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Helpful Tips for Camping on a Budget: Packing Lists and Making Foil Dinners

Updated on June 01, 2016
Great backcountry campsites are beautiful and usually free.
Great backcountry campsites are beautiful and usually free. | Source

The Great Outdoors is a Great Way to Spend a Family Vacation

If you've recently gone to a sporting goods store shopping for camping gear, hopefully you took your credit cards. Sitting around the fire on a moonlit night listening to the peeper frogs is a great experience to share with your friends and family, but why does it have to be so expensive?

Human ancestors "camped" for millenia without seam-sealed geodesic tents, UV light water filters, and self-inflating mattresses. How did they survive for years in the wilderness when that root in your back is killing you from just one weekend? Perhaps we've grown too soft, and we camp to remind ourselves of those survival instincts.

Camping is a wonderful experience for solo adventurers and families alike. However, you don't need to spend a lot of money to have a good time. Everyone nowadays is on a budget; you don't need to change your camping vacation plans. Just use a few of these simple tips to help you camp on a budget.

A great free campsite out on Lows Lake.  Bring your own hammock.
A great free campsite out on Lows Lake. Bring your own hammock. | Source
A  free wooded campsite in Letchworth State Park.
A free wooded campsite in Letchworth State Park. | Source

Skip the Campground and Camp for Free


"Camping is nature's way of promoting the motel business."

-Dave Berry

Campground fees are quite a bargain when compared to the insanity of hotel rates. However, at $25 or more per night, those camping fees can be expensive.

Have you thought about ways to find free camping sites?

Though some beginning campers may like the ease of campground camping, avoid the fees by "primitive camping." There are many state forests which offer free primitive camping. Most of these primitive sites offer a tenting space, a fire pit, and an outhouse. Generally most sites are located near a water source like a lake or a river.

You may also be able to camp on someone's property. One of the best spots is a friend's or relative's hunting camp; they are seldom used during the summer camping months.

Look at volunteering for a service weekend. Many outdoor clubs will exchange camping (even after the assignment is done) for hard labor building trails or what not. Think of it as a work-cation.

Hiking through fern shrouded trails like this one, is an inexpensive activity while camping.
Hiking through fern shrouded trails like this one, is an inexpensive activity while camping. | Source

Save Money on Camping Equipment

Anyone just starting out camping, is looking to spend a lot of money on gear; however, there are great ways to stick to your budget and obtain quality equipment.

Borrowing:

Equipment rental is expensive; try borrowing camping gear from a friend. If you don't have any camping friends, join an outdoor club and borrow from a fellow member.

Discount Websites:

Though brick and mortar outdoor retailers run great sales, you can get the best deals online. Some of the best discount outdoor sites include: Sierra Trading Post, The Clymb, and Steep and Cheap. Be quick with those sites because certain items go very quickly.

Buy Barely Used:

Check out Craig's List and E-Bay for bargains on camping equipment. Sometimes someone only uses an item once, then decides to get rid of it for half the value.

Try to Get a Package Deal:

Though haggling is lost to the big box world of retail, you'd be surprised what a little bargaining can get you especially at a specialty outdoor store.

Ask a salesperson if they offer discounts for buying all of your supplies here or if there are any coupons or discounts available. If you've treated them nicely, they can probably find a discount for you.


Explore backcountry lakes and rivers by canoe camping!
Explore backcountry lakes and rivers by canoe camping! | Source

EXPERT TIP

You are better off borrowing gear or improvising than buying cheaply made camping equipment. You'll spend more money in the long run replacing it after a couple of uses.

Read Reviews on Everything

Wow, that tent at the big box store is only $50! what a bargain, eh? If it rains on your camping trip, you'll find out why it is only $50. Yes, it is true - you get what you pay for.

Before buying any piece of equipment for camping, check reviews online or in magazines like Backpacker and Outside.


A well organized place to keep your gear helps you maintain your sanity while preparing for a camping trip.
A well organized place to keep your gear helps you maintain your sanity while preparing for a camping trip. | Source
If you are heading out backpacking, you'll need a few more things - including a snazzy backpack like mine and a pair of crocs.
If you are heading out backpacking, you'll need a few more things - including a snazzy backpack like mine and a pair of crocs. | Source

The Bare Essentials: A Camping Checklist

This gear list is a basic gear list for what most people need while going car camping. Your list may differ based on personal needs, activities, and menu differences.

