Even though inexpensive holidays is one of the many benefits of camping, costs can still blow the budget, especially if you are starting out camping.
In this article, we list in this one place our budget camping ideas and cost saving tips. This list is long, but bear with us, there's nothing here that doesn't need to be here for the camping budget conscious.
So, whether your camping days are just beginning, or are in full swing, there are plenty of savings to be made in our tips for camping on a budget.
Before you go camping:
1: Develop a camping spending plan
Develop a spending plan of all of the things you need or want to buy for camping and prioritise each item. Armed with this list, you are less likely to be tempted by the latest gadget to catch your eye, and you can sit back and patiently wait for the store discounts.
Members can access a copy of our editable spending plan in The Campus.
2. Develop a packing checklist
A complete packing checklist is essential for budget camping in ensuring nothing important is left behind, forcing you to either go without or pay top price at a local store for something you really don’t need to double up on. This includes first aid items, recipe ingredients, clothing, footwear and tools.
3: Plan and prepare for a camping trip
Planning, or lack thereof, is another area which can make a big difference to your costs when you are camping on a budget. Establish a checklist to help you prepare for camping, including advanced research of your location to be ready for the expected conditions and to take advantage of the activities and opportunities on offer.
You will also be properly equipped to avoid the need to outlay money on items for a particular activity that you already have at home, such as fishing rods, wet or hot weather gear and sporting gear.
Members can access a copy of our preparing for camping checklist in The Campus.
4: Choose lower cost or free campsites
There are numerous websites out there that can help you to find a campsite in the low-cost or free price bracket. Alternatively, premium campgrounds are also more competitively priced away from peak holiday periods.
Your Camping Setup
When building up your camping setup:
5: Stick to the basics
Camping is a pretty big business nowadays, and a far cry from its simple beginnings. When you are building up your camping setup, focus on what you need to be able to camp comfortably and safely, and forget the bells and whistles. We’re not saying you shouldn’t indulge yourself eventually, but just not now if you want to keep your camping costs down.
6: Avoid or defer unnecessary accessories
Product accessories can also significantly add to your camping costs, especially in relation to tents. Sometimes they can almost add up to the price of the item they are being accessorised with.
Accessories can really add value to your camping, and some might come in handy initially, but buy only what you need when you decide you need it. Consider cheaper alternatives as well, such as shade cloth off-cuts from the hardware store instead of a tent floor saver accessory.
And then there’s all of the car, four wheel driving and RV accessories. Some if not many are important and necessary, but are they all?
7: Buy well and buy once
Avoid the cheap bargains that seem too good to be true and buy good quality and long-lasting gear, especially in relation to key camping items, such as tents, sleeping gear and chairs. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive item choice either, as long as you are satisfied it will last the distance. Most of our kitchenware is sourced from thrift or cheaper department stores and is still going strong after many camping trips.
Good quality and durable equipment will also make camping more enjoyable, will serve you well for years to come and will also maintain a decent resale value.
8: Buy second hand
Some good-quality tents and other products can be purchased second hand at a significant cost saving. In fact, our current tent and accessories were purchased second hand at a $500 saving.
If you are aiming for a good quality tent in the long term, save money by starting with a cheaper second hand one until you are confident you have decided on the best setup for you, or if you are new to camping, whether you’re going to enjoy it at all.
9: Borrow gear
People can be pretty cagey about lending out their camping gear, at least the good stuff anyway, so don’t be surprised if they say no, are evasive or have suddenly expressed a desire to go camping at the same time as well. That said, if you are the reliable type, you might just get a yes and save some money.
10: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
As new items come onto the market, the temptation to ditch the old in favour of the new can overshadow all reasoning. Rather than buying the latest and more up to date model, if you have no good or practical reason to ditch your trusty old gear, then stick with it.
11: Check out the home and in thrift, department or hardware stores
Sometimes durable and long-lasting items are found where you might least expect it. When you are camping on a budget, rather than shopping for everything in specialised camping and hiking stores, look around the home and check out cheaper thrift, department, hardware and charity stores.
12: Defray camping costs with Christmas and birthday gifts
Whether for your children, grandchildren, partner, friends or extended family members, gift giving is often a thankless undertaking and fraught with a certain level of anxiety. We’re always looking for great gift ideas for our loved ones that will be used and appreciated, and a contribution to their camping holidays would be an ideal solution.
