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Money-Saving Camping Tips

Guest post from Gretchen of Desert Survivor

Fall is one of my favorite times to go on a vacation, with the cooler temperatures, changing colors, and less-hectic pace. Camping can be one of the cheapest and most memorable ways to take a vacation.

Here’s how to make it a successful venture:

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

If you don’t sleep well, you probably won’t be able to do other things well. If you have access to a camper, that can almost be like sleeping at home. However, sleeping in a tent can be a different story.

Over the years, our beds at home have become more comfortable, with foam padding, pillow-top mattresses, and more. The ground has stayed the same: hard. And if you’re not used to hard, you won’t sleep well.

So bring a sleeping pad. This could be the inflatable mattress you use for guests at home, a specially made camping pad, or a bunch of blankets folded up. It doesn’t matter, as long as you have something. Kids might not need anything. But as I’ve told my family numerous times, “I have hips.” Women’s hips just need a little extra padding!

Make sure you have appropriate covers — if it’s hot, you won’t need so many, but there’s nothing like being freezing cold to keep you from sleeping well. The covers don’t have to be fancy, just bring enough — and don’t forget that you might need one under you too!

Finally, be sure the tent you’re in is adequate for the weather. There’s nothing worse than setting up your tent and then having a thunderstorm drench everything in it because the rainfly wasn’t on or adequate. A higher quality tent will provide more protection and last more years, but if all you have is a cheaper one, you can rig a tarp over it to help keep it dry.

Two more tips for sleeping through the night: be sure to bring a pillow. It’s amazing how much that helps. And bring earplugs. They can help muffle noises that you’re not used to and help you sleep better.

Plan Your Meals

I’m not a very good meal planner at home, but when I go camping, I make lists. I want to make sure that I’m going to have something to eat. I’ve camped with a couple different types of campers: the gourmets, and the survivalists. Both have merits. Regardless of the type, both need some meal planning. As you can see with the two menus below, it’s possible to have a simple menu with a quick clean-up that’s not costly but still healthy.

Breakfast: juice, yogurt, scrambled eggs, bacon, coffee
Lunch: sandwiches, carrots, apples
Dinner: potato-carrot-sausage foil dinner, corn on the cob roasted over the fire, S’mores
Snacks: fruit, cut-up vegetables, homemade trail mix

Breakfast: homemade muffins, hard-boiled eggs, bananas, milk
Lunch: tortilla wraps, cherry tomatoes, oranges
Dinner: hot dogs, green beans, popcorn,
Snacks: nuts, dried fruit, granola bars

To keep food cool, instead of buying a bag of ice, I often freeze water in old juice or milk containers and put them in the cooler. The ice stays longer, and as it melts, I have additional drinking water instead of a soggy mess at the bottom of the cooler.

If you have kids, have them help plan the meals, they will then be much more excited about helping to prepare it!

As for a camp kitchen, I keep mine in a see-through Rubbermaid container. I have simple pots and pans, a can opener, plates, cups, eating utensils, spatula, matches, paper towels, aluminum foil, and spices packed and ready to go to make getting out the door easier. Sometimes we cook over a fire and sometimes we use a Coleman stove.

Everything Else

Camping can be as simple as eating and sleeping. You can add a few activities like hiking, fishing, star gazing, and wildlife watching. Games around camp that we enjoy are flashlight tag (those simple finger flashlights make for cheap fun!), hide ‘n seek, t-ball, frisbee, ring toss, and catching insects.

Camping is a great way to unplug, spend some quality family time, and relax. Although camping can be frugal, the memories it makes are priceless.

