How do you camp on a budget? (21 Money Saving Ideas)

how do you camp on a budget

Camping is a time-honored way to get outside and enjoy a bit of nature. But, with all the gear and travel involved, camping can also be quite expensive. The good news? It’s more than possible to camp on a budget.

If you’re keen to get outside without blowing your life’s savings, have no fear. Up next, we’ll offer up some of our top tips for adventuring outside while on a tight budget so you can enjoy your camping trip without worrying about your bank account. 

How to camp on a budget – 21 money saving ideas:

1. Stay Close To Home

We often think of camping trips as these adventures that take place in far off places. However, the cost of driving 8 hours or flying somewhere is sure to put a sizable dent in your budget.

Depending on how much you’re comfortable spending for your camping trip, consider picking a campsite closer to home. Regardless of where you live, you can probably find a place to pitch a tent within 2 hours or so of your home, which can help save you quite a bit of money in gas and other travel expenses when all’s said and done.

2. Find Free Or Affordable Campsites

Campsites can be surprisingly expensive these days, especially if you’re looking for a campground that offers full hookups, pools, recreation areas, and other amenities. The good news is that it is possible to find free or highly affordable campsites nearly anywhere, so long as you know where to look.

In general, camping inside a national or state park will lead to some pretty hefty fees, with some locations charging up to $40 for a single tent site. Private campgrounds are also best to avoid if you’re looking to camp on a budget as they tend to charge more for the same amenities you’d find in a national or state park.

For free or affordable campsites, consider looking for campgrounds on national forest lands. While you may have to pay a fee at some developed National Forest campgrounds, they’re often substantially cheaper than what you’d find at a nearby national park.

Alternatively, if you’re okay with amenity-free camping, check out Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. The BLM manages 10% of the total land area of the United States (most of which is in the western US) and dispersed camping outside of designated sites is almost always free.

Be sure to check local regulations before leaving home by calling your local BLM office to ensure that you don’t need a permit to pitch a tent in a given area.

3. Buy Firewood Outside The Campground

Anyone who’s ever purchased firewood in a campground can tell you that it isn’t cheap. Paying $10 for 3 somewhat sad-looking logs isn’t anyone’s idea of affordable, so finding other ways to get your firewood is key, unless you’re willing to forego the fire altogether.

Thankfully, you can often get firewood for half the price at a local grocery or convenience store near most campgrounds. 

That being said, if you choose to buy your firewood from outside a campground, make sure you buy your firewood locally. Transporting firewood from one area to another is one of the main ways that invasive species and diseases travel to our beloved camping areas, which doesn’t bode well for the local ecosystems.

In general, wood purchased within 20 miles (32 km) or so of your camping area is a-okay to use but check with local land management agencies for more advice.

4. Borrow Or Rent Your Camping Gear

Fact: Camping gear is expensive.

Perhaps the largest expense you’ll face when planning a camping trip is acquiring your gear, especially if you’re new to spending time outdoors. If you’re looking to keep your spending at a minimum for a short trip, consider borrowing or renting your gear.

Many local outdoor stores and bigger chain retailers do offer gear rentals, particularly for big-ticket items, like tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads for a relatively reasonable rate. Alternatively, it’s worth asking your friends, family, and neighbors if they have any spare camping gear, such as tents or stoves, that you could borrow for the weekend.

Do keep in mind, however, that if you’re looking to camp fairly frequently, in the long run, it’s actually cheaper to buy your own gear than to rent it. While renting a sleeping bag for $8 a night might be manageable for a few trips a year, if you want to camp every weekend, you’ll quickly find that buying your own equipment might be the better choice.

5. Opt For Second Hand Gear And Clothing

camping gear spread out on the ground

If you decide that you want to purchase your own gear, secondhand items are a solid option. Many local outdoor stores have a small used gear section and thrift stores are often full of undiscovered outdoor clothing gems.

These days, there are also plenty of reputable places to purchase used gear online. In fact, many major manufacturers, like Patagonia have used gear sections of their websites while nationwide retailers, such as REI also have a marketplace for used equipment.

Other good places to search for used camping gear include Facebook groups and marketplaces, as well as Craigslist and eBay. But, be sure to take the proper precautions to keep yourself safe when buying and selling camping gear on the internet outside of a reputable website.

6. Know Where & When To Get Discounted Gear

Sometimes, you just can’t find a piece of used gear that’s right for your needs, or you may need a piece of clothing that you’d rather buy new. In these situations, it’s imperative that you know where and when to shop for discounted gear.

