FOR many people, going camping with a six-month-old baby and a toddler may seem like a challenge.
But when money started running dry for Jen and Sim Benson, they decided to move their family into a tent for an entire year – and they’ve released a book about the experience.
Jen and Sim Benson and their two kids lived in a tent for over a year – and have documented their story in a memoirCredit: SUPPLIED
The family faced financial hardship so swapped their home for a tent and spent £10 a night on campsite rentCredit: SUPPLIED
The family’s home for a year – a four-metre bell tent and a backpacking tentCredit: Not known, clear with picture desk
The eye-opening memoir The Wild Year reveals how the couple made the huge decision five years ago to move out of their rented house in the Cotswolds and into the tent full-time.
The couple were in their mid-30s at the time and faced the pressures of mounting debts.
In the book, which is out on May 3, writer Jen explained how she had just reached the end of a fixed-term contract as a researcher and they were living off Sim’s job at a cycling charity.
Jen, now 42, said: “I wasn’t eligible for maternity pay.
“At first it wasn’t a huge deficit, but it was enough that as the weeks went by, our bank account steadily emptied and our debts increased.”
Jen found it tricky to carry on freelance writing and promoting her first book as a busy mum.
She said: “The first thing I did when I woke up each morning was check our bank balance.
“As the page loaded, I would feel my heart rising, a moment of nausea followed by crashing despair.”
The idea of living in a tent came to the family as they took a two-week camping trip in the Lake District.
Jen recalled that she’d asked her husband: “What if we could live like this for longer?
“Give up the house and live in a tent?”
They decided to take the plunge, and were excited for the extra time they would get with their kids and nature.
Crucially, it would help them to reduce their outgoings, as camping would cost around £10 per night.
Jen said: “Suddenly there was the possibility of an end to our financial struggles in sight, and a big adventure to look forward to.”
They sold their “sensible family car” for a Mitsubishi pickup truck which would be suitable for more rural terrain.
They also picked up a six-metre diameter Emperor bell tent which they found for sale, and cut a small opening for a woodburner.
The “adventure” began in November 2014, and fairly early on they faced a huge setback.
During a huge storm on the Jurassic Coast in their very first month, their tent was destroyed in the strong winds.
Jen wrote: “Inside was a scene of utter chaos and destruction, barely recognisable as the neatly arranged home we had left behind earlier that evening.”
They later downsized to a four-metre bell tent and also had a backpacking tent which they would use as a separate bedroom when they could pitch two tents.
We had, without any doubt, experienced many of the best moments of our lives, but there had also been some dark times – times of physical, emotional and financial hardship that had challenged us to our limits.
Another low point came when Jen got the flu and struggled to get better in their outdoor home.
She said: “I loathe to admit it but it was so much harder being ill in the tent.
“Within a few days I added tonsillitis and sinusitis to my growing list of woes, losing my voice and my desire to sleep.”
They eventually gave in and rented a holiday barn for a week for £200 so she could recover.
The family even spent Christmas Day in the tent when they were in the Blackdown Hills and hailed it as “low-key”, but “special”.
She wrote that they treated themselves to foods like smoked salmon and fresh bread that they usually had to ration.
Jen added: “It wasn’t turkey and all the trimmings – it was so much better.”
Other challenges include battling the British weather and mud, with Jen recalling how it once rained for two weeks solidly and they got cabin fever trying to entertain the kids.
During muddy times, they had to build a wooden footway at the entrance to the tent.
And campsites were often basic with no hot showers, with Jen saying: “While we bathed E and H in the little tub by the fire, Sim and I braved freezing showers only when absolutely necessary.”
However, there were lots of highlights too, from foraging for berries and enjoying empty beaches to seeing porpoises in the wild.
The couple did hit rock bottom during their year, when their financial state worsened and they had to file for bankruptcy.
They were living in a five-week pitch at the time and lived off simple dinners of root vegetables, grains, pasta, rice and spices that were stored in a waterproof box.
The couple were also devastated when they were told they couldn’t keep the rights to their book.
Jen said: “We had nothing of our own to lose, no house, no savings, no possessions of any value apart from the truck, the laptop and camera.
“Once everything was settled, the advisor had told me, we would be free of the debts that were making our lives so difficult.”
Thankfully they fought for the copyright to their book and won, and slowly started to book speaking gigs and get more writing opportunities.
In spring 2016, after a year in the tent, they were able to move back into a house, and insist they don’t regret anything.
Jen said: “We had, without any doubt, experienced many of the best moments of our lives, but there had also been some dark times – times of physical, emotional and financial hardship that had challenged us to our limits.
“I had no regrets about our decision, and I knew Sim felt the same – quite the opposite as it had given us so much: experiences, free, time together, time to build back up from when we’d hit rock bottom a year ago.”
Speaking of her memoir, Jen wrote: “This book is about escaping, about living deliberately, about spending our days with those we love and doing what we love.
“Even if to achieve that end requires spending a year living under canvas in Britain with two young children…”
The Wild Year by Jen Benson is out on May 3 (Aurum Press, £16.99)
Although there were many challenges, Jen said she had some of the best moments of her life living in the tentCredit: SUPPLIED
Jen and Sim supported their family with writing jobs from the tentCredit: SUPPLIED
The family’s very homely bell tentCredit: SUPPLIED
The family survived two winters in their tent, and hard a wood burner inside for warmthCredit: SUPPLIED
The family managed to explore many beautiful parts of the UK moving around with their tentCredit: SUPPLIED
Jen and Sim say they are grateful for the time they got with their kids and in natureCredit: SUPPLIED
The couple did hit rock bottom during their year, when their financial state worsened and they had to file for bankruptcyCredit: SUPPLIED
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