Camping is expensive. Ain’t no two ways about it.
However, you do not have to be a gazillionaire to camp. How do I know this? Because we are not gazillionaires, yet we manage to camp.
In fact, when Darren and I began camping, we were extra super duper poor and living on one income. But that poorness was actually the reason we began camping because:
- It’s cheaper than a hotel. Even the most expensive places (such as Yosemite’s Housekeeping Camp) are still cheaper than lodging.
- You can bring dogs. Pet sitting is a major expense that stops us from traveling most of the time, because it can run as much as a plane ticket.
Camping just seemed like a great way to travel and see things without spending your retirement savings.
But factor in wood, food, ice… and if you’re not smart about it, you’ll be flat broke in no time.
Fear not, friends. Here’s how we save money on the reg (or, in one case, how we would be saving money on the reg if we hadn’t made a dumb choice):
1. Share the load.
Go camping with your friends. First of all, it’s completely fun to camp with your friends. Second, it lightens the cost load – you can share fees, firewood costs, food costs.
When it makes sense, try carpooling, too. If you’re lucky like us, you’ll have a friend like Steve who loves driving. And if you’re extra super lucky, your friend like Steve won’t even accept the gas money you offer him. But not everyone has a Steve, unfortunately. I feel very sad for you, because Steve is pretty great.
2. Find a firewood workaround.
Buying wood in neat little expensive bundles at the store is a tried-and-true method of obtaining firewood for your campfire. And often there’s no way around it.
But! If you’re camping in the mountains, look around for a wood yard. One time, I found a guy at a wood yard who loaded up my trunk for just $35. It was easily $100 worth of firewood had I paid for it at the store.
Sometimes you’ll find campgrounds that permit firewood gathering. If that’s the case, have at it. Do not chop down trees for your firewood. It’s against the rules and just jerky.
Lastly, discarded wood sources, such pallets (broken up, natch), can make nice firewood.
3. You don’t need all of the food.
Our early camping trips were food fests. Food in the morning, snacks all day, food in the afternoon, food for dinner and food all night. We all felt sick, stuffed and disgusted with ourselves. No one needs this much food!
Simplify and you will save money. Now, we have breakfast burritos in the morning (eggs, cheese, tortillas, all cheap things). Instead of lunch, we just have snacks – nuts, crackers, whatever. Dinner is usually something like potatoes, onions and peppers in foil packets and meatballs or sausages. Or we’ll whip up some carnitas tacos. Baked beans are another super-cheap camping favorite.
Don’t treat camp eating like an event and you won’t go overboard. Keep it simple.
I will also add that you should shop at Costco and/or buy in bulk. We buy things like tri-tip, sausages, meatballs and carnitas just so we can eat half of it at home, and the other half we take camping. You will save an insane amount of money doing this.
4. Get some hand-me-downs.
There are many people out there who have tried camping, bought the equipment, decided they hated camping and now all that stuff is sitting in their garage just gathering dust and taking up space.
And then there are other people who love camping, do it a lot and have fading equipment that they want to replace.
Trust me when I say that most of those people will be happy to unload these items onto you. That’s how we scored our first tent, a camp heater, pots and pans, a stove, a coffee pot and several other things I can’t recall at the moment.
Use those hand me downs and enjoy them. It’s just as well, anyway. Do you really want to lay out a ton of cash only to find out that camping destroys your soul?
As you replace or upgrade your gear, pay it forward and pass down the old stuff to camping newbies so they, too, can get their feet wet. People who camp are passionate about getting other people to camp and they are more than happy to help you get started. Take advantage!
If you don’t have any camping friends, scope out your local thrift store for odds and ends.
5. Army surplus.
Stop by an army surplus store for camping gear that’s made to last. You can get clothes, duffel bags, canteens, whatever you need – all on the cheap.
6. Get an access pass.
For $80 a year, the Interagency Access Pass will save you so much money . The regular passes, which expire each year, get you into any national park for free. In many cases, it will net you a 50 percent discount on camping fees at national and state parks (not all national and state parks, though; you will need to check before heading out. Yosemite is one notable exception.). If you’re camping in national parks at least two to three times a year, this thing will pay for itself.
Access passes for seniors and the disabled are good for life. I have the disabled pass because of my hearing impairment. The good thing about those passes is that you do not have to be 100 percent disabled, either. Simply get a note from your doctor attesting to the disability, enclose the small processing fee and, boom, big-time savings forever.
7. Don’t cheap out on important gear.
There’s a difference between saving money and being so cheap that it costs you money.
Witness: Our stupid cooler. I swear that thing costs us money. And that’s what we get for being sucked in by the $20 price tag. Spending an additional $20 would have actually gotten us a cooler that keeps things cold!
If you have a similarly worthless cooler, block ice is your friend. We had a chunk of it that we used for nearly a year (we stored it in our refrigerator between trips)!
This goes for any gear ensuring your comfort and safety. Air mattress, sleeping bag, what have you. Spend a little extra for the nice model. You’ll regret being cheap when it comes to these things.
8. Bring your dog!
Aside from being a total joy to watch them enjoying unfettered access to dirt, your dog is allowed at many, many campgrounds. There are limitations, however. You can’t leave your dog alone at the site, or in the tent. Many trails prohibit dogs.
The upsides? You might get to see your dog come alive outdoors. Rufus, for example, displayed an uncanny ability to dig a perfect, round, Rufus-sized hole. We never would have learned that had we stayed in our urban apartment. You’ll also have extra warmth at night, cuddles in the morning and someone to eat up the leftovers.
Not all dogs are suited for camping, though. If your dog is a yapper, unfriendly, aggressive or possessive, you’re better off leaving Fido at home.
9. Plan, plan, plan.
Unforeseen events and poor planning can lead to a cash hemorrhage.
We use an extensive checklist for every trip, figuring out what we’ll need to bring, what we can leave home and what we need in the way of food. If we’ve played our cards right, we’ll have everything we need on hand and won’t have to spend an extra cent replacing anything we should have remembered in the first place.
10. Wear your old clothes.
Do you need to look pretty while you’re camping? I’ll answer that for you: No. You do not need fancy cargo pants from REI or Lululemon yoga pants or whatever. It’s all just going to be expensive stuff that quickly becomes really dirty and beaten up.
My camping clothes are all clothes that are no longer fit for regular use, but are still wearable. Old sweatshirts, old shirts with a small hole, old yoga pants, old socks. If something starts to look a little rough, I simply downgrade it to be worn while camping.
And once your clothes are too crappy for that, well, may I direct you to the fire? Throwing things in the fire = fun.
11. Start a camp savings account.
A couple years ago, when it seemed like this camping thing was going to stick, we set up an account to save money for it. Darren and I each contribute $80 a month, or $20 a week – a small amount we’d barely miss.
In the off season, the account builds and by the time we’re set to camp again, we’ve got a nice chunk of money to put toward firewood and other camping-related things. Because there’s never enough in there to fund an entire year’s trips, we use it to help supplement what we’re spending so it’s not quite as much.