Shelter

  • Tent
  • Ground Cloth
  • Tarp with cordage and stakes

Sleep

  • Sleeping bags - synthetic fill with nylon shell
  • Sleeping pads, mats
  • Pillows - just bring pillow cases and fill with clothing

Eating

  • Stove and fuel
  • Pot for boiling and cooking
  • Frying pan
  • Cooking utensils: tongs, ladle, spatula
  • Eating Utensils: spoon, knife, fork
  • Wash basin
  • Biodegradable soap
  • Large water container
  • Individual water bottles
  • Cooler

Accessories:

  • Lantern
  • Personal flashlights / head lamps
  • Matches and firestarters
  • Knife
  • First aid kit
  • Saw and axe if cooking by fire
  • Map of area and compass
  • Insect repellent
  • Sun protection
  • Personal emergency whistles

Clothing:

  • Sturdy shoes, boots - no flip flops
  • Quick drying nylon pants or convertible pants
  • Synthetic t-shirt(s)
  • Underwear
  • Hiking socks
  • Fleece sweater
  • Rain gear

Hygiene:

  • Toilet paper
  • Tooth brushes and Toothpaste
  • Soap (biodegradable)
  • Towels
  • Comb

Hot dogs are inexpensive to buy and easy to prepare.
Hot dogs are inexpensive to buy and easy to prepare. | Source

Protect Your Food

Yep, he is cute - but this viscous little critter will ravage your food supply.  Bear bag your food, store it in an animal proof canister, or keep it in your vehicle.  NO FOOD IN TENTS!
Yep, he is cute - but this viscous little critter will ravage your food supply. Bear bag your food, store it in an animal proof canister, or keep it in your vehicle. NO FOOD IN TENTS! | Source

Camping Eats on the Cheap

Freeze-dried meals are wonderful and "tasty," but close to $9 a meal for two people. Now imagine feeding a family of four.

Breakfast:

  • Oatmeal
  • Cereal
  • Eggs in a bag

Lunch

  • Sandwiches: PB & J, summer sausage, tuna - bread doesn't usually pack well so look at wheat tortillas or pita bread.
  • Fruit
  • Soups

Supper

  • Ramen Noodles
  • Instant Rice and Pasta Meals
  • Hot Dogs
  • Foil Dinners
  • Pie Iron Meals

Snacks:

  • GORP: Good Old Raisins and Peanuts
  • Fruit
  • Jerky

Deserts:

  • Instant Pudding
  • Cookies

Scenery like this in the Adirondacks is why we go camping in the first place.
Scenery like this in the Adirondacks is why we go camping in the first place. | Source
Camp cooking doesn't need to be fancy, heck you don't even need a table.
Camp cooking doesn't need to be fancy, heck you don't even need a table. | Source

Skip Stoves and Cookware and Eat Like a King

Though transportation and gear are major expenses, save money on camping by cooking without a stove or cookware. Yes, you'll be using fire and time-tested cooking methods to prepare your vittles. One of the easiest methods of cooking without cookware, is the Scout favorite - foil dinners.

Preparing a Foil dinner:

Ingredients:

  • - Heavy duty aluminum foil
  • - Beef, chicken, ham, etc – about 1 cup per person
  • - 1 potato
  • - Your choice of vegetables: onions, peppers, carrots, etc.
  • - Margarine or butter
  • - Cooking spray
  • - Water
  • - A hot bed of coals

Method:

The foil dinner is an easy and inexpensive way to provide balanced and tasty meals in the outdoors. Start by building a large fire several hours before you start cooking, as you will need a hot bed of coals. These meals cook the best on coals and not in open flame. Some campers will use charcoal to augment their hearth.

  1. Place about 16” of aluminum foil on your prep surface and spray it with cooking spray (this way your meal will not stick to the aluminum foil).
  2. Crumble up your ground beef or cube your meat into smaller pieces and place it in the center of your foil.
  3. Chop up your potato and vegetables and mix it with your meat.
  4. Add a teaspoon of butter and any seasoning to the top.
  5. Carefully fold up your foil package like a burrito, folding the top and bottom in first and then bringing together the sides in the middle. Before sealing, add a tablespoon of water to the contents of the package.
  6. Place your dinner on the coals and periodically check on it until the vegetables are tender and the meat is thoroughly cooked.

The view of Blue Mountain from Lake Durant campground in the Adirondacks.
The view of Blue Mountain from Lake Durant campground in the Adirondacks. | Source
Camping allows you time to explore nature and find things like this beaver cut tree.
Camping allows you time to explore nature and find things like this beaver cut tree. | Source

The Key

The most important thing while planning your camping trip, is to avoid complication and focus on having fun. Camping is a way to reunite with the primitive, a time to practice recreationally the skills of survival that kept us alive for years.