Gretchen Baker lives nearly in the middle of nowhere (it’s three hours to the closest shopping mall). Fortunately, she has a good Internet connection. She lives on a ranch next to a national park and blogs at Desert Survivor about how to survive and thrive in the desert environment.

photo source

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23 Comments

  • Marie says:

    Another way to save is to stay at State campgrounds. They are way cheaper. You can buy a pass for National parks to that will help with the cost.
    We love camping as a family. We started out tent camping with newborn twins and when they were 1 1/2 we purchased a used pop-up camper. It was just a basic one with no air or bathroom but we solved both of those problems. My husband used a small air conditioning unit we had that we no longer needed. For the bathroom we found a camp potty at a garage sale. So there was no need to hike to a potty in the middle of the night with kids.
    In July we just purchased a RV and love it!!! Definitely check Craigslist if your looking for a nice used camper.
    The other thing with a cooler is that we invested in an electric cooler. It’s awesome because it keeps everything cold and you don’t have to deal with ice. Even if the campsite doesn’t have electricity you can use it if you buy an adaptor for the car. My husband has one for our vehicle and we can plug it in there.
    Camping is so much fun for the kids.

    • My husband would really like a pop-up camper or RV. He’s not too fond of tent camping, but will go once in awhile. Thanks for your suggestions of making it more affordable–and we’ll have to look into an electric cooler, didn’t even know they existed!

  • pam says:

    I camped with my then young family for many years in everything from a $50 tent, a camping cabin, yurts, teepee’s, to travel trailers. Camping provided many affordable vacations that we would not have taken otherwise.
    I really love tent camping but take my advice if your going far from home for a week or longer rent a rustic camping cabin. Many times the cabins are only slightly more money than a camping site, especially in state camp grounds. In private camp grounds they are much more expensive. In NH for example they can run up to $700 a week for nothing more than a 1 room log cabin with 1 full size bed and bunks. I refuse to go there as a result.
    In PA you can rent a 2 bedroom, full living room, kitchen, heat, and more importantly a full private bath, cottage somewhere around $500 a week for a non resident. A rustic is somewhere around $200 or so for non residents.
    In Cape Cod MA we stayed in yurts which is like a larger rustic cabin with beds and a table and chairs for $200 or so for an entire week and to stay on the Cape it is a bargain.
    So my advice is to look around and do your homework. For those who can’t imagine themselves in a tent there are camping alternatives to tenting, with all the benefits of mother nature and a bed to sleep on.
    P.S. I don’t advise a teepee, moldy and musty smelling I didn’t like it at all.

  • Melissa W. says:

    Thank for this timely post! We’re camping at Disney World next month!

  • Holi says:

    Start camping while the kids are younger. We waited too long and our girls think the Hilton is a much better tent. I love to camp & offer the best activities and they still won’t go. Let me get a grandchild and I won’t make the same mistake & wait too long!

    • Don’t give up! My parents never took us camping. I went to Girl Scout camp for a week each year and my brothers went occasionally with uncles, but we really weren’t a camping family. Now all five of us kids camp regularly–and we’ve even convinced our non-camping parents to come for a couple camping trips!

  • Jen says:

    We just returned from our second annual, 3 night, tent camping trip with our 2 year old and 5 year old. My husband and I find it a little stressful, with our children still so young. Mostly during the loading, setting up, tearing down, packing up and unloading at home. It is relaxing after they’re snuggled up and sleeping in the tent, while we enjoy quiet time around the camp fire. 🙂 The children love it, and we will continue. Hopefully in a few years we will be able to purchase an inexpensive camper on Craigslist, which will make camping much easier.

    These are great tips! We learned our lesson last year about bringing appropriate covers. It got cold at night, and we didn’t have quite enough blankets. We didn’t make that mistake this year. However, my sister and her two young children came with us this year, and they forgot… pillows.

    • Busy Mama says:

      A good rule of thumb when camping in cooler weather – make sure to have twice as many layers under you than over you. We tent camped in Yellowstone in August several years ago and had frost in the mornings. Although we had absolutely no heat in our tent (some lucky people might have had propane heaters and been able to vent properly), we stayed very comfortably warm due to the layers underneath us insulating us from the ground.

  • Lacy says:

    One thing about cooking over a fire… know the campground rules if you plan to do this. One place we camped you couldnt start a fire before 6pm. That was tough considering with small children we usually eat supper around 5:30, thankfully we had our coleman grill.

