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If you want to return to the glorious days of your childhood, I know a way that’s even better than drinking from the mythical Fountain of Youth, which, by the way, hasn’t been found yet.
And that is, go on a frugal camping adventure.
There’s something about sleeping out in the wilderness under the stars that brings out the childlike part of ourselves. Some of my happiest memories as a kid were sleeping in a big old canvas tent at Ocean View Cottages & Camping in Wells, Maine.
I still remember the tent’s musty smell and how it leaked in the rain. But it didn’t matter one bit that it leaked, because I had a blast. I have so many wonderful memories of camping right on the edge of the ocean.
Deeply breathing in the briny scent of the sea air…playing shuffleboard with my father after going for a refreshing swim…sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories…such fond recollections.
Camping is one of the cheapest vacation experiences to be had, but only if you keep an eye on expenses. Otherwise, what you spend on your wilderness excursion can skyrocket.
With the number of gadgets, tools, and gear you need for a weekend wilderness getaway, the costs of camping can really add up.
When you’re mindful about costs, you’ll experience camping as it’s meant to be experienced, and worries about money won’t dampen its frugal joys. Camping frugally is not only possible but much more enjoyable because it frees you from money worries.
It also makes you wonder why you thought you needed all that expensive gear!
So, dive into the strategies in this article and get inspired. If you’ve never camped before, you’re in for a treat. Hopefully, you’ll find this article eminently practical as you learn you how to make an already frugal activity even more so.
1. Check Out BLM Sites
If you got money to burn, some campgrounds cost $200 or more. Obviously, frugal campers should avoid these. Camping is supposed to be a low-cost activity, and at these kinds of prices, you might as well check into a hotel.
Reasonably priced campgrounds charge between $12 and $25. To save even more money, try places that are free to camp. You’ll find plenty of camping spots that don’t cost a thing at locations run by The Bureau of Land Management. This is a federal agency founded by Harry Truman in 1947.
Today, the Department of the Interior oversees tens of millions of acres of BLM sites in all 50 states and administers property that comprises 1/8 of the total amount of land in the entire U.S. Most of this land is out west.
Often, private companies and individuals lease these lands for grazing or mineral rights. Even if the property is leased, you can pitch a tent there unless otherwise posted.
A favorite activity on BLM land is something called “boondocking.” This, as its name implies, is free camping in areas far away from civilized amenities.
In most of these areas, camping is permitted as long as you’re not blocking a road or a trailhead.
To find free-of-cost camping on BLM property near you, check out their interactive map. Although these sites are definitely primitive and out of the way, you can drive to the places without backpacking in.
When you get there, you’ll find a fire ring, a picnic table, and little else. There probably won’t even be drinkable water, so plan on bringing your own.
Most BLM campgrounds are tiny with few available sites. The first lucky camper who claims a site gets to stay there. Some have “iron rangers” (small collection boxes in which you put your money). Many don’t charge fees.
2. Camp at National and State Parks and National Forests
You can buy a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass for $80. This is your entre to over 2,000 national parks, where you can camp both on both developed and undeveloped sites.
You can use this pass an unlimited number of times in 12 months.
U.S. military personnel and their dependents can get one for free, and those over the age of 62 can buy one for 20 bucks. With this senior discount, you’ll get 50% off camping and other fees. You’ll have to pay additional fees to camp at developed sites.
But you can camp for absolutely free in undeveloped areas of the park. They’ll only charge you if you’re part of a large group.
You just have to carry out your trash. This is called “dispersed camping.” Sometimes, it’s limited to certain areas, and sometimes, the sites are developed a little bit.
They just don’t have amenities like bathrooms or running water. Some national parks like Yosemite offer shuttle service, so you don’t have to spend money on gas.
There are days National Parks don’t charge a fee. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day weekend, and Veteran’s Day.
For people with disabilities, the access fee is free with a $10 processing fee. Applicants must provide documented proof that they’re a legal resident and have a disability.
3. Camp Midweek Instead of On A Weekend
It’s much cheaper to camp during the week than on the weekend. Plus, popular tourist destinations get really busy on the weekends.
If you’re into photography, you get to take as many selfies as you want without a bunch of people ruining your cool shot. And, you make sure that popular tourist attractions aren’t sold out.
Another thing you get to do that is absolutely impossible to do on the weekends is move around freely without the jostling crowds. The crowd that’s there is usually a different kind of one—less noisy and more settled than the weekenders.
There won’t be a lot of noise, and you’ll appreciate the splendors of nature better. The chances of scoring a desirable site increase exponentially.
Sites that are booked months in advance on the weekends might have lots of availability during the week. You might even be able to snag that secluded site right by the beach.
And, if you want to hop into the shower, you won’t have long lines like you’d have on the weekends. You’ll also encounter less traffic getting to your campground, so you’ll save on gas.
4. Find Campgrounds Close to Home (And Even Your Backyard)
Find campgrounds within a short distance from your home to save on driving. You’ll get there less tired and less stressed.
This’ll enable you to enjoy your camping experience better. This could even include your backyard.
