The summer camping season is in full swing, and you might be thinking about packing up the family truckster and heading to the woods. But don’t think that skipping the hotel means your forest vacation is going to be cheap: camping can put a serious ding in your wallet!
Here are six tips to soften the blow.
1. Check the fees
Almost all campgrounds charge a fee, and they range widely. State and national parks are, in general, less expensive than commercial campgrounds. Commercial campgrounds often have swimming pools, game rooms, organized activities and such, so if that’s what you like when camping, just expect to pay more. But even state and national parks can sometimes get costly — expect to pay anywhere from $7 to $30 per night.
For state campgrounds, the costs will be higher for non-residents. Some state campgrounds hit you with a double fee — one fee to be in the park in the first place, and another to camp. Spaces with electricity usually cost more, as do campgrounds with access to showers and other facilities. The bottom line: Check before you go. You’ll probably want to make reservations anyway, so calling ahead (or checking online) is a wise move.
2. Make a list
One of the most common budget-breakers on a camping trip is forgetting some essential item, like insect repellant or sunscreen, and having to buy it at a convenience store or camp store instead of your usual big box store. You’ll be amazed at how much more a can of Off! costs at the state park snackbar vs. your neighborhood Target.
To avoid those last-minute purchases, start working on a list of things to bring at least a few days in advance of your outdoor adventure, and then schedule a trip to your favorite big box store a day or two beforehand.
3. Prep your food in advance
A huge part of the camping experience is eating, and you’ll save lots of money on food if you plan your menus in advance and prep what you can. Running out to Burger King in the morning because you forgot breakfast food would be a serious drag, both financially and in terms of the camping mood.
In addition to meals, bring lots of low-cost snacks. A bag of apples, peanuts in the shell, or homemade trail mix can go a long way to feed hungry kids, and will cost a lot less than the food at the campground or in the convenience store outside the park.
You could easily drop $1,000 on equipment for a simple camping trip, but unless you’re a serious, multi-camping-trip-per-year type of family, save that money and borrow equipment instead. Or at least buy it used! Your friends probably have a tent and sleeping bags that they use as infrequently as you do, so ask if you can borrow them.
The same goes for camp stoves, camp furniture, and any other such stuff. Craigslist or your local newspaper’s classifieds are also great places to find deals on camping equipment, especially if you don’t need top-of-the-line stuff.
5. Go simple
The basics of camping — sleeping in a tent, hiking through the woods, swimming in a pond — are more than enough fun for most families. Resist the temptation to bring all of your big outdoor gear along, such as your fishing boat, motorized scooter, or, heaven forbid, your RV.
Each of these extras will jack up your bill one way or another, either on fuel or on extra fees — not to mention the cost to buy these things in the first place. Even fishing will cost you a few extra bucks — equipment, licenses, and bait — so if budget is your main concern, don’t plan on eating fresh-caught trout during this outing. Face it, you probably weren’t going to catch anything worth eating anyway!
6. Plan activities
In a slight contradiction to the previous point, even though camping in and of itself is fun, you should still plan activities to help you resist the temptation to run off to the nearby mini-golf course or movie theater if you get bored. Many campgrounds offer organized activities such as nature walks, so consider those. Also bring along a deck of cards and some favorite board games.
If you decide to ban electronics — please tell your kids to leave their Gameboys at home — you’ll be amazed at how much everyone enjoys a game of rummy or Monopoly. Those family memories will last forever.
Camping is a fun, relaxing, and often inexpensive vacation. Follow these tips and you can make sure that last point comes true.