If you’re looking for a frugal family adventure in lieu of an expensive vacation, camping is where it’s at. Camping is naturally cheaper than just about any other major family activity, but the way we do it, it’s nearly free.
Camping is a treat that every single member of our family enjoys. We all love the outdoors and we never tire of exploring new places. We take our family camping in all four seasons. Each of our kids went on their first camping or backpacking trip within the first few months of life.
Being super frugal, we keep the costs of camping even lower than usual. If you’ve been reading here for a while that probably doesn’t surprise you.
Here are our top tips to save money on camping.
Location, location, location!
Learn how to camp for free! One of my favorite camping hacks is to never pay a fee at a campground. Even in crowded places near popular attractions, you can go a little further out into the adjoining national forest or BLM land and find yourself a quaint, free camping spot. Read all about how we camp for free to see how it’s possible.
Plan ahead! If dispersed camping isn’t your style and you’d rather have some conveniences like toilets or water, then your best bet is to reserve a spot ahead of time. If you wait until you’re ready to leave to look for a spot, your options will be slim and you may be out of luck altogether. Do your research beforehand by searching online and calling around (not all campgrounds have websites).
You don’t need to go far. Now I realize there is only one Yosemite and one Grand Canyon, but if you don’t have a specific destination in mind, then the truth is you really don’t need to go too far from home to get a genuine camping experience. You’ll be surprised how many beautiful natural locations are just down the road. Staying close to home will save money on gas.
Plan a menu ahead of time. Just like being at home, you’ll save money on groceries when you plan out your meals in advance. You will spend a lot more on camping groceries if you just run to the store on your way out of town to grab food for the trip.
Eat normal foods and prep at home. Some people think that hot dogs and s’mores are the quintessential (and only) camping foods. Try cooking variations of the same things you cook at home. You might be shocked how much better they taste outside.
When we went camping last month, we cooked some plain spaghetti noodles at home and brought them in a ziploc bag. We cooked up Italian sausage in a dutch oven oven over the fire, then added spaghetti sauce, pre-cooked pasta, and cheese. It was diiiiivine! Way better than any spaghetti we’ve ever made at home.
Skip the drinks. Instead of bottled water, cans of pop, or other beverages, bring your own reusable water bottles and gallons of water from home. Fill up empty juice bottles with water or use whatever you have your emergency water supply stored in.
Use what you have. Don’t run out to buy sleeping bags if you don’t have them. Just bring lots of blankets. If you don’t have a Dutch oven or special camping pot (this is our family’s favorite), just bring an old pot from home. You don’t need fancy gear to enjoy camping.
Buy used gear. Check thrift stores, yard sales, Craigslist, and Facebook sales. There is a lot of great camping gear with lots of life left in it out there. Many people buy (or are gifted) nice camping gear, but never end up using it. Keep your eyes peeled!
I bought this 8-man tent for $30 at a yard sale when we were in law school. It went on many family adventures with us until we completely lost it just over a year ago. I have no idea how you can lose a tent, but somehow we managed to do it. 🙁
Go primitive. It’s not for everyone, but if you are interested in survival camping, it can be a fun challenge to go without fancy gear, or even typical gear. Even though we have nice tents, we often sleep under the stars on a tarp. Using a simple tarp and some rope, you can also create various shelters to keep you warm and dry
Don’t buy firewood. Firewood sold at campsites sells for a premium. If you are at an established, high-use campground there may be rules against collecting firewood on the property. You can collect firewood in national forest areas though. There is plenty of wood that is “dead and down” that you can carry back to y our campsite to burn.
Don’t buy ice. Paying for bags of ice is throwing money down the drain. You’ll need something to keep food cool, but why not use the food itself instead? Freeze some of the bottles of water that you’re bringing. They will help keep the cooler cool and you don’t have to worry about them going bad. I also freeze other freezable ingredients that I bring along, like milk, butter or meat.
Ditch the disposables. While we do sometimes use paper products when we’re camping, when we’re being money conscious (and environment conscious), we just bring enough dishes for everyone and wash them after each meal. Real dishes and flatware are easier to eat with and taking a few minutes to wash them really isn’t much work.
Once you’re camping, all the other associated activities are usually free too. We love hiking, swimming, and exploring during the day. Cooking meals while camping is part of the fun too. In the evening, telling stories, playing games, and singing around the campfire are great ways to have fun, build bonds, and make memories together.
Vacations and family adventures don’t have to be expensive. Take your family camping to save money and make memories this year. You might find you prefer it to expensive trips anyway!
How about you?
- What are your best tips for saving money on family camping?