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How to Camp on a budget- Have a Cheap and Fun Vaction

Updated on October 2, 2010

With the current difficult economic climate, people are getting more creative in their escapes from the daily grind and their annual family vacations. Though camping has served as a recreational staple for the American family over the last 70 years, it has reemerged as a new favorite family activity over the week long trips to Disneyland or Hawaii that can cost a family a few thousand dollars. A few thousand dollars is a lot of money for anyone now, and a fun camping trip is often now only a few hundred. The aim of this article is to cater to those who want to seek the outdoors this summer and beyond, and how our money can go the furthest for the family camping experience.

Perspective on Gear

The bottom line: Good gear is an investment. The key to remember anytime you are thinking about camping gear is to ask your self:

1. Where am I going to use it?

2. How often am I going to use it?

If it is your first time taking your family up to camp for the weekend, you do not need to drop $1,000 on all of the stuff you need. You definitely can, and if you are wise in how you do it will last you a very long time, but if camping is something that you have to do very cheaply or are testing the waters, I have two simple recommendations. Find a rental shop. There are a lot of retailers who will rent camping gear at a great rate, where you can rent a tent, sleeping bags and stoves. Second, if you know someone who owns some of the gear, ask to borrow it for the weekend. This way, you won't regret spending $900 at a retailer--especially if camping is not your cup of tea.

When the time comes to invest some money in buying some camping gear, always remember that once you have the stuff, from then on all you will need is to pay for travel, park fees, and food. You can invest $900 on car camping essentials, and you will be set for a very long time.

Essential #1: Your Home (the tent)

There are several different ways you can go on this depending on your situation, but here are a few tips from someone who has done a fair share of camping and has a husband who is a professional advisor. First, always buy at least a tent that is titled 2 people bigger than you are bringing. For example, if you are bringing 4 people, I would highly recommend getting at least a 6 person tent. If it is a 4 person tent, it really means sleep 4 people, sometimes in a jigsaw fashion to make it work. Also, the bigger the tent, the more height you will get out of it; some 6 person tents like the REI Hobitat 6 is over 6 ft tall, which is nice when you can fully stand up to change :). Second, if you are going to rainy areas ever, make sure the tent has a full coverage rain fly and seamed seals on the floor: Nothing makes for a longer trip than a leaky tent. Third make sure your tent has aluminum poles, not fiberglass: Fiberglass is cheaper but breaks much easier. Finally, some tents have an internal divider which is nice for privacy within a group. Such tents can include the REI Kingdom and The North Face trail head.

Essential 2: Your Bed (the sleeping bag/sleeping pad/cot)

For family camping, often square bags are popular for sleeping setup. There is nothing wrong with using a mummy bag, and they often pack much smaller, however square bags will give you much more room and the ability to fully zip the bag open to use as a sitting surface to play cards on or just hang out. A popular option for couples is a "double wide" sleeping bag. This will give you a monster size sleeping bag that two people can use without having to feel the zipper if you zip two bags together. A good example of this is the Kelty eclipse +35 double wide sleeping bag. A quick note on ratings, always add at least 10 degrees to your bag's rating for a comfort range, meaning if you are sleeping in 35 degree weather get at least a 25 or 20 degree bag.

Your sleeping pad is essential to your warmth and comfort. A lot of people will skimp on this, or think if they get a warm enough sleeping bag that they don't need any sort of padding, this is a big mistake. Your pad is the insulating barrier between you and the ground, and I have made the mistake of not using one and it was one of the longest nights of my life. For family camping, a popular option is the inflatable mattress, these are ok, but make sure you put some blankets underneath for insulation and mind its surrounding as they can often spring a leak. I personally recommend a think self-inflating mattresses. Self inflating mattresses are a compressed foam that expands with opening a valve, and just require a few puffs of air. They are comfortable, packable, and low maintenance. I would recommend getting at least a 2 inch thick version, such as the therm-a-rest base camp pad. Cots are still a viable option for a lot of people, and nice when you don't want to be on the ground. Just make sure your tent has the adequate size and height to accommodate them.

