10 Ways to Save Money on Camping Trips

10 Ways to Save Money on Camping Trips

Camping, by nature {pun intended}, is supposed to be a thrifty vacation, but with all of the gear, fees and food costs can really add up.  Still, it’s a great way to get the kiddos away from the T.V. and video games and into the great outdoors.  So here’s 10 ways to save a little cash on your camping trips this summer:

  1. Borrow and trade gear.  Camping gear takes up tons of space in the garage and can be really expensive.  Buy 1-2 items of your own, and strike a deal with family, friends and neighbors.  Your borrow their 1-2 items, and they can borrow yours when they go camping.
  2. Bring/cut your own firewood.  There is nothing worse than pulling into a campsite around 9 p.m. only to find that you need to pay the camp host $10 for a bundle of firewood–the cost of convenience. {If you plan to cut your own, make sure that you don’t need a permit in the area you chose to camp.}
  3. Plan ahead and freeze your own ice.  While bagged ice isn’t going to break the bank, it is one more thing to buy.  I like to save empty milk jugs.  I fill them up with water and freeze them.  They last way longer in the cooler than a bought bag of ice would.
  4. Make your own food ahead of time.  Again, convenient pre-packaged foods cost more.  Make your own spaghetti sauce, chili, treats, etc.  When it comes time to cook dinner, all you have to do is warm them up.
  5. If you camp a lot, you may want to consider a membership to Good Sam RV Club and Passport America.  They both offer significant discounts on campsites.  Also, check out the local KOA–they run specials pretty frequently.
  6. Resist the beverages.  It’s super convenient to buy soda and bottled waters on camping trips, but they are expensive.  Borrow a large water cooler and fill it up before you go.  {Most campsites have drinkable water, as well, in case your cooler starts to run low.}
  7. Pack wisely.  You’ve heard the saying, “She packed everything, but the kitchen sink.”  Packing a weeks worth of food and gear can get heavy–plan wisely so that you don’t overload your vehicle and drag down your gas mileage.
  8. Plan your trips around peak-times.  Don’t go over the 4th of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, etc.  Costs of fuel, campsites, etc. all go up around the holidays.
  9. Camp day-to-day, if possible.  Rather than paying for your entire site for the week, pay day to day, if they will let you.  That way, if the weather takes a nasty turn, you can head home without losing your money.
  10. Take a well-stocked first aid kit, sunscreen and bug spray.  Buying Ibuprofen, band-aids, etc. at the tiny convenient stores close to camping locations will feel like you need to take a second mortgage on your house.

With a little planning, camping still really is one of the cheapest vacations around.

Do YOU have any tips you’ve learned to save money camping?


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  1. Anne F. says

    Thanks for the great tips. My vow this summer is two soda cans per person for a week of camping. After that it’s good old water!

    Regarding #2, though, the National Forest Service and many state parks (WA, OR, CA, etc.) are asking folks NOT to bring their own wood. We can inadvertently transport non-native insects into forested areas where they can become invasive.

    • Sarah says

      Take that a step further Anne! It’s not just about non-native insects. It’s about invasive pests. Bugs like the Emerald Ash Borer, Asian Long-horned Beetle and others can be carried easily from one place to another through firewood. This makes it difficult to isolate infestations and can decimate forests. In the New England area you are not allowed to bring in firewood from out of state.

      While cost saving, the impacts of bringing your own firewood can be severe.

      • Angela says

        Still, buying a bundle at your local grocery store is way cheaper than buying at the campsite. Buy it first, then bring it.

        • says

          In Wisconsin, you can’t bring firewood from more than so many miles away. So, do plan to grab your fire wood from a grocery store, but make it a local store if you can.

          Other option for summer camping is don’t do a fire. A lot of national parks don’t allow open fires anyways. Just have an alcohol stove (easy peasy to make from a tuna or cat food can) to boil water, and then grill in the provided grate (if car camping) or use canister fuel and a stove if backpacking in to cook on.

  2. Jessica says

    Yes, most state and national parks WILL NOT let you bring your own fire wood. Living in an area that has seen many beautiful trees destroyed by the ash borer, it is irresponsible of you to suggest this as a cost savings option. I know you live in the NW part of the US, but how would you feel if I brought my own fire wood from Illinois and then my pest destroyed your trees. You have to be wise about your advice. Most firewood at state parks cost about $5 a bundle here. $20 to save your native trees isn’t a big expense. http://www.oregon.gov/oisc/pages/calendar_july09_assessment.aspx

  3. Ann says

    And even one more step Sarah…if you get caught, it could be the opposite of cost saving. Federal fines can be up to $1,000.

  4. Kathy in Chicago says

    Camping… growing up in a family of 8, this is pretty much what we did. In terms of eating, I realize this might seem harsh, but as kids, Dad only brought eggs, flour, oil, sugar, drying milk & baking powder & salt & pepper. We’d have pancakes for breakfast, and if we didn’t catch our lunch/dinner, we didn’t eat, or we’d have pancakes again. While my older sister became an expert fisherwoman, I was always the 1st to find wild raspberries & grapes & strawberries. We had nature books (the foxfire book), and learned to eat cattail roots & other wild plants.

