How to Go Camping On a Budget

Tips and Advice on Cheap Camping Vacations in the Great Outdoors

••• Family camping vacation. Getty Images / Creative RF / Hero Images

Camping is not only a great way to get outdoors, but it's also a fantastic way to go on a budget family vacation to the top destinations in the country. The cost of travel may have you wondering if you can afford to take a family vacation this year.  Forget the high price of a trip to Hawaii or Disney World. Spending time together is priceless and memories don't have to cost a fortune. Once you are geared up to go camping, you can take an inexpensive family camping trip.

Here are our top tips for a budget camping trip and how to save money on your next family vacation. 

Where to go on a Budget Camping Trip

If you want to take your family on a camping trip there are plenty campgrounds at state parks, national parks, national or state forests, and other public recreation areas that make great destinations.  The closer you stay to home, the less expensive your trip will be and there are great regional parks all over the country.  

How much does it cost to go camping?

It costs around $12-$25 to spend a night at inexpensive campgrounds, which is much less than the cost of a motel room these days. Some popular campsites can cost $40-50 depending on the services you require. The best budget campsites are in state and county parks and  are typically run by park rangers, who also provide security at the campgrounds. Each campsite will likely have a fire-pit, charcoal grill, and a picnic table.

There will be an area to set up your tent, and a place to pull your car off the road. These parks usually have buildings that enclose bathrooms and showers. You'll also find drinking water available, places to do your dishes, and trash containers. Yes, there is some work to camping, but what a great way to involve the family in daily chores.

Inexpensive Things to Do While Camping

There are plenty of things to do at the campground. Most public parks have hiking trails, and many parks have lakes for fishing, boating, and swimming. Imagine the sight of your kids seeing a deer cross the path or a raccoon snooping through the campsite at night. There may also be a playground with swings, basketball courts, and other amenities. Also remember to bring along bikes, balls and gloves, board games, Frisbees, or any other favorite game or toy. There will be plenty of opportunities for the family to play together. Many state parks and other public parks offer nature programs for the kids, and some even show outside movies on weekends. Since most of these parks are located in remote areas away from city lights, they make great places to watch sunsets and to gaze at the stars at night.

What if I have no camping gear? The gear you'll need for a budget camping trip

If this is your first time camping, you can gear up with the basics for under $600 or less. There are also a number of outdoors stores that rent camping gear. Check with your local retailer about costs to rent a camp tent and other gear you may need. 

  • For a family of four I recommend a tent that sleeps six. You'll appreciate the extra room that a 6-person tent provides. For some ideas, here are some Family Tents for under $200.
  • Next you'll need sleeping bags. Since you're probably not camping in cold weather, consider a 3-season bag. These are still rated for 30 to 40 degree weather, and if they get too warm at night just unzip the zipper. Mom and dad might like the coziness of sleeping bags that zip together. Check out these Sleeping Bags under $50. If you want to save money on sleeping bags and you are camping in moderate or warmer weather, bring plenty of sheets and blankets instead of buying a sleeping bag. 
  • For added comfort and insulation from the cold ground, you might consider putting a pad under your sleeping bag. You can find Sleeping Pads under $30. Again, save money on a sleeping bag and make your own comfortable bedding with blankets. Keep in mind that there may be rocks and pinecones and you'll want to clear as much out from under your tent before setting up your bed. 
  • Your campsite will likely have a charcoal grill, which is great for some cooking, but dishes that require a pot or skillet won't get all black if you have a propane camp stove. You can find a 2-burner propane stove for around $35-$80. The propane cylinders are $2-$3 dollars and will probably last a week. Check out these Camp Stoves for ideas.
  • To keep drinks cold and food from perishing, you'll need a cooler. Pick a cooler large enough to accommodate your needs. Here are some ideas for Coolers from $30-$100.

What if I have my own camping gear?

Then you're ready for a really cheap vacation. All it will cost is campground fees, food, gas and incidentals like charcoal, ice or bait.

A Few More Budget Camping Tips

Other items to take camping can be found at home or bought at the grocery store: pots and pans, cups and glasses, silverware, pillows, flashlights, extra batteries, and food. I'd also recommend a cheap tarp for around $10 to place under your tent. This will help protect your tent floor against tears and to prevent water from seeping into the tent in case of rain. I didn't recommend a lantern, because they get hot and attract bugs. Instead, buy a 9-volt battery lamp for around $10 and use it sparingly so that you can enjoy the night sky. Here's a little shopping tip: rather than shop online for your gear, save even more money by going to a local Wal-Mart or Target store. They have everything you need at the lowest prices.

The Bottom Line

Figure $600 for a one-time cost to buy new gear, $200 or less for campground fees for a week, and $200 for food, gas, and ice, and you've got a great vacation for a family of four. Once you've acquired your gear, each subsequent camping trip will be even cheaper. You'll add to your gear from time to time, and some items need replenishing.

Public Campground Resources

Updated and Edited by Camping Expert Monica Prelle