How to Go Camping on a Budget

When it comes to budget vacations, camping is an excellent choice. Hiking and exploring the great outdoors has always been a favorite budget pass time, with so much to see and do at very little cost. Usually, a camper’s biggest expenses are equipment purchases, big-ticket items like tents can cost a lot if you want a quality product. However, there are plenty of ways you can avoid the big expenses while still having an enjoyable and enriching camping experience. 

All the high-tech gadgets and tools we see around the campsite are useful and worth their cost no doubt, but they’re wholly unnecessary to the success of your camping trip. The price you’ll pay to get out into nature is minimal; sometimes you need to purchase an inexpensive National Park pass, other times it’s completely free. The wonderful thing about nature is that it’s accessible to all. No matter how tight your budget, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy a glorious trip to the wilderness. 

One simple way to save money on your camping trips is to carefully time your purchases. Read about the best time to buy camping gear and find out how you can use seasonal price changes to your advantage. There are lots of other money-saving measures to make your backcountry expedition a little easier on the bank account, and we’ve compiled the most effective here. Read on to discover how you can penny-pinch your way into the ideal budget camping getaway. 

 

Person walking near a tent on a green field.

Camping gear is expensive if you want quality equipment, but there are ways to camp without spending too much.

 

Camping equipment on a budget

The most expensive part of camping by far is buying the equipment, there’s no way around it. Ultra-cheap gear, for example a $20 tent, is easily available and can be tempting if your budget is tight. However, you need a safe and reliable shelter when you’re camping, and these cheaply-made tents are almost always poor quality. Camping in such a tent might seem like an easy way to save money, but most campers will spend more in the long run because replacements are inevitable. There’s also the fact that sleeping in a poorly made shelter can leave you cold, wet, and extremely grumpy. Cheap camping gear just isn’t up to the job, so if you make any purchase, be sure it’s a long-lasting investment. If you check out the best 2-person tents, you’ll see that paying a little more upfront can make a big difference in the long run. Higher-quality tents are so much more durable, the years of use will more than make up for the price tag. Don’t waste your money on an item that won’t last. 

You can avoid making any purchase at all by borrowing equipment from friends, this is the number one way to camp on a budget. Chances are, you have a friend or family member with a huge collection of camping gear. Most experienced campers are more than happy to help others get into nature, and they’ll probably share some useful advice too. Tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, and rain tarps are all unnecessary purchases if you aren’t sure if camping will become a full-time hobby. You can easily save a great deal by borrowing basic gear, and it will likely be higher quality too. If you don’t know any other campers, you could join a camping or outdoors club in your area. This is also a great way to meet new camping buddies and make valuable connections. Otherwise, rental equipment is also an option for infrequent campers. It’s not cheap, but still a better option than purchasing brand new gear. 

The most successful budget campers are serious bargain hunters. For the thrifty-minded, online marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist can be a goldmine for second-hand camping equipment, with used high-quality gear available much cheaper if you search enough. Many families make huge camping purchases for a one-off vacation, and never use the equipment again. Often, practically new gear can be found for a fraction of the retail price. The same can be said of yard sales, you’d be surprised how much quality camping gear is sold off for next to nothing. 

If you’d rather purchase your own new gear, you can shave off a few dollars using discount codes and coupons. Check out your local outdoors store and keep an eye out for sales and package deals. If you want to build up some camping equipment long-term on a budget, check discount websites like The Clymb throughout the year. You can purchase different equipment when the bargains appear, and over time build up a full arsenal of camping gear. The most important advice when it comes to making camping purchases is to always read reviews. If you’re shopping for budget items, remember that you get what you pay for. Always carefully read what past customers have said before wasting your money on an item that breaks after a single use. 

