Outdoor adventure can get expensive if you let it. There are many expenses involved that people either don’t anticipate or simply accept as part of the deal. But take it from me, camping doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive.
As avid outdoor enthusiasts, my husband and I have mastered the art of camping for free. I’m not talking about just pitching a tent in our backyard, either. We’ve camped by ourselves and with our kids all over the country in beautiful places, in all seasons of the year. Here’s how we do it.
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Never Pay for a Campsite
Perhaps the first camping cost you think of is the site fee. In some areas, the price for a campground rivals the price of a cheap motel. We never pay for campsites that charge an arm and a leg for a tiny flat spot with a fire pit.
So, how do we do it? We take advantage of the millions of acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in the United States. Did you know that you can camp for free on most of this public land? It’s called dispersed camping — and it’s not complicated. Plus, you’ll get more privacy and a much better outdoor experience.
Gather Your Own Firewood
It makes my frugal stomach churn to see the price that grocery stores and mini-marts charge for bundles of wood. You aren’t just burning the wood — you’re burning a lot of cash. We never buy firewood.
Collecting “dead and down” wood is easy and totally allowed in a national forest area. We aim for pieces no thicker than our wrists and no longer than our arms. We’re careful to keep things safe, leave no trace and follow the rules for fire permits for wherever we are.
Bring Food and Drinks From Home
Do you know the key to gourmet camping meals? It’s cooking regular dishes in the wild. Seriously, the great outdoors can turn what would be an average indoor meal into a Pinterest-worthy feast.
We don’t make an extra trip to the grocery store to prepare for a camping trip. We just shop out of our pantry and freezer. Cheesy Dutch oven spaghetti is a family favorite made from pantry staples. An apple cobbler made from scratch beats s’mores any day.
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Our favorite drink when we’re camping is water. Rather than buying a case of disposable water bottles, we fill our water bottles at home. We’ll grab several large water bottles (former juice containers) from our emergency water storage so we have plenty to drink, wash and cook with.
Don't Buy Ice
Instead of buying bags of ice from the grocery store, we freeze our own. As I fill water bottles to bring on the trip, I stick them in the freezer. They serve as ice for the cooler, as well as future hydration.
Also, when I’m gathering ingredients for our camping menu, I freeze anything I can. If I need to, I put ice from our freezer’s ice maker into freezer bags. The best part (besides being free) is that the cooler doesn’t turn into a swampy mess by day two.
Sleeping Bags and Tents Are Optional
Before everyone in our family had their own sleeping bag, we would just bring lots of blankets. Sometimes we still do. Blankets are actually easier for younger kids who have a hard time staying in a sleeping bag. When we are “car camping” (as opposed to backpacking), it doesn’t matter if our bedding is bulky.
We slept under the stars for years before investing in a family tent. When you’re out in nature instead of crowded into a tiny flat spot with a fire pit, you have the whole place to yourself. We bring a tarp as a ground cover and enjoy the gorgeous view all night.
Don’t let tight finances force you into a staycation this summer. Stay on track with your financial goals and have fun too. Take your family out for a frugal camping adventure.
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