Camping is not only a great way to get outdoors and bond with family members, but it’s also a fantastic way to take a budget-friendly family vacation to some of the top destinations around the world. We’ve invited Susan Strayer, our colleague and friend from MountainMomandTots.com and budget-friendly guru at Outdoor Mom Academy, to help get you geared up for a memorable and cheap family camping trip. – Jennifer Fontaine, Managing Editor
by Susan Strayer – With more than 1 million new households starting to camp each year since 2014, camping is becoming one of the most popular outdoor recreational activities in North America. It’s growing popularity may be attributed to its awesome money-saving benefits, but more people are getting hooked on camping because they enjoy spending time in nature and connecting with loved ones. In fact, a 2015 study by Kampgrounds of America found that campers are likely to say that camping improves family relationships, with 41 percent of those surveyed stating they “completely agree” with this.
I second the findings in this study. Though cheap family camping saves money on vacations, it’s important to point out that the economic benefits pale in comparison to the one-on-one time spent together, unplugged and soaking up all of the beauty mother nature has to offer. It is true though, for first time campers, getting a family equipped for camping can add up pretty fast. Save yourself money by trying some of these awesome cheap family camping hacks that I discovered while prepping the new class syllabus for Outdoor Mom Academy.
How Much Does Cheap Family Camping Cost?
How much does camping cost? Well, the answer to this question is as varied as there are camping methods. For the purposes of this guide, we will steer clear of mentioning RV, vans, and campers, and just stick to tent/car camping.
It costs around $12 to $25 to spend a night at an inexpensive campground, which is way less than the cost of a hotel room these days. The more popular campsites can cost upwards of $60, depending on the amenities you desire. Of course, the equipment startup costs are high, but once you’re geared up, prices drop dramatically for future family camping trips.
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Cheap Family Camping Resources
Camp close to home. You don’t have to fly or drive to an exotic location to have a family camping adventure. If your goal is to introduce your family to sleeping outdoors, start right where you are, and plan a backyard slumber party. This gives kids the creature comforts of home and allows parents to get the hang of camping without the risk of being stuck, unprepared.
State and Local Parks. If it’s cheap family camping sites you’re looking for, start with your state and county park campgrounds, which are typically run by park rangers, and generally include a fire-pit, charcoal grill, and a picnic table. Camping in a state park has the added bonus of saving you gas money, since you’ll be staying closer to home, while still providing an awesome experience.
Camp for FREE on public lands. If the idea of setting up your tent far from the stare of another human appeals to you, check out the dispersed camping guidelines of the National Forest Service, where you can camp for FREE, if you’re willing to rough it a bit. Similarly, the Bureau of Land Management allows primitive camping off of any of its public access roads in the western US. If you decide to give dispersed camping a go, remember to always practice the principles of Leave No Trace.
Find low cost campsites at Recreation.gov. This is your family’s one-stop resource for advance reservations for Federal facilities and activities such as individual campsites, cabins and lookouts, group campsites, tours, picnic shelters, and wilderness permits. It’s also a great place to get inspired ideas about where to go and what to do once you’re there.
Cheap Family Camping Gear
Buy used. Find good gear at garage sales, thrift stores, Craigslist, ebay, facebook marketplace groups, or classified ads. It’s common for families not to use their camping gear as often as they anticipated, then in a spring cleaning fit, they resell practically new gear at a fraction of the price. This is especially true for kid clothing and gear, because kids grow out of clothes so rapidly, you can get a steal of a deal on used rain gear, snow suits, even used bikes that are still in great condition.
Use what you have. There’s no need to spend a fortune on highly technical gear, if you’re not even sure you’re family will like camping. Test the outdoor waters with last year’s school backpack, instead of the $80 kids’ hiking day pack and throw on the perfectly acceptable pair of tennis shoes, instead of forking over $100 for new hiking boots. If you discover that camping is your family’s spirit guide, then purchasing quality camping and hiking gear should be on your to-do list, but only splurge if you know you’ll be doing it again (and again and again).
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Hand-me-downs. If you have more than one child (or plan to) hand-me-downs are great. Invest in good quality gear that will last through more than one season. For example, I buy snow suits in black so my daughter can use them after my son outgrows them. Some companies design clothing or gear to grow along with your child – sleeping bags, and winter gear especially.
