It’s May. School is almost out, and the family is thinking about summer vacation. But if you’re on a budget, a getaway might seem like a no-go. You have an alternative, though: camping. It’s an idyllic escape for a family needing adventure on a budget. And it’s a fun foray into nature for couples and individuals wanting to run away from the nine-to-five world, too.
For those who haven’t braved the great outdoors before, gearing up and going camping could seem too costly and too tough to figure out. It may be intimidating, but fear not. I’m here to help.
Plan the escape
A campground is your best bet for your first time out. Visit Recreation.gov and Reserve America to find available campsites. If you don’t reserve a spot in advance and there are no available campsites at your destination, you’ll not only be disappointed, but you’ll have wasted gas. Find out about amenities and activities offered before you book — if you really wanted to swim and there is no water to be found, this could be a big bummer.
Campsite food basics
There is something primal and satisfying about barbecuing, boiling and braising food in remote locations. When you are under the stars and hear the first sizzle of savory food hitting a grill, see soup bubbling in a cast iron pot, or smell the spices in your sauté pan start to open up, you can’t help but feel like you’ve conquered the wild.
As you plan your meals, remember:
- You don’t need super pricy special stuff to cook at your campsite. Pots and pans from home will do. If you like the ease of use of propane, a small gas grill or cooktop is your best bet. If you’d rather be more rustic, you can use a campfire or coals for cooking. Cast iron pots can go directly on logs, be hung above with a steel tripod, or rest on a grate.
- To keep it simple, the same eats you fall back on for a quick lunch at the office or in a dorm room can be consumed at the campsite. Pre-packaged food saves time and money. To put together an amazing meal, spruce up your noodles or rice by adding the ingredients in the photo on the box.
- You don’t have to cook. You may not want to cook if you are trying to spend as little money as possible. Sandwiches, raw fruits and vegetables, energy bars and trail mixes are all tasty, affordable and nearly effortless to prep.
- You need something on which to eat. You could bring paper plates and plastic silverware, but this isn’t the most frugal or environmentally friendly solution. Instead, pack plates and silverware from home and buy some camp soap, which is inexpensive, nontoxic and biodegradable.
- Be economical when keeping food cool. A DC-powered portable fridge can cost a lot, but a cooler with ice is much more affordable. Pre-chill or freeze your food, keep meat and perishables on the bottom and open the chest as little as possible. Consider getting a second cooler for drinks to help perishables stay cold longer and to keep dirty hands off of food. Nature can help cool things, too! Burying drinks overnight can keep them cool, and you can put your food in a waterproof bag in a river to chill them, but use rocks to keep dinner from floating away.
H20: Oh, no!
Even if you will be spending the night near a lake or river, water is important to bring along for survival’s sake. Not all campsites have water spigots, cars overheat, and sometimes fellow campers might need some help. This isn’t to mention cleaning and hygiene. Bringing extra water, either in jugs (not the expensive small bottles) from the supermarket or in a reusable container, and bring plenty of it.
Most high-tech ultra-lightweight tents fold up into tiny spaces and withstand harsh conditions, but these high-tech features come with a higher price and aren’t necessary for your first time camping. Many bargain tents will serve you well. When you are picking a tent, you may want to check out this wikiHow piece, to get just what you need.
When it’s time to tuck in, sleeping bags aren’t the only way to keep warm at bedtime. Cots, sleeping mats, inflatable mattresses and blankets all can help keep you cozy, and if you already own these things, you don’t have to spend any money. But if you do need to buy stuff for sleepy time, army sleeping bags and blankets tend to be tough and cheap.
These are the very basic essentials for safety and getting things done at your campsite, assuming you are at a campground. Shop around online to find good deals on these, and be sure to bring them with you.
- Pocket knife or multi-tool
- Hatchet for breaking up wood and driving in tent stakes
- First-aid kit
- Trash bags
- Hand wipes
Time to pack your bags. And that’s it. Welcome to the world of camping — the easy and affordable alternative to missing out on summer vacation.
Julie Ewald is an avid traveler who realized keeping a budget and sticking to a savings strategy would be the only way for her to really do and have it all. Julie shares her know-how and research with others to help them become savvier shoppers and savers. Her tips and tricks articles and frugal how-to guides, along with roundups of top deals on eBay, can be found at the eBay Deals Blog.