How to Go Camping On a Budget
Between your tent, sleeping bag, hiking shoes and other supplies, camping when you’re on a budget can be difficult. Find out how to minimize your camping expenses, without sacrificing an ounce of fun.
8 tips to camping on a budget
- Research park and camping fees
- Buy discounted equipment — or rent it
- Raid your home for gear
- Map out your journey
- Plan your menu wisely
- Make it a group effort
- Shop before leaving home
- Bring your own entertainment
1. Research park and camping fees
Where you choose to camp can make or break your budget. Campgrounds with amenities — i.e., pool, spa — are nice, but they’re typically more expensive.
For example, if you’re visiting Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, you’ll pay a $30 private vehicle fee that’s good for seven days. Camping at Devils Garden Campground — the only campground in the park — costs $25 per night for a standard individual site that can accommodate up to 10 people and two vehicles. Facilities include basic features like drinking water, picnic tables, grills and toilets.
Consider these alternatives to a traditional campsite:
- Off-site camping: You could also opt to stay off-site. For example, there’s the Moab KOA campground. You’ll enjoy a variety of amenities, including cable TV, Wi-Fi, pool and sauna. However, these comforts will cost you. Individual tent campsites average $43.28 per night.
- Backcountry camping: No campsite means no campground fee, but if you’re visiting a national park, you’ll still have to pay an entrance fee and possibly a permit fee. For example, a backcountry permit fee at Arches National Park costs $7 per person, and is valid for up to three nights per campsite or zone.
Rates vary by national park, but if you plan to visit several in one year, consider paying $80 for an America the Beautiful annual pass. This will cover your entrance fee to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. You also camp during the off-season or visit parks during free entrance days. In 2019, national park free entrance dates include:
2. Buy discounted equipment — or rent it
On the surface, camping is a low-maintenance vacation. However, even the most basic experience requires the one-time purchase of gear that can add up fast.
Here’s a look at the average prices of camping equipment, with estimates from CostHelper:
Searching for bargains on equipment or renting can help you cut costs. Though, if you’re planning to become a regular camper, it’s probably best to invest in the gear. This shouldn’t be too hard, considering outdoor recreation co-op stores like REI has promotional sales, outlet stores and rental options for non-members.
If you’re not sure you’ll camp again — at least in the near future — it’s probably best to rent your gear. Here’s a look at the per-day, non-member rental rates for essentials at REI and ExperienceGear:
Worth noting, ExperienceGear also offers a lightweight camping kit for one-person from $40 and for two people from $60.
Of course, tent camping isn’t the only way to go. If you’d prefer a bit more comfort, you might opt for an RV. Buying an RV isn’t cheap. The smallest type — Class B — averages $40,000-$120,000 and the largest — Class A — typically ranges from $50,000-$800,00, according to CostHelper.
Thankfully, you can also rent RVs. According to RVshare.com, RV rental prices vary greatly, depending on the class and age of the RV. The site lists average rental rates as:
3. Raid your home for gear
On a traditional vacation, you don’t need to bring anything but your suitcase. Your hotel room offers all the comforts of home and restaurants take care of the cooking — but that’s not that case with camping.
Having to invest in everything from bedding to kitchen supplies can add up fast, so being a bit creative can result in major savings. For example, substituting an old comforter for a sleeping bag can save you $25-$100. Unless you’re backpacking, you can also easily bring your pots and pans from home, instead of investing in cookware exclusively for camping — the four-piece Snow Peak Titanium Multi Compact Cookset costs $95.95 on Amazon.
4. Map out your journey
When trying to save cash, finding a campsite close to home is generally advisable, as it keeps travel fees to a minimum. However, even if you opt to travel a distance to your destination, planning ahead can help you cut costs on expenses like gas and hotels.
For example, you can get gas for $3.37 per gallon in Modesto, Calif., but drive approximately 100 miles to El Portal, Calif. — the outskirts of Yosemite National Park — and you could be forced to pay $4.57 per gallon at the pump, according to GasBuddy, as of June 27, 2019.
Additionally, if any part of your trip requires a hotel stay, comparison shopping in advance can help you score your best rate. For example, the travel site Kayak.com has a tool that searches hundreds of sites at once to find hotel deals.
5. Plan your menu wisely
You can save money on food by planning a menu that can be cooked over a campfire. This will keep you from having to invest and/or bring a portable gas grill. A tabletop propane gas grill on Amazon goes for $104. Campfire cooking can help you cut costs.
When planned correctly, this can be a huge money saver. For example, a can of pork and beans costs just $0.59 at Target. When the label and lid are removed, the can can be placed directly in the campfire.
Conversely, chicken breast costs an average of $3.10 per pound, as of May 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you want to grill, you’ll need propane or coal. Propane has an average cost per gallon of $2.41 as of March, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A 12-pound bag of charcoal costs $9.99 at Target.
6. Make it a group effort
Create memories and save money by camping with friends. This will allow you to cut costs on shareable expenses, such as the campsite, gas to get to your destination and camping supplies — i.e., tent, ice chest, camp table.
For example, the entrance fee to the Grand Canyon is $35 per vehicle. Get five friends in the car, and the cost drops to just $7 per person.
7. Shop before leaving home
It might be easier to shop for camping essentials — i.e., ketchup, hot dogs, bug spray — when you arrive at your destination, but The Penny Hoarder, a personal finance website, warns you’ll pay a premium. Specific prices will vary by your local area and campground of choice, but prices will likely be much more competitive at home.
For example, firewood costs $4.50 per bundle at the Missoula KOA campground, but if you have the resources at home, and if the campground allows it – bring your own. Do note, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends buying your firewood local and using it local, because invasive pests can burrow their way into trees. If you have to move the wood even a short distance, make sure it is heat treated to kill any pests residing in it.
8. Bring your own entertainment
Being one with nature is relaxing, but after awhile, you might get a bit restless — especially if you’re camping with kids. Many campgrounds offer free entertainment — i.e., complimentary mini golf at the Temecula/Vail Lake KOA campground in California — but some charge extra. For example, bicycle rentals cost $5 per hour and $15 per day at the Ocean Lakes Family Campground in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Since you’re camping on a budget, you’ll want to save money by focusing on free entertainment. This might include bringing your own bike, packing a deck of cards, playing flashlight tag, telling ghost stories fireside and going for hikes.
Headed on a long trip? You may need to consider a loan
If you’re planning an extended camping trip, you might need help covering the costs. Even if you master the art of budget camping, being away from home — and work — can weigh heavy on your finances. Taking out a personal loan could help you stay afloat so you don’t run out of cash.
Most personal loans come with fixed interest rates and fixed monthly payments, making it easy to fit into your budget. But you may run into issues with the minimum loan amount on personal loans. Loan amounts are generally for $1,000 to $50,000.
If you don’t need to borrow as much or for very long, a credit card may be a more viable option. Be sure to pay off your balance before the end of the pay period, though, to avoid interest charges.
In general, though, you shouldn’t take on debt for a vacation. If you decide to get a loan, it’s important to find the cheapest way to borrow and to repay your debt quickly to minimize fees.