Warmer weather always has me excited for camping season. I love the few days I can get away from work, the big city, and all things electronic. I like all types of camping; cabin, tent, primitive, and trailer, but my favorite is semi-primitive tent camping. It is cheaper and more rustic, but you also get running water at your campsite and a flushable toilet within walking distance.
Camping can be an expensive endeavor. After buying all the new latest and greatest gear and gadgets, your receipts may show that you could have taken the family to Disney World. Camping does not have to break the bank, though. In fact, this year, I am really cutting down on my equipment. Not only to save a buck, but also so I am not lugging around a bunch of stuff that takes a long time to set up and break down. Whether you are cutting down or just starting out, I have a few tips for camping on a budget. Cheap camping is all about the basics. All you need is food, water, and shelter.
Since I do most of my camping at either private or public lakeside, walk-up campsites, during mild warm weather, I need just a basic tent. While in college, I bought the cheapest two-person tent I could find. It lasted over 10 years. Since it is only my Chihuahua and me this time around, I am again going to buy the cheapest tent I can. The Stansport McKinley two-person tent has many features to keep the inside of the tent dry and for around $50 will do just fine. If you need further guidance on how to buy a tent, read our article, “How to buy a Tent.”
For under $10, you can get an 8′ by 5′ emergency tent that includes a cord for set-up.
If you are not ready to purchase your own tent, you can borrow from a friend, or fashion a primitive shelter using a tarp. CTD Mike wrote a highly informative blog about tarp shelters. It even tells you how to make a tarp hammock. Speaking of hammocks, you can ditch the tent idea all together and string a hammock up between two trees. I suggest a mosquito net if you go that route, though.
Personally, I find sleeping bags a waste of money. If you do not have one already, you can save money by just packing up the bedding you already own. I take a set of sheets, an old worn-out blanket, and the pillows on my bed. Where I save money, I spend on one luxury item: an air mattress. I know others who have used dollar store pool floaties. Call me a wuss, but I hate sleeping directly on hard ground.
It is extremely important to take plenty of fresh water with you when you go camping. I purchase the grocery store brand gallon jugs of drinking water. Before I go, I freeze a few of them, cutting down on ice costs. As the water thaws, use it for drinking, cooking, coffee, and washing up. If you have a campsite that has running water, you can use that water for cooking and washing up. I boil it first. I have a metal coffee pot to boil water in, but you can just as easily use an old big coffee tin.
My experience with camp cooking has run the gamut from build your own omelet buffet, fresh caught fish, to hot dogs roasted on sticks, but I prefer the easier is better route. Meaning anything you can eat with your hands! Hotdogs and hamburgers are cheap and easy to cook over an open flame and do not require many utensils to eat or cook. If you want something a little fancier, pre-made kabobs and fajitas are a good choice, too. The fewer utensils you have, the less water you use. Not to mention that biodegradable, camp-specific soap is expensive. For breakfast, dry cereal, fruit, and breakfast tacos are good choices. Lunch can be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or hotdogs. I always throw in a lot of individual bags of chips and two different types of cookies, as well. Instead of reusable plates, I buy paper plates and cups. Camping-specific dishes are not cheap, and add weight to your gear. If you want to have reusable dishes, buy them at your local Goodwill, Salvation Army, Thrift Town, or search garage sales.
As far as cooking goes, a very basic mess kit from Texsport will do perfectly. Especially at the bargain price of about eight dollars.
Another luxury I invest in is a good cooler. I take two coolers with me, one for food and one for beverages and ice for drinks. I made the mistake one year by taking only one cooler and had meat juice leak, contaminating my drinking ice. A good cooler is long-term investment, as I use mine all year round.
Camping sites can range anywhere from $30 a night for private to free for public land. The Web site, freecampsites.net is a good place to start when you are looking for a cheap place to camp. Further, some public lands offer free primitive camping. State parks are a great place to camp regardless if you are a beginner or a skilled outdoors person. For a few bucks a night, you get a nice spot with a fire pit, running water, and a covered picnic table.
What are your favorite cheap camping tricks and tips? I would love to hear about them.