Camping, in its rawest form, is one of the most frugal vacation options in the world. All you really need is a tent (or some other shelter), something to sleep in or on, basic supplies for cooking and eating, and the means to start and maintain a fire. Beyond those essential furnishings and skills, everything else is free. After all, camping opens the door to a wide range of entertainment provided by the great outdoors – hiking, swimming, fishing, and biking, for example.
But, is camping always so simple and cheap? Not by a long shot. Even if your goal is relaxing in a hammock with a great book, it’s easy to go overboard when buying camping gear and supplies. Plus, it’s not always cheap or even affordable to rent a campsite these days.
The bottom line: If you’re not careful, the price tag for your “frugal” camping trip can get out of hand.
While there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to camp, there is a frugal way and an expensive way. Worried your summer camping trip might ruin your annual travel budget? Here are five signs your frugal camping trip might be spiraling out of control, plus how to stop it from happening.
Camping Mistake #1: You insist on buying a tent.
If you haven’t camped for a while and aren’t sure you’ll start camping regularly, you need to own a tent like you need a hole in the head. Tents aren’t inexpensive, and that’s especially true if you get a nice one. Even a very basic one-room tent can cost $70 or more, and most two-room tents cost a minimum of $150.
If you’re thinking you should just go ahead and buy a tent to “get it over with,” you could live to regret it when it’s just taking up space in the attic for the next 10 years. Until you’re positive that you’ll be camping regularly, there’s no need to buy your own.
Better Idea: Borrow a tent to get started.
Chances are, you know someone who has a tent already. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on speculative purchase, borrow a tent from a friend or family member if you can. Since beggars can’t be choosers, it may not be your dream tent. Still, borrowing a tent comes with notable benefits. Not only will you save money this way, but you may learn something about the type (and shape) of tent you really want to buy in the future.
Camping Mistake #2: You’re shopping for supplies on SkyMall.
If you’ve seen the camping episode of “Parks and Recreation,” you already know the joke. Basically, Tom buys all this outrageous camping gear on SkyMall in an effort to recreate the comforts of home within a giant, luxury tent.
Truth be told, SkyMall and other stores do have some pretty amazing camping gear. These days, you can buy anything from a portable pop-up privacy tent for $39.99 to an upright camping organization container ($99.99), a portable outdoor grill ($120 and up), or a portable kitchen complete with a sink and staging area ($79.99). Heck, you can even buy a portable solar-powered wood oven, a specialized quesadilla grilling basket, or a cooler with a built-in blender, USB charger, stereo system, and bottle holder.
Better Idea: Borrow supplies, or use stuff you already own.
While fancy gear can make camping more comfortable, that doesn’t mean you need it. And if you don’t camp all the time, blowing $50 here and $100 here can make your outdoorsy trip a lot more expensive than it needs to be.
Instead of buying all the camping gadgets your heart desires, try roughing it instead. Borrow camping supplies from friends, and see what you have at home already.
Camping Mistake #3: You want to stay at the ‘party campground.’
Supplies, tents, and trailers aside, not all camp sites are created equal. Some of the “nicer” campsites offer myriad opportunities for leisure – activities like golf, swimming, and kayaking. But all those “extras” can be expensive, which is why fancier camping sites tend to charge more.
Better Idea: Camp at a cheap state or national park instead.
Never assume your campsite will be cheap. Just like anything else in life, it can pay to shop around when searching for a place to camp. While campgrounds with lots of perks might charge higher prices, you can usually get a good deal at state or national parks. Most states have their own website where you can explore options and research pricing. In my home state of Indiana, for example, we have a dedicated website for state camping sites. You can also explore federal campgrounds in your state on this page.
While prices can vary, bare-bones camping at state and national parks tends to be cheap. In Indiana, a regular non-electric campsite can cost as little as $10 per night.
Camping Mistake #4: You’re craving a gourmet outdoor feast.
The financial upside of camping is that you can avoid many of the trappings of a traditional vacation, including dining out constantly. Unfortunately, food costs can still be hard to manage if your expectations are out of control.
If your camping goal is whipping up some steaks on the grill, a shrimp boil, and every side dish under the sun, you can count on spending a bundle. And let’s not forget that camping can be wasteful – there’s no fridge to save leftovers. Not only must you bring your main ingredients, but you need condiments, dressings, oils to cook with, and seasonings. Whether you’re camping or cooking at home, those costs can add up fast.
Better Idea: Stick with cheap staples instead.
Do yourself a favor and ensure your camp meals are cheap and easy. Instead of steaks, throw some burgers and hot dogs over the fire. In place of fancy side dishes, grill some corn or packages of vegetables wrapped in aluminum foil. The fewer ingredients you use, the less you’ll spend overall.
Camping Mistake #5: You’re in charge of food and supplies for the group.
Camping offers the perfect opportunity to vacation and connect with family and friends. There’s no television around, and we can hope people aren’t glued to their smartphones while relaxing by the campfire. Without all the distractions of home, it’s easier to bond with the people you love.
But camping can become costly if you simply build it and they come. You won’t save money camping if you’re feeding more than your immediate family for a few days or more. Plus, camping requires a lot of work – work you shouldn’t have to do all by yourself.
Better Idea: Make your co-campers bring food and supplies to share.
Since camping is great for groups, it never hurts to ask others to pitch in. Perhaps every person can bring a meal or side dish, or you can send out a list of supplies for others to bring. Maybe your friend has the cooking supplies you don’t. Or, one friend hopes to be fed but promises to bring a cooler of beer. It doesn’t matter how you divvy up the responsibilities, but if you want to save money, everyone needs to do their part.
The Bottom Line
If you have camping on your agenda this year, don’t forget how quickly the “extras” can add up. While camping itself is inherently frugal, there are plenty of ways to spend money that can make your camping trip much more expensive than a hotel stay.
Like most other activities, you’ll save money if you borrow what you can, keep your trip simple, and take advantage of all the free activities available. It’s still possible to camp on the cheap, but you have to block out all the noise and remember the golden rule of camping – less is more.
How do you keep your camping trips frugal? What would you add to this list?
Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.
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