 

Bring your dishware and cookware from home, there’s no reason to buy a special camping plate. We don’t suggest bringing your best china or cutlery, but using older and perhaps chipped dishes is ideal for camping, there’s no need to make any new purchases. The same goes for your pots and pans; don’t bring any fancy non-stick cookware, that old bashed up pan in the back of your cupboard is perfect. When you’re car camping, there’s a lot that you can just bring from home, as you don’t need the specialized lightweight camping versions of everyday items. 

 

Sleeping bags are another unnecessary purchase for a casual camping trip. Unless you’re a backpacker, you don’t need a tightly-packable sleeping bag. Bringing a few old blankets from home will work just as well if it isn’t too cold, and older style rectangular sleeping bags can be bought for much less than compact options. The same goes for pillows, bedding, and other bulkier items; if you’re bringing the car from home, with plenty of space for larger items, why buy the camping equivalent of something you already have? 

 

Skillet and meat on top of a grill with fire.

Cooking over a campfire means you don’t need to purchase a camp stove.

 

Cheap camping destinations

Camping is really all about the destination, and there are plenty of phenomenal budget locations all over the U.S. National and State Parks are full of inexpensive campgrounds, you can easily find a spot for around $20 a night. Stay away from more resort-type campgrounds where special amenities such as swimming pools can make prices higher. Instead, go for a more rustic-style, back-to-nature experience. 

If you’re feeling more adventurous, why not forego the campground altogether? There are free camping sites all over the country, where you can pitch your tent without spending a penny. Many state forests offer free primitive campsites that are even equipped with fire pits or toilets, so visiting a free campsite is a great way to camp on a budget. 

You can also save some cash by camping close to home. This will reduce your gas costs, and if you camp in a less popular area rather than a hotspot like Yosemite, prices are considerably less. Traveling less also means less expensive rest stops- bring snacks along for the journey to save money at service stations. It’s also a good idea to camp during the week if you can, as rates are much lower than the weekends. Similarly, camping during school holidays and the high season will be much more expensive, so avoid these busy times if it’s possible. 

 

Free recreational activities

There are endless ways to entertain yourself without spending a single penny on camping trips, with so many fun outdoor activities available to every camper. Hiking is an incredibly popular camping pastime, with miles of hiking trails in every natural park. Hitting the trails while you’re on a camping trip won’t cost you a thing, and it’s the very best way to explore a new area. Camping is all about the adventure, so get exploring!

Birdwatching and wildlife sighting is a great way to get your kids interested in learning about nature, and during the summer you can spend hours swimming and chilling by the water. Many campgrounds have a playground with swings or sports courts for free use, so why not make the most of it. Remember to bring along fun camping activities from home too, like frisbees, outdoor games, cards and board games, and other pastimes. Family vacations and camping trips create so many memories, the activities you enjoy together in nature create such valuable bonding time. With so many fun things to do while camping for free, it’s the ideal budget getaway. 

 

Keeping costs down at the campsite

A lot of preparation goes into putting together a camping trip, but don’t forget what happens when you arrive. Once you reach the campsite, there are still a lot of ways that you can save (or spend) money. If you’re primitive camping, there’s a lot less to worry about in this area, as you’re unlikely to come across a convenience store in the wilderness. However, many campgrounds have camp stores, shops, cafes, and other conveniences which mount up in cost. If you shop at the camp store, you’re paying for the privilege of purchasing on-site, so shop at grocery stores for much less and pack in your food. It’s a good idea to make a grocery list of basic foods to bring along, that can be made into different easy meals. Hot dogs, burgers, and beans are classic camping foods for a reason; they’re cheap, cheerful, and are ready in minutes over the campfire. If you make a meal plan, it’s much easier to keep track of your spending and avoid any nasty surprises. 

Cooking over the fire means you don’t have to buy a camping stove, and there are plenty of cheap and easy meals you can prepare this way. Making your own food is a must when camping on a budget- you’ll pay a serious premium for cooked food at the campsite. Other camp supplies such as ice in the summer and firewood can mount a considerable bill at the campsite too, but there are ways to avoid these costs too. Pack in firewood from home to avoid the extortionate campground prices, and similarly, make it through those hot summer days by bringing jugs of frozen water from home. You can use them to keep your food cool instead of buying ice, and as it melts you’ll have clean chilled drinking water. 