Consider giving individual camping related gifts or making a contribution towards a larger one, such as a good quality tent or sleeping mat / bag. To make sure you get what you need, word people up on your exact wish list.
13: Establish a self-sufficient camping setup
The less reliance you have on campsites with a power supply, bathroom facilities and/or a water supply, the greater flexibility you will have to seek out free or low-cost campsites that don’t have these types of facilities built into their fees and charges. Even just self-sufficiency as far as your power supply goes can save you the added cost of a powered site.
Most fully self-sufficient camping involves some kind of RV (camper trailer, caravan or motorhome) but car campers can get close with a self-sufficient power setup, a portable shower pump, a toilet / shower tent for privacy if necessary and a campsite with a water supply and toilet facilities. Just steer clear of sites designated for “self-contained” campers who are generally required to carry everything into their campsite, including toilet facilities and water. They need to carry it all out as well, including waste water.
14: Avoid disposable battery powered items
Disposable battery-operated devices might be cost effective to buy, but over time the financial costs of disposable batteries add up, as well as the environmental cost. Where possible, choose items such as lighting and electronic devices that can be recharged, and if not, choose products that run efficiently on a minimal number of AA and AAA batteries.
Kitchen and Cooking
In the camp kitchen:
15: Keep food costs down
Camping isn’t a time to explore your inner Masterchef, and nor is it a time (in our opinion) to test out all of the local cafes and restaurants. The odd meal cooked by someone else is obviously welcome, but a good selection of easy and familiar family favourite recipes can really reduce your camping holiday costs, whether they are cooked over gas or a fire.
When grocery shopping and cooking:
- Use regular ingredients which you can easily find on the road, and avoid any single use ingredients you find unless you will use the entire quantity
- Don’t overly complicate your meals as the more difficult they are to make the more ingredients and equipment you will need – we only cook meals that require no more than a pot and a pan and two gas burners operating at the same time
- Be creative and use what you already have in your camp pantry and fridge rather than buying more ingredients for a particular recipe, especially in the lead up to departure day
- Don’t cook or buy excess quantities of perishable food to avoid food wastage, and if you are in a remote area and unsure when you will next get to a store, stock up with non-perishable items that won’t go to waste
- Bring ingredients you can comfortably transport from home rather than buying them on the road, especially in relation to smaller quantities and where you don’t need the whole packet or container, such as spices, spreads, sauces, condiments and dried food
- Avoid recipes with long cook times when cooking on gas to reduce the amount of gas you will use
16: Share meals
Take advantage of the economies of scale of larger camping groups by cooking in bulk to cater for the group. You will save money on food and gas as well as time spent in the kitchen.
17: BYO picnic lunches
A lot of money can be saved by packing a picnic lunch and avoiding take away food. Include stackable containers in your camping setup large enough to hold enough sandwiches or rolls, fruit and other snacks to cater for your family or group.
18: Don’t pay for water
Paying for water can significantly add to your costs, which isn't going to help when you are camping on a budget, and it isn't good for the environment either. Bring as much water as you can with you from home together with a container or bucket to hold it at the campsite, and a full reusable water bottle for everyone. Arm yourself with a water filter if concerned about water quality on the road. Your hip pocket as well as the environment will thank you.
19: Freeze your own ice
Containers of water, water bottles and cooked meals can be frozen at home and used to keep your camp fridge cool on the road to save a few bucks on purchasing ice.
Transportation and Travelling
We all have to get to and from our campsite somehow, and traveling safely is paramount. Significant cost savings can be made in relation to your transportation options:
20: Ditch the hitch
This point will be sacrilegious to many trailer and RV owners out there, but the main premise for this whole website is to camp without a trailer, and by that we mean standard trailers as well as all of the different types of RVs. Our main issue about trailers is finding a place for storage when so many of us live in smaller properties, but cost is a big issue as well.
Trailers and RVs definitely have their place in the market, but they make a huge dent in the budget in terms of the initial capital outlay, storage costs, accessories, maintenance, insurance, fuel efficiency, and car size and towing capacity. If you must, the smaller the rig the lower your costs will be.
If you want to learn more about how to avoid the need for a trailer, check The Campus, in particular our camping setup for beginners article, and for ideas on how to pack it, go to our how to pack your car for camping article.
21: Don’t buy a larger car than you need
Another big cost associated with camping is the car you use to transport everything and everyone to and from the campsite. Too many people buy a car that is far bigger and more costly to own and run than they really need.
