How to Camp on a Budget

Camping can be an amazing experience—but it can be expensive. Expert Hannah K. offers some tips and gear recommendations for saving a little money.

Two tents are set up on a grassy hill with people sitting at a set of tables outside them

Photo by Victor Larracuente

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Camping is magical. You get to sleep under the stars in a beautiful environment with awesome people—and hopefully, beer. I can’t think of a better morning than waking up on a mountain top with some warm tea and my pup (ideal views like the epic picture above). But these views can be expensive. What I mean is, camping can be expensive and frankly inaccessible. But it shouldn’t be! So I’m here to help.

You might be thinking, Hannah, we want to start camping and hiking but we’re so intimidated by the price tags on all this gear. How can we enjoy the great outdoors but not spend our entire paychecks? Ahhhh yes, that is exactly what I said to myself. Here is what worked for me, where I could save money, and what products I have used or recommend to stay budget-friendly.

Friendly Tips

First off, you don’t actually have to own camping gear to go camping. What??? Yes, you heard me. A lot of stores offer rental programs, where you rent gear and pay per day or night. This is a great option for those who just want to get started camping but don’t want to commit to getting gear and then possibly not using it if they don’t love the experience (but I mean, why wouldn’t you). Check out your local gear store, or head to REI. They have backpacking kits and car camping kits as well as rental prices for specific items.

A layout of a variety of camping gear arranged neatly in a rectangle

Photo by Muhammad Masood

Second, ask your friends and family if they can lend you some gear. I am fortunate enough to come from a very outdoorsy family, so whenever I need a piece of gear, one of my cousins will always have it or something similar. Ask everyone in your circle for gear or advice. Or, of course, you can hit me up here and ask me or one of our amazing experts any questions you might have. Borrowing gear from friends or family is a great way to save money, learn about new pieces of gear, and have fun.

Now, gear is the more expensive aspect of camping but there are other factors that add to the price. Campsites, for instance. Many campsites have a fee per night to help cover the maintenance of the site, especially if there are bathrooms and other amenities. Campsites in national parks or state parks often have a higher fee to help maintain the campgrounds. However, free dispersed campsites are plentiful, and there are many websites to help you find these. That being said, these often are a further drive (be careful of that gas money) and won’t have running water (so make sure to bring enough for however long you are staying there).

(But make sure to avoid these haunted campsites at all cost...unless you’re feeling a bit gutsy.)

Gear Recommendations

Camping and camping equipment can be overwhelming, but here are the essential basics: food, water, shelter, navigation, sun protection, insulation, illumination, first-aid, fire, and fix-it.

To save on food and water, always buy in bulk when you can. I could easily go into a “How to save money at Trader Joe’s,” but that is a very long digression. Regardless, I find camp food to be amazing and can be very simple if you put some thought into it. Canned items are always cheap and easy to bring with you if you stack them in your car. Bring some grains and whatever vegetable you have in the fridge, and you have a quick, easy meal right there. (If you’re vegan, you can find a bunch of my favorite camp meals and brands here.) Oatmeal is another fan favorite for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Although gear comes in the first place when it comes to camping expenses, food can be a close second if you aren't careful. Many people choose to buy pre-made dehydrated options for quick and easy options. However, these are often overly priced and not necessarily tasty. Eating on the cheap when you camp means bringing your own food from home! If you have your own dehydrator you can also make your own dehydrated meals before you go.

Now the shelter includes a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag. Some prefer to sleep in a hammock, but I’m a fan of the ground. For a budget-friendly but sturdy tent, check out the Coleman Sundome Tent. It can fit up to three people, or two people and a dog or two, and your gear

Two people stretch out under blankets in the back of a car with a dog at their feet

Photo by Jimmy Conover

For a lightweight sleeping pad at just under $35 for the small size and just under $40 for the regular size, look into the Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite SOL Sleeping Pad. Easy to unfold and lay on, this option is great for beginners who don’t want to blow up a sleeping pad or worry about it getting punctured and deflating.

The Marmot Nanowave Sleeping Bag comes in a variety of sizes and degree ratings. The 25-degree rating is just over $100 and the 45-degree is just under $90 and the 55-degree option is just under $70. Keep in mind the degree rating when you plan where and when you are camping. Nothing ruins a camping trip more than being super cold all night and not getting enough sleep. Staying warm and comfy is not only great for the soul but can be a safety concern as well!

Now, for navigation, many people can download Google Maps so they can use it offline. That is a great, free option if you are just driving to a campsite and not planning on needing navigation after that. If you are, however, look into getting an AllTrails subscription for day hikes around your campsite. With the pro subscription, you get maps offline as well as a Lifeline if you ever find yourself in an emergency situation.

When it comes to sun protection, a good hat that you probably have laying around the house and some sunglasses, as well as a good sunscreen, will do the trick. Insulation can be tricky and pricey. A good, warm jacket is incredibly necessary for colder nights (always remember to layer though). A good fleece goes a long way to layer with, too.

When it gets dark out, you will want a lantern or a headlamp! I personally love this lantern because it is multi-colored, lightweight, and packs down small. And this headlamp is very budget-friendly, sturdy, and dependable. It is also rechargeable.

A group of people sit around a campfire on a beach at night

Photo by Tanner Larson

Many hikers and campers prefer to make a first-aid kit with things you have around the house—any prescriptions, Neosporin, some bandages, etc. But if don’t you want to make one, this option comes in one-person to family pack sizes, all of which are under $30.

Most camp nights are not complete without a campfire—although always be sure to check with local rules about fire bans. Bringing along matches or a lighter is a great way to start a fire. But here is a cheap starter kit for under ten dollars.

Lastly: fix-it. A fix-it kit can look like a lot of things: some rope and duct tape are great to fix most items or will do the job until you leave camp.

Now, these are all just the basics. You will also probably want a camp stove and some fuel. This is a great, lightweight option to bring camping or backpacking. If you want something bigger, ask a friend or family member if they have a Coleman two-burner stove. It is great for car camping due to its durability.

Whatever you do, have fun! Camping is meant to be a great way to step out of your comfort level, push yourself to try new things, and see some beautiful views. If you have any more questions or want to chat, hit me up through my profile! Reach out to the Camping & Hiking experts here on Curated for free, personalized advice and gear recommendations sure to fit your budget.

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Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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