A Basic Guide to an Inexpensive and Incredibly Fun Family Camping Vacation

This summer, my family and I are going to be camping in northern Wisconsin for several days. We plan on camping at two different locations during the trip so that we get a chance to see and enjoy two completely different areas.

Small camping trips are a staple of our summer – we usually camp two or three times within a couple hours of our home. Large camping trips, like our trip to Wisconsin, are the centerpieces of our summer every other year or so.

For many people, the thought of a multi-day camping excursion sounds amazing and it’s something that they do all the time.

For others, the thought of such an excursion sounds like a nightmare and they’d rather do almost anything else.

Today, I’m talking to the third group – those of you who are at least a little interested in the idea but are a little afraid to tackle it head on. They fear the expense and perhaps even the effort involved.

Here’s the truth – camping does have some up-front expense, but once that expense is sunk, camping becomes a very inexpensive way to get away from home and explore the world around you.

My recommendation for you is to try out what I like to call “car camping,” where you drive to a campground, pitch a tent, and enjoy the scenery and the services of the campground for a few days.

Let’s get started with the basics.


If you’re looking for an inexpensive route to camping, your best bet is probably tent camping. Tent camping spots at campgrounds are usually quite inexpensive and the tent itself is usually pretty cost-effective, too.

Sarah and I have owned and used the same tent for several years now. We had to move to a larger one after the birth of our second child, but we’ve had this larger tent for almost eight years. My estimation is that it has been used for 25 different camping trips, most of them consisting of multiple nights, and it’s still in great shape.

So, what should you look for in a tent?

First of all, unless you plan on camping in the very late fall, winter, or very early spring, you should buy a three season tent, not a four season one. Four season tents are sturdier, but that sturdiness is designed for withstanding heavy winds and snow. Most people dabbling in summer tent camping out of their car have no use for this, and four season tents are substantially more expensive.

In terms of capacity, count the members of your regular group and add one. That’s the number you should shoot for. If you fill a tent up to capacity, it often becomes a tight, hot, miserable experience, where if anyone has to go to the bathroom or shifts around a lot, it wakes everyone else up. Multiple doors can help with this somewhat, but I find that a little extra space is better for a good night’s sleep than an extra tent door.

Aside from that, most extra features are pretty unnecessary. Things like vestibules, dividers, and so on are almost always more cumbersome than they’re worth, so don’t spend the money on them. If older children insist on privacy when camping, you can invest in a small one or two person tent for those children later on.

Very few modern family tents are difficult to pitch, so don’t worry about that. I have pitched our tent many times and helped others pitch their tents and I’ve yet to see a modern tent that wasn’t easy to pitch after a bit of practice. The first time or two might be slow, but at this point, I can pitch our family tent by myself in about 20 minutes. Don’t spend extra on an easy-pitch tent.

There are a few features that actually are quite useful. You’re going to want a rainfly, which is a covering for your tent that keeps the rain out. If a summer storm comes up, you don’t want to get soaked.

Another useful thing is a ground cover. A ground cover is actually a great purchase for extending the life of your tent; without one, it can be easy to poke a hole in the tent floor. Many tents offer a matching ground cover as a separate purchase, which is unnecessary. We’ve always just purchased a tarp that matches the dimensions of the tent and placed it under the tent when pitching it.

As for a specific brand recommendation, we’ve had good success with Coleman tents as an entry-level brand.

Sleeping Materials

Another big question that people have when it comes to camping is sleeping materials. Personally, I am quite happy to sleep on top of a blanket or two with another one to cover up with, so I can simply raid the closet for what I need to camp with. Others may have trouble sleeping on that level of firmness, in which case there are several options.

A sleeping bag is one option. Sleeping bags come in a variety of shapes and sizes, provide some padding against the ground, and some warmth on a cool night. For summer camping, I usually find that sleeping bags are just things that you wind up sleeping on top of, so it ends up being akin to having three or four blankets to lay on.

Foam or air pads are pretty inexpensive and provide some additional padding if you choose to sleep on the ground using blankets or a sleeping bag.

Another option is an air mattress. I find these to be too soft and bouncy, but some like them. Plus, unless you invest in a pricy one that includes an air pump, you’re going to be spending a lot of time inflating and deflating the mattress.

