It’s hard to compete with an evening underneath the stars while sitting around a bonfire and making lifelong memories with friends and family. Camping is much more than sleeping on the ground in the dirt.
Over the last few years, more and more people are beginning to realize how awesome camping is and the prices reflect this newfound demand.
The good news is that camping doesn’t have to be absurdly expensive and you don’t have to buy everything up front for your first trip.
With the right approach, you can have an amazing camping experience at an extremely reasonable cost. The following tips and tricks will ensure you have a comfortable camping experience even if you are on a shoestring budget.
45 Tips for Camping on a Budget
These 45 tips for camping on a budget are going to give you another excuse to go camping. All the money that you’re going save can be put towards an epic camping trip to a place like Yosemite or Glacier National Park, or pocket it for whatever your heart desires.
Choose the best time of year and location
Much like flying, the time of year that you choose for your camping trip will have a major impact on the prices. Making informed choices on when and where you go camping is going to save you some extra coin.
1. Avoid the holidays
Don’t go camping on public holidays. Not only will the campsites be crowded, but the prices for everything are typically higher.
Holidays like Memorial Day, the Fourth of the July, and Labor Day are the busiest camping days of the year. Go on the day or two after a holiday and you’ll be waving at the hoards of people leaving while you’re on your way to an empty campsite.
2. Camp when school is in session
If you have kids then this may not apply to you, however, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to let your kids play hooky to go camping while learning valuable outdoor skills. Another benefit of camping during the school year is the fact that the campsites are less crowded.
3. Camp during the week
The majority of people are weekend campers. During the months of July, August, and September every campground is super busy, especially on the weekends. If you can manage it, camp on Monday through Thursday.
4. Keep it simple
Camping in fancy locations with amenities like a pool, tennis court and other facilities is nice, but it also means higher prices. Camp in places that have the basics and sacrifice the modern amenities.
5. Camp in the wild
If you are an adventurous soul then wild camping will be exciting and cheaper than a KOA. Head out to a fire service road or find a place off the beaten path which offers authentic primitive camping experiences at the best price, free.
6. Take advantage of the off-season
Camp during the offseason. Camping in Fall and early Spring can get a little chilly at night but there is also a chance for some great weather during the day. If your really adventurous then winter camping is another option, grab a good 4-season tent and head for the snow.
Minimize your travel costs
While traveling a long ways from home always feels like more of an escape. It will increase your fuel costs which can add up quickly. There are several ways in which you can limit your travel costs while saving a little extra money.
7. Stay close to home
Do some research before you head out and travel to a place close to home. Reserve America is a great resource for finding campgrounds and prices near your location by simply punching in your zip code. You will find a similar experience close to home and it won’t involve a ten-hour drive.
8. Fuel up at home
Fill up your gas tank before heading out, especially if you are camping during one of the big three camping weekends. High demand often means higher fuel prices and in the summertime gas prices are typically higher (source).
9. There’s an app for that
If you end up running out of gas, even if you start with a full tank, utilize websites like GasBuddy. It will show you the price of gas at nearby locations and you can find the cheapest option.
10. Invite friends
You can split the costs of the campsite, food, and gas. Make sure you take a look and make sure it will accommodate large parties. Most campgrounds have room for 2, if not 3 tents. Even splitting the bill 2 ways is an enormous saving.
Avoid campground fees
Some of the most popular campsites can be heavy on your pocket. One way to escape this is to opt out of traditional campsites.
11. Dispersed camping in a National Forest
There isn’t any fee’s if you go the dispersed camping route and all you have to do is follow the rules set by the local park service. There aren’t bathrooms and other facilities so plan accordingly.
12. Stay on a friends property
Opt to stay on the property of a friend or relative. This isn’t going to be an option for everyone, however, in our experience friends with land are usually open to the idea as long as you treat it like your own.
13. Join a KOA rewards program
KOA awards programs offer small savings and are really only worth it if you plan on camping multiple times in a year.