The best times to shop for discounted camping gear, outside the classic holiday sales events, is at the end of the camping season. In North America, you can often find large discounts on summer camping gear in September/October and great deals on winter equipment in March/April.

Good websites to check out for discounted gear include:

7. Understand What Gear Is Worth The Investment

It might sound like we’re spending a lot of time on gear, but that’s because camping equipment often takes up a huge portion of anyone’s outdoor budget. Therefore, it’s important that you understand what camping gear is actually worth spending a little more on and what isn’t.

When looking at your list of camping gear to buy, consider how important each piece of gear actually is to your safety or quality of experience.

With things such as tents, sleeping bags, stoves, and first aid kits, you may decide that you’re willing to spend a bit more on your gear as these items have a huge impact on your camping trip. Alternatively, you might find that you can save quite a bit of money on some low-consequence items, such as by opting for a regular T-shirt instead of a $100 high-tech merino wool model.

8. Learn How To Repair Broken Gear

If you plan on spending a lot of time outside, learning how to repair your broken gear can save you a lot of money in the long term. Sewing skills and knowledge of how to use items, like gear repair tape can go a long way when it comes to keeping your gear in service and out of the landfill.

Part of this also comes down to regularly maintaining your gear so that it lasts longer. Little things, like washing your sleeping bag, seam-sealing and waterproof treating your tent, and cleaning your stove can all extend the usable lifetime of your equipment, saving you a sizable chunk of change.

9. Ditch The Freeze-Dried Meals

orange cast iron pan over the fire with vegetables grilling

When many people think of camping, they think of freeze-dried meals that come neatly packed in little bags. While these meals sure are convenient, they’re not exactly budget-friendly (nor are they really that tasty, IMHO).

Don’t believe us? Consider this: The average 1 serving freeze-dried backpacking meal will set you back about $5 to $8. If you figure that you’ll need 3 meals a day, you can expect to pay $15 to $24 on your meals, plus some extra for your trail snacks, per person, per day!

Alternatively, with some careful planning and preparation, you can often get by with just $5 to $8 of food, per person, per day. Ditching the freeze-dried meals in favor of some home cooking can save you a whole lot of money, especially if you’re camping in a group.

10. Plan Your Meals In Advance

If you’ve ever gone to the grocery store without a shopping list in hand, you’ve probably found that you end up spending a whole lot more on food when you’re unprepared than you do if you have a list of things that you actually need to buy.

Shopping for camping food is no exception. To save money on food while camping, which is often your second biggest expense, after gear, be sure to plan your meals in advance.

Come up with a meal plan for your camping trip so that you have a general idea of what you’re going to eat for each meal. Then, figure out what you need to cook each meal, make a shopping list, and then organize all your food by meal so that you’re ready to go for your camping trip.

Not only does meal planning save you money while shopping for a camping trip, but it can also prevent food waste and excess weight in your pack during your adventures.

11. Make Your Own Trail Mix

Trail mix is a fan-favorite in the outdoors, and for good reason: it’s tasty and chock-full of energy for your hiking and camping adventures.

However, the pre-made trail mix that you can buy in stores is far from affordable. You can often spend $5 or $10 dollars just on a single 1lb (450g) bag of dried fruits and nuts, which can add up fast if you’re planning a longer family camping trip.

Instead of buying a pre-made, consider making your own trail mix. You can often buy your ingredients relatively cheap and then just mix it all up before you leave for camp. Some of our favorite ingredients to put in a homemade trail mix include:

  • Nuts. Peanuts, almonds, cashews
  • Seeds. Sunflower seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds
  • Dried Fruits. Raisins, cranberries, dried blueberries, dried cherries, banana chips
  • Chocolates. M&Ms, chocolate chips, mini Reese’s peanut butter cups
  • Salty Snacks. Chex Mix Party Mix, pretzels

The best part about making your own trail mix is that you can mix and match your favorite ingredients. This also makes it way easier to cater to different food allergies, intolerances, and preferences without spending a fortune on what’s essentially just dried fruits and nuts.

12. Bring Road Snacks

If you plan on driving quite a distance to get to your campground, consider bringing your own road snacks. Stopping at gas stations and fast food joints along the way will quickly rack up quite the bill, especially if you’re traveling with a family.

Instead, pack a cooler with pre-made lunches, snacks, and drinks for everyone to enjoy. You can also keep your stove and some coffee or tea accessible during the drive so you can stop at a rest area and make your own hot drink along the way.