You will find in The Campus our section on helping you to choose your car for camping, including the importance of safely packing and loading your car and keeping within its payload or load carrying capacity. We’re not talking about a small size car for a family, but you don’t necessarily need an excessively large car either.
If you are looking for a car in the mid-size range, you can also check out in The Campus our best mid-size car for camping review.
22: Hire a car
You may have no current desire to even own a car let alone a mid-size or above one large enough to transport you, your family and all of your gear just for the few weeks of the year you might need it for camping holidays. If you fall into this category, a hire car can be a much more cost-effective option than owning and running one full time.
The car you hire will really depend on what your car hire company has to offer, and there are some pitfalls to this arrangement as we discuss in The Campus in our hiring a car for camping article. You might think you have booked a suitable vehicle only to find you are given something similar but quite different in terms of your desired load carrying capacity and cargo capacity.
You may find there will be limitations to what, if anything, you can transport via the car roof or tow bar. If the passenger seats are occupied and the rear cargo area is your only option for transporting gear, to keep the volume of your gear down you will need to ensure your tent isn’t too bulky when packed up, and acquaint yourself with the local hiking store for more compact bedding and clothing options.
Vehicles to consider in the first instance would be “people movers”, vans and dual cab utes with an enclosed canopy, all of which will have a larger internal cargo space. Regardless, in advance of your departure date you will still need to be satisfied that the type of vehicle you will be hiring can actually safely transport everything and everyone.
If you need to hire a car, consider hiring a campervan or motor home instead and half of your camping setup is taken care of.
23: Strap gear directly to the roof racks
Securing camping gear to the roof racks of your car is a very popular way to transport some of your camping gear, but accessories, such as roof boxes, trays and baskets and cargo bags, come at a significant expense. The alternative of strapping gear directly to the roof racks of your car is a great and low-cost alternative if done safely.
Check out our detailed instructions how to safely tie gear to the roof racks.
And anything else?
24: Maintain your camping gear
Keep all of your gear in good order by attending to repairs and maintenance as soon as possible to prevent it from deteriorating to the point of no return. The most convenient place for this is at the campsite when it is all set up. If that’s not possible, extend the useful life of your gear by drying out anything damp or wet as soon as you return home, and make a time early in between camping trips to do any running repairs and maintenance.
25: Camp with others and share the load
Significant cost savings can be achieved when you camp as a group and pool your resources. You can delay the purchase of certain camping items, share in the cost of campsites and other costs, and buy in bulk, especially in relation to food. You can also ease your packing issues if you are having trouble packing the car for camping.
In fact, since 2013, we’ve been doing just that – three families enjoying a week long beachside camping getaway during the autumn school holidays (pictured below).
While there are things you will each need to bring yourself (tent, chair, bedding, lighting, dinnerware, personal items), one camp kitchen with a second fridge, an extra pot and pan and one to two extra tables can adequately cater for 8-10 people. Likewise, one or two central shelters / marquees could provide outdoor shelter for a larger group, not everyone needs to bring a cricket set or basketball, and apart from the hammer / mattock, not everyone needs their own camping toolkit.
In your pre-planning though, make sure everyone knows what they are expected to bring, and most importantly, when. You don’t want to turn up to the campsite to find the person bringing the one gas cooking stove won’t arrive until the following day or didn’t realise they were to bring it.
Run your eye down your packing checklist and think about what other items can be shared amongst your group.
26: Seek out free or low-cost activities
There is a plethora of free and low-cost activities to keep everyone entertained in the great outdoors. Make your own fun with the usual fishing, hiking, ball games, card and board games, swimming, astronomy, cycling and of course twister! Check also for what’s on in the local information centres, websites and any nature-based activities organised by local park managers.
27: Avoid the false economy
As well as buying good quality and long-lasting gear, avoid the false economy of an apparent saving that could ultimately cost you much more financially as well as in time, inconvenience and the all-important risk to your safety. For example:
- Maintain your car in good order to avoid a breakdown in the middle of nowhere
- Equip yourself with recovery gear if going off road to avoid becoming stranded
- Take out adequate insurance and breakdown coverage for your car, accessories and any trailers commensurate with your travel type and location to avoid a very expensive uninsured repair or recovery
- Equip yourself as appropriate for hazards such as snake bites
- Equip yourself with maps, GPS units and satellite phones as appropriate to avoid getting lost and to be able to call for help in an emergency