Tipi Adventures in Wicklow is all about the great outdoors, teaching children about wilderness camping, catching fish and lighting campfires. Ailin Quinlan goes exploring
Imagine your kids lighting a campfire and cooking a meal on it before spending the night in a shelter they’ve constructed from branches and dry leaves.
It’s hard to imagine in a society where so many children live sedentary, centrally heated lives, their leisure time dominated by apps, online games, iPads, and smartphones within the four walls of their home — but what a relief to know there’s an alternative.
The Japanese call it “forest bathing”; in Ireland we simply call it wilderness camping.
It basically involves running free in the rough-and-tumble Irish weather, climbing trees, building rope bridges, catching fish, lighting campfires, and cooking food in the often damp and even chilly surrounds of a Wicklow forest.
But would the kids like it?
Is the Pope a Catholic?
They love it, according to John Free, a scout leader with the 3rd Kildare and 1st Celbridge Scout troupe who acts as session leader for family and junior groups with Tipi Adventures, a company which provides family wilderness camping experiences.
Looking after children as young as six, he teaches them how to do everything from using a compass to building shelters and rope bridges, setting snares for rabbits or lighting campfires without the use of matches or firelighters.
Free is the go-to guy when you want to learn how to fry an egg on a campfire using your own foil-covered coat-hanger, set a snare for rabbits, or construct a fish-hook with which to catch your own tea-time fish.
“As a child,” he recalls, “I had the opportunity to explore and create adventures for myself in the forest or in the nearby lead mines in the Dublin hills. I‘d hike and camp with very little and just explore for days.”
However, he is the first to acknowledge: “Life is not as simple as it was back then and parents and children are now more aware of the pitfalls of life due to the surge of internet and social media. This has made us afraid of what goes on around us, and the potential harm that can happen to our kids.”
Where kids are concerned, he says, the only limit is their size and strength — children are usually more than capable of carrying out most of these bush skills under supervision.
“Children love being outdoors, and fire is the greatest attraction. The fact that we don’t use matches or firelighters but flint and steel absolutely fascinates them,” he says.
With Free, they learn how to make a Latvian log — split a log in four with an axe, carve out the centre, use thin green branches to tie the four pieces of log together and light a fire in the middle.
They can experiment with cooking in a “hobo stove” (cooking in a tin can) or ramble through the woods in search of twigs and branches with which to light a campfire — without matches.
It’s all part of the backwoods cooking skills he teaches — including the gory stuff: “I teach children to skin and gut rabbits and prepare them for cooking.”
Some kids are squeamish, Free acknowledges — they may have pet rabbits at home — but “most of them love it”. What modern children really enjoy, he observes, is the opportunity to run around outdoors and have fun “without their mother and father chasing after them.
“They will go out in rain, hail, or snow,” he says, adding that they are invigorated by the physical exercise and the excitement of learning real life skills.
“There’s immense freedom and the excitement. Everything is left behind. They don’t have gadgets with them. From the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep, they’re outside.”
Last September Joanna Cuddy and her husband John decided to see how their kids, Connor, 11, and Sarah, 7, both at different levels in the Scouts, would take to camping out in the wilderness.
They dipped the family toe in the water with a simple camping trip with Tipi Adventures for which the family travelled from their home in Athy, Co Kildare, to the Tipi site in Wicklow. Here they camped out in a tent by the river in the woods, lit campfires, and cooked.
“The place was really lovely, in a wood near the river. It was idyllic,” says Joanna, adding that the kids were fascinated by the skill involved in starting campfires.
“Our first experience was really simply camping in the woods.
“We now plan to add to that and get the children learning practical skills — it’s great for their confidence and we find there’s less bickering when they have to go off and get firewood and look out for each other and mind each other.
“These are also life skills. I think there are also psychological and emotional benefits because you feel re-energised from being outside. It helps you take a breather and reconnect.
“Kids don’t need to be stimulated all the time by games and phones and they learn that it’s OK to make their own entertainment in their own way. It’s also very much quality time spent with them,” she says, adding that on their next trip they plan to do a Friday-Sunday bush skills course.
“When we were there, the kids were very interested in how to start campfires and other bush skills.
“They were fascinated by what you’d do and how you’d find your food out in the woods.”
A former chef, Ed Ledesma set up Tipi Adventures Ireland, in 2012, after his food importation business — he supplied the restaurant and retail sector — finally surrendered to the recession.
An enthusiastic salmon fisherman, he’d always been outdoorsy, bringing his children on camping trips.
He decided that he’d offer a wilderness camping experience where families could enjoy the excitement and adventure of outdoors in a safe environment — but this wasn’t about glamping: “I also wanted to have an educational aspect to it where we taught parents and children simple basic practical outdoor skills like lighting a fire with a flint and steel.
“I wanted to give these families the chance to be with nature — I always had a great love for it, and I was doing it with family and friends because it was great for the kids.”
After teaming up with Scouting Ireland and UK-based John Rhyder, a prominent figure in bush craft and outdoor living — Ledesma launched Tipi Adventures Ireland in 2012.
“The practical involvement of Scouting Ireland mean that Scout leaders were involved in running activities with families.”
The idea has taken off and the company can now facilitate up to seven families on a wilderness weekend where people can learn basic bushcraft and enjoy their own Tipi accommodation.
“People love it. You have people with very small children from age three, with families with teenagers, and even all grown up,” he says.
“We tell them there’s no running water, no electricity for hairdryers, or smartphone charging points — and they have to provide their own heating.”
It’s all attracting a lot of interest from Ireland and overseas — including an ever-increasing demand from the corporate sector for wilderness weekends.
“Recently some of those who participated in a company event actually came back and booked in with their families.
“They learn how to build a fire and build a tripod of wood from which to make a pot hanger — which they also make — to hang their pot or kettle on,” says Ledesma, adding, however, that toilets and showering facilities are provided.
The site, which is based near Rathdrum, not far from the Clara Lara adventure centre, has seen a consistent increase of visitors year-on-year since 2013.
It’s not just kids who enjoy this kind of thing: “We recently had a 70th birthday party in the wood to which family members flew in from France and Spain,” says Ledesma, adding that the activities on offer are attracting an increasing number of overseas clients.
“We have people coming from as far away as the USA, the UK, Holland, France, and Spain.
“We had a Dutch family with four young children who found it a life-changing experience — they came to us for one night and ended up extending their stay for five, they loved it so much.”
On a national basis, he believes, the concept of wilderness camping in Ireland has superb tourism potential: “You’re offering overseas visitors the chance to experiencing something very different to a normal holiday.
“People get the chance to spend time with their children in an Irish woodland setting, near a river, where they can fish and where they get the chance to learn real practical life skills,” says Ledesma, who is currently organising a series of accredited bush skills courses with renowned UK bushcraft expert John Rhyder
A two-night family (up to six people) bushcraft weekend costs €360. For more details visit tipiadventures.ie, call Ed Ledesma at 087 7866734, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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