Getting to experience the great outdoors is a wonderful activity. Hiking, fishing, and spending time around the campfire are common summer pastimes. But how can you hope to take part in all these things if you are on a tight budget?
Camping doesn’t have to be costly. Things such as finding a cheap campsite, renting or borrowing gear, and camping with friends or family are just a few of the ways to keep your camping trip budget-friendly.
So how do you go camping on a budget?
One of the best ways to go camping with a budget is to use any items you have around the house. There are many things around the house that you can use camping and since you already own them, they will not impact your budget. Another great way to keep your camping trip from have a big impact on your budget is to plan meals that are low on cost but still great campfire meals, like roasting hotdogs over a campfire.
Below are some of the best hacks and ideas for camping at little to no cost.
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Selecting An Affordable Campsite
Some campgrounds, and especially glampgrounds can cost a fortune. With luxuries such as spas, pools, and general stores you can expect to pay a large sum to reserve a campsite. The more amenities a campground has or the more well-known it is, the more expensive it is likely to be.
In order to keep costs down, you will need to select an inexpensive campsite. Finding a truly free campground can be difficult, but they do exist. In most cases, the most budget-friendly campgrounds are hosted by cities, states, or the federal government.
- Use freecampaites.net.
This web search generator is an expansive database containing many of the cheapest camping locales in the United States. Most campsites it offers are either free or well below $10-15 dollars a night/session. However, this website operates exclusively on cost. This means that some of the campsites may be difficult to reach and considered very much so off the beaten path. Many are campsites in which you have to hike or canoe into, so consider your experience level prior to selecting one of these rugged locations.
- Consider Boondocking.org.
This is another similar site for finding free or very cheap camping spots. As their site states “boondocking is free camping, generally out in the boondocks”. The website database allows you to search by GPS coordinates or current location. The results will contain a variety of sites that are free and legal to camp at. However, many of these sites are very primitive and in the backcountry so be prepared.
- Try USCampgrounds.info.
This is another large database containing campgrounds and campsites of all varieties within the United States. When you are conducting a search you can narrow your options by cost. A white symbol shows you which options have a base rate or $12 or under. You can then find out further campsite information so you know what to expect.
- Give dispersed camping a try.
Similar to boondocking, dispersed camping is when you find a location with no designated campsites, you just select a spot to camp. This is typically done in areas found on government-run land. The public has access and it is legal to camp, there are just no preordained campsites or amenities.
- National Forest camping. National forests are contained in a searchable registry. A quick query can locate National forests near your location or at the spot at which you plan to camp. Prior to setting out be sure to read all the rules and regulations to be sure camping is truly permitted.
- Bureau of Land Management Camping. Again, a search will locate Bureau of Land Management held lands for you to select a campsite. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management publishes a text entitled “Adventures on America’s Public Lands”. This book offers available locations and directions. Camping on Bureau of Land Management property will often be free or only dollars a night/session.
- National parks – National Parks can be another low-cost camping option. Though not free, typically parks offer a yearly pass for under $40 to $50. If you are a frequent camper you can visit many national or state parks for cheap.
- Parking lot camping.
This one is typically an option, only for those who have an RV or camper. If you just need a free and quick spot to stay overnight consider a parking lot, such as those of a large department store. The camping will obviously be dry, as no hookups are provided, but it is a free and fast option if you simply need to get off the road. Remember to check all laws and rules prior to pulling in for the night.
- Check with your friends.
It might be a good idea to check with your friends or family members; they may have some property or space on which you could camp. There will likely be no amenities but your friends may be willing to offer you the spot for free or at a very low price point.
- Choose a staycation.
If you really want to get outside and sleep under the stars, consider your own backyard. Camping out for the night on your own lawn is free and can be a great trial run for camping, especially if you have children. You will have the amenities of your own house and the great outdoors for free.
Your camping trip begins with finding the right campsite, and with some internet research and a little intuition you can find a campground that is either free or very inexpensive. Be sure to check the rules, laws, and regulations prior to pitching your tent no matter where you are camping.
There are many great websites and resources that provide free or cheap campground locations. Many of these campsites will be off the grid and you may have to complete some rugged travel first in order to reach your destination.
The amenities provided with inexpensive campgrounds are usually minimal if there are any at all. However, sometimes you can get lucky. Be sure to pack your own toilet paper and wet wipes. If you are needing a shower go for a dip in a local, clean, water source or consider visiting a nearby truck stop.
Remember, if you are dispersed camping there is no way to reserve or pre-book a campsite. This means that even though you select the perfect location online it may not be available when you arrive.
Be sure to complete lots of preplanning, but also arrive at your spot early. You will want plenty of daylight to hike or canoe into your destination, it could prove to be difficult or even dangerous after dark.
Going off the beaten path can lead to free or inexpensive campsites that have all the beauty of nature with no noisy campground neighbors.
Tips For Dispersed Camping
- Look for a Pull-off.
When you are driving through National Forest land or Land Management Bureau property searching for a campsite you want to begin looking for a pull off area. Fire roads can be a good way to travel off the main road and search for a secluded pull off. If there is room available on the roadside you can pull off and camp near your car.
If the area is gated you may have to pull off and hike in, as long as you are not trespassing. If you are walking into an area be sure to leave your car somewhere it is not highly visible or easily accessible to those passing on the main road, you don’t want to make yourself a target.
- Find somewhere safe.
Survey the area for any dangers prior to pitching your tent. Check for large dead trees or branches, known as widowmakers, that could fall over in strong winds. Don’t camp in a dry or soft creekbed that could become a fast flowing river in heavy rains. Finally, make sure you have a safe place to build a fire. Campgrounds provide fire rings but you won’t have this amenity when you are dispersed camping. Keep yourself and your family safe by surveying the scene and checking for hidden dangers; your best bet is a flat somewhat open area.
