learn to camp, and save lots of money over traditional travel

ry%3D40017now that summer is upon us, it’s the perfect time to talk camping. we have always loved camping — from our respective time at summer camp as kids, to our adventures together in high altitude mountaineering. we loved camping before we cared about what things cost, and only realized later that our love of camping has saved us loads of money over the years, compared to what we might have spent on “traditional” vacations. that said, camping comes with the allure of lots of gear, and can easily go from economical to money pit. fortunately, though, you don’t need much of that gear.

we’ve realized in recent years that the world is divided into people who think of themselves as campers, and those who don’t. and the latter group may find the very concept of camping intimidating for a whole host of reasons. we’re here to tell you non-campers that it’s much easier than you think, it’s not as dirty as you might imagine, there are ways to make it plenty comfortable, and you can really take camping to any level you want, starting simple and working up to more advanced forms. and besides saving loads of cash, you’ll also have tons of fun, see amazingly beautiful places that most people never see, and develop more self-confidence through self-reliance. and you’ll pick up some great stories.

camping can get you out to places like this!
camping can get you out to places like this!

this post was inspired by a request for camping info from steve at think save retire, who is an awesome nature photographer, and wants to learn to camp with his wife to spend more time in photographable places. thanks for the suggestion, steve!

types of camping

first off, perhaps before you even consider camping, it’s good to know that there are a bunch of different ways to camp, and which way you choose affects the difficulty and the amount of gear you need. here’s the basic rundown, from easy to difficult:

  • rv camping — with an rv, you basically bring a moveable house along with you to campgrounds, and really just need to pack food and clothing. the bed and kitchen are all built in. if you’re absolutely terrified of sleeping outdoors, rv camping could be a good place to start, and lots of places will rent them for a weekend or longer. we think rv camping doesn’t save much money over hotel stays, though, so won’t go into it here.
  • car camping — this is the best beginner form of camping for anyone who is willing to sleep in a tent. basically, you camp near your car, usually in a developed campground. the huge benefit of car camping is that you don’t have to carry your stuff for any distance, and so weight is completely unimportant. you can bring heavy stuff that you wouldn’t want to carry, and you can also bring more stuff than you’d bring backpacking, in order to increase your comfort. and you almost always have an official place to go to the bathroom, usually with a place to wash your hands, and often even with showers and laundry.
    A car camping setup lets you have a full-sized air mattress, and a bigger tent, along with luxury items like *pillows*
    A car camping setup lets you have luxury items like *pillows*
  • backpacking — a more advanced form of camping in which you carry all of your gear with you, and often move your camp from night to night. weight is of paramount importance in backpacking, since the weight of your pack will make all the difference between a great trip and a miserable one. backpacking requires a higher degree of self-reliance, depending on how remote a place you trek through, and also specialized gear, so it can be more of an investment, unless you can borrow gear.
  • specialized backcountry camping (winter, high altitude, etc.) — we won’t go into this in detail today, but with the many forms of specialized camping, you’re generally adding more gear to your backpacking set-up and increasing your investment and weight. not something you want to jump right into without having backpacked quite a bit. but super rewarding if you love the outdoors and want to get to even more remote places.
A backpacking setup includes ultralight sleeping and cooking gear, and not much else
A backpacking setup includes ultralight sleeping and cooking gear, and not much else

those are the four basic types of camping, and we can’t stress enough: start simple.

you might first try camping in your own backyard. then move up to camping in a local park that has campsites, and then maybe a state park or national park near you. ramping up slowly will help you feel more comfortable as you gradually move farther afield, and will help you recognize what you need to have or do in order to feel safe and well-equipped on your camping adventures. after all, camping is fun all on its own, even if you’re walking distance from your house. there’s something magical about cooking and sleeping outdoors, and you don’t have to travel far to capture that.

the gear you’ll need — some considerations before you buy

music festival camping
music festival camping

we’ll confess: we’re suckers for awesome outdoor gear, and we have to make a conscious decision not to keep buying it. but the fact is: you really don’t need a lot of gear to go camping. though outdoor retailers might try to tell you otherwise, there is absolutely zero need for specialized gear beyond your basic sleeping setup, especially if you’re car camping. we recommend, like with any new activity, buying as little as possible in the beginning, and investing mindfully over time only after you know that you really and truly love that activity. translation: don’t buy much until you’re positive you’ll use it.

