Exploring nature and sleeping under the stars can be viewed as an economical vacation. But buying gear and booking campsites or renting an RV can add up.
With some cost-saving strategies, camping can fit a variety of budgets, whether you’re planning a car or RV camping trip or backpacking. Try these tips to enjoy the outdoors free of technology, traffic and a big tab.
SEARCH FOR FREE CAMPSITES
Don’t unplug just yet — before you leave, put your phone to good use by finding a campsite on sites like Campendium.com or FreeCampsites.net.
Many campgrounds charge a nightly fee, but you’ll also find free camping options, says Brian Easterling, co-founder and president of Campendium, a campsite review app and website.
Campendium provides information on more than 27,000 campsites (free and paid), including national and state parks and RV parks. Listings include user reviews, fees, photos, cell coverage and other details. Some sites have no nightly rate but may require a paid pass to gain access.
Word to the wise: Free campsites don’t always include the amenities of paid campgrounds, says Kristin Addis, CEO of Be My Travel Muse, a travel blog. If you choose a free site, locate a place close by where you can clean up; Addis says she’s paid for a shower at campgrounds near free sites for less than the campground’s overnight fee.
CHECK THE WEATHER
Look up the forecast for your destination, including nightly lows, says Addis, who’s camped on every continent except Antarctica and has learned the value of an insulated sleeping bag.
“The most important thing is staying warm and comfortable in your tent,” Addis says. “So maybe the tent doesn’t need to be super fancy or expensive, but I would maybe spend a bit more on your sleeping bag so you’re not freezing.”
“The sleeping mat is important, too, that it’s insulated and keeps you enough off the ground (so) that you’re not getting bruised by rocks or roots,” she says.
Investing in good gear from the outset — even if it’s expensive — could save you money in the long run, rather than buying something that’s not quite right and having to replace it later.
TRAVEL WITH LESS
Travel light, says Tom Lionvale, a backpacking instructor and adjunct faculty member at College of the Sequoias in California. You don’t want too much to carry; 20 pounds not including food and water is a good guideline for backpacking, he says. Even if you’re not backpacking, camping with less means purchasing less gear.
For equipment deals, check out online sales. REI.com features REI Garage, where you’ll find discounted clothing and gear. Backcountry.com showcases markdowns at its discount division Steep and Cheap.
And don’t forget about seasonal sales. For example, REI has an anniversary sale each May. You’ll also traditionally find lower prices on outdoor gear in October, the tail end of peak camping season. Another cost-saving option: Consider renting gear from an outdoor equipment store, particularly if you’re new to the experience.
“Borrow your equipment or rent your equipment because maybe you won’t like it after the first trip and then you’re stuck with all of that,” Lionvale says.
FIND A PLACE TO REST
Whether you’re camping by car or RV, plan the route you’ll take and the stops you’ll make to and from your destination.
If you’re traveling by RV, Easterling recommends looking for dump stations for waste disposal ahead of time. If you’ll need to get some sleep along the journey, search online for free overnight RV parking, such as at rest areas and truck stops. Be sure to check local rules, since policies on if and how long you can park can vary.
“If you’re going on a road trip from San Francisco and you want to get to the Grand Canyon, and you want to do it cheaply, utilize rest areas and utilize free campsites for just your quick overnighters as you’re trying to make those miles with your family,” Easterling says.
MAKE YOUR OWN RULES
There are many ways to camp, so plan a trip that fits your budget. Skip the things you don’t need — like the latest camera if your smartphone will do.
“Anything goes,” Lionvale says. “I’ve seen men and women with World War I army surplus doing a good job and having a good time, and I’ve seen men and women with ultralight equipment having a miserable time.”