Get the Vacation You’ve Been Craving on a Budget: Go Camping

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Camping tips
Lisa Rowan writes songs with her ukulele in a hammock at Fort De Soto campgrounds in Tierra Verde, Fla. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Ready to head outdoors this summer? Whether you’re on the coast or deep within America’s heartland, a camping trip could be the perfect vacation for you.

And camping can not only provide a breath of fresh air (yes, pun intended) but it can also be an affordable vacation for a group of friends or family.

If you’re ready for a digital detox with a healthy heap of nature, here’s how to have an amazing camping trip on a budget.

Research Camping Options

The idea of camping might make you think of sweeping, far-flung national parks. But you can find camping locations in a variety of public and private areas — some much closer than you’d expect.

Children play in the water at sunset. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Check out county and state parks, national park campgrounds, and private sites to compare prices and amenities before choosing a favorite that fits your budget.

Check Your Discounts

If this is your first time camping in your area, ask an experienced local if they know of any camping discounts. If you have a pass to a national park, for example, you can probably snag a campsite discount. Campground management chain KOA offers a rewards card that grants members 10% off camping fees.

The Pathway that led to gorgeous views at Ft De Soto.  Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Jen Cowart, blogger at The Whole Bag of Chips, said her family relies on the Good Sam Club, an RV club similar to AAA, and on Passport America memberships to get major discounts on campsites.

Camping during the week can reduce your fees, as can longer stays. “We’ve done ‘stay four days, get the fifth free’ types of deals, too,” Cowart said.

Camp Adjacent to the Busy Season

Some camps have different rates depending on when in the camping season you go. It’s just like hotel and airline price hikes, except on a very crunchy level.

Friends relax by the campfire while playing card games. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Can you wait until May to camp instead of doing it in April, when sites are an extra couple of bucks per night? (The Penny Hoarder headquarters are in Florida, so our high season is in winter and spring.)   

If you can handle the weather variables, consider camping on the edge of the season. Just remember to bring warmer layers or your swim suit, depending on which shoulder you camp during.

Also consider that location matters, too. Do you need a waterfront campsite? Probably not — go ahead and knock a few bucks off your nightly fee.

Borrow or Rent Equipment

Camping equipment can get expensive fast. If you can’t borrow a tent or sleeping bag from a  friend or neighbor, consider renting.

Our campsite at Ft De Soto. String lights are a cute, affordable way to light the whole area.  Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Many colleges and universities have recreation offices that rent equipment to students and beyond. At the University of Maryland, students, faculty, staff and local alumni with a campus recreation membership can rent backpacks, coolers, tents and headlamps, among other camp and outdoor adventure essentials.

Renting equipment doesn’t make financial sense if you want to be out in the woods every weekend this summer. But if you take an annual trip or are going on your first adventure, renting can save you time, money and storage space when you get home.

Plan Your Meals

You’re packing more than hot dogs and bacon, right? You might want to eat more than just stick-bound foods.

Lisa Rowan grills up our delicious camp food. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

We tested a few campfire recipes if you’re looking to branch out from your typical recipes. But sometimes, your favorite meals at home can easily be transported to camp.

Either way, a cooler is your best friend at camp. “Freezing meats helps keeping things cold in coolers if you don’t have a refrigerator,” Cowart said. “So if you’re grilling burgers or pork chops, freezing them first and then thawing as needed helps to keep everything else cold.”  You can even marinate meat in a Ziploc bag and freeze it, she recommends. “They’re essentially big ice blocks.”

Don’t Shop at the Camp Store

If you want to pay a premium for hot dogs, marshmallows or charcoal, head to the camp store. While it can be fun to take the gang over for a treat, it’s best to plan for most of your camp meals and supplies and pick them up before you go.

Lisa Rowan walks the grounds on our way to the camp store.  Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

On our recent Penny Hoarder camping trip, we rented a fire pit (got to follow the rules!), but we could have saved by buying a bundle of firewood before we arrived.

We also made sure to bring unplugged forms of entertainment, including a deck of cards, a book of poetry, a hula hoop and a ukulele.

The best part about camping might be that every camping trip is a little different. No boring cookie-cutter hotels here — nature decorates in its own way, and a quick tour around your campground will reveal the many ways you can set up a campsite. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book! But dirtier.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder. All her Girl Scout training came back to her on this camping trip.