In the past camping was always a mega cheap way to get away for the weekend, or indeed the week. But as popularity in outdoor recreation has soared over the last few decades, campground prices have also seen a steady rise – supply and demand and all that. As if paying a minimum of $20 per night per person isn’t bad enough (especially for a family), you then need to spend a LOT of cash on all your camping gear, not to mention paying extra for your dog, firewood, travel, hot showers, and any activities you want to do. So is camping on a budget really an option for those not wanting to fork out to connect with nature? Sure it is.
30 tips for camping on a budget
These 30 simple tips on how to camp on a budget will leave you choosing camping for every vacation. And you never know, all that dosh you save may even mean you can venture further afield every now and then.
Camping equipment and gear
If you anticipate becoming a seasoned camper, then it really is worth investing in some decent camping gear. Although this can seem like a big expense at the time, in the long run it really is worth it. A $500 tent that will last 10 years will end of costing you around $5 per night if you only use it for 10 nights each year. Divide that by its number of inhabitants, and camp more than 10 nights each year, and it’s virtually free!! Well not quite. But you get what I mean, and the quality and protection that you will get from a decent tent versus something cheap from Walmart will be worth every penny.
That said, there’s no need to invest in all of your camping gear at once. And some stuff you just don’t need to go out and buy at all. Use what you already have at home. Take at look at this camping checklist to see how much of it you already have, and read these tips to help you gather the rest:
1Borrow camping gear
Before you go investing in an expensive tent or sleeping mat, ask your friends nicely if they will lend you theirs for the weekend. Not only do you save some cash, you also get to learn what you might want when you come to buy your own gear.
2Buy second hand equipment
There is SO much new gear being churned out every season that something has to happen to all that barely used forgotten stuff right? The consignment stores are your friends! And some of the camping gear in them isn’t half bad either. But finding the good stuff can be a bit of a mine-field, so grab you mountain friend to help you bag the best deals. Or get on an outdoor forum and ask for people’s advice there.
3Use your home kitchen cookware
I’m not suggesting using your best non-stick pan over a campfire, but I bet there’s an old pan or two at the back of your cupboard that you’ve not used for ages. If you’re car camping then there’s really no need to buy specialist lightweight cooking equipment or camping specific cutlery. Just use what you have at home and take care of it.
4Raid the thrift stores
If you’re really worried about taking stuff from your kitchen, then you can pick up a load of old cookware for next to nothing at your local thrift store. And if it breaks or gets damaged then it’s no biggie. You might also find a few extras whilst you’re there like cool bags, thermal mugs or a picnic blanket.
5Take your bedding from home
Everyone has a few spare blankets kicking around at home which will do just fine to keep you warm in most moderate camping conditions. And if you need something warmer then put an old duvet cover on your comforter and cosy up in luxury! One thing that IS worth spending on when it comes to camp bedding, is a good sleeping mat to keep you comfortable and warm from the ground up.
6Check out the campground trash
This may sound a little crazy, but you’ll be surprised what people throw away at the end of their camping weekends. Things that just need a little TLC to restore them to their former glory: I’ve found camp chairs, BBQs, parasols and even tents before. So take a little snoop around the garbage and you may just get lucky!
7Share your stuff
If you are camping with a big group of friends, there’s no need to duplicate some of your camping equipment. Things like ketchup, washing up liquid, aluminium foil and a cool box can all be shared between your group. You can even get cosy and share a big tent to make a huge saving.
Food and camp cooking
It wouldn’t be a true vacation without some naughty treats and special feasts to look forward to. But that doesn’t mean rinsing your whole budget on food and booze. You can still eat awesome meals without being extravagant.
8Bring your own food and drink for the journey
Buying food and drink from service stations and rest stops is almost always more expensive than should be. Bring your own road trip treats and you can save a load of dollars. It may not seem like much of a saving, but it’s these little extra costs that all add up. Bring a flask of coffee, snack on granola bars and chips, and make your favourite wraps to munch on the go.
9Plan your meals carefully
Camping menu planning is essential for budget campers. Choose one pot meals that use lots of canned ingredients and are easy to make on a campfire or single gas burner. And bring a load of herbs and spices from home to keep things as tasty as possible.
10Cook in bulk
If you’re camping with a group then you’ll all save some money by taking it in turns to cook big meals for everyone, instead of lots of small meals. Plus, you get a night off cooking to truly kick back and relax.
11Cook some vegetarian food
I’m not saying deny yourself of some good old barbecued burgers and steaks. But if you have meat for every meal it can start to really add up. So consider making vegetarian meals too to keep the costs down, like these easy campfire nachos.
12Cook your meals over a fire
Cooking over your campfire will make a saving on stove fuel and can be a load of fun too. Instead of bringing unhealthy and expensive ready made desserts and sweets, get creative and make your own delicious dessert on (or in) the campfire.
13Bring your own firewood
Many campgrounds charge for firewood, and it soon adds up if you’re cooking on the campfire every night. So either bring your own, or head out on a wood collecting mission once you get to camp. Be sure to respect any rules about wood collecting on site or in protected areas by driving a little way to gather wood elsewhere.
