If you’ve been following me on Instagram for a while, you know that my family of five (along with a dog or two) are avid campers. We love nothing more than being out in the middle of nowhere. No running water. Many times no roads and no cell phone signal. It is the absolute best! My husband and I started backpacking when we were dating. We carried this over and went camping even with babies, toddlers, and a baby on the way! And when we were on the debt-free journey, we opted to go camping instead of traveling to the beach as our family’s vacation. So, here’s how to make the most out of camping with no money or camping on a budget!
1. Start with the basics.
You don’t have to buy everything and anything when it comes to camping. You do want to have a few essentials, though, a tent and a sleeping bag for each person being the main ones. After that, most everything else is up to you! Here are my recommendations on the basics that most families will need.
- Tent (or sleeping hammock).
- Sleeping bag per person.
- Small air mattress (this is optional, but if you’re over 30, you’ll be happy you brought one, especially in the colder months as it acts as insulation between you and the ground).
- Cooking utensils (keep it simple).
- Container to hold water.
- Reusable water bottles for everyone.
- Bug spray (yes, you need it)
- A few towels (make sure they’re ones you don’t care about!).
- Wipes (baby wipes or makeup wipes – trust me, you need these no matter how old your kids are!).
- Toilet Paper (store in a zip-loc bag to avoid getting wet).
- Chapstick or small container of Vaseline (this works for wind-chapped lips, chapped/chaffed skin, and cuts).
- First aid kit with basic medicines like Ibuprofen and calamine lotion.
- Snake bite kit if you’re going backpacking or camping far away from transportation.
- Lighter or matches.
- Hunting knife or hatchet or both.
- Food (non-perishable unless you’re bringing a cooler).
Again, this list isn’t exhaustive, but these are the basics that I think most families will need. Now let’s talk about how to get some of these for less or even FREE.
2. How to score camping essentials for cheap or free.
Most of our early camping gear was cheap or free. We bought our first tent at a yard sale for $25. It was a huge cabin-style tent that I’m certain we could fit an entire Army battalion in it! It wasn’t the best tent, but it worked for what we needed it to while we saved up the money to buy a more suitable one. But even if you don’t have the funds right now to buy even a used tent, you could borrow one from a family that has one! It never hurts to ask!
Before we had our five-gallon water container for camping, we used washed-out milk jugs for water! We fill the containers from home. Now we have potable and drinkable water.
For firestarter, we still use lint from our dryer at home and an egg carton. We pack up a cardboard egg carton with all the lint from our dryer. After I do a load of laundry, I empty our lint trap into a lint bin that hangs on the front of my washer. Since only lint goes in there, I dump that lint container into the egg carton, and it’s ready to go! We just cut two egg slots off at a time when we need to start a fire. We light the carton, and in minutes were have a fire started!
If you get creative and go on the lookout for camping essentials at yard sales and on Facebook Marketplace, you’re sure to score what you need! But one word of caution. Since you’re going to be cooking over an open flame, do now use your household pots and pans. This is one area where you will want to have a separate set of cookware. The fire can damage and permanently scar your pans. I recommend starting off by buying a cheap large frying pan from a thrift store that preferably has a nonplastic handle (you don’t want it to melt). If you’re looking to invest in cookware for camping, I highly recommend getting a Dutch oven with a tripod. It’s a game-changer!
3. Where to camp?
If you’re new to camping, I would first suggest spending a weekend at your closest campground. This may cost you some money, so plan accordingly. I suggest this because if you’re not used to having to go potty out in the woods, it may be easier and better to start off in a campground with bathhouses you can use. This will also help you learn the ins and outs of setting up a tent, cooking over an open flame, and figuring out what you truly need or don’t need when camping.
Once you’ve mastered that and gotten comfortable with camping, then adventure out with more risky camping! Go backpacking! Head down your favorite river in a Jon boat and camp along the banks (if that’s allowed on the river of choice). Here’s a list of the 10 best places to backpack in America’s National Parks, but don’t forget about your local state-run parks!
