streams and rivers that flow down the flanks of these hunched giants giving them a wrinkled, wrinkled appearance. The word “Howgills” is derived from Old Norse high, meaning barrow or hill, and they feel less intimidating than the peaks to the west. For me and my offspring they appear to be more feasible and lead to some wonderful walks.

We park our truck in the high fields of a sheep farmer. She is busy touring the hills on a quad bike and helping ewes through breech births, but makes time to show us around and give the children the opportunity to bottle feed the new lambs – so new they are still carrying their messy umbilical cords (which my young ones misunderstand and repeat as “miracle cords”).

We are the only campers on the hills and could be a million miles from home. Preparing a barbecue, we play Grandmother’s Footsteps as cloud shadows race and crow over the highest Howgill peak, the Calf (676 metres), above us. Dinner consists of hot dogs prepared outside. Easy enough with the gas burners and fridge/freezer included with the camper.

There is a camping toilet and shower, which uses water heated on the stove, so washing outside behind a tarpaulin is fine, and ethical toiletries are provided to prevent anything nasty from entering the groundwater. It’s almost bedtime and the tent is set up in seconds and accessible via a hatch in the camper.

Our first night is a tester. A storm rages in from the east, bringing biblical rain and gusts of wind that are strong. My oldest boy and I sleep in the retractable roof tent, which fills like the sail of a yacht in an ocean storm. He snores all the time, but at 3am I carry him downstairs (still fast asleep in his sleeping bag). If I had been in the family tent it would have been a survival situation, but all four of us are in the huge double bed together, and it’s actually quite cozy.

Come tomorrow, we’re ready to roll. The camper truck drives like a car in many ways: it drives smoothly and you quickly get used to the weight in the back. To combat emissions, Clark plants 25 trees for every 1,000 kilometers his customers drive.

Wherever we stop, we find places where the children can run freely in nature

Our big adventure activity today is a whitewater paddle down the River Lune on inflatable rafts. The rafts spend most of the day traveling over tame rapids, while dippers bob around and huge flocks of oystercatchers take to the air as we round every corner. It rains heavily for the entire four hours we are on the river, and by the end the children are blue and shaking. As we pull into the Devil’s Bridge at Kirkby Lonsdale they’ve had enough so it’s perfect to just be able to throw them in the back of the truck and wrap them up in sleeping bags.

Other places to stay range from a rugged beachside spot north of the Wirral, where we can get out of the van and onto the sand, to Ashgill Forest in the North Pennines, where wildlife includes red squirrels and pine martens. Wherever we stop, we find places where the kids can run freely in nature without the risk of constantly apologizing to other campers. We have an itinerary planned but change it daily depending on the weather and the children’s mood. In the soggy April conditions we wouldn’t have been able to reach any of these locations safely without the 4×4 (or at the very least we would have begged the local farmers for a tractor tow).

Despite the rain, we all like to be outside. In quieter conditions the roof tent provides plenty of sleeping space, and next time we’ll fit Helen in there too, once she’s finished rowing at the Olympics.

I also hope we get a chance to use the truck’s own cinema: an awning rolls down one side of the van and turns into an outdoor movie screen, so you can watch a movie under the stars.

All in all the trip is a lot of fun. It delivers the wildness in a way that campers and RVs can’t quite deliver, but comes with the comfort that canvas makes you crave.

Wild Camper Trucks accommodate up to four people and start at £140 per day including insurance (minimum five nights)

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