Sleeping Under the Stars: Cross-Cultural Camping Adventures

The magic of sleeping under the stars is universal. The way we spend time outdoors is definitely not.

We are from the Pacific Northwest in the USA where nearly everyone has a tent in their closet.  Trees are tall, rivers are wild, and campsites are clean and private.  There are many types of camping that range from wilderness backpacking to self-catered car camping.

Families pride themselves on their ability to bring compact comfort into the great outdoors. They enjoy spending time alone as a family or with a few close friends. In the Pacific Northwest, one is definitely more likely to see a shooting star than to get fresh bread delivered to the campground. I’ve been camping for more than twenty years, but my recent experiences in Italy reminded me that I can still discover new ways to enjoy the experience.

We asked readers to think about the primary reason that their family heads out to a campground and we also asked where they learned the basics of camping.  We had 26 respondents with results that were both interesting and fun.  First, there were a wide range of reasons why families went camping across both North America and Europe (with one repsondant from Australia).  In Europe, there was a slightly higher proportion of respondants who camped primarily for a inexpensive vacation and to spend time with family or friends.  Although many respondants went camping to experience nature and wilderness, these answers were slightly less common for Europeans than for North Americans.  Again, we find ourselves with fascinating cultural twists but, in general, more similar than we are different.

Visiting National Parks in Italy

We recently moved our whole family to Italy. We’re enjoying this opportunity to explore the great outdoors on a new continent. First, my husband and I tried to go for a hike in a national park. We were able to drive through the park but could find no way to park the car and walk into it. From our cultural perspective, this was very strange.

Trail-finding inside Parco Nationale d’Abruzzo

Next, my older daughter and I organized a backpacking trip to Parco Nationale d’Abruzzo, just a few hours outside of Rome. We were surprised to learn there is no camping in the interior of the park. In fact, the only way to sleep in the interior of the park is at a mountain hut. Most visitors to the park hire guides. Guides help them navigate the trails, describe and explain the ecology of the area, and facilitate wildlife viewing.

Backpacking in Italy

We did not hire a guide. Our decision was respected by the guides running the huts, but totally incomprehensible to many of the locals. I viewed hiking with a guide as an invasion of privacy and an admission of poor wilderness skills. But, through conversations with other hikers and guests, I came to understand the way many Italians approached visiting the park. People came to the park as one might go to a museum or take a safari. They came to learn and to see beauty but not necessarily to be alone or to feel the thrill of independently surviving in nature.

How to cross a pasture full of semi-wild horses? A new experience!

My experiences in Italy gave me the opportunity to learn about other approaches and philosophies of outdoor exploration. I would never want to give up camping and hiking “my way,” but I am excited to try hiking in a new way, even with a guide.

She likes Tuscany!

Our next cross-cultural camping adventure was a Tuscan road trip. We camped a few nights by the beach and a few nights in the mountains. This experience was quite different than camping in the Pacific Northwest, but still gave us plenty to love. Here are the top differences we discovered.

Five Differences Between Camping in Tuscany, Italy and the Pacific Northwest in the USA

  1. Giant tents! When the campground asked me about the size of our tent, I told them that our tent was quite large and that we had two. We had a 4-person tent that I find embarrassingly large for backpacking and also a small 2-person tent. I discovered that our large 4-person tent was the smallest tent in the campground. Our two-person backpacking tent was nearly invisible. The most common tent was a tube-style tent, tall enough to stand up in and deep enough to include several rooms. The set-up and take-down time, the size, and the level of comfort all suggest an underlying camping philosophy of “designing a portable beach chalet.”
Our little American tents

2. There is no ice! In fact, the country of Italy does not seem to sell ice in any form. I remain totally confused as to how to camp in the blazing hot sun without ice. We managed by shopping for dinner in the afternoon and by eating at restaurants both inside the campground and at nearby villages. For our European readers, ice management is an integral part of camping in North America. One always has a cooler and the cooler is always filled with ice. As the ice melts, it needs to be drained by tilting the cooler up and opening a little drain hole on the bottom of the cooler. Ice is for sale in nearly every gas station in America and in every grocery store. The lack of ice in Italy is actually a little shocking for Americans.

3. You can rent a refrigerator. Apparently, this is how people manage without ice. There is a refrigerator at the campsite. Seeing tents with little refrigerators plugged in by extension cords that stretch across sites was a big surprise.  These appliances allow for much longer camping stays, even if they disrupt the feeling of being in the wilderness. We once heard the phrase “only staying for two weeks.”

4. All campgrounds in Italy that I investigated had on-site espresso and cappuccino. Need I say more?

Italian camping breakfast extraordinaire!

5. Breakfast pastries can be ordered in advance and delivered, sometimes right to your tent! We had to walk 80 meters up a little hill to collect ours but it was still pretty spectacular. I could get used to that.

Our experience camping in Italy was wonderful. We enjoyed sunsets over the sea, breathtaking lightning bug displays, swimming in chilly waterfalls, bird song at dawn, and plenty of stars.  The experience leaves me feeling enthusiastic about continuing our cross-cultural camping adventures. I am eager to learn new ways of experiencing and sharing the outdoors while staying true to our wilderness-oriented Pacific Northwest roots.

Sunset over the beach just a short walk from our campsite

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Hoping to spark a passion for adventure, a love of cultural differences, and a vision of global responsibility in kids through fun family travel. Co-author of “Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids,” available on Amazon. Follow us on twitter @familyonloose and Instagram via FamilyOnTheLoose. Find us on Pinterest at
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