here are some basic things to consider:

car camping

what you don’t need — virtually every campground site will provide you with a fire pit, usually with a cooking grate over it, and access to water, toilets and usually washrooms. you can and should buy your firewood on-site, and they all have it for sale. you can easily cook over the fire, meaning you don’t need a special stove, and so all you really need is a place to sleep. most campsites also have a picnic table, so you don’t even need chairs, though if you already have beach chairs or folding lounge chairs, go ahead and bring ’em. what you for sure don’t need is special clothing or shoes. just wear clothes you’d normally wear for outdoor activities, gardening, hiking, etc. you have to be on a pretty rocky path with a pretty heavy pack before you really need hiking boots. sneakers work just fine. know the weather where you’re headed and pack accordingly — bringing sun hats, rain jackets, or warm jackets and gloves, depending on the conditions. and you don’t need sleeping bags if you’re car camping — just bring sheets and blankets from home, along with your favorite pillow. if you have an air mattress from a guest room, bring that, and don’t buy a unitasker just for camping. if you have an old tent, or can borrow one, bring that. don’t spend money on some fancy new tent. if you ever get into backpacking, you’ll want to buy a specialized tent for that, so save your money with an eye toward the future.

car camping stove -- only invest in one of these once you know you *love* camping
car camping stove — only invest in one of these once you know you *love* camping

cooking — the best way to avoid having to purchase special gear is to cook over the fire. you can wrap just about anything in foil and cook it in the coals of the fire, which avoids dirtying any cookware (search “hobo meals” for directions and ideas). if you want to cook but aren’t sure if you love camping yet and therefore don’t want to invest in special cookware, you can coat your regular kitchen pots and pans with a thin coat of dish soap (only on the outside, not where food will touch!), and then the fire soot will wash right off. however, if you decide you love camping, and want to do lots of it, we recommend buying a basic coleman-style stove or a more sturdy version like ours in the picture. we hate throwing out those little green gas bottles for coleman stoves (they are notoriously hard to recycle), and like that the big stove is both easier to cook on and lets us use an infinitely reusable propane tank instead. (ours is made by camp chef, and we see similar ones frequently on craigslist.) another idea: maybe while you’re new to camping, you don’t cook at all. bring a cooler full of things like hummus, tortillas, fresh fruit, milk or nondairy alternative, and you can enjoy wraps, cereal and more without having to cook. we once did an entire camping trip eating just pb&j, which we don’t recommend, but it sure simplified packing and meant virtually zero dishes. and you can enjoy s’mores with just a campfire and a stick.

nice-to-have items — if and only if you decide you love car camping, it’s worth considering a few basic purchases that will make things more comfortable:

dish washing tubs, a water jug, a lantern and beach chairs are part of our car camping setup
dish washing tubs, a water jug, a lantern and beach chairs are part of our car camping setup
  • battery powered lantern and headlamps (until then just use flashlights you already have around the house)
  • collapsible tubs for doing dishes (until then just wash dishes in the campground sinks)
  • collapsible water jugs (until then just use your cooking pot and water bottles)
  • folding beach chairs (until then, use what you have, or use the picnic table provided)
  • camping cookware and cutlery (we prefer metal, because it won’t break and still works if it gets dented, plus it’s safer than plastic — until then just use your least fancy dishes and silverware from home, and you can always use your regular cookware. there is nothing magical about camping cookware, especially if you’re cooking on a stove.)
  • tent with the features you want, such as multiple rooms for kids and adults, a big vestibule area which keeps things dry in rainy climates, etc. (until then just use whatever tents you can borrow, or pull out of a basement.)

backpacking

backpacking in yosemite
backpacking in yosemite

if you get into backpacking, you will want some specialized gear, both for comfort (lighter gear = happier backpackers) and safety (technical clothing, for example, will help keep you from getting hypothermia or heat stroke, and some form of water purification is essential to prevent illness). but the key here is: buy as little as possible. taking a minimalist view toward backpacking will save you money, and make the experience a lot more enjoyable, since a heavy pack is the worst thing in the world. (not literally, but if you’re slogging up some mountain with a heavy pack, it feels like the worst thing possible.)

here is our packing list that we use for summer backpacking trips, with specifics on brand and model, for those who are curious:

  • our ultralight stove and cookpot in action
    our ultralight stove, windscreen and cookpot in action

    ultralight tent (big agnes fishhook 2 ul)

  • inflatable air pads (exped ul 7)
  • sleeping bags (rei kilo plus and an old marmot)
  • packs (kelty haiku 4000 and osprey atmos 50)
  • headlamps
  • first aid kit (mostly just bandaids and tape — we can improvise the rest)
  • water filter (an old katadyn model)
  • toiletry kit (toothbrush and paste, floss, ibuprofen, sunscreen, hair ties)
  • toilet bag (small trowel/shovel, toilet paper, baggies to pack up toilet paper, hand wipes)
  • map and compass
  • stove (msr pocket rocket, plus fuel canister), plus lighter and folding windscreen (comes with stove)
  • single cooking pot (evernew titanium 1.3L)
  • cups for eating and drinking (evernew titanium)
  • sporks for cooking and eating (snow peak titanium)
  • camelbak bags for our backpacks, and to filter water into
  • camp soap and small scrubby pad
  • tiny pocket knife
  • bear can, only when required, like in yosemite (garcia backpacker’s cache)
  • bandanas
  