7 Ways to Save Money on a Camping Trip

People in tent and out at campgroundfeel out of tent with two people in background
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Ready to tackle the great outdoors? Here’s how to enjoy camping without putting a huge dent in your travel budget.

Planning a camping trip? Be prepared to open your wallet. Adult campers spent an average of $546 on camping gear alone in 2016, according to the 2017 American Camper Report from Coleman Company, Inc. and The Outdoor Foundation. And when you factor in expenses for food, permits, and transportation, your camping budget could quickly go up in flames.

The upshot? There are ways to cut costs without putting a damper on your camping trip. Here’s how.

1. AVOID EXPENSIVE CAMPGROUNDS

Many campsites and parks require campers to pay a nightly rate. These costs can range significantly. There are high-end campgrounds like Camp Gulf in Miramar Beach, FL, where a beachfront camping pass costs $219 per night during the summer. In general though, a camping permit costs around $12 to $25 per night. However, there are also a number of free campgrounds where you can pitch a tent or park an RV without coughing up dough, including an array of federal lands such as those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). To find one near you, use Freecampsites.net or Campendium.com.

Pro tip: Many campgrounds charge less for night passes in the middle of the week. It’s also generally easier to get a reservation than camping on a weekend.

If you’re planning on taking several camping trips during the year, consider buying the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands annual pass. It’s $80 and it covers entrance fees at more than 2,000 national parks and national wildlife refuges, as well as standard amenity fees at national forests and grasslands. Current U.S. Military and their dependents can get a free annual pass; seniors age 62 or older can get a $20 pass.

2. STAY CLOSE TO HOME

Getting to and from your camping destination matters—the further the drive, the more you’ll have to spend on gas. A simple solution: find a campsite that’s within short driving distance from your home.

3. BORROW OR RENT CAMPING EQUIPMENT

High-quality camping gear and equipment can be expensive, but you don’t want to cheap out either. (Picture this nightmare: you buy a cheap tent, but it blows over during a storm.) Instead of purchasing your own equipment, consider borrowing from a friend or renting from a shop like REI Co-op, which lets you rent gear in 12 states (rei.com).

Have your heart set on buying your own gear? Purchase lightly used gear from a resale shop or website like Switchback Gear Exchange (goswitchback.com), which sells used sleeping bags, tents, water filters, and camping accessories.

4. SKIP PREPACKAGED MEALS 

A lot of prepackaged meals are expensive—and they’re not always tasty. Cooking your own food while camping out requires some extra effort, but it can be a great way to save money. Another cost saving measure? Instead of buying a portable grill or burner, bring food that you can prepare over a campfire. All you need is a little aluminum foil. (Do a simple Google search for “Foil-Wrapped Camping Recipes.”)

5. DITCH BOTTLED WATER & OTHER DISPOSABLES

This one might seem obvious, but a lot of campers still make the mistake of buying and lugging a case of bottled water with them. To save money and protect the environment, bring a reusable water bottle. If you won’t have access to fountains, make sure you buy a bottle with a filter. (Brita sells one for $8.88 on Amazon.)

Forget about bringing disposable products like paper plates, cups, and silverware as well. Real dishes and flatware are easier to eat with and only take a few minutes to wash off—and they’ll save you money over time. Taking a family trip? Consider a four-person dinner kit.

6. EXPLORE FREE CAMPING ACTIVITIES

Waterfront campsites often offer kayak and boat rentals but they can be expensive. Look for free ways to enjoy the great outdoors. Explore walking trails, fishing, hiking, and biking paths. Bring board games to pass the time on rainy days. And after the sun sets, lie down and enjoy stargazing.

7. STAY FOR FREE BY VOLUNTEERING 

Willing to trade a little labor for a free camping pass? A number of campsites and RV parks offer volunteer, or even paid “workamping” positions, in exchange for free access to the grounds. Not all of these jobs are glamorous, though. Janitor positions are often in demand. Still, these jobs can help you save a ton of money, and maybe even make a little extra cash. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to meet other outdoor enthusiasts and make friends for your next camping trip.

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