If you’re new to camping, this might be the way to go. This way, if something goes awry or you don’t like the experience, you can retreat to the sanctuary of your home.
Torrential rainfall can put a damper on your trip. But if you’re camping in the backyard, you can just go inside. Camping away from home is usually a lot of fun for kids. However, they might not like the experience.
If you have to go home early, you’ve wasted your money. Camping in your backyard can be a trial run for the real thing.
5. Buy, Borrow, Or Rent Gear
You need quality gear for your camping expedition. To settle for anything but the best will only take away from the experience. That simply won’t do, since you probably only get the chance to camp once or twice a year.
However, I know you don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for it. How can I be so confident about your spending habits? Because you’re reading this blog, and this blog is all about how to save money by being more frugal.
Inventory Your Attic
But before you rush out to a weekend garage sale to buy a single piece of equipment, take an inventory of what you already own. Do this first because you might have camping equipment you bought ages ago and just forgot about.
Once you’ve taken stock of all the gear you own, you’re ready to do some shopping. Garage sales are an excellent place to start.
If you know how to repair stuff, you can pick up things that have great potential, but just need a little TLC. This will give you more purchase possibilities at lower prices.
If your repair skills are as laughable as mine, make sure things you’re considering buying are in decent condition. Tents and backpacks shouldn’t have any rips or mildew, and lanterns should shine bright.
Don’t be afraid to haggle, but make sure your offers are reasonable and not lowball ones. Besides garage sales, try Craigslist and eBay.
Facebook Marketplace is an excellent place to snag some bargains on camping gear. The sellers are local, too, and often are willing to come down in price.
I found a Northwest Territory backpacking tent never opened on Marketplace for $25. The seller only lives 13 miles away from me. On Amazon, it retails for $57.90.
I’d say this is a pretty good deal.
REI Used Gear
REI sells gear that people returned for 20% to 80% off the retail price. The company looks over its supply of gently used items that people returned.
It selects the cream of the crop for resale and lists them on its website. This way, they keep junk out of landfills by giving a lucky someone a great buy.
I found a North Face Campforter 20 sleeping for $174.30 that retails for $259 new. That’s 67% off the list price!
If you want to rent your equipment to save even more money, head over to Switchback Gear Exchange. They have backpack, sleeping bag, and tent rentals for eight dollars a day.
REI also rents camping equipment. There are 114 stores in 30 states that offer this service, and they offer daily and weekly rates. REI members get discounts on everything they rent.
Rental offerings vary by store, so call before you head over. For example, you can rent a six-person tent for $40 a day and $200 a week.
Outdoors Geek also rents out all kinds of backpacking and camping equipment for a stress-free weekend camping adventure. Their basic camping packages start at $69 and include one two-person backcountry quality tent, one sleeping bag that’ll keep you warm even when the weather gets down to 20 degrees, and one self-inflating sleeping pad.
Browse their full rental list for any extras you’d like to add, such as chairs, tables, coolers, and so much more.
You can also borrow gear from family and friends. Even if you have to ask more than one person, this is the way to get if you want the cheapest camping adventure possible.
Just remember to return the equipment in the same condition in which it was given to you.
6. Find Free Things to Do
For many people, camping activities like sitting around a roaring fire, hiking a scenic nature trail, or swimming in a crystal clear pond on a sultry summer afternoon are more than enough to stave off boredom.
But if you have easily bored kids, you might have to provide some supplemental activities. There’s a veritable laundry list of activities you can do that don’t cost a cent.
Fun Activities at Kid-Friendly Campgrounds
Many of the more kid-friendly campgrounds have a full roster of activities sure to enthrall children of all ages. Check out the campground’s website before leaving home to see what they offer so you’ll be prepared to suggest an activity when your kid complains there’s nothing to do.
Activities offered include hayrides, pancake breakfasts, fireworks, scavenger hunts, and outdoor movies.
Activities at State Parks
If your plan is to experience the rustic charm of a state park or other no-frills type of camping venue, you and your kids just might have to come up with your own list of things to do.
You can try free attractions in the area, like historic sites that don’t charge admission. For example, I live in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, a mecca for New Yorkers trying to escape the sweltering heat of the city.
There are tons of campgrounds around here. Free attractions in my area include visiting the majestic War Memorial Tower on Mt. Greylock, site of the Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter books, and a place Superman star Christopher Reeve used to hang glide off of in the 80s.
You can also hike the Round Rocks loop on this mountain and see a plane that crashed in 1948. If you’re diligent in your research, you’re bound to discover enough free activities to keep everyone busy in whatever area you decide to camp in.
Activities That Involve Nature
If it’s raining, play a board game under an awning or in a tent. But if the sun’s shining, your activities should incorporate the beauty of the natural realm.
There are so many things you can do to introduce your children to the wonders found in the woods without having them feel as though they’ve got to be entertained by noisy electronic toys.
There’s a sacredness to nature, regardless of what your religious beliefs are. And, it’s a shame that some kids feel they have to bring loud video games and other forms of electronic entertainment into this heart-achingly beautiful environment.