4. What meals to make?
I’m a huge fan of packing light. That’s probably because most of our camping trips involve either us hiking it all in or floating it down the river. And as such, I’ve learned how to pack light but still make it count. And one of those areas is food. Meals don’t need to be complicated when it comes to camping.
Dutch oven nachos are a huge Fearon family camp favorite! The best part? We eat it right out of the Dutch oven! If you have my meal planning workbook, you know that whenever I buy that 5lb log of ground beef at the store, I cook it up, drain it, and then allow it cool. Once it’s cool, I portion it out into freezer bags. So whenever we plan our camping trips, I have ready-to-eat frozen cooked ground beef! So I can top our nachos with meat, beans, cheese, and heat! Another favorite from my meal planning workbook that I always bring with us is my Camp Muffins! The perfect breakfast or snack and it’s totally okay if they get squished. My kids still love them!
Plan to make hamburgers and hot dogs if you’re car camping and have a cooler. No need to be fancy! But below is a list of some of our favorite campfire meals (all of these are cooked over an open fire with either the Dutch oven or over our cooking grate).
- Dutch oven nachos
- Sausage and biscuits (in the Dutch oven)
- Chili (I usually pre-make this at home and freeze it in a zip-loc bag to reheat in the Dutch oven).
- Hamburgers and hot dogs
- Beef stew
- Chicken with rice and beans
- Shrimp (cooked inside a foil packet)
- Sausage, onions, and peppers (sometimes I add potatoes if I have them) in the Dutch oven.
- Dutch oven mac-n-cheese (it’s just the $1.69 boxed kind from Aldi – nothing special)
- Eggs and bacon
- Smores (of course)
- Or when we’re really challenging ourselves we bring zero meat and instead I cook whatever my husband and sons catch/hunt. This has honestly been some of our favorite trips!
I will also share that my husband loves to plan the first night’s meal as the “special one.” He’ll surprise us with steaks or bacon or something else a little bit extra as that first night’s meal!
5. What about snacks?
So when it comes to making your food packing list think about how you can make it easy on yourself. Would premaking some of the meals and freezing them make it easier on you (and less to bring)? If so, make a plan to do that! As far as “extras” or snacky-type foods go, here are what we typically bring for a weekend camping:
- 2 Bags of potato chips
- 2 Large bags of trail mix (we stick with non-chocolate ones, so we don’t have to worry about it melting)
- A jar of peanut butter (comes in handy if someone really needs more protein so they don’t get hangry).
- Two boxes of high protein bars
- 3 Bagged salad kits (these are a great way to ensure everyone gets their veggies in and doesn’t take up much space!)
- 1 Large container of already cut (at home) fruit (usually watermelon but sometimes it’s a mix of different fruits).
- A case of either Horizon boxed milk or a case of the small-sized Simply Orange Juice (this is a special camping treat that my kids love).
- Ground coffee (for mom and dad)
- One thing of half and half
One point I want to make is to not go overboard with snacks. It’s super tempting to want to buy and pack all.the.things, especially when it’s your first time camping. But just like when you make and stick to your grocery budget, you need to stick to your goal of camping on a budget, no matter the size of budget. So don’t worry; think smart and pack smart. No one will starve I promise.
6. I’m worried my kids will be bored.
Without a doubt, the second I start talking about camping with my kids, I hear this complaint. “My kids are going to be so bored without screens!” Here’s the thing – nature is powerful. Let your kids be bored in nature. I promise they won’t be bored for long. From working together as a family to set up the tent and get your campsite ready to looking for firewood, they won’t have a chance to be bored for long!
And honestly, I think that’s why even today, even though we’re now 100% debt-free and can afford beach vacations for our family of five, we still LOVE to go camping. Reason? Because it’s an incredible bonding experience! When you’re working alongside each other and discovering the natural world together, it brings you together in the most beautiful of ways! So allow your kids to go the weekend without screens. Yes, you may hear some moaning and complaining but they’ll live. I know you may worry about your sanity with their complaining but let it go. Just go for a hike together. Build a fire together. Cook together. Read a story together (I love bringing read-alouds camping!).