  5. Angela Avila says

    Thank you for all this great tips, I never thought of bringing my own wood and ice! I’m going to start doing that

    about No 9: I suggest you also check the weather forecast (like in weather channel online, they have an hourly forecast that comes really handy even if you are not camping. I honestly can tell you loads of stories about the time my son was the only kid who took his raincoat to school when it seemed like a sunny day but rained, or when we were prepared for the strong winds starting at 4 pm, etc) but still pay day to day.

  6. Tali says

    We (here in Idaho) can bring our own wood…..when the kids were younger and we camped a lot I even purchased and entire cord of wood. It is so much cheaper than getting bundles. I also purchase bottled water as we love to leave camp (where I have a nice 5 gallon water cooler we got 21 years ago) to hike, fish etc when it goes on sale and we refill the bottles at camp.

    One of my biggest pet-pivs to keep everything in great shape so it last many years. When we get home I unload everything and make sure it is clean…I even set the tent (takes 3 minutes) to make sure it is dry so it won’t mildew. I re-pack everything and note what we used of the none perishable goods and re-stock so getting ready or another camping trip is quick.

  7. says

    Check in your area to make sure campfires are even allowed — here in Colorado most of the state is under a fire ban — no campfires. You can still have a great time camping, even without a fire.

    We often camp in the National Forest, where camping is free. You have to bring your own water and pack out your trash, but hey, it’s free!

  8. Angela says

    I always save my old pots, pans, utensils, etc for camping. Whenever i upgrade my kitchen, my camping utensils get upgraded too!

  9. Heather C. says

    We also can bring our own wood here in NC (only one country in the state is under quarantine). With permission we transported wood cut in our backyard to a State Park in TN without any problems, but they do ask you where it came from and notate it when you check in. Here is a list from the National Park Service website showing the areas under firewood quarantine: http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/quarantine-counties.htm

    My biggest tip as an avid camper is to camp state parks instead of the bigger campgrounds as much as possible. They are usually cheaper but with many of the same amenities plus often more natural environments.

  10. Nick says

    I agree, #2 is truly not a good idea. Google Emerald Ash Borer and you will understand why. They are in Milwaukee now and we lost a 20yr old ash tree because of them. Also you can buy pots, pans and utensils at goodwill for under $10

  11. Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple says

    I love camping. It can be pricey out here in Cali. At least we can go off-season. We don’t go very often – maybe once a year, twice on a big year. My husband feels like it’s a “lot of work” (true, especially pack up and put away). As we are on the school schedule, we are limited to “peak” times.

    We’ve gone camping a few times in Joshua Tree National Park with our neighbors. While it’s a drive (so you lose a bit of frugalness in the gas costs!), it’s very cheap to camp. Once you pay to get into the park (good for a week), it’s $10 a night. We can usually manage to split one site with our neighbors because they have a camping van and we tent camp. We only need 2 parking spots. We camped with them last year and our visiting family members, so we had 2 sites. The first night, our family hadn’t arrived yet, and a dad-and-son asked if we had extra space. Of course, we did, so they stayed at the 2nd site and paid for half.

    I tend to go very easy for camping food. Joshua Tree has no running water, so you have to bring in your own. So we eat oatmeal, instant coffee, hot tea, and a lot of “just add water” dishes (we did branch out to bacon and eggs). It can be very hot (or cold) there so we invested in a thermoelectric cooler to keep our food at a safe temp.

    The hardest part for me is the campsite costs. Joshua Tree is $10, I think Grand Canyon was $14-18 (can’t exactly remember), but the local parks around here are $35 to $75 a night. We are going to have to try to go off season…the beach areas are booked through Sept already and the inland areas are hot – 100 degrees in the summer.

  12. Stephanie says

    If you are going suggest that readers bring in their own firewood (because – true – purchasing firewood outside a park or campsite is cheaper than purchasing within, and you can burn gathered firewood in many National Forests) please include a link to one of the many informative sites that detail the risk of invasive species and suggest your readers research the regulations and restrictions of their intended campground.

    http://www.dontmovefirewood.org/ is great one.

    Also – for summer road-trips, you might suggest the National Parks and Federal Recreation Land Pass. Saves a pretty penny on entrance fees and safeguards the heritage of federal lands for future generations.

  13. says

    We’re going on a 1-month camping trip around Scandinavia next week, so this post is very timely for me, Mavis. We’re taking our camping gear (tent, inflatable mattresses, sleeping bags, small stove etc etc) as our checked baggage and our first stop is Stockholm so we’ll buy whatever else we need there. Norway is eye-wateringly expensive, so we might need to learn to forage for our food there.
    One good thing about camping in most of Scandinavia is that it is possible to camp for up to 2 nights in one place for free, as long as you are more than 150 metres from any houses or farmlands.

  14. h says

    Another idea for campfire wood is scraps of kiln dried wood from local cabinet shops or mill work companies.
    Most give the scraps away for free.

  15. Jeweline says

    We save a couple of two liter soda bottles and a half dozen to dozen water bottles that we fill with salt water and freeze. Put the two liters at the bottom and mix the individual water bottle with your food. It lseems to asts longer and doesn’t get your food soggy from the melted ice pool. Just besure to write salt water on your bottle.

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