- Find somewhere private.
This goes hand and hand with safety. You don’t want to be highly visible or easily accessible to those passing by, again, don’t make yourself an easy target. Additionally, fellow campers can be careless with things such as garbage or fire. You don’t want reckless neighbors attracting bears to your campground.
How to Avoid Spending a Fortune on Gear
Camping gear and specialty gear can cost a small fortune. Typically, the most expensive gear are items that have a great many high-quality features and offer top of the line performance. There are a few items you definitely don’t want to skimp on, but there are others that you can opt for the cheap option and be perfectly alright.
Items that You Should Invest In
- A reliable tent. A tent is one item that you will not want to overly frugal about. A tent is what will separate you from the elements. It is tasked with keeping you warm, dry, and bug and animal free. These things can make all the difference when you are camping in inclement conditions. Some great tents can be found for under $100 dollars new, a great investment for a product that will stand up to time and the elements.
- Sleeping bags. Sleeping bags are another item you will want to make room in the budget for. A quality sleeping bag will keep you warm and insulated. Sleeping bags can last a long time if they are made of quality products and treated well.
- Hiking Boots. If you plan on doing any outdoor activity invest in a quality pair of footwear. Cheap or ill-fitting boots or shoes can cause blisters, cold feet, and pain. You want a top performing pair that keeps you dry, warm, comfortable, and safe from slippery and rugged surfaces. If your feet aren’t happy, you will likely be stuck inside the tent for the entire trip.
Items Not to Splurge On
- A cooler. You can turn your cheap and inefficient cooler into a high-performance yeti style cooler. One way to do this is to use a styrofoam cooler inside your hard surface plastic cooler. The addition of aluminized bubble wrap will also up the chill factor. Putting your cooler inside your freezer, especially a deep freeze or chest freezer, with a little water in the bottom the night before will help it retain its iciness.
- A dry bag. You definitely want to keep your gear dry, but you don’t need a pricey waterproof bag to do this. Contractors bags or heavy duty trash bags are a highly versatile camping item. They can protect your gear from rain and act as a dry bag. They can be used as durable trash bags or even toilet and waste bags. Additionally, they can be turned into a raincoat, a backpack, or an efficient barrier between you and whatever you want to be separated from.
- Camping chairs and tables. There are a variety of luxury camping chairs and tables. You can find almost any style on the market from lumbar support to recliners. However, most times you don’t truly need these items, especially if you are on a budget. If you are at a campsite some will include picnic tables. If you are dispersed camping you can sit on a log, on your cooler, or even a trash bag on the ground. Camping chairs and tables are unnecessary items that can cost a great deal of money.
How to Obtain Gear for Next to Nothing
There are a few items that you should invest in, such as a tent and sleeping bag, but there are other items that you can beg, borrow, or steal (don’t literally steal).
- Ask around.
Begin by asking your friends and family if they have any gear you can borrow. It is likely that a few people you know have gear lying around in their basement collecting dust. Be sure to check every item before you plan on using it, it would be a shame to arrive at your campsite with a defunct cooking stove or a tent with a gaping hole.
- Check with a rental company.
There are many camping gear rental companies. These companies rent out camping gear, especially larger or more expensive items, that you can’t afford outright or wouldn’t use often enough to justify purchasing. You can rent anything from tents to glamping beds, to footwear. If you are a frequent camper it may prove cheaper, in the long run, to save up for the item and purchase it rather than renting. However, if you are testing the waters of camping renting an item can be a cheap option.
- Buy used gear.
There are a few venues and markets in which you can purchase used gear. Facebook market, yard sales, and mom to mom groups are just a few places at which you can find gear. You will want to make sure that the gear is still in good and usable condition prior to purchasing.
Additional Tips for Camping on a Budget
- Cook from Scratch.
Camping food and cookware is a whole market. There are many options for prepackaged foods and cooking gear, but just like at home, you can save your budget if you prepare meals from scratch. Be wary that it may take up more room and weigh more carrying in all of your own ingredients, but it will save you money.
- Hack your sleeping bag.
You should invest in a high-quality sleeping bag, but you don’t need the most expensive all season bag if you are just doing some run of the mill camping. You can sleep in your fleece or warmer layers to make the bag warmer. You can also use a hot water bottle, or a hot water filled Nalgene for extra warmth. Inexpensive hand warmer can also be used to warm your bag. If you are camping predominantly in the summer months, don’t spend the extra cash buying an artic strength sleeping bag.
- Treat the gear you do buy well.
Make sure to maintain your gear to save yourself from having to buy it again frequently. Properly clean your gear after each use and don’t put anything away wet. Also, treat your gear with a waterproof sealer like Gore-Tex. Buying an inexpensive bottle of treatment can help maintain the longevity of your gear and save you money.
- Brush up on your camping hacks.
There are numerous camping hacks from budget-friendly campers. A quick search on the internet for “camping hacks” will return hundreds of results. Some of the best include:
- Homemade latern
Make a lantern by strapping a headlamp to a water bottle. The reflection of the light through water can act as a cheap options to traditional lanterns.
- Preserve your gear free.
Keep silica gel packs, the free ones that come in packages of shoes and clothing, in your cookware to prevent rust.
- Use your dry clothes to make a pillow by stuffing them in a bag. Or, pack them in the bottom of your sleeping bag when you sleep to absorb moisture and keep you insulated.
- Get creative with kindling and fire starters. Doritos, birthday candles, and hand sanitizer all make excellent fire starters or kindling to get your roaring campfire going.
There are many tips and tricks to go camping when you are on a tight budget. With an adequate amount of research, planning, and preparation you can enjoy the great outdoors for next to nothing.