Camping on a Budget: How to Save Money on Your Next Trip

Image: Camping
Arup Malakar under Creative Commons

Spending a weekend in nature can really add up. It might sound like a cheap way to spend a weekend, but a simple trip to the woods can easily end up costing hundreds of dollars.

For example, Yellowstone National Park charges a $25 entrance fee and a simple campsite ranges from $15 per night for a basic patch of dirt with nearby vault toilets, to $47.75 for an RV site with hookups. Most people live a distance from popular camping spots, so factor in the never-cheap cost of gas, road meals and snacks. Collecting downed wood is often forbidden, so throw in a $10 bundle of firewood and a quick trip to the camp store for some forgotten s’more ingredients, and your trip budget won’t look so healthy.

But camping doesn’t need to cost a fortune. Take advantage of the cooler weather — and smaller crowds — this fall and use these tips to save on entrance fees, campsite fees, transportation, and more.

Save On Transportation

Before pitching a tent, you have to get to a campsite. While many vacationers enjoy all the comforts of RV rental, it can really add up. From pricey fuel to upgraded camping costs, not to mention dumping fees and more, it’s difficult to save on an RV trip. A more wallet-savvy option would be driving a smaller, fuel-efficient car and throwing a tent in the trunk.

Some national parks, such as Yosemite and Zion, also offer shuttle service, sometimes even requiring it in certain locations during the high season. This eco-friendly solution helps reduce the strain on your favorite parks and also helps cut back on the cost of gas.

Spend Less at National Parks

While the most iconic national parks, including Yosemite and Yellowstone, charge up to $25 per carload for a seven-day pass, 268 of these national treasures do not charge an entrance fee.

To visit a parks that does charge an entrance fee, plan to visit on one of the multiple days with free admission each year. In 2014, these days included Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day weekend, the opening weekend of National Park Week in April, the National Park Service’s August birthday, and National Public Lands Day (September 27) as well as Veterans Day (November 11).

If you’re a frequent park visitor, an $80 annual pass gets you into all parks an unlimited number of times in a 12-month period. The pass also works at other federal recreation sites, including national wildlife refuges, national forests and grasslands, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation areas. Some parks also sell an annual pass that admits you to that particular park an unlimited number of times a year for a lower fee.

Seniors aged 62 and older are eligible for a $10 lifetime pass that not only allows unlimited access to parks and recreation sites, but also offers discounts on certain other fee-based services at those sites, including camping and boat launching. Members of the U.S. military and their dependents can receive a free annual pass. People with permanent disabilities can receive a free Access Pass, which allows free entrance and discounts on certain amenities.

People who like to volunteer can earn a free pass by accumulating at least 250 hours of service with federal agencies (such as the National Park Service).

Alternatives to National Parks

While national parks can provide excellent camping, there are also many other options for low-cost camping. Many Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service areas offers free and low-cost campgrounds.

Well-prepared campers can enjoy “dispersed” camping, which is typically free and often means you find your own patch of dirt and improvise from there. Dispersed camping areas do not typically offer water or restrooms, so bring plenty of water and know how to properly dispose of your waste.

State parks can also offer inexpensive local options, though be sure to check prices, as some state parks can be quite pricey due to budget shortfalls. Yet another option is renting a private backyard.

Save Money on Camping Supplies

Triple check your list before leaving home and make sure you have everything you need for your adventure. I’ve certainly ended up paying three times the normal price for forgotten essentials at small country stores near the campground. Make sure to have marshmallows, matches, old newspaper for kindling, flashlight batteries, stove fuel, paper towels, skewers, trash bags and other easy-to-forget items.

Another way to save money is to bring your own firewood or chop it yourself. Many U.S. Forest Service areas allow people to chop a cord or more of firewood after obtaining an inexpensive permit. Some campsites allow visitors to gather downed wood to use in their fires. Be sure to check local rules and regulations and obtain permits when needed.

However you decide to save on your camping trip, be sure to follow the Leave No Trace principles to help protect the places where you play.

Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.