 

Playing cards on a table.

Camp games, board games, and playing cards are all completely free ways to entertain yourself in the backcountry. 

 

Our top 7 budget camping hacks, tips, and tricks

 

1. Keep your cooler in the shade: We know it’s obvious, but it’s so easy to forget about your cooler and leave it in the sun all day. Not only will your ice melt, but your food could be ruined too, so avoid wasting money this way. Remember that you may need to move your camping cooler throughout the day, in order for it to remain in the shade. 

 

2. Make a checklist: You need a comprehensive list of everything to remember for your trip, so you can’t forget a thing. Not only is this just good practice in preparedness, but if you forget something important then buying a replacement is a needless expense. 

 

3. Look after your gear: If you take care of your camping equipment, then it will take care of you. Prevent damage by properly maintaining your gear, for example never pack away your tent while it’s wet. This will make it last much longer, saving money on replacements. In the same way, you should clean off dirt, mud, and debris after every trip, so your gear stays in the best possible condition. 

 

4. Return borrowed gear in good condition: If you borrow any camping equipment, make sure you look after it carefully and clean it, in the same way that you should with your own. If you don’t, it’ll cost you money because you’re unlikely to be able to borrow again, and besides, it’s just bad backcountry etiquette. 

 

5. Repair, don’t replace: Camping equipment can sustain minor damage so easily, but these small rips and tears are also a breeze to repair. Examine your gear regularly for any faults, and take some simple steps to prevent further damage and make your stuff last longer. A backpack repair kit can solve most small equipment problems, saving you money in a simple way. 

 

6. Groups are cheaper: If you can pull together a big group of people for a camping trip, not only will it be much more fun, but it will be considerably cheaper. Camping on a budget is so much easier when you can split the costs, as things like gas and firewood cost the same whether you’re one camper or ten. 

 

7. Keep it simple: Our final tip for how to camp on a budget is to just keep it simple. There’s no need to overcomplicate a simple backcountry excursion; just bring the basics, and enjoy nature completely free of charge. 

 

Two person sitting on camping chairs in the mountains.

All you need is a little determination and imagination, and camping on a budget is easy.

 

Final Verdict:

Camping on a budget is easy, there’s no vacation more ideal for saving money while still having a great time. Now you know so many ways to save money while camping, so there’s no excuse not to get out and have a great time. The most wonderful thing about camping, hiking, and other outdoor pursuits, is that enjoying nature is completely free. There’s so much entertainment and enjoyment in exploring the natural world; campers are never limited by their budget, only their imagination. 

In every part of a camping trip, from your first preparation to your arrival on-site, there are ways that you can save money. When it comes to camping gear, borrowing is the best way to go, you can get everything you need from a more experienced friend. Just make sure you return everything in the proper condition, otherwise, it’s just bad manners. If you do end up buying your own gear, always read reviews, and make sure you invest in quality. A $300 tent that lasts years is much better than a $50 alternative that’s unlikely to make it through more than a handful of trips. 

If you’re car camping, there’s so much you can bring from home to save money. All your cookware and dishes, bedding and blankets, instead of buying a sleeping bag. Try not to travel too far, as gas costs and service station breaks can mount up a nasty bill. Buying anything at the campsite is also a terrible idea for budget campers, as the prices are much lower elsewhere. Buy all your food at a grocery store beforehand, bring along your own firewood, and back in some frozen water jugs. You should have a comprehensive checklist of everything you need to bring, so there are no costly replacements for important forgotten gear. 

With so many ways to go camping on a budget, there’s no reason why every family can’t enjoy the great outdoors. Camping is a fantastic way to vacation without breaking the bank, so get out there and enjoy all the free beauty of nature. 

 

Bonus tip: Check out this video for some cheap and easy camping food ideas!

 

 

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Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.