You get to 10% off sites fees and accumulate points that can be redeemed for extra savings throughout the year. There is a $30 membership, but if you use it enough you end up saving in the long run.
14. Passport America
Try out Passport America, it’s another discount camping club, you pay a $44 annual membership fee and get 50% off campground fees.
The network is composed of just under 1900 campgrounds, however, they have locations in Mexico, Canada, as well as at home. There are restrictions and blackout dates, so take a peak before booking.
15. Become a campground host
Every year we camp at Lake Chelan in the same couple spots, it’s a big family trip. Each year we see a family acting as the camp hosts, they stay all summer for free, help the rangers, and take care of the campground. Looks like a pretty sweet job!
Save on clothing
It is quite common to see people packing for camping with multiple bags. A different bathing suit for each day of the week, and dressed to the nine’s in the evening. Camping is meant to be a little dirty, embrace the grime and learn to love it.
16. Goodwill is amazing
You’ll find second-hand clothes for a fraction of the price at goodwill. Often you find North Face and Patagonia gear, jackets, and hats. Remember that you’re camping, so who cares if your “outfits on point”.
17. Don’t buy new gear
Avoid the mall for the sole purpose of buying new clothes for your camping trip. Generally, you can find clothes that work stashed somewhere in the nether regions of your closet. Your camping, it’s not a fashion show, your clothes will end up smelling like campfire anyways.
18. You only need 2 pairs of shoes
Don’t carry unnecessary shoes. Just wear your sneakers or running shoes for hiking and bring flip flops or other camp shoes for hanging out around the campsite.
Save on camping gear
Buying brand new camping gear for your first camping trip isn’t the cheapest route, especially if you are just starting out. Tents, sleeping bags, grills, and coolers add up fast. Don’t shell out a king’s ransom for a boatload of camping gear for your first camping trip, build slowly, purchasing one or two things at a time.
19. Borrow and trade
Ask a friend if you can borrow their tent and grill, it’s way cheaper and you don’t have to shell out cash for something you only use a couple times a year. If you’re with a group figure out who’s bringing what items and share the gear.
20. Buy used equipment
Thrift shops are a fantastic place to find pots, pans, spatulas, silverware, and cookware. Chances are you camping kitchen gear is going to get beat up and tossed around, so don’t bring anything you aren’t willing to trash.
21. Rent your gear
There are different programs in almost every city that offer gear rentals for a low rate. REI has a rental program in 12 states and you can rent everything from climbing gear to camping gear. In most big cities you can do a quick google search and find an outdoor gear rental company near you.
22. Keep an eye out for sales
Outdoor recreation stores run great discounts on camping gear, especially when it’s out of season. Keep an eye on prices for any gear you don’t yet have and be ready to act quickly, they usually have limited quantities.
23. Use the second hand market
Websites like Craig’s list and eBay are other great alternatives to goodwill and brick and mortar shops. Take a look, and you can find used camping gear for half the price.
24. Save on a sleeping bag
Weather permitting, you can use some old blankets and comforters to sleep in rather than buying a new sleeping bag. Blankets and pillows from homework great in place of a sleeping bag in summer, and it’s easier to throw the blanket off if it gets too hot.
Save money on food and drinks
Meals and drinks add up quickly, so planning meals and snacks beforehand will save you money.
25. Assign group meals
Take turns cooking for each other, if you’re in a group there’s not much difference cooking for 2 more people. This will save you money, space, and give everyone a chance to show off their cooking skills!
26. Plan every meal and shop at home
It seems like every year my family and I run out of bacon, then running to the local store to grab some more and are surprised by the price. Planning every meal eliminates the stress of figuring out meals, and you won’t have to suffer from sticker shock.
27. Use 2 coolers
Bring a couple coolers, one with drinks and one for food. Plan on making a couple runs for fresh ice as the drink cooler always gets opened more.
28. Learn the art of the one-pot meal
The last thing you want to do while camping is dishes, so learn the art of the one-pot meal. One part meals are cheaper and easier to prepare, and the best part is there’s only one dish to clean.