This quote from Henry David Thoreau sums up the camping experience nicely:

But the place which you have selected for your camp, though never so rough and grim, begins at once to have its attractions, and becomes a very centre of civilization to you: Home is home, be it never so homely.

Improvise your lack of gear, search out non-traditional campsites, economize your cooking and your next camping trip will be under budget and plenty of fun.

This page © Copyright 2012, Daniel Human

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    • bankscottage profile image

      bankscottage 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Outbound Dan. This reminds me of the countless weekends and summer weeks I spent camping with my sons and the Boy Scouts. Foil dinners and sheppard's pie were staples. We had some dads and kids that could really cook. One time, we even made fried hush puppies in the dutch oven filled with oil.

      In the boy scouts the community equipment was always spread out among everyone to share the load. Speaking of the dutch oven, I now remember that I seemed to have that assigned to me quite often. I wonder why that happened?

      Speaking of Thoreau, didn't he have a quote something to the effect that 'when you come to a fork in the road, take the road less traveled'. That would seem to apply to your Hub.

      One last suggestion, I have found some discounts at Campmor. Sometimes they have sales on good equipment that I think is being discontinued.

      Another great Hub.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      As a Scout myself, I grew up cooking foil dinners and cooking various cobblers and stews in the Dutch oven. The best ribs I have ever eaten were slow cooked in a Dutch oven.

      They do make aluminum Dutch ovens that are lighter, but they just don't have the flavor of cast iron.

      Frost composed the "Road Not Taken" but surely a most appropriate verse for this Hub.

      Campmor offers great discounts too, especially on their super saver deals. I've been dealing with them for years and have never been disappointed.

      Thanks for the great comment bankscottage!

    • bankscottage profile image

      bankscottage 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      So much for English Lit. I was never into poets. I am more likely to read Bryson than Frost. Thanks for correcting me. I found a copy of the poem on-line and bookmarked it.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      No problem, I was an English lit major so poetry was forced onto me, whether I liked it or not. Frost was one of the poets I liked, and one who I've memorized often. Sadly Bryson wasn't part of the canon, but I secretly read him anyway. Of course, with the eco-crit movement, travel writers like Bryson are finally gaining credence.

    • bankscottage profile image

      bankscottage 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      I travel to Maine a few times each summer. Let me know if you need a ride to a hike. You can even bring a dutch oven.

    • outdoorsmom76 profile image

      outdoorsmom76 4 years ago from Brownsburg, Indiana

      I like your tip to join an outdoor club to share or borrow gear. I've employed this by being an adult leader in my son's boyscout troop, and joining an outdoor club. my first backpacking trip was with a club. So all I needed was my personal supplies, while the club supplied cooking stoves, food and water purifiers. Once I knew what gear I needed (and what to go without) I've been spreading my purchases out over time, looking for good deals online. So far GuideGear and craig's list are my favorite sites for outdoor gear. Simplicity is key. PS, my tip for foil dinners is using frozen veggies and frozen hash brown potatoes.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Exactly, most Boy Scout Troops have plenty of gear to share while you build your own outdoor collection. I think the key is to find out what you need and amass it over a period of years.

      I've used frozen potatoes before in my foil dinners, but I like my veggies fresh - great ideas though!

      Thanks for stopping by outdoorsmom76!

    • unvrso profile image

      Jose Juan Gutierrez 4 years ago from Mexico City

      Outbound Dan. You seem to be an expert at camping. ThanKs a lot for the outdoor living survival skills. Next time I go camping, I´ll remember your useful tips for cooking, and reading reviews before I buy.

      Do you know something about ultra light camping? I´m one of those people who would like to carry the lighest equipment when camping. I bought my first camping tent in Mexico. It weighs 1 and 1/2 kilos. I have heard there are camping tents which weigh around 8 ounces more or less. Voted up! useful!

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Hi unvrso: I've been an ultralight backpacker for years now; I use a mixture of purchased and home made gear. In the summer I can get my gear weight down under 7 pounds. In my Cranberry Lake 50 Hub, I do have a gear list that I usually carry.

      The lightest tent I know of is the Mountain Laurel Cricket at 13.3 ounces. I generally use a sil-nylon tarp which weighs 7 oz.

      I have a couple of ultralight Hubs I'm working on, so stay tuned. Thanks for commenting!

