Camping the frugal way

May 16, 2012

Victoria Day is just around the corner. While I know we get the day off to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, I associate the day with camping. We’ve gone camping every year since I was 14. It helps that out family owns a cottage 2 hours away or that the camp grounds are 5 min drive from my house. I have a huge extended family, along with 3 siblings and Victoria Day long weekend is normally the first weekend of the year that all the families get together. Naturally the holiday holds a special place in my heart.

Camping vacations have been a popular choice for families for many years. Family budgets are often tight, so camping is sometimes the only affordable means to get away on vacation for a reasonable amount of money. However, it is still not free.

If you have a limited vacation budget, but you would still like to take the family on a nice camping trip, there are several ways to cut costs.


Borrow From Friends or Family

If you have friends and family who like to go camping a lot, chances are you can borrow some of their items for your trip. Unless you go camping all the time, there really is little reason to buy a lot of camping equipment. Most people are more than willing to loan their camping stuff so it gets used regularly, keeping it from moulding or rusting.

Take advantage of the generosity of your camping relatives and friends by borrowing things like canteens, water jugs, camp stoves, lanterns, coolers, coffee maker, griddle, heater, and even camping dishes and cutlery. Of course, you’ll want to borrow the tents, as well as sleeping mattresses and sleeping bags, if possible. However, for a small investment, you can buy your own sleeping bags, pillows, and extra bedding just so you have your own personal items.


Buy Second Hand Items

Walk into any quality second hand store and you’ll find piles of gently used camping equipment. That’s because there are always people who make the mistake of thinking they’re going to devote their vacation time to the camping experience, buy all new equipment, and find out they should have borrowed or bought second hand before they splurged. With that said, you can take advantage of these hasty decisions by buying camping gear for next to nothing.

Visit yard sales and flea markets, too, for gear that is practically free for the asking. Tents may need to be aired out and scrubbed well, but a little elbow-grease goes a long way toward the cost of a brand new tent. Used sleeping bags may not be as appealing as other equipment, but consider buying used sleeping bags for extra padding underneath your air mattresses, or for sitting around the campfire. A little diluted bleach goes a long way to sprucing up, freshening up, and getting the mold and mildew out of used gear.


Find Gear and Campsite Deals Online

Not only can you find specialized second hand camping sites like The Outdoor Gear Exchange , MEC, or Outdoor Online, you can also hit up the classifieds like Craigslist, and Kijiji for some great local deals. Keep in mind that shopping online can involve shipping if you are not shopping locally. Do the math before you make your decision.

Of course, besides the camping gear and supplies, you’ll need to plan out where you will be staying. Your shoestring vacation budget might not allow for a trip to Yosemite, but you can find many fine parks that offer great deals right along with their magnificent vistas.

If you’re in the States you might want to visit sites like or and others like them that give you resources for finding places to camp free. Campers also love to share their favorite finds in websites and forums. Search around the internet and start clicking on interesting looking sites, but always check the authenticity of a free campsite by calling the local tourist bureau.


Plan Your Camp Cuisine

The best part! As far as food choices go, camping calls for easy meals, but there is a wide variety of food to consider. Stocking coolers with sandwiches, fruit, and drinks may be your idea of the perfect camping experience. Or, you may want to have the makings ready so you can throw together a nice meal. Trust me, as kids, we didn’t care what we ate. I tried more things camping than I did the entire year at home. Camping makes kids adventurous.

Your decision may depend on the equipment and cooking setup you have available. If you are using a camp stove, you can make just about anything you want as long as it can be cooked in a pot or skillet. Of course, the size of the stove and the amount of propane will limit your menu, but just be creative. You can make everything from soup to fried potatoes to hamburgers and steak on a camp stove, so long as you bring the necessary pots and pans.

Then there are the campfires and grills. If you are fortunate enough to have a campsite with either, or both, your cooking experience could include a whole repertoire of goodies. It will all depend on how much time you want to spend cooking, and the availability of food. Planning ahead is the key to success.

Cleaning up may not be easy, so that may help determine the types of meals you make. To avoid a mess, try making all-in-one meals in heavy duty foil for the grill. A foil bundle hot off the grill filled with potatoes, ham, and onions is a nice treat after a busy day hiking or boating. Kids always enjoy hotdogs over a campfire. Plan each meal in advance and you won’t go wrong.