29. Buy foods in bulk
Beans and rice are cheap and can be added to any dish easily with a little creativity. Save on making a super fancy camping meal and keep it simple, there’s plenty of ways to make great dinners with nothing more than a little creativity.
30. Eat your vegetable
One good idea is to try and incorporate vegetarian meals into your camping menu. Vegetables are cheaper than meats, and it’s a healthy change of pace.
31. Forage for greens
Since you are camping you might as well take advantage of the environment that you’re in. Grab a book from the local library on edible plants in the area, and head out on a foraging mission and search for a meal. It’s a fun way to gather food and you can get everyone involved.
32. Plan your meals
Plan your menu in advance and incorporate easy to cook meals. This will save you time and energy. Planning meals will also save on food waste, and help you avoid spoilage.
33. Cook beforehand
Cooking a couple bulk meals that you just need to heat up in a pan is quick and easy. Moreover, it gives you a break from having to worry about getting dinner ready.
Save on cooking equipment
While you can’t completely eliminate cooking equipment when you go camping, you don’t have to go overboard either. You most likely have most of the kitchen gear you need at home.
34. Raid your cupboards
You don’t have to buy fancy cooking equipment when you go camping. Raid your kitchen and you will find some old pots and pans that you can use.
35. Check the clearance rack
You can always find great deals on clearance items, in some cases upwards of 50% off. This is something you can do all year long, while you’re running your everyday errands swing by the clearance shelf. Some of the best deals happen just after the camping season, so keep your eyes open.
36. Coordinate with friends
Maybe you don’t have a gas grill for camping, but someone you know most likely does. If your camping with friends see if they have a grill and you will save room while not having to shell out for gear you don’t already have.
37. Disposable utensils
Plastic wear, preferably bio-degradable, is a quick and cheap one-stop solution for forks, knives, spoon, and plates. You can grab a couple bags when you’re at the grocery store and the plus side is no washing involved.
Even if you are camping on a shoestring budget, there are always fun ways to entertain yourself. Hint: it doesn’t involve and Ipad or your cell phone.
38. Take a hike
Hiking is a way to connect with nature and has proven health benefits. You don’t need to find an established trail, you can find your own. Just remember to keep the Leave No Trace Principles in mind.
39. Have a dance off
If you are in a big group, singing and dancing competitions can be held to bring out the hidden talent in some of the group members. Or, better yet, the lack thereof.
40. Get to know each other
Go old school, put your phones down and have a conversation. A face to face conversation where both people are actively engaged and listening is a rare thing today. Imagine if someone pulled a magazine out and started reading it mid-conversation, that’s what it’s like when someone pulls out a cell phone.
41. Enjoy the campfire
Some of the best memories are made while sitting around a campfire with friends and family. There is something mesmerizing about sitting around a campfire that draws people together and stories out.
Other tips and tricks to save money
Prepare and do everything yourself that you can. The DIY route is a great way to save while learning some new skills along the way.
42. Make your own first aid kit
You don’t have to spend money on fancy gear, a quick YouTube search can teach you how to make a first aid kit at home that will work for any camping trip.
You don’t want to try and make a gas stove from spare parts found at the hardware store. There are a plenty of fun camping hacks that can save you some cheddar.
44. Preparation is key
While you can’t prepare for everything that could possibly go wrong, you can do your best to not forget anything. Make a list of everything that you need, from consumables to bug spray. Check the list twice before each and every trip.
45. Research before you purchase
Price does not always justify the quality. Save yourself from being tricked into buying useless camping gear by reading reviews of any equipment that you plan on buying.
What Did We Learn?
Bottom line is that being frugal makes cents, and saving money in the right places is important.
Make sure you are completely prepared for a camping trip is going to save you frustration and heartache. A cheap flashlight might give you the satisfaction of saving a few pennies but it’s useless if it dies on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
It’s always good to save as much as possible but if you try 100% of this list, it’s going to end up being a more of a pain in the ass than it’s worth. Start slowly and go with the biggest savings first.
Most importantly, keep calm and camp on.