  • We were very fortunate to camp at the beach only a few minutes from where we lived. Our beach allowed primitive camping (right on the beach!) and fires for cooking were ok. It had a few drawbacks like no running water, electricity or restrooms. But the price was super cheap.

    If you guys are ever in Pensacola, FL, check out camping in Fort Pickens in Pensacola Beach or Johnson’s Beach at Perdido Key.

  • Becki says:

    I have to say that for cost and quality, states greatly vary on their state campgrounds. All the PA ones we have gone to have been great, but I always make sure we have a flush toilet (and shower if possible). We tried to go camping in VA and couldn’t find a decent state campground with flush toilets. The parks we’ve stayed at in PA this year – Codorus and Hickory Run – both had the nicest camping bathrooms I’ve ever seen. Often at PA parks, they even have utility sinks for dishing washing. I LOVE not having to heat water over the fire for washing dishes. We try to keep tubs with our camping stuff all ready and easy lists for food as well. Each time, I think we get a little more organized. We use a smaller cooler for the “get-in all the time” stuff like drinks and have to replace that ice more often, but a bigger 5-day cooler with large ice chunks that we bring (freezing inside of 2-liter bottles makes for great ice chunks and less water in the coller) for the bigger meal prep stuff that needs to be kept really cold. Most campgrounds don’t allow you to bring in outside wood so collecting fallen logs and twigs are great ways to have the kids help save money as well.

  • We live in Minnesota and make use of their rustic camper cabins at the state parks. One room with a screened in porch attached and has bunk beds and a table inside. We can cook in a crockpot inside or with a camper grill or on the provided fire pit (with grill) outside. It’s right around $50 per night for a cabin with electricity and about $40 without (I’m not quite sure what the exact prices are at the moment, but that’s the neighborhood of the price). We walk to the toilets and showers, though not every park has showers. Since we have children, we try to get something relatively close to the toilets, though we bring a bucket toilet for emergencies and the middle of the night. I know there are other states that have these too and there’s a nice alternative if you don’t have a camper and don’t like tent camping. We use our regular food budget and hike, swim, etc. at the park for activities rather than paying for anything “extra.”

    Enjoy,
    Lea

  • Tee says:

    I live in Oregon and never camped until I met my boyfriend (now husband). We tent camped up until I was pregnant with our first, and then told my husband that if he expected me to camp with a newborn (he was born in June, right at the start of the camping season for us) that we had better get a trailer, lol. We found one that March through a friend of my dad’s for $1500. We paid cash for it (used our tax return from that year) and it was the best decision we made! It’s not brand new or fancy, but it has everything we need and is big enough to sleep us and our (now) two little boys. So my advice would be that if your thinking about getting a trailer, check craigslist, but definitely ask around, too! Because he was a friend of my dad’s, he cut us a deal. If we didn’t want the trailer, he was going to post it on craigslist for $3500! Also, if you camp somewhere without electricity, investing in a generator would be helpful, so you could use more features of your trailer, like the outlets.

  • Stephanie says:

    I would recommend not bringing ear plugs…. That is just dangerous if you do. As a seasoned camper who normally camps out in the wilderness and not in campgrounds bears, cougars, and other creatures can be quite quiet…. If your in a tent you don’t want to know a bear is in your campsite until last minute. It’s good to prepare if you know he is there.

    • I agree–if I’m not camping in a campground, I won’t wear earplugs because I want to listen to the sounds of the nature. If I’m in a campground, the sounds of other campers often keep me up. I’ve also found that if I put in just one ear plug (the ear that is usually not in the pillow), it quiets things enough to let me sleep but I can still hear something that I should pay attention to.

  • Susie says:

    Oh my goodness! I LOVE to read Desert Survivor, not only because she’s super-informative, but she’s from my home town….we even marched together in the Bomber Brigade, our school’s fabulous band. 🙂 So nice to see you on my OTHER favorite blog, Gretchen!

  • Shawna Smith says:

    Another great sleeping tip is to change into clean socks RIGHT before you climb in your sleeping bag. Your socks get mildly sweaty during the day. That moisture make your feet chilled. So start with fresh ones for bedtime on cool nights.

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