And, don’t forget dessert! Marshmallows roasted over an open fire are a delight for all ages, and they are extremely cheap. Expand on that theme with something as simple as graham crackers and chocolate bars and you have the perfect camping dessert ñ S’mores. Who needs a fancy dessert cart?

Taking the family camping is a learning experience. Each year, you’ll figure out how to do things better, and cheaper. Start small, and if it turns out you are in love with ‘roughing it’ then go ahead and branch out. Keep the frugal camping basics in mind, and enjoy the great outdoors.

Oh and bring headphones if you need time for yourself, and  want to tune the rest of the world out. 

What are your most frugal camping tips?



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  • Echo May 16, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    We go camping every summer at Moyie Lake in south east BC. No matter how frugal we try to be, it never fails that we head into town to buy something that we forgot, or that we think we need.

    Now that we own most of our camping equipment and have it packed away neatly, I’m hoping the next camping trip is a truly frugal vacation.

    • Marissa May 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm

      It should be. Camping equipment is a great investment.

  • Sean @ One Smart Dollar May 16, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Great article. Most people think of camping as being an cheap vacation. The expenses can really add up when you buy all of your gear and supplies.

    • Marissa May 16, 2012 at 4:41 pm

      Yes, but you only have to buy the gear once.

  • Modest Money May 16, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Growing up I was out camping all the time. For me it was always a very inexpensive activity. If you don’t own all the gear though, it could definitely get pricey. When you consider how much use you can get out of that stuff though, it’s really not that bad. Buying some of that gear used is definitely a good idea. I haven’t gone camping in a while, but I’m itching to go again now. The smores are calling my name!

    • Marissa May 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm

      You should think about it for this weekend.

  • Tammy May 16, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    The nice thing about camping is that so long as you store your items well, they last a long time. I initially bought cheap/second hand (and shamelessly borrowed friends’ gear) to see if I even liked camping. As I went out more and more, I learned where the money should be spent – I want to be able to stand up in the tent, so I will pay extra for that privilege. Now that I am pretty well stocked, all that I need is food, ice, and to lug all the stuff!

    • Marissa May 16, 2012 at 4:40 pm

      I’m short so I can stand up in almost any tent 😉

  • Justin @ The Family Finances May 16, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    My father-in-law is a huge camping guy, so we usually just borrow most everything from him. It really saves us a ton.

    • Marissa May 16, 2012 at 4:43 pm

      Oh, nice. We had to borrow from friends until we invested and got all of our own stuff.

  • Broke Professionals May 16, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    My husband’s family is BIG into camping, rugged style. My family’s version of camping has always been renting a luxury log cabin in the mountains. My husband’s version is definitely more affordable. (By the way, I thought your title read “campaigning” the frugal way, and I thought, “hmmm, that’ll be interesting!”)

    • Marissa May 17, 2012 at 1:55 am

      Thats a great idea for a post!

  • From Shopping to Saving May 16, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    I love camping! It’s especially fun for a huge family, since we get to all bond and spend time together away from electronics. It’s most fun for the little kids because it’s a new experience. We go camping (or at least try to) every summer by the beach. We bring boogie boards, bikes, tents, air mattresses, cookware, and BBQ grill. It’s so much fun. I don’t really like sleeping on the ground, but all in all, it develops teamwork and like you said – it is AFFORDABLE!

    You got all the tips right, and I would say to just bring as much stuff as you can so that you don’t get bored and don’t resort to buying something else while you are camping. A good tent and good camping gear are great investments.

    • Marissa May 17, 2012 at 1:56 am

      I agree!

  • Katie May 16, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    I used to go camping all the time with my family. I absolutely loved it when I was a kid. Now that I don’t go so often I always borrow the gear from other family members.

    • Marissa May 17, 2012 at 1:55 am

      Thats what family is for.

  • Jefferson May 17, 2012 at 5:20 am

    I am not a big camper but have a Cub Scout camp planned for next month with my son.. We don’t have a lot of equipment, and I am still trying to decide if I will buy it or borrow from friends..

    • Marissa May 17, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      I would borrow this time around and get a feel for it. If it seems like your son really enjoys it then perhaps you can purchase the equipment.

