Camping is sometimes called “pretending to be poor,” so it’s no surprise we love to camp. Spending time in nature with family or friends makes for an inexpensive and highly fulfilling vacation. Yet many otherwise frugal people haven’t tapped into the incredible on-going savings of camping. So we hereby issue the Pretend to Be Poor Camping Challenge: give camping a try! Spend at least one day & night camping, in order to open the door to a lifetime of frugal, fun vacations. And if you’re thinking “you couldn’t pay me enough to go camping,” you have to read on about all the proven personal and family benefits that pricier vacations fail to deliver.
A word of encouragement to non-campers: I never camped while growing up. I first ventured into the hobby as an indoorsy college student with no camping skills, came to love the experience, and have camped 3-4 times a year ever since. We even camped for a week with a two-year-old and barely-four-month-old, and had a blast. (Read about this crazy adventure in “Camping with Kids” on my mom blog.) If I can learn to like camping, so can you! And there are so many benefits for you, your relationships, and your children (if you have them).
Inexpensive vacation. Camping is, of course, supremely frugal if done right. For example, we camp in Florida during spring break and spend $107 for the site for the week. We couldn’t get a hotel there for one night at that price! We camp in a tent, have used the same camping gear for over ten years, and only upgraded to a larger tent because of our growing family. With the simple investment in a camp stove (about $50 new), you can shop at a discount grocery store and cook all your meals easily that way. Or cook exclusively on the fire. Read more about our $500 week-long camping vacation here.
Don’t have camping gear? There are many ways to come by it cheaply, and you don’t need a fancy camper, RV, or lots of accessories to have a good trip. Our family camping gear includes a tent, propane stove, air mattress (now that we’re “old”), sleeping bags, cheap camp chairs, and basic cooking implements. If you’re not ready to invest a lot in supplies, ask to borrow gear from a friend or family member. Check garage sales, Craigslist, and thrift stores for used items. You probably already have things like flashlights, bug spray, pots & pans, and old blankets in your home. On long trips we buy wood from Craiglist while there.
A sense of accomplishment. Chillin’ in nature is also rife with intangible benefits like the deep bonding between campers, the soul-rest of time in nature, and the fulfillment of learning skills or mastering challenges. Learning to pitch a tent, build a fire, and keep your children alive while pitching a tent and building a fire, all inflate one’s sense of usefulness. While camping may not be as easy as lounging poolside, it combines leisure and accomplishment in a most delightful way.
Closer families. Nothing has brought us closer as a family than the zany challenge of camping with two little kids. I know we wouldn’t feel the same sense of satisfaction returning from a resort vacation or Disney World. More than anecdotal evidence supports my closer-family camping hypothesis. Camping has been identified as a the number one predictor of family cohesiveness. It correlates with families who like each other, still spend time together even when the children are adults, and have close relationships. Camping has also been linked to better grades for school children. Ready to book a camp site yet?
It’s no surprise that camping is good for kids since every family member has to contribute. (Okay, maybe not the four-month-old.) Kids learn skills like how to build a fire, roast a hot dog, hike, fish, swim, and identify plants and animals. They’re also forced to play without high-tech toys or entertainment and develop adaptability. Many campgrounds offer free activities for kids, like scavenger hunts, nature walks, concerts, or dances.
If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel with young children, you might imagine the advantages of camping. The kids can run around outside during the day instead of being contained to a hotel in between sight-seeing. The germ content of dirt concerns me far less than whatever lurks in hotel carpet and bedspreads. I was worried about our kids being able to sleep in a tent, but all the exercise and fresh air wears them out & they sleep great, as many camp moms will testify. I can’t emphasize how happy our kids are while camping, even as infants. Our son loves talking about past trips and cries when daddy goes backpacking without him!
Let go of your standards. Camping forces us to let go of our often arbitrary rules for “civilized” life. I relish leaving behind the Internet and make-up bag for a weekend or even a week. I may have peed places other than the toilet, showered once all week, cursed in front of my toddler (about needing a shower), let the kids go barefoot all day, and helped my kid poop over a tree root. And Neil may have rinsed a poopy toddler sans swim diaper in the ocean. It’s all part of the fun if you can laugh about it.
Choose your challenge. The continuum of camping options allows campers to “choose their own adventure.” From wilderness backpacking to “glamping,” pick your desired mixture of leisure vs. challenge. Pitch a tent in your backyard if you need to ease in. Our city maintains a campground less than two miles from our home, which is perfect for short trips that don’t require much planning. Check out whether your local parks have camp sites available. Or camp to save on lodging near your next sight-seeing destination. Whatever you decide, just be sure to look up at the stars, enjoy good conversation around the fire, and don’t forget the s’mores.
What do you like about camping? Or what are your hang-ups?
Every March we camp for a week in Florida. And every year it costs over $1,000. Outrageous, I agree. Especially when the camp site we share with another family costs only $107 for the week. We budget yearly for the trip and value it more than the money we spend on it. But this year we want to spend less while still enjoying ourselves, partly because we think we can do better than a $1000 camping trip. Consider this an example of our ongoing attempt to challenge our spending and find ways to improve.
