Unlike the popular saying, “camping: where you spend a small fortune to live like a homeless person,” you don’t have to spend a fortune to camp comfortably with friends and family. Many of the blog posts and even high-end big-box camping stores are filled with the latest technology, gear, and gadgets designed to enrich the camping experience, but that can also drain the wallet.
When it comes to cheap camping trips, the most important thing to remember is that you don’t actually need as much as you might think you need. Especially if you’re just starting out as a camper, focus on the basics first, and you can save a lot of money by acquiring all the extras over time and as you can find good deals. Here are some of my favorite tips for camping on a budget.
Camping on a Budget: My Top Tips
I’m not claiming to be a pro camper, but I have learned my fair share of budget-saving camping tips while taking cheap camping trips. Here are my top tidbits of knowledge to share!
It’s not always true that the cheap stuff isn’t worth it when it comes to all of the gear you need while camping. Some miscellaneous camping items I have picked up over the years at the last minute from places like Target or Wal-Mart are still with me today and working great. The trick is to know where you can safely save cost and where it’s worth it to maybe find a higher-quality item.
Start At Home
A lot of what you may need for a cheap camping trip is already in your house. Sure, a fancy mummy sleeping bag sounds cool, but it’s not critical to enjoying your trip. Maybe you have a small air mattress and some extra bedding lying around at home. It will take up a little more space in your car to bring blankets and pillows than a tightly rolled sleeping bag, but you’ll have the same comfortable night’s sleep in all but the worst of weather.
Also, check your home for most of your kitchen essentials: a knife, cutting board, utensils, spices, soap–everything you need for making delicious meals over a campfire is probably already in your kitchen drawers and cabinets. Just remember to put it all back when you return home.
Rent or Buy Used
Some items, such as a tent, are more essential. While some people I know are happy to sleep in just a hammock, I find that a tent is best to manage insects and temperature and protect from rain. You can find a high-quality Coleman brand tent for 4 people for a reasonable price, but if you’re not sure if camping is going to be right for you and yours, then you don’t have to buy one right away. Places like REI or some online startup companies will rent you camping gear so you can try it before you buy.
For other big-ticket items, try looking at thrift stores, garage sales, or other marketplaces for gently used gear that you can often find at a steep discount. I found a cast-iron dutch oven that I use to cook almost any meal for an incredibly low price at a garage sale and saved more than $50 than if I had purchased the same size pot new. I used this pot to make big, filling meals over the campfire and saved on purchasing a gas stove and a constant supply of fuel.
The only real camping essentials are a place to sleep, a way to eat, and some clothes to wear. Everything else comes down to convenience. Once a tent and bedding are secured, and you’ve raised your kitchen for a piece of fireproof cookware and the other cooking necessities — the rest can be easily added piecemeal when you find a good deal. Remember, most camping gear is a long-term investment, so once you’ve purchased it, it’s yours.
I keep a plastic container with a sturdy lid as my camping box that serves to store and organize all my camping gear. As an avid camper for over 10 years, now my camping box has everything in it for me to just toss it in the car and go. But I acquired these items as I discovered more of what I wanted to be comfortable camping. Eventually, once you have everything you want for the style of camping that best suits you and your family, a camping trip will only involve buying groceries, maybe some firewood, and maybe the site.
In my early days of camping, I kept a list of everything I brought with me and noted everything I used, didn’t use, and wished I had. That wish list informed my next smart purchase decisions and also was the foundation of gift ideas whenever anyone asked. My camping box now contains its own small kitchen set, so I don’t have to keep using my at-home stuff, headlamps, extra batteries, and plenty more, so I know I always have what I might need.
Choosing a Campsite
Choosing a campsite is crucial to camping on a budget. National Parks are beautiful protected lands but often have a fairly steep vehicle entrance fee on top of whatever fees they charge to camp inside the park. A quick scan of the map will often show you state parks, national forests, or other land designated for recreational use that will have the same landscapes that you would see in the National Park but at a fraction of the cost.
For those lucky enough to live out west, public land may also be an option for a free place to camp, but these first-come-first-serve areas can be hit or miss. Look for campsites that are primitive (they only have a fire-ring and picnic table usually) to save a little cost compared to sites with hookups like electricity, water, and sewage for RVs.
Time of Year
When you go camping is important too. It’s usually a little cheaper to camp during the off-season, such as spring or later in the fall. This is a delicate balance; however, camping when it is cold requires more gear to keep you dry and comfortable. Spring and fall, depending on where you live, generally will have moderate weekends with good weather, fewer crowds, and often lower prices.
Camping on a Budget
Cheap camping trips are achievable with just a little preparation and foresight. It’s important to make a budget ahead of time and stick to it. But just because you may not be bringing the latest, fanciest tech doesn’t mean your camping trip will be subpar. It feels amazing to get creative with only what you’ve brought along. You don’t need much to enjoy nature, fresh air, and your family and friends at a campsite!