This distracts from one of the best side benefits of a wilderness excursion, and that’s reestablishing a connection with the earth. Nature can be an incredibly enriching, exciting, and educational world for youngsters to explore, and it’s up to us to set the example.
One activity that’ll help foster an awareness of nature is a wilderness scavenger hunt. At home, create a list of items a child might see in the woods.
When you get to your campsite, hand out a list to each kid and see how many of these items everyone can find. The child who finds the most things on the list wins a prize.
You can also lie on a blanket under the stars and identify the constellations and planets. Maybe you’ll even see a shooting star as it blazes across the heavens in a final bid for celestial immortality.
This activity is both educational and loads of fun. If you need help identifying star patterns, there are apps you can download. Stargazing is better out in the woods because there aren’t any garish city lights to obscure the glories of the night sky.
7. Enroll in KOA Value Kard Rewards
KOA is known for its beautiful amenities, great activities for kids, and consistently high quality in each of its 480 locations.
KOA Value Kard Rewards costs $30 a year to join, and it lets you save 10% on daily registration rates. You accumulate points you can use for money off on your visits.
You also get access to thousands of money-savings coupons through the KOA coupon savings program. Each year, each member starts at the base level, earning points for dollars spent camping.
Once a camper reaches 6,500 points, they move up to the bonus level where they start to earn points 10 times faster. Redeeming points couldn’t be easier—simply let the front desk know you’ll be applying points.
These are coupons good for $10, $25, or $50 off. You can only earn points on stays of 27 days or less, and no more than $50 a visit.
When a member brings a friend, that person gets 10% off one KOA stay for up to four nights.
If you accumulate 20,000 points in your annual enrollment year (they define enrollment year as the 12 months following the purchase of the card), you’re automatically upgraded to VIP status. This means you’ll immediately start earning 25% more points.
VIP members receive a free night of camping during Value Kard Rewards Appreciation weekend. This year, it’s the second weekend in September.
This means if you stay on Friday, September 13, you get to camp the next day for free at any participating KOA location. This is a way for KOA to say “thank you” to all of its loyal members.
KOA Care Camps
What’s great about the reward program is that for every camper who enrolls, KOA donates a dollar to KOA Care Camps.
Care Camps are “special nonprofit medically supervised camps designed to help children fighting or recovering from cancer enjoy a care-free fun sleep-away camp experience in the great outdoors.”
These kids suffering from a debilitating illness get to be themselves in a beautiful camp setting, surrounded by other children who know what they’re going through.
You can donate here.
8. Frugal Camping Hacks
Here are a bunch of small ways to save money on camping trips. When combined, these tricks add up quickly to save you lots of money:
- HOMEMADE FIRE STARTERS: Take egg containers and add dryer lint to each compartment. Don’t pack the chambers too tightly. Melt some old candles by putting them in a tin can, and then place the tin can in a vat of boiling water until the wax melts. Pour the wax on the lint until the lint is completely covered. Prod the lint with a knife until the wax penetrates the lint. Let dry and cut each compartment into an individual fire starter.
- USE BLOCK ICE IN YOUR COOLER: Block ice has less surface area, so it melts more slowly.
- FREEZE MILK CARTONS INSTEAD OF BUYING ICE: Who needs to buy ice when you can make it at home?
- DOLLAR STORE STACKABLE BINS: Stay organized with dollar store stackable bins. Keep them inside the tent to keep bug spray, toothpaste, flashlights, sunscreen, and other camping essentials right where you need them.
- SPICES IN PILL BOTTLES: Round up your old pill bottles and put your spices in them. This is much more convenient than taking the containers that the spices came in. You can also store shampoo, conditioner, and lotion in these bottles.
- MAKE YOUR OWN CHARCOAL GRILL: Use a foil pan, some charcoal, and a cake cooling rack. Put the charcoal in the pan and the cooling rack on top.
- LAUNDRY DETERGENT CONTAINER HAND WASHER: Fill an empty laundry detergent container that has a spigot with water. Put it on the edge of a picnic table with the valve hanging over the edge. Use it to wash your hands.
With these eight ways to save money on camping costs, I’ve shown you that you don’t need to spend money like a proverbial drunken sailor to camp in style.
Camping is such a fun adventure, and it’s even more fun when you don’t have the financial stresses of worrying whether or not you can afford it. And, it’s one of the best ways to connect your kids to nature.
When you’re out there in the woods, you’ll know the incomparable joy of being one with the natural world. It’s a thousand times better than staying in an overpriced hotel!
Would you rather spend a weekend in Vegas, endlessly feeding quarters slot machines, while at the same time, toxic byproducts of cigarette smoke assault your senses? Or, would you rather be out in the unspoiled beauty of the wilderness, where a murmuring brook sings you to sleep each night?
If done right, camping can be a frugal experience that’s as enjoyable as it is satisfying. So, save your money and skip the artificial allure of the usual tourist traps. Get back to nature and come back to life.
Your sanity, your wallet, and in time, even your kids, will thank you.