  • Kris @ BalancingMoneyandLife May 17, 2012 at 5:16 am

    Camping can be a great frugal activity! Before I had kids, a small 2 man tent and some blankets were all we needed, and we got the tent on sale for about $30. (Yes, it was years ago – my son turns 16 this year).

    Now, we have pretty much all the gear we could want, we can spend some very inexpensive weekends camping with the family in the fresh air and sunshine!

    • Marissa May 17, 2012 at 3:25 pm

      The best part of camping for me is always the time I get to spend with my family and friends in a setting that doesn’t involve any electronics. And yes, camping equipment is a great investment since the subsequent trips are almost free.

  • May 17, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Best tip (bearing in mind I am over the pond in Scotland) – remember to pack the hot water bottles – you can put up with just about anything if you can snuggle up nice and cosy.

    And get each member of the family to choose one meal – then everyone gets their favourites.

    • Marissa May 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm

      Does it get that cold?

      And great idea about the meals. We always end up fighting over who gets to pick what we eat.

  • Christa May 17, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    We love to camp, and we’ve learned a few tricks that work for us over the years. We prefer a camp site that’s secluded, but that doesn’t always mean easy access to supplies. So we now backpack camp with easy access foods like trail mix, granola bars, fruit and (of course) the makings for smores. This cuts down on the many trips we used to make from the car to the campsite half a mile away. In the future, with kids in tow, we’ll have to find a campsite closer to the car, though!

  • Tackling Our Debt May 17, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    I miss camping in Ontario. We use to go to Wasaga Beach. I like the idea of being able to go swimming when we went camping. One year we needed a bigger tent then the one we had so we rented a nice one for the weekend. There is so much camping equipment that you can rent instead of buy which is an option if someone doesn’t go very often.

  • Tri May 18, 2012 at 5:39 am

    It’s also good to plan your food and buy them days in advance to get the best deals. You can easily save 50% off of your food if you are able to plan in advance to get the best deals. $2 hot dog buns instead of $4 hot dog buns might not seem like much but those little savings add up.

  • Paul @ The Frugal Toad May 18, 2012 at 6:05 am

    I do a Father/Daughter camping trip every summer, love it! The great thing about camping is it’s so easy to find fun things to do that don’t cost anything: bike rides, hiking, photography…and the list goes on. One of our favorite things to do at night is play cards and have smores!

  • Little House May 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    I can’t say we camp on a shoestring budget, but now that we had all the gear that we’ve purchased over the years, I can say that camping is still a frugal vacation. Depending on where we camp, our camp site costs about $10 – 25 per night, though in other states there are areas that don’t charge a fee. I love just hanging out in nature. It’s a great way to unwind.

  • Steve Zussino - Canadian Coupons May 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    We love camping – now with an infant daughter we will not be able to go this year but we would love to figure out how (any ideas)?

    Nothing beats breakast in the morning while camping – just the lack of a shower in BC is frustrating (grounds are better in Alberta).

  • Careful Cents May 20, 2012 at 3:08 am

    I love camping too! My family owns a cabin and several acres on a river in Arkansas, we go there every year during the summer and sometimes for Thanksgiving or Christmas. The tip about looking for equipment from thrift stores and yard sales is GENIUS! It’s true that lots of people want to be camping enthusiasts but they run out of time or can’t do as often as they’d like. We’ve found some great deals this way.

    One of my friends used to buy canned ravioli and eat it straight out of the can – cold. She never had to pack or pay for propane so I guess that’s the up side. Lol. Also, s’mores are a must and are one of my favorite things about camping. As are the headphones – I seriously don’t leave home without them. Sometimes we get so used to being indoors, the sounds of mother nature can make it hard to fall asleep.

    • Marissa May 20, 2012 at 9:18 pm

      Canned ravioli is kinda gross, saving money for the win!

  • femmefrugality May 20, 2012 at 5:14 am

    Totally got my tent and air mattress (no, I’m not hardcore) off craigslist. They were in new-near new condition. $50 for the whole shebang.

    • Marissa May 20, 2012 at 9:19 pm

      If I wasn’t creeped out by craigslist, I’d be all over it!

  • debt settlement May 31, 2012 at 10:41 am

    interesting article. most men and women think of camping as being an affordable vacation. The expenses can really add up as you buy all of your gear and supplies.