When you’ve been fairly thrifty for a while it can be hard to see new areas to cut back. We’ve found that saving money is always a work in progress. We don’t spend a lot of time pouring over our budget and bills; in fact, we don’t even make a monthly budget. But once you develop a basic mindset of spending aversion and challenging your expenses, you realize that “needs” are relative and find yourself naturally rethinking one area at a time.
Obviously not going on vacation would be cheaper altogether. But the rest and relaxation–oh wait, we have kids now—the fun moments and memories are well worth the price. Time away from the daily grind (especially if it’s time spent at the beach) can be refreshing and give new perspective, inspiration, and motivation that will energize everyday life upon return. And our Florida camping trip is a rare blend of family bonding and fun with friends, since over 130 people from our church camp together that week. It’s a little slice of heaven on earth, or at least it is when the weather is nice and the bugs aren’t bad. I could list all the money-saving, nature-enjoying, soul-nourishing advantages of camping but that would be another post altogether.
Here’s our plan. Hopefully it helps other vacationers and expense-challengers, this spring break and beyond.
1. Not renting a car. The past few years we’ve rented a vehicle, in part to save wear and tear on our not-brand-new vehicles. But our station wagon has proven to be reliable. I actually love the idea of a family vacation in our trusty station wagon! Up-front savings = $290 (based on last year’s 10-day rental).
2. Less time on the road. Usually we travel two days each way. Since having kids we’ve broken it up because they reach their max after about 8 hours in the car. This year we hope to make it there in one day. Wish us luck!
Of course, driving 900 miles is inherently not frugal. This is a great example of why we aim for financial flexibility instead of getting rich or practicing extreme frugality. If over 100 comrades weren’t heading to the same place the same week, we wouldn’t be driving this far. But it makes for an awesome time, lots of memories, and plenty of helping hands for pitching tents, chasing kids, cooking dinner, and other camp chores. To us it’s an opportunity well worth the expense and hassle.
We usually stop at a hotel, and while we often use hotel points to get free stays, less time on the road will save on purchases like fast food and coffee. Plus we have Subway gift cards saved from Christmas. Estimated savings = $25 on the way there.
3. Fuel costs. We will save on gas this year since prices are down by over a dollar a gallon compared to last year. Estimated fuel savings = $125.
4. Buy less at Walmart. We do one big shopping trip for supplies and food at the beginning of the trip. (Read how I normally avoid Walmart without running lots of errands.) But SuperWalmart is so big and busy that I get overwhelmed and over-buy because I never ever want to go back there again. This year I’m going to slim down my list based on what we didn’t end up using last year. We really don’t need every kind of breakfast food we ever eat, for example. Joining a meal rotation with some friends will allow us to buy larger amounts of a few things to cook for a crowd once, which will also save money.
Since we won’t rent a car, I can pack it earlier in the week. This is an advantage because I may be able to bring more staple foods, diapers, and camp supplies from home. Estimated Walmart savings = $30 (or more).
5. Eat less fast food. I’ve always packed food and snacks to eat in lieu of fast food. But we have a weakness for Bojangles; you just can’t get fried chicken and sweet tea like that in the North. We’ve agreed to rein it in a bit by eating packed lunches more. We also got completely ripped off at the taco stand right outside the campground when we were heading home. The food was under-seasoned, under-portioned, and over-priced so we’ll avoid it this year. Since we cook dinner at the camp site we save a lot compared to eating at restaurants all week. If we skip the taco stand and just one Bojangles trip, the savings = $30.
6. Simple sight-seeing. The bulk of our recreation arises from what this trip is all about: spending time with friends in nature. Hiking, swimming, building sand castles, riding bikes, and chatting around the fire cost next to nothing and are what I look forward to most. We also enjoy walking around historic St. Augustine and the Spanish fort for free (you have to pay to go inside). Our kids will be surrounded by their friends, providing hours of free entertainment.
We’ll avoid the high-cost tourist traps (or treasures?) and try to put in as many hours at the beach as the weather and baby allow. There’s also hiking to the turtle pond, where you can observe turtles, fish, and birds. For paid sight-seeing, we’ll visit the Jacksonville Zoo for half-off with our zoo passes from home. Neil wants to buy a Groupon for a catamaran rental inside the state park. He also plans a one-night men’s backpacking trip, which costs a bit extra in food & gas. The ladies enjoy an afternoon out as well, for the low cost of a cup of coffee. But just give me a library book and an hour alone and I’m a happy camper. I can’t count as savings what we’ve never spent, but I’m sure a family could easily dish out hundreds for sight-seeing.
So our projected savings total $500. To be fair, some savings will be offset by purchases made back home (but for better prices), the (lower) cost of packing lunches, wear and tear on the car, etc. We also have camping supplies leftover from last summer. But if we can shell out less than $1000 this year we’ll consider it a win.
Whether you’re planning a trip or not, don’t be afraid to challenge your spending and find areas to improve. This mindset will help you gain flexibility, and might even afford you more vacations in the future. If you’re interested, here are our 2013 and 2014 trips stacked up. Neil meticulously added every expense so these are the real numbers. (“Food” includes restaurants, groceries, camping supplies, ice, propane, Walmart misc.)