Essential #3: Your Kitchen

I love food, and I always believe it is well worth it to make the extra effort to enjoy the bite of steak over the slushy dehydrated rice with chicken. If you are family camping this summer, a good stove and kitchen set up can easily make the difference of an enjoyable trip vs an emergency run to Burger King. The two most common stove set ups are propane and white gas. White gas is nice for efficiency, and not lugging around extra heavy propane canisters. However, a dual burner propane stove is nice for simplicity. I personally enjoy the combo grill/stoves. This will give you the ability to boil water and grill meat at the same time. A good example would be the century matchless grill and stove for 79 dollars. Other factors for your kitchen can be a portable camp kitchen which gives you the ability to organize, clean and prep food comfortably. For example, the REI camp kitchen is 119 dollars, and folds down to the size of a folding table and gives you ample space to organize, cook and clean.

Essential #4: Your Lighting

For you lantern, you can either go with gas powered or battery powered. Gas powered lanterns can run off the same propane you use for your stove. These are inexpensive and powerful, but are not recommended for use in a tent due to flammability. If you go with a battery powered lamp, I highly recommend a LED lantern. These are a little more of an investment initially but quickly pay for themselves with their efficiency with battery use. Many LED lanterns can last up to 70 hrs on one set of D batteries, while the standard halogen lanterns will only last 8. Flash lights and headlamps are also highly recommended. I love headlamps personally so I can have my hands free and read at night. You can get a bright and efficient headlamp for around 30 dollars.

Essential #5: Furniture

I can't tell you how many times I have regretted not having a chair to sit on in a camping situation. A good camp chair can range from the 10 dollars folding chair to the 100 dollar lounger. Is the 100 dollar lounger necessary? Of course not, but it does make it nice and can often double for patio furniture. I do recommend a fairly comfortable chair of some sort for each person on your trip. The best moments of my camping experiences have been on such chairs under the stars with friends and family around the campfire.

Sample List

Here is a sample list of the items discussed and a family of 4 going on a car camping weekend get away.

Budget Minded:

Kelty Trail Dome 4: $179

Kelty Eclipse Double Wide Sleeping Bag: $120

Kelty Eclipse Sleeping Bag x2: $140

Aero Bed Inflatable Air Mattress (Queen): $70

Foam Pad x2: $20

Coleman 2 burner stove: $70

Coleman Dual Mantle Lantern: $25

Princeton Tec Fuel Headlamp x2: $50

REI Camp Chair x 4: $100

Fuel: $20

Food: $40

Total Cost: $900

Concluding Thoughts

Now I know that $900 is a very large amount of money for most of us, and the fact that I label it budget minded might bring some laughter. Really, if one was to rent or borrow the gear it would be considerably cheaper.

Consider this though, after that initial $900, all your future camping trips can be done for under $100.

Many of us probably have and piece or two of the gear already that we can make work.  I often ask myself when I reek of 2 days sweat with no shower, clothes covered in dirt and trying to cook with meat bees and mosquitoes how on earth is this a vacation. But all that anxiety is washed away a thousand times as I sit in my chair with the ones I love looking into the vibrant starry night with the smell of wood burning and the taste of a s'more.

What piece of camping gear is most important to you?

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    • Solorya profile image

      Solorya 7 years ago from Oklahoma

      You make a great point, SteveoMc. Borrowing a friend's gear (as long as you don't ruin it), or renting from a place like REI can help you find out if you even enjoy camping, and supplement supplies you may not be able to purchase up front (or may not want to).

      You'll notice we mention rentals and borrowing in the second paragraph. That's the ultimate way to have a cheap vacation!

    • SteveoMc profile image

      SteveoMc 7 years ago from Pacific NorthWest

      You can't start out this way. You have to build up to it, over time. Make your first investment a tent. Then add the essentials over time. Then begin replacing items. I might get a new ice chest this year. I got mine a couple years before my son was born, he is now 32. I have painted it a couple of times but now the lines is getting some cracks. I will purchase one off season when I am in no rush. You go camping and you make do. Then the next time you go, you add something for comfort or enjoyment.

      No one is going to go camping to save money by going out and buying $900 worth of stuff. But there are probably a lot of people who would like to go camping and are relieved to find out that they can do it for under a $1,000. I loved all you ideas, and you are right about the essentials. But you could start with less and add over the years. I hate to see someone go camping once and blowing a thousands dollars only to find out that they don't like it so much.

    • profile image

      Brianna Curran 8 years ago

      Nice insight. I must have that camping kitchen. Thanks!

    • profile image

      David  8 years ago

      Great synopsis and encouragement for adventuring out in to the great outdoors. Thanks!