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Financial Education for Everyone

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March 21, 2018

Camping can be an inexpensive way to enjoy a vacation with your friends and family. Whether you’re going swimming or boating at a nearby lake, or want to rough it on a multi-day backpacking trip, many people look forward to taking in the grand outdoors this time of year. From choosing a spot to getting your gear, here are five steps for setting off on your next adventure.

How to Save Money on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Pick a park. Avoiding a flight or multi-day road trip can be a great way to cut down your travel expenses. Chances are there’s something beautiful to see right in your neck of the woods. Ask your friends and nearby relatives for recommendations, and search online for reviews of local wilderness areas, hiking trails and campgrounds.

The National Park Service (NPS) is a good go-to resource. The NPS maintains an index of national parks, monuments, seashores, recreation areas and other outdoor areas across the country. There are over 400 parks on the index, and only about a quarter of them charge an entrance fee (anywhere from $5 to $30 for a non-commercial vehicle).

Secure your pass. If you are taking trips to national and federal recreational parks frequently, you may want to consider purchasing an America The Beautiful Annual Pass for $80, which provides access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites, not just those that the NPS manages. A single pass covers the driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle (or up to four adults for sites that charge per person). There are also four (4) free days at all National Park Service sites each year, although you should expect crowds if you visit on one of them, and free annual passes for active-duty military members and their dependents.

State-managed parks are another option. As with the national park passes, a regional or state-wide annual pass could save you money in the long run if you visit these parks several times throughout the year.

Prepare to pitch a tent. You may have several available options when choosing where to sleep. Hotels, motels and vacation rentals may be the most comfortable, but they come at a premium.

Camping cabins, which offer luxuries like electricity and heating or cooling, can be a good "middle ground" option. Renting an RV is another possibility, though between the rental and overnight fees it won’t necessarily get you great savings. Tent camping could be your cheapest route. Even if you don’t have the gear, you can likely find a new tent and inflatable mattress for as low as $100. However, keep in mind that extremely discounted gear might not last as long compared to more expensive options. Checking reviews is crucial to finding the best gear for you and your needs.

National and state park campground overnight fees are often less expensive than privately owned campgrounds, and you can reserve a spot to lay your head on federally managed land, including within national parks and forests, online at Recreation.gov. But beware, they fill up quickly. Luckily, for those that aren’t big on planning ahead, there are many parks that offer first-come, first-served campgrounds.

With a little research, you might be surprised by how many affordable camping options are available. Some state and federal agencies, such as the National Forest Service, allow dispersed camping for free. You’ll need to set up your tent away from designated campgrounds and won’t have access to running water, restrooms or trash service (please follow leave-no-trace principles).

Buy gear that suits your needs. You’ve got a place to go and somewhere to sleep. Now it’s time to get the gear.

Here are three questions that can help you determine if you should rent or buy gear and, if you decide to buy it, whether you should opt for budget or high-end products. Before you buy, ask yourself:

  • Do you already have something that will work?
  • How often will you use the item?
  • How long do you expect it to last?

If you’ll only take the occasional camping trip, a cheap tent could fit your needs just fine. If you go every weekend, however, purchasing a higher-quality tent would make more sense.

You don’t need to go all out and purchase a new tent, sleeping bag, pad and backpack your first time out. Instead, you can rent the things you need online or from a nearby sporting goods store. Or better yet, ask friends and family members if you can borrow their gear.

Even if you do decide to buy high-end gear, you can save money by purchasing used products. Some are still in great condition, especially when retail stores sell returned items that were only used once or twice. You can also find a wide array of camping gear for sale on classified sites for a real bargain.

That being said, there are a few things you shouldn’t skimp on. A first aid kit is a worthwhile and inexpensive purchase. Also, if you’ll be in backcountry for days at a time, you may want to enroll in a wilderness first aid training course. Although courses can cost several hundred dollars, you’ll learn potentially life-saving skills.

Don’t overspend on food. It may be tempting to splurge on park restaurants, but it could be more cost-effective to avoid the crowds and cook at a campsite. Check online or call a ranger to see what kind of pit setup is available and what supplies might be included. Bring a cooler for perishables and stock up on shelf-stable and easily-packable basics. As for supplies, matches or a lighter, aluminum foil, portable grate, metal tongs and a lightweight pot and pan are necessities. Planning ahead may take some extra time, but some due diligence will help you save on your outdoor adventure. You can still cook amazing meals, and nothing feels more like camping than cooking over a fire.

Bottom line: A camping trip can seem like a cheap getaway, but the costs can easily add up to more than you budgeted. Whether you want to travel to the Adirondacks, hike in Yosemite or embark on a local camping trip, a little planning can help to make your trip more fun and help free your mind from financial stress.


This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered health, legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.