Picture from one of our many trips down the river in our “barge”…😂
7. Plan for a rainy day.
If you go camping enough, you’ll run into a rainy day or two camping. This doesn’t have to mean that you pack it in and head home! Just plan ahead! Make sure you bring a tarp to put over your tent or sleeping hammock (yes, you need a proper tarp – that rain fly won’t keep a downpour out!). Also, make sure you bring either waterproof shoes or water shoes for everyone. That way, no one’s shoes get soaked! Bringing a few cheap parkas is also a great idea (you can usually get them for about $0.98 at Walmart). And as I mentioned above about bringing some read-alouds, make sure you bring a deck of cards too! This will starve off the boredom while you wait out the storm!
8. What if I’m really nervous about camping for the first time?
I recommend if you’re really nervous about camping for the first time, find someone to go with! See if any families in your neighborhood or church are avid campers. We camping families are kind of weird in that we want to bring everyone along with us! Once you fall in love with camping, it stays in your bones forever. And it’s something that you want to share. So ask around!
This is also a really great way to save on camping, as many campgrounds will allow two tents on one site. That means you guys could split the cost of the campsite! Camping on a budget just simply means getting creative, and if you’re nervous about camping for the first time ask a friend for help!
9. I don’t really see how this is a vacation.
Okay, I know that camping isn’t a vacation to many folks. But here’s the thing, camping can be an incredibly affordable way to go on vacation with your family. And camping on a budget doesn’t mean it’s less than. Look up the state parks of your home state. I bet there are some really amazing ones! Look up state parks in your neighboring state, and I bet there are even more beautiful places to explore! For example, let’s say that you really wanted to take your kids to the US Rocket and Space Museum in Huntsville, AL. Do you know what’s right there? A campground. The cheapest hotel around there (that my germophobe husband would be willing to stay at) is $129 a night! The campground? The nearest state park has campgrounds with hookups (meaning you’ll have water and electricity at your site) starting at $14 a night!
That’s what I love about camping! You can typically camp for much cheaper than staying in a hotel. Especially if it’s in a touristy type area. Just don’t forget – it’s best not to plan for a holiday weekend unless you’re planning to book in advance. Just like hotels and Airbnbs book up during peak season, campgrounds do too. Need more ideas on surviving summer with free or cheap things to do with your kids? Head here to this post.
10. Okay! I want to camp but can’t afford the essentials. Any advice?
My best advice is the same old, same ol’ that I give all the time. Set up a Sinking Fund! If you want to save up for the essentials when it comes to camping, I highly recommend doing so with the help of a Sinking Fund. A Sinking Fund is just a separate bank account that you contribute a small amount of money to every paycheck. Then over time, that amount builds up in the account. That’s when you get to go shopping!
So if you need the essentials when it comes to camping and trying to borrow a friend’s gear or finding it for sale secondhand hasn’t worked out – set up a Sinking Fund. Then set up an auto draft for every payday to put aside whatever amount you can afford. It’s cool if it’s only $5! A little bit goes a long way! And don’t forget that there are other ways that you can stretch your budget by using cashback sites like Rakuten when you shop online. Scanning receipts into Fetch for gift cards. Even looking honestly at your spending can help you determine where you can cut from to buy your camping gear.
But again, you don’t necessarily have to buy anything right now. You can borrow from a friend or family member that camps or hunts (don’t forget about hunters – they probably have a lot of what you need already!). You can set aside a few dollars for the next few weeks and buy a tent or sleeping bag secondhand. And don’t forget – you can ask for the gear as a birthday or Christmas present! Our three kids all got new sleeping bags this year courtesy of their grandparents for Christmas! Get creative, and you’ll have everything you need faster than you thought!
Alright! If you’re an avid camper, share your tips for camping on a budget for beginners in the comments!
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