Camping can be a frugal way to commune with nature and get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Some campers are hardcore backpackers who rely solely on survival skills and a knapsack of essentials, while others are luxury RVers whose mobile homes are fully outfitted with surround sound and jetted tubs.
If you fall somewhere between these two extremes, fear not: It is possible to improve your camping experience without exhausting your resources. Whether you’re a seasoned explorer or venturing out for the first time, you’ll be a happy camper with these tips to camp better on a budget.
Find the right site
To get the most out of your camping trip, you’ll want to find the best campsite for the best price. Before you drive out to the woods or mountains, find out what amenities are available at area campgrounds, and read reviews. Is the park known for being noisy at night? Are the showers and restrooms easily accessible and clean? How close is the nearest place to buy ice or coffee? (Or, if you need a break from roughing it, an iced coffee?) Are there picnic tables, fishing piers, hiking trails, or a swimming area on site?
To get the best price at private campsites, search for internet coupons and camping clubs. Clubs such as Passport America and Happy Camper offer a 50% discount at participating campsites in exchange for a yearly membership fee of $40 to $50. If you camp often, you’ll pay less in the long run while having plenty of campsites to choose from.
Frequent campers can also save money over the course of a year by purchasing a national parks pass. Also known as the America the Beautiful pass, it covers entrance and day use fees to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. If you tend to stick closer to home with your adventures, check if your state offers a similar pass to take advantage of campsites at your local state parks.
Sleep in your truck
Have a truck? Get a tent that attaches to the bed of your pickup, and you’re ready to pitch your tent anywhere your truck can go. Sleeping in the truck bed keeps you off the cold, damp ground and makes it more difficult for unwelcome critters to come sniffing around your tent. Store the tent behind the truck seat when you don’t need it, then quickly pop it up when you want a dry, spacious area at the ready. It will totally change the idea of sleeping in your truck.
A tent with a full bottom may offer better protection from the elements, but you’ll also have to completely empty your truck bed to set it up. A camper shell allows you to pitch the tent right over your gear. Decide which feature is more important to you, then look for one that fits the make and model of your truck.
Add an air mattress that’s designed specifically to fit in a truck bed, and you’ll be camping comfortably anywhere you choose to park.
To get a good night’s rest in the midst of your adventures, invest in a quality, seasonally appropriate sleeping bag. If you’re camping in Montana in October, you’ll want one that retains body heat. On the other hand, if you’re pitching a tent in a Texas state park this summer, you’ll want a lightweight sleep sack made of breathable material. Alternatively, you can spread out a traditional sleeping bag to use as padding and cover yourself with just a regular bedsheet to avoid overheating on summer nights.
If you don’t have an air mattress, get a sleeping bag pad or piece of egg carton foam to cushion your sleeping bag against the floor of the tent. If you’re camping on the ground of a wooded area, you can further pad the area by gathering fallen leaves or pine needles and pitching the tent over them. As long as the weather allows, open the tent windows—the fresh night air will lull you to sleep at no extra cost.
Stay cool(er) and well fed
Before you set up camp, you’ll need to pack some provisions. If eating nothing but trail mix and canned goods doesn’t appeal to you, a heavy-duty cooler will keep food like fruit, eggs, and meats fresh and accessible. No need to break the bank buying the most expensive brand; research to find an ice chest that will hold everything you need and keep food cool for days. Features like sturdy handles, easy draining, and a bear-resistant seal will help ensure that you, and not the wildlife, get to enjoy your picnic meals.
Fill empty 2-liter bottles with fresh water, freeze them, and use them to line your cooler. Not only will the ice bottles help to keep other food and drinks cold, but you’ll have drinkable water at the ready just by thawing them out.
For ultra-cheap cookware, pack a big roll of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Meats, veggies, and potatoes can be wrapped in foil and left to cook in the coals of a campfire. You can even use a few sheets of foil to fashion a bowl or small pot for cooking over a fire. And if you need to protect your meal from insects or the elements, a sheet of foil makes an easy, moldable cover.
Stick with the essentials
Camping can be a cheap vacation and an economical way to experience nature, but both of those goals can quickly come undone when you get carried away with unnecessary gear. Packing light will save your back, your bank account, and your vehicle’s suspension as you trek into the wilderness.
Some camping essentials include a pocket knife, a first aid kit, wet wipes (great for quick cleanups when you don’t have easy access to fresh water), and a few flashlights or headlamps. You can even attach your headlamp—bulb side in—to a jug of water to make a quick and easy DIY lantern. For starting a fire, you’ll need a lighter or matches. And if you’re venturing off the beaten path, be sure to have a map and compass, because your phone or GPS may lose its signal.
Pack only what you need, and don’t forget a great attitude. Unexpected rainstorms, faulty gear, or mosquitoes can try to ruin your fun, but they don’t have to. The best way to dramatically upgrade your camping situation is to view it as an adventure, and be prepared to embrace every moment.
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