You can also try a cot, which is a great solution if you’re wary about sleeping on the ground. They can be pretty firm, but this can be mitigated with additional blankets.

What do we use? My preference is a few blankets with a foam pad underneath them. It provides the best sleeping conditions I’ve yet found in a tent, at least in terms of getting a good night’s sleep. Plus, it’s pretty inexpensive, as all you need to do is raid your closet and add a cheap foam pad to the mix.

As for pillows, just harvest your ordinary bed pillows. You can use a cheap pillowcase if you’d like.

Other Items

There are several items we keep stowed in our garage solely for camping.

First, we take along a few folding chairs. We use these throughout the year for all kinds of activities, so it’s not an added expense.

In our “camping box,” you’ll find some firestarters and matches. Our firestarters are nothing more than an empty egg carton filled with dryer lint and candle wax. We tear off a few of the “eggs” from our egg carton, surround them with some light sticks, and light this with a match to get campfires going.

You’ll also need firewood. If you can find a cheap local source for it, a few armloads will be more than enough for a campfire for an evening. With a good firestarter (like what I described above), starting a campfire with dry wood and a few dry sticks is really easy.

We also have several old mismatched plates, bowls, spoons, and forks from old sets that we had in college. They’re all mismatched and a little beat up, but they were essentially free leftovers. If you don’t have these, a stop at a Goodwill store will work well. It’s far more cost-effective than buying paper or plastic products.

We keep a pair of flashlights in the camping box. Any flashlights will do, though you will eventually have to replace the batteries. Check them before you go camping.

Another useful item is a Dutch oven, which you can use to cook pretty much anything over a campfire. Having one greatly opens up what you’re capable of making on a camping trip – you can get a great one from Lodge for about $40. You’ll also want a rod to take the Dutch oven on and off the campfire safely as well as some potholders.

Before you go, you’ll want to pack some food. Keep in mind where you’ll be and what tools you’ll have, so keep it simple. Sandwiches and simple soups always work well. We usually bring along a cooler loaded with ice packs to keep some items cold, but this is not strictly necessary.

You’ll also want toiletries, of course, which can be pilfered from your own bathroom, and clothes. We usually keep a bottle of sunscreen in our camping box as well to prevent sunburn, which can make an otherwise fun camping trip quite painful.

Once you get beyond this core list, supplies become very optional depending on your personal needs and desires. For example, if your family loves coffee, you’ll probably want to bring along some method for preparing coffee on a campsite, but that’s far from a requirement.

Here’s the best part: You probably already have a lot of this stuff at home, and much of what you don’t have can be found at thrift stores for a buck or two. Camping preparation really doesn’t have to be expensive, especially if you’re “car camping” (which is a great approach for families).

Finding a Campground

Everything you really need for this search is online. My favorite place to start the search for a campground is at Go Camping America, which provides a pretty robust search tool and a nice interface. You’ll quickly find a listing of campgrounds in the area you’re hoping to travel to, whether it’s near your home or in another state.

There are large differences in campground quality and Go Camping certainly does not list all of them. In terms of “nicer” campgrounds, Koa is a campground chain with a lot of premium features, but they tend to be pricier than independent private campgrounds.

Another option well worth considering is a national or state park. This directory helps you find national parks by state, as well as links you to state-by-state directories of state parks. National parks are usually quite nice and often have the best natural scenery, but they can be expensive; state parks vary as widely as private campgrounds do, so you’ll want to do a bit of homework.

What you’ll eventually find is that there are options for camping all over the place. Your best approach is to figure out where you want to go, then use all of these resources to develop a nice list of campgrounds in that area, then start researching those campgrounds. This can take a few hours, but you’ll eventually find campgrounds that match your desired location, price point, and features.

Choosing a Campsite

Many campgrounds let you reserve a specific campsite well in advance using online reservation systems. I find this feature to be wonderful and it often makes the difference when deciding where to camp as a family.

The first thing to consider is that the site is relatively flat or has a good chance of having a relatively flat spot on it. Why? That’s where you’ll want to pitch your tent. Pitching a tent on a slanted spot means everyone rolls together in a giant jumble at one side of the tent, making misery for everyone. Most sites do have this, but I would avoid sites that seem to be small and directly adjacent to lakes or other waterways as they can sometimes have very limited flat space.

If you’re camping at a campground, figure out where the services are. Which sites have running water? If not all do, which sites are close to running water? Which sites are close to the restrooms? You want to be fairly near one, but probably not right next to one. When camping with a family, these considerations make a world of difference.

Things to Do

There are lots of activities to fill your time with if you’re camping. Here are some of the things we often do when camping.

Fishing: If there is a lake or river nearby, we almost always go fishing. Our family owns a few fishing poles and a small tackle box, which provides everything we need for the simple fishing that we do on our camping trips. You don’t need to be a pro fisherman to put a bobber in the water.

Just make sure that you have a fishing license if needed in the area – the campground office can give you all the details.

Hiking: Almost every campground you visit will be loaded with hiking trails, usually with a wide variety of lengths and difficulties. Pick one that will be mildly challenging for you, whether it’s just a simple flat walk or a longer hilly journey.

There are few better opportunities to see the beauty of nature around you than on a hike in the middle of a camping trip.

Geocaching: Geocaching is one of our family’s favorite activities and camping trips provide a stellar opportunity for this. Many parks and campgrounds have a bunch of geocaches spread across the area, often mixed in with the hiking trails or on short sojourns off of the hiking trails.

Geocaching adds a simple “bonus” incentive to hiking on trails and exploring the campgrounds. It turns those explorations into a nice little “treasure hunt” of sorts.

Sightseeing: Many campgrounds – particularly those in state and national parks – are near interesting sightseeing destinations. Natural landmarks, waterfalls, mountains, forests, lakes, rivers – parks offer countless opportunities to see the beauty of the wilderness.

Not only that, many campgrounds and parks are situated close to interesting man-made sights. Do some investigating and see what kinds of things are close to your campground. You might be very surprised at what you find.

Biking: Many campgrounds actually work really well for bicycling and larger campground trails are often perfect for off-road bicycling.

Transporting bikes is simple. There are many varieties of car-attached bike racks for sale that work well on a large number of automobiles through use of the roof or the trailer hitch.

Campfire Building: This is one of my favorite activities while camping. Collecting firewood, gathering up some materials for kindling, stacking them all well, then making a few attempts at getting a fire going using little firestarters makes for some serious fun (at least for me).

We often build two campfires per day – a small one in the morning to aid with breakfast preparation and to take the chill out of the air, and a large one in the evening for dinner preparation and for roasting marshmallows and for simply sitting around in the hour or two before bed.

Just be sure to properly extinguish the fire before you go to sleep or before you leave for the day. The best method for doing so is to simply drown the whole thing in water, stir the ashes and remaining logs, and do it again. I usually do this several times to ensure that the fire is out.

Stargazing: You’re out in the country, away from city lights, on a clear summer night. There really is no better time for stargazing.

We’ll often head out into an empty field, lay on the ground facing upward, and just stare at the stars. You can identify constellations or major night sky features if you’d like, or you can simply enjoy the majestic beauty of the universe that we’re a part of.

Games: We have a couple campground games stored away in our camping materials. Our favorite game is a gift from an old friend, a bocce ball set. It’s a simple game that can be played on any open area of ground. Not only is it fun, it’s a great way to keep people away from the campfire as it’s being constructed in the late afternoon.

It’s also a good idea to have a deck of cards or another small game or two in your camping materials in case you’re stuck inside the tent due to rain. We’ve played many games of rummy and euchre inside the tent on a rainy day in the middle of a camping trip.

Final Thoughts

Car camping is a great way to get your toes wet when it comes to camping, but it’s just the start. Many people enjoy backpack camping, where they carry everything they need for the trip in their backpack and hike to the place(s) where they pitch their tent. Other people enjoy very rugged camping where they take few supplies at all.

For our family, however, car camping is the preferable choice as our children are still fairly young and we generally view camping as an opportunity to relax as much as possible. Believe it or not, it is quite relaxing to get away from the distractions of day-to-day life and instead enjoy things like building campfires, setting up tents, hiking on trails all day, and gazing at the stars.

Not only is it a cheap way to spend a weekend, a camping trip to a farther destination can be a very inexpensive vacation that can serve as the centerpiece to your entire summer. We’re already looking forward to our week camping in Wisconsin.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.