13. Buy Food In Bulk Or Shop In Your Own Kitchen

We often think of camping trips as something that we need to do a separate grocery run for, but you can often find much of what you need in your own kitchen. Instead of running to the store to get pre-packaged meals and other similar items, take a look at what you have at home and figure out what meals you can make from ingredients you have in your pantry.

If you do need to go food shopping, try buying food in bulk instead of in single-serving containers. You can often repackage your bulk food into tupperware containers or Ziploc bags for your trip instead of spending extra money to get the exact same food in single-serving packaging.

14. Dehydrate Your Own Backpacking Meals

If you’re planning a backpacking trip, you might want to consider dehydrating your own backpacking meals. We’ve already discussed how expensive freeze-dried food is, so we won’t get into that topic again. But, needless to say, finding an alternative to these single-serving meals is essential if you want to camp on a budget.

Although it’s a sizable investment up front, consider buying a dehydrator for making your own backpacking meals. You can dehydrate nearly anything at home, from veggies and fruit to pasta sauces and even hummus, so doing so is a great way to diversify your backpacking meals without emptying your wallet.

15. Cook Over The Campfire

cooking with a pot over the campfire

Fuel for camping stoves is pretty darn pricey, so cooking over an open fire might be a good alternative that can also save you quite a bit of money.

Of course, if you’re camping in an area where firewood is also quite expensive, you may find that camping fuel might be the more economical option. But, in places where fire danger is fairly low and where local regulations allow it, cooking over a fire is often an affordable way to eat well while outside.

16. Use Liquid Fuel Stoves

Should you want to cook with a stove, consider using a liquid fuel stove instead. While these stoves, such as the MSR Whisperlite often have a higher upfront cost, you’ll find that they are much more affordable in the long term, simply because liquid fuel, like white gas, is way cheaper than individual propane canisters.

Also read: What is the Lightest Backpacking Stove? (for every fuel type)

If you really want to save money both in terms of your fuel consumption and the cost of a stove on a solo camping trip, you can consider making a soda can camping stove instead, like what you see in this video:

 

These stoves can be tricky to work with though, so be sure to practice with them before you leave home. Also, keep in mind that these stoves often aren’t allowed during fire bans, so check in with local land managers before your trip.

17. Opt For Multi-Purpose Gear

You can often save quite a bit of money while shopping for camping gear by opting for multi-purpose gear whenever possible.

For example, instead of buying a full cutlery set, get a spork instead. Or, use a headlamp instead of buying a flashlight and a lantern. Little things like this might not seem like much, but they do add up over time. Plus, they save you weight and bulk when you’re traveling to and from camp.

18. Avoid Holidays And Weekends

family running through the grass near the ocean with a tent in the background

Depending on where you’re camping, you might find that campsite prices tend to go up quite a bit around major holidays and on the weekend. Indeed, camping during the off-season, or at least, not during a holiday, can be a great way to save money if your schedule allows it.

If weekend camping is your only option, be sure to pay close attention to campsite prices before booking as some places do charge a weekend rate that’s quite a bit more than what you’d pay mid-week. This is particularly true in very popular locales, such as in private campgrounds near national parks, but it can happen anywhere.

19. Know Where To Get Cheap Gas

Gas prices fluctuate a lot, both from day to day and from place to place, so knowing where to get cheap gas is important. A great way to do this is to use an app like GasBuddy, Gas Guru, Waze, or Road Ahead Highway Exit Finder.

Also, keep in mind that gas prices tend to be much higher at highway rest areas than in local towns. You’ll also find that prices go up in small, remote towns near some of the most popular camping areas, so fill up on cheap gas before heading into the mountains.

20. Get An Annual Park Pass

While campers on a budget are often encouraged to avoid going to parks and recreation areas where you need to pay a fee, you can often get a very good deal on an annual park pass. Doing so allows you to enjoy some of the best camping areas without paying a $30 entrance fee each time you visit.

In fact, the US National Park Service has a list of annual passes for you to choose from, some of which are quite a great deal if you visit national parks, monuments, and historic sites more than 3 times a year. Interagency passes for forest service lands and local state parks passes are also worth checking out.

21. Keep It Simple

Finally, keeping things simple when you go camping is a great option for saving money. You don’t need to have extravagant equipment or a $50 pair of socks to enjoy the great outdoors. All you need is a bit of know-how, some essential gear, and a whole lot of enthusiasm if you want to get outside without breaking the bank.

 

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