14Don’t buy disposable BBQs
Aside from the environmental implications of throwaway BBQs, once you’ve bought three or four, you could have just bought a small portable grill for the same price. And it will last you a good deal longer than the two hour burn time of a disposable.
Foraging for your dinner isn’t just a good way to make a saving. It’s also a really satisfying and enjoyable way to spend the afternoon, and your meal will seem all the more delicious knowing you found it yourself! If you’re near the coast then fresh mussels and seafood can turn your average mushroom risotto into a gourmet treat. And freshly picked blackberries makes that campfire apple crumble all the more delicious. Just be sure you know exactly what you are picking before you go adding it to your food.
With a little imagination, planning and research, there really is no need to pay for any kind of entertainment when camping. Everything you need for some good old-fashioned fun is right there for the taking.
16Turn cooking into an activity
Cooking doesn’t have be a chore. In fact there are a bunch of ways that whipping up some camp grub can be fun. Make your own bread on a stick, try your hand at campfire pizza, and of course whittle a stick and toast some marshmallows for your camping s’mores.
17Choose a campground with natural interests
When choosing your campground, make sure it’s in an area that is rich in natural wonders to visit and explore. Hike up to a stunning viewpoint, visit a waterfall, build a mini raft and paddle it on a river. There are loads of exciting adventure ideas to enjoy that don’t require any special equipment and that you don’t need to pay to do.
18Create your own entertainment
If you’re not in an adventurous mood then get competitive and get playing some camping games. Or bust out the guitar and sing some campfire songs to lull your neighbours to sleep with! And never go camping without a deck of cards and an excellent adventure book.
Where and when to go camping
You can make some big savings by being smart about where and when you go camping. Here are a few tips to keep things as cheap as possible:
19Choose campgrounds with basic facilities
Although choosing a campground with a pool, tennis courts and a shop is appealing, especially when camping with kids, those extra facilities instantly bump up the camping tariffs significantly. Instead, look around for the most basic facilities and come prepared with your own entertainment and supplies instead.
20Avoid going camping on public holidays
Campgrounds get booked up pretty quickly on public holidays. So unless you are super organised and book way in advance, you’ll be forced into spending more than your budget will stretch on the last available camping spots.
21Camp during the off season
Many bigger campgrounds that offer those extra fancy facilities usually cost a little less during the shoulder seasons (spring and fall). So if basic camping isn’t really going to cut it for you, then camping outside of the peak season could be a good compromise.
22Avoid national parks
Camping in national parks has its obvious appeal, but the entry fees are another extra expense you can do without. There are a gazillion other incredible places to explore that are totally free. So save the extra incredible places for a time when your pockets are a little deeper.
23Camp free in the wilderness
For the ultimate cheap camping vacation, avoid any camping costs altogether and camp out in the wilderness. Go totally extreme and stealth camp in the forest, or get hold of a hiking backpack and head for the hills for some wild camping.
If you are really trying to keep within a budget then it’s also important to consider your travel costs.
24Don’t travel too far
It’s easy to think that a proper getaway requires travelling for hours. And of course the further you travel, the more expensive things become. So check out areas closer to home before you go driving 8 hours to a campground that is only a few bucks cheaper than the one 2 hours away.
25Fill up on cheap gas before you go
If you are heading to a remote area, it’s likely that fuel prices will be significantly more than what you are used to paying. Fill up before you get out onto the open road, and if you’re likely to use more than a tank full, check out Gasbuddy to plan your cheapest fill-up options en route.
If you really want to do things on the cheap them ditch the car altogether. Instead, pack light, get your hiking boots on and thumb a ride for the perfect start to your camping adventure.
Other ways to save some pennies
If you’ve come this far, then camping on a budget must be something that you are mega committed to. So to make sure all bases are covered, there a couple more things to consider.
A quick google search of ‘camping hacks’ will uncover a whole host of practical ways to turn stuff you already have into super useful, and sometimes essential, camping gear. So hack away for some extra savings.
28Write a wish list
In my family we write gift lists for birthdays and Christmas. It’s a great way to make sure you get stuff you actually want and need. Start a wish list and of course, add to it all that fun camping gear that you can’t quite justify buying for yourself.
29Start a camping fund
For some people, half the fun of camping is the gear that goes with it. So if you can’t get enough of titanium cutlery and collapsible kettles, then start a camping gear fund and add a little bit to it each month. Come the spring it will be super exciting to decide on what to spend your savings on next. And anything left over can go towards splashing out on things like national park entry fees, and extra special steaks for your BBQ treat!
And finally, in the words of a true Girl Guide, be prepared. Forgetting to pack things like sunscreen, tomato ketchup or bug spray means you’ll have to go buy them at premium campground shop prices. These are the costs that are totally avoidable with a little forward planning.
If you take on all of the tips then camping on a budget will most likely end up being a lot of effort with too many sacrifices for it to feel like a proper vacation. So start off by implementing just a few, and once you realise how much of a difference just a few changes makes, you’ll be lapping up all the money saving advice you can get!
Happy savings happy campers!