Maintain your gear. Prevent damage and make your gear last longer by properly maintaining your gear.
Give it a good wash down. After camping trips, take the time to wash the dirt and grime off your tent, backpacks, and bikes, paying careful attention to keeping zippers and chains free of debris.
Examine gear after use and before storage, repair rips and make sure everything is dry to prevent mildew and mold.
Re-waterproof. Many might not know this, but if you own a waterproof sleeping bag, waterproof jacket, or any gear that is waterproof, it requires re-waterproofing, especially after heavy use or washing.
Repair camping gear that gets damaged. Investing in a good camping repair kit is an important way to make sure cheap family camping stays cheap. Patching up tears in your tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, backpacks, and clothing means you don’t have to spend more money on replacement gear. And if you get stuck, duct tape is a miracle gear patch quick fix!
Rent it first. If you’re not ready to invest in gear of your own – or if you don’t have the space to store it – consider renting cheap family camping gear. Many places will rent tents and sleeping bags, especially outdoor shops connected to universities, or gear shops near your destination. For example, the outdoor gear shop at our local university rents bikes, tents, dutch ovens, climbing equipment, rafts, canoes, climbing equipment, skis, snowboards, snowshoes, and even yard games like croquet.
Shop sales. The Fall is the best time to find deals on summer gear. Seasonal products generally go on sale in August and February as retailers are looking to move out inventory to make room for the next season.
Shop at a discount retailer. If you’re okay with gear that’s so last season or discontinued styles, check out discount retailers like Sierra Trading Post, REI garage, and the Clymb, that sell new gear at great prices.
Ask for a pro deal. Several gear manufacturers including Patagonia, Kelty, and Sierra Designs offer pro deals for people who work or volunteer in the outdoor industry. Pro deals can get you 40 to 60 percent off the retail price. There are qualifying restrictions, but some people who can apply for pro deals include first responders, law enforcement, active members of the US or Canadian military, media, and people otherwise involved in the promotion or protection of outdoor spaces.
Good gear is worth the investment. If you know you’ll be camping for years to come, invest in high quality gear that will last. The sleeping bag I use is more than fifteen years old and it still works great. Good gear that doesn’t wear out easily saves you money in the long run. For our family a good waterproof tent and snow gear that actually keeps kids warm was really worth the extra investment.
Pro Tip: Create a Kid Camping Bin that’s full of your little’s most favorite activities
Cheap Family Camping Activities
Camping for me is often centered around an outdoor activity, whether that’s hiking, boating, mountain biking or skiing. Here are five cheap family camping activities.
Swimming – My husband’s favorite summertime activity is finding swimming holes. Rivers, lakes, hot springs, whatever – if it’s deep enough and calm enough to jump in, he’s there. Swimming is a great inexpensive outdoor activity because you can just jump in! If there’s a state park around a lake or river where you live, typically you can go and swim for a minimal day use fee.
Fishing – If you’ve got the gear, fishing can be a great low cost outdoor activity. Best of all, save on food costs by eating what you catch!
Hiking – The top of the list for cheap family camping activities, in my opinion is hiking. The essential gear for hiking is hiking boots, a water bottle, and perhaps a baby carrier. Obviously, if you want to hike for longer than a half mile you would include snacks, a first aid kit, sun protection, and day pack, but hiking can be an inexpensive activity to do that gets everyone outdoors and active.
Geocaching – If your kids are like mine, they love a good treasure hunt! Geocaching is one way to have fun while camping, without spending a fortune. We love Dr. B’s Geocaching Beginner Kit, if you’re just getting started.
Stargazing – One of the best parts of camping for me is observing the night sky. This inexpensive activity just requires you to stay up late and look up. Not sure what to look for? Get a night sky star chart and head to one of several National Parks like Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah and Great Basin National Park in Nevada that are designated as International Dark Sky parks. Don’t forget to check out their free astronomy programs.
Susan Strayer chronicles her family’s outdoor adventures on the blog MountainMomandTots.com. When she’s not hiking, camping, biking and snowboarding, she teaches about Family Camping and Outdoor Adventures on a Budget in the in the online Outdoor Mom Academy course.