Whenever people ask me how to save money on vacations, I always encourage them to consider camping instead of staying in a hotel. We do it often – in fact, I have some very fond memories of camping in Olympia National Forest and on Mount Rainier during our Seattle vacation in ’04 and camping near Gooseberry Falls, MN during another vacation in ’06 (perhaps my favorite camping stops ever, which is why I’m mentioning them).
Some people take this advice and run with it. Camping saves a truckload of money over a long trip and it can provide a unique story, too. Yet some people look at camping and see nothing more than the loss of comforts of a hotel, never mind the savings and the incomparable perks of camping.
This tip column is for that latter group. Here are some ways to make camping much more enjoyable without breaking the bank in any way.
Bathrooms, bathrooms, bathrooms Toilet, sink, and shower service are often the thing that separates a good camping trip from a bad one for people who want to use camping as a substitute for hotel visits. A campsite with inadequate areas for personal hygiene will often get a big thumbs down, as it makes it impossible for people to start off their day with the normal hygiene routine, which is key for many (if not most) people.
So how do you solve it? My first recommendation is to start with – and focus heavily on – state and national parks. You can find tons of them at dto.com (short for discover the outdoors). Focus on parks that have a shower house near the destinations you’re visiting. You can also reserve sites with electricity – perfect if you have devices you wish to plug in (like an alarm clock, for example).
Camping after flying What if you’re flying to your destination? My suggestion is to take the tent with you on the flight. Repackage it in a large box along with sleeping bags, pillows, and other essential items for camping – these all compress surprisingly well. For the return flight, you might find that it’s less expensive to ship the tent and camping materials home via UPS or another shipping service.
When you arrive, purchase a small short-term use styrofoam cooler and pack the food items you wish to keep cold in that, as it’s less expensive than shipping a cooler (unless you can find a great way to pack it in your large box). In other words, one of your first stops will be at a grocery store.
Speaking of eating…
Tactics for eating well while camping Most meals can be cooked really well over a campfire by simply putting the ingredients in aluminum foil, tossing them straight on the coals, then retrieving them later with a stick. Thus, all you will need for dining utensils while camping are some paper plates (which can be reused for kindling the next day) and silverware.
Here’s an example. For breakfast, I will often pull out a sheet of aluminum foil, make a bowl out of it, then crack three eggs in it. Then, I’ll add some beans to it and perhaps some chopped-up vegetables, too, and maybe a sprinkling of cheese. I then fold this up tightly in the foil, wrap it again, then toss it straight on hot campfire coals for ten to fifteen minutes. When I’m done, I have scrambled eggs, perfectly hot. You can make toast in a very similar way, though I often use a pair of sticks to hold a few pieces of toast over flame.
You can make all sorts of different meals using the same exact logic. Use your imagination.
Sleeping comfortably This seems to be one of the biggest complaints about camping – it’s hard to sleep comfortably. I have back concerns myself and, quite honestly, they seem to crop up more from hotel beds for me than from camping, so I confess to not fully understanding this complaint. Instead, I’ll share with you my routine for sleeping in a tent.
First, I often gather leaves and sprinkle them in a pretty thick layer in the spot where we’re going to pitch the tent. In the summer, this often means retrieving them from low-hanging branches. This, of course, works well in some parks but not in others.
Second, I’m picky about my sleeping bags. One lesson I learned from my grandmother is that the place you sleep is a place where you don’t skimp, because it forms the successful basis for the rest of your day. Study them carefully and get a well-padded one that works.
Third, I usually use a sleeping bag pad. This is a very small, thin air mattress that rests under the sleeping bag directly on the floor of the tent.
Finally, and this is probably the biggest thing, I sleep with the windows open when camping. The clean night air makes me sleep very deeply and I almost always wake up feeling refreshed, even if getting to sleep took me a little bit. I tend to sleep better when camping than I do any other night.
Finally, camping’s savings really pop up when you’re on a longer trip rather than a shorter one. If you’re just staying for a single night, the time investment of setting up camp probably undoes the savings from camping. However, if the trip is a long one, the time cost per day is reduced and the cash savings per day is increased, making camping progressively more worthwhile. If your trip is short, it might actually be more cost effective to just stay in a reasonably-priced hotel, but over a long trip, few things beat the savings of camping.
One final note about camping when traveling: the aesthetic beauty of our nation’s state and national parks is an enormous perk when camping. There simply is no hotel on earth that can take your breath away like stepping out of your tent in the morning in the middle of a national park.