    • jimmar profile image

      jimmar 4 years ago from Michigan

      I admit it doesn't sound too good now, but I like single serving SPAM and instant mashed potatoes. Not for every meal, but it's quick, easy, filling and pretty darn tasty when you're hungry. I like the mix of info you provided here.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      There is nothing quite like a fried spam in the great outdoors. Those single serving packets are awesome and quite tasty (yes, even tastier when your outdoors). The instant mashed potatoes quick pretty quickly too and are an excellent choice.

      Thanks for reading and commenting jimmar!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco

      More excellent advice! This brings back a lot of good memories. I always loved planning for camping trips and getting all the food and supplies in order. Great guide!

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      As someone who spends hours on a weekly basis, sorting out and arranging camping trip, I hear ya. Thanks Simone!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 4 years ago from Western NC

      Great advice here! I just got back from camping at the beach and thought about going the "free" route. I'll try that next time. Though, I will share that a family that was camping next to us had their tent that they only used once blow into the swamp. They didn't want to get it out. We offered to help, but they didn't want it. So, we scored a new REI Kingdom 6 tent that was only used once. We fished it out with a swimming hook. Rinsed it off and it was good as new! :)

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Free gear, even if you have to clean it, is sweet, especially when it is a $400 tent like that. It's a little heavy for backpacking, but bloody fantastic for a decent car camp.

      Glad you enjoyed, and thanks for commenting CC!

    • profile image

      mikeydcarroll67 4 years ago

      I haven't been camping in years but I think I need to start picking the hobby up again!

    • AKqueencrab profile image

      AKqueencrab 4 years ago from Juneau, Alaska, USA

      I love this! We live in Alaska and camp frequently but honestly we just throw whatever we want in the car and end up making a mess cooking. We are getting ready to camp within the month and I will be taking your advice about the meals, for sure. Thank you! I see our next trip being less stressful.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Camping is a great hobby to pick back up mikeydcarroll. Thanks for reading!

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      I think most people tend to overcomplicate camp cooking. Preplan your meals, make them simple to prepare, and clean up should be minimized. Worst of all, is having a major clean up when you get home.

      It must be fun camping in Alaska - it is on my list.

      Thanks for commenting AKqueencrab!

    • AKqueencrab profile image

      AKqueencrab 4 years ago from Juneau, Alaska, USA

      Your welcome. It is amazing here. I've only written one hub so far, about how I ended up here, but there are more to come!

    • Hendrika profile image

      Hendrika 4 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      Quite a bid of food for thought here. Budget is always a problem and any help is appreciated.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      I combined a few smaller Hubs to create this one for campers looking to save a few dollars. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment Hendrika - good luck to you!

    • DommaLeigh profile image

      DommaLeigh 4 years ago

      Great hub. When my children where young, we would go camping the on my mom's property before she built a cottage on it. My sisters always liked renting a tent at Camp Dearborn. The camp had running water, electric outlets and a community shower/bathroom. My uncle had a motor home for his camping needs. No matter what style of camping one chooses, it is still a great way to bond with your family.

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Exactly, like the adage among long-distance hikers, "hike your own hike." I guess we could say, camp your own way. Whatever way it is, it will allow for that connection between nature and family. It certainly sounds like you had a memorable experience.

      Thank you for commenting DommaLeigh.

    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 3 years ago from Scotland

      Fantastic Hub

      Lots of great advice and very readable. I love camping. And I've just finished a book about the great Scot John Muir. He certainly camped rough in the American wilds. :-)

      Voted up. Cheers

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Muir was surely a great Scot and a pretty awesome human being in general. His vision helped to preserve wild places for many future generations to enjoy.

      Thanks for the vote and for reading Shinkicker!

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      I'm really glad you found this Hub useful for preparing you for your next trip ossmedia. Thanks for the feedback!

    • Kevin Peter profile image

      Kevin Peter 3 years ago from Global Citizen

      Your hub is very useful and informative. I loved the pictures included in the hub. They make me go on a camping as soon as possible. The list of essential things is also very helpful for people going on such campings. Great hub!

    • Outbound Dan profile image
      Author

      Dan Human 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      I put this Hub together hoping that it would inspire people to camp out. I figured it had most of the information a camper needs.

      Thanks for commenting Kevin Peter!

    • azrestoexp profile image

      Arizona's Restoration Experts, LLC 3 years ago

      Nice hub, very informative. Beautiful pictures, sure beats the big HOT city. Thanks for the list, it's great for those of us that always manage to forget something. Voted up.

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