How We Go Camping – And Some Suggestions for New (and Experienced) Campers

Joel writes in:

First, what is your car camping set-up. I’m thinking of getting a canopy tent for hanging out — something like a 10×10 foot bug protection for placing over the picnic table. Wondered if you had recommendations or even use one then thought I’d just ask about the set-up in general.

Before I dig into our own camping history and how we camp today, I want to talk a bit about why camping is a great idea.

The big reason why camping fits well on The Simple Dollar is that camping is an extremely inexpensive way to get out of the house for a few days. Once you’ve covered the initial startup costs of a tent and a few other items, the cost of camping is basically the fuel to drive to a spot, any fees associated with the campsite… and that’s about it. You have to bring your own food, but the food costs for us are typically comparable to eating at home. It is a very inexpensive form of leisure and getting away from it all. Plus, camping can also be a very inexpensive summer vacation, as you can simply drive a long distance and camp in some new part of the country.

There are many different flavors of camping, and I’ve found that not everyone likes every flavor of camping. The two main varieties of camping are “car camping,” where you drive to a premade campsite, pitch a tent or a small camper, and live on the supplies you brought in your car or small camper, and “backpack camping,” where you literally carry the gear you need for camping on your back and explore wilderness. Within each, there’s a lot of variation.

Having said that, camping isn’t necessarily for everyone. Some people enjoy almost every kind of camping out there. Some people enjoy backpacking but find car camping dull; others feel the exact opposite. Some people don’t like any kind of camping.

Sarah and I have been avid campers for many, many years. Both of us used to do car camping growing up, and for the full time we were dating and for perhaps the first ten years of our marriage, Sarah and I were frequent car campers. At first, we had a smaller four person tent and kept our camping equipment in a tub in our apartment.

During those early years, Sarah and I got into a habit of camping several times a summer. It was a pretty regular weekend activity for us – we’d often come home on a Friday, grab our tent and sleeping bags and box of camping gear and a small cooler, toss them in the trunk, and we were ready to go. We’d stop at a grocery store on the way and fill up the cooler and get a few groceries, head to our campsite, and get our tent up before dark, and then spend Saturday and much of Sunday at the campground before heading home.

Over time, we gradually accumulated more camping gear – stuff that wasn’t really necessary but was kind of neat to have along. People knew we loved to camp and would often give us camping gear as a gift. We picked up things like tools to make starting a campfire easier or some really sturdy dishes for the campsite or a Dutch oven to use for campfire cooking. Gradually, our one tub expanded to two tubs, but it still wasn’t a problem.

The challenge came when we had a child, then another, then another. Camping quickly morphed into a much greater logistical challenge requiring us to remember stuff for five people rather than two, plus a lot of baby-related gear. The number of times we camped each summer declined, and we both missed it.

When Sarah was a kid, she had two younger sisters and their family used a popup camper, so she spent a good year shopping around for a used popup camper in good shape and, a few years ago, she found one she liked for a really good price (I think it was a liquidation type of situation where a family needed to get rid of unwanted items rather quickly) and we bought it. It’s a mid-2000s Jayco popup that looks quite a bit like this, but with some key differences and some minor wear and tear on it. We paid substantially less than $1,000 for it.

This served several purposes. One, it provided a single place to store all of our camping items. We simply keep them all stored in the Jayco when it’s folded up and there’s more than enough space for all of the camping gear for five people. Going camping is now quite simple again – we just hook the camper to our van and take off. Two, it made Sarah incredibly happy, as she loved the popup camper that her family camped in when they were kids. Three, a popup is pretty inexpensive as such things go. Four, it’s lightweight, meaning it’s easily towed by our van with a towing package. The cost per year of it has not been much more than a well-equipped tent, either, since we bought it used and have kept care of it.

Personally, I didn’t mind our tent at all. For the first few years we camped with our kids, we used a six person tent that worked really well for our needs and I was really happy with it. Part of the reason for the popup was my wife wanting one, so she conserved her personal spending budget for a while to afford one (it seemed like an “extra” that she wanted but not me). Now that we have it, I appreciate what it offers, but I wouldn’t object a bit to using a tent in the future.

So, as I mentioned, we store our camping gear in this used popup camper. It folds down into a pretty small footprint with roughly 80 square feet of storage space, which we fill up with sleeping bags, extra pillows, firestarting tools, dishes, a Dutch oven, and many other items.

What about a canopy tent, as described in the question? For bugs, we use citronella candles, which we light in the late afternoon before bugs emerge and do a pretty good job of keeping them at bay. We position a few large citronella candles around the front of our camper and this seems to keep almost all bugs away from us within a pretty nice radius. I haven’t found any need for a canopy tent, as we just go in the popup when it rains and the candles keep bugs at bay when it’s not raining. I prefer to get the large bucket-sized citronella candles, as they last for a long time and you don’t have to worry about buying new ones very often.

What items do we take? As I said, we keep most of our stuff in the camper, and we have a checklist of items to grab from around the house or at the store before we go camping – things that we use during non-camping months (like clothing) and things that are perishable or consumable that need to be replenished, like sunscreen and bug spray for hiking. Our overall camping checklist isn’t too far off of this family camping checklist from REI, though our list is pared down a little from that.

My recommendation is that if you’re camping for the first time, borrow a tent or a popup camper and some gear from someone and take a short 2-3 day trip using mostly borrowed gear.Ask your family members or very close friends if they have camping gear and ask to borrow it. Choose a campground that’s near features that seem interesting to you and go there for a long weekend. You’ll figure out on that trip whether camping is really for you and what kind of style you want. Do you want to backpack? Do you want to camp out of a car? Do you want to use a small popup? Is camping just not for you? You’ll probably be able to figure this out within a couple days of car camping with a borrowed tent and borrowed equipment.

Often, what you’ll find with your first camping experience is that it was mostly positive with a few serious nitpicks or issues. In general, someone who thinks camping sounds like fun will usually find the fun it it, whereas people who aren’t excited by the idea will dislike it. The thing is, almost always, the “serious nitpicks or issues” can be solved quite easily for future trips. Camping is a very flexible activity with tons of advice available online for tips and strategies for specific situations.

For us, we usually camp three or four times during each summer. We usually camp once within an hour or two of home for our first camping stop of the summer, mostly to give us an opportunity to really check over the camper and make sure everything is in order. Some summers, our full summer vacation is camping, as we’ll tow our camper to a national park and camp there. We did this most recently in 2017, when we camped at Yellowstone National Park for more than a week and spent time in Grand Tetons, too. During other summers, we’ll usually still go on a four or five day camping trip at some point in the summer, usually not too far from home (usually in our state or a neighboring one). We also usually camp once late in the summer with another couple, and we sometimes also camp with several old friends of ours on a group camping trip. In addition, our kids often have “camping birthday parties” where we take them and several of their friends camping. In 2017, I believe we camped six times, which was our record.

My main future goal for camping is that I would like to try an overnight backpacking trip with my family (where you carry a tent and all needed gear and food in your backpack with you) but this requires somewhat different gear than we already have. I have a cousin who is into backpacking from whom we may be able to borrow most of the gear to try it out.

If you haven’t tried camping and it sounds appealing as both an enjoyable activity and a frugal way of getting out of the house, I recommend simply borrowing gear and giving it a try. If it sounds appealing, you’ll probably love your first trip (with maybe a challenge or two), and then it’s time to start looking for bargain camping gear (which may be an article in the near future).

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.