Three weeks ago, for the first time in over seven years in the UAE, we took our children camping. Previous mooted expeditions, when the children were babies, had always been dismissed as being too difficult to execute. But the truth is, with some careful preparation and the right destination, a camping trip with children or even babies can be a fun family activity. And now, as the weather cools, it's the ideal time to get out there and sleep under the stars.
If you're a first-time camper, Matt Warnock, the editor of the UAE Off-Road Explorer and Oman Off-Road Explorer books (essential guides for any camping trip), recommends that you stick to somewhere fairly local, or even have a dry run at home. "If you are fortunate enough to have a garden, put your tent up there," he says. "Then you can test out the experience and monitor how the children react."
In a country where the concept of formal camping amenities has yet to take off, he also recommends choosing a location with back-up facilities nearby. "Go somewhere within easy reach of amenities, shops and toilets. You could do 90 per cent of some of the off-road routes but not get into adventurous territory. Some places you can go 10 or 20 metres off-road and it looks like you are in the middle of nowhere but you can still be close to a garage and shops."
The beach at Fujairah is ideal for first-time campers, says Warnock. "In Fujairah there are hotels on the same stretch of beach. So if, for example, the food side doesn't work out, you can go to the beach bar or a restaurant. You can combine the camping element with something more luxurious."
Alternatively, you could plan a two-centre weekend, spending one night outdoors and one night in a hotel. "Places like Liwa or Nizwah all have hotels nearby," says Warnock.
Tracy Laws, who lives in Abu Dhabi, has just come back from a family weekend camping trip to Oman with her two children aged 11 and nine. She and her husband have been taking camping holidays ever since they moved to the Middle East 12 years ago. "The first trip with the children involved huge preparation," she says, "but thereafter it gets easier and easier. When they were little, we would just sit them under a tree with a big toy bag full of metal trucks or plastic animals and they would just make up a game."
She also says if you choose your destination carefully, the environment offers plenty for children to do. "The wadis are always nice. You take them somewhere and go for a little walk, have a picnic, and there's a place where there's a little waterfall. They can fish for frogs or play in the water. We always take a shade that we can lift and stick over the water."
Tara Paes, also from Abu Dhabi, is another fan of waterside locations. She and her husband, originally from South Africa, are seasoned campers, and when their daughter, Olivia, was born three years ago, they were keen to carry on.
"We go to places like Hatta Pools or Dibba on the Oman coast, so Olivia can swim," she says. "The ground is also different in Oman, which means that she can ride her cycle."
As Olivia grows older, the Paes have to take other things for her to play with."We first took Olivia camping when she was three or four months old, which was very easy. It's when they get bigger that it gets a bit more complicated. Now, she digs in the dirt or slides with the other children on her bottom down the dunes. Sometimes we take a bubble machine - they love that."
Tracy Laws also recommends taking toys and games for older children. She packs card games, bats and balls, and a telescope for star-gazing. But she says the thing her children most enjoy is the freedom that camping gives them.
"Even now they are older, they still love it. At the weekend we got up to watch the sunrise and climbed up to the top of a hill, but that wasn't good enough for these two, so they went way off climbing up the next one. They just love the freedom."
So that they can enjoy their independence safely, she and her husband set rules for the children. "They have to stay where we can see them and they must be able to see us at all times." Children are told to stay in pairs, keep their shoes on, never poke sticks into holes or lift up rocks in case something nasty is lurking underneath and not to reach under the tents - a favourite cool, dark spot for scorpions.
There are several safety issues to take into consideration when you go camping. First of all, you should ensure that the car is in good condition before you leave. Check the tyre pressure, fluid levels, and ensure that, as well as having a spare jerry can of fuel, you have tow ropes and shackles, a fire extinguisher, tyre pressure gauge, jack, shovel and a basic tool kit.
"Most important of all," says Matt Warnock, "you should never off-road alone. There should be at least two vehicles at a safe distance apart. That's even more important when children are in the car too. Always have a fully charged mobile and let people know where you're going."
That said, with proper planning, preparation and the right location, it's the perfect way to spend some quality family time.
"It's such a wonderful, and economical, way to spend a weekend," says Warnock, "So many people rarely get out of the city and there's an awful lot to do if you've got the right spirit of adventure. There's whale- and dolphin-watching, rock climbing, mountain biking."
Inspired? Well, now we have dipped our toes in we are certainly going to go again. It was fun and fascinating to see another side of the country. And it gave the children a sense of freedom and adventure they rarely have in the city.
"It's always worth it," says Laws. "You get out somewhere, you see something else and it's lovely. When I think of the things my children have seen - turtles laying their eggs, dolphin bones washed up on the beach. It's great for them and good for their confidence too."
Fujairah or the outer edges of Liwa
When it's hot
Jebel Shams, Oman
For the adventurous
The Al Gharbia coast west of Abu Dhabi
Ras al Jinz on the easternmost point of Oman to watch the endangered green turtles lay their eggs