Camping can be an inexpensive vacation, and several ways to further reduce costs are presented. The purchase of good equipment and maintaining it, the use of transportation methods other than automobiles, picnic lunches and the use of lower-cost campsites are recommended. Low-cost activities are given.
We were camping on the cheap, and we didn’t roll up our tent and go home until the bluegills quit biting and we ran out of food. Total cost for three days of Huck Finn fun: Zero.
One of the reasons I’ve always camped is because short of mooching off relatives or jumping slow-moving trains, it’s the best way I know to vacation on a budget. Go figure: A family of four on a week’s sojourn will spend at least a grand if they shell out a daily average of only $50 on motels ($350), $50 in restaurants ($350), and $40 or so ($300) for incidentals such as souvenirs and theme-park admissions. This figure can be considerably higher. A friend of mine recently blew $6,000 (including air fare) on a two-week family vacation to the Cayman Islands. “Can you recommend a best family tent?” he asked. “Next year we’re going camping and save some money.”
Not only does camping stretch the budget, it helps get sportsmen into remote habitat for game and fish and away from competition. That’s why an increasing number of outfitters will pack, boat or fly clients who camp and have their own gear into wilderness areas. Their fee may be a fraction of the cost to arrange a complete package that includes food, lodging and guides.
Saving money is the biggest reason why more than 80 million Americans pounded tent stakes and unrolled sleeping bags last year. Here are ways to save more this year.
THE FEAR OF COSTLY GEAR
Buy the best equipment you can afford, then take care of it. A $500 investment for new camping tents for sale, lantern, stove, sleeping bags and pads, cooler and other incidentals which you may or may not already have (cooking utensils and flashlights, for example) can be recouped in only a few nights. Campers typically save 50 percent or more on lodging and 30 percent or more on meals. Campingequipment is the ideal gift for Christmas, birthdays or Father’s Day, and many sporting-goods stores and mail-order houses offer super bargains during the off season.
Consider buying used gear at yard sales, flea markets or army/navy surplus stores. Splitting costs with neighbors or friends and renting equipment with an option to buy are other considerations. Some enthusiasts like to find a used tent for sale, sleeping bags, tables, chairs, food boxes and other stuff. A fine sleeping pad, for example, can be created from a piece of egg carton foam or by filling a used water-bed mattress with air. Check the public library for how-to books on the subject.
Extend the life of equipment by cleaning it and drying it out before storing in a cool, protected place. Most manufacturers provide other commonsense practices to follow.
There are literally hundreds of ways for campers to get an inexpensive good night’s sleep. Although user fees are on the rise as government agencies pinch budgets, many campgrounds still offer free or reduced-cost, although sometimes primitive, options. The number of federal agency locations alone, many with low-cost camping opportunities, is staggering. Included are more than 350 National Park Service properties, 156 National Forests, 362 National Wildlife Refuges, and 500 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 300 Bureau of Reclamation sites, and nearly 400 Bureau of Land Management sites. Regional agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority and state forest, parks and recreation areas are other considerations.
Check your public library for a directory of local chambers of commerce in the area you plan to camp. Then write for information about budget camping and travel options. Regional and state travel and tourism offices are other sources, but be as specific about plans and needs as possible.
Township, county and municipal campgrounds are usually clean, sometimes staffed and often less expensive than commercial sites. En route, pick up campfire wood from sawmills, lumber yards or downed timber on public land to avoid paying high prices at campgrounds. Know, too, that overnight parking and camping may be permitted at highway rest stops as well as at truck stops, church parking lots, fairgrounds, utility properties and certain recreational vehicle dealers and other businesses. It costs nothing to ask.
BEATING EATING COSTS
There is no reason that food prepared in camp has to cost more than at home. In fact, it can be cheaper if you have any prowess as a hunter or fisherman and know how to identify safe, natural foods like spring greens, summer berries and fall mushrooms. Doing so may be healthier than eating packaged or prepared foods because some greens lose up to one-third of their vitamins within an hour of picking.
Planning meals ahead of time encourages campers to shop for sale items weeks in advance and skirts what might otherwise be a budget strain. Spaghetti, chili and meat loaf are among many popular meals you can make at home, then freeze in containers and haul in the camping cooler. Instead of buying brand name or expensive freeze-dried foods, purchase generic bulk items and repack them into plastic bags or boxes. When on the road, buy fruit and vegetables from roadside stands. Picnic lunches at free rest stops beat the cost of eating out during the day and make for a nice break if you’re road weary.
Travel by train, airplane, bus or boat can save time and money compared with driving your own vehicle. Most airlines allow two carry-ons and two pieces of checked luggage to 70 pounds or more total. That’s more camping gear than I can comfortably carry. Sometimes bus companies offer unlimited travel promotions for a set fee during a prescribed period of time. A few years ago, crossing Lake Michigan by ferry saved my family and me 400 miles and eight hours of driving. We pocketed about $50 in savings, too, and the kids enjoyed the diversion as much as my wife and I did.
Speaking of children, admission fees to amusement parks and sundry other tourist traps can be shockingly expensive. Free or low-cost activities include public museums and historical houses, factory and farm tours. Instead of wasting money on costly souvenirs, encourage the kids to collect natural treasures like rocks and seashells.
Know that sales, alcohol, cigarette and gasoline taxes vary widely from state to state. In 1991, for example, the fuel tax in Georgia was only 7 1/2 per gallon compared to 26 per gallon in Rhode Island. So if you’re driving, it pays to know when and where to fill the gas tank.
I’ve learned a lot in 30 years: The two quarters I couldn’t find as a kid is the 50 and more I’m saving as an avid camper today.
THE FRUGAL TRAVELER
Stop by any American Automobile Association (AAA) office and buy a copy of Digest of Motor Laws for $7.95, or call AAA (407-444-7962) for more information. In addition to listing state gasoline tax rates, the book summarizes towing requirements and other laws and regulations in the United States and Canada.
Other helpful tips to remember on the road:
* If the boat or camper you’re towing is level with your vehicle, you will burn less gasoline.
* Adding a cab-flush topper to a pickup truck cuts down on wind drag and improves gas mileage. If you don’t have a topper, drop your tailgate when traveling.
* In mountainous country adjusting the air-intake screw on your vehicle’s carburetor (if so equipped) will boost power and fuel economy.
* Other ways to add miles per gallon include keeping tires properly inflated, making sure your vehicle is properly tuned and avoiding sudden stops and starts.
* Avoid toll roads. Secondary highways and back roads are more interesting anyway.
* Kampgrounds of America, with more than 600 sites nationwide, offers a 10 percent discount on all daily RV campsite registration fees for Value Kard members. To get a card, send $8 to KOA Value Kard, Box 31734, Billings, MT 59107.
* Two excellent national sources of no-cost and low-cost campsites are Save-A-Buck Camping and Don Wright’s Guide to Free Campgrounds, which cost $13.95 and $14.95 postpaid, respectively, or $24.95 postpaid for both. Order from Cottage Publications, 24396 Pleasant View Dr., Elkhart, IN 46517.
* A new book that details more than 5,000 wildlife and outdoor recreation areas, many of them free or low cost, is The U.S. Outdoor Atlas & Recreation Guide by John Oliver Jones and published by Houghton Mifflin Co. for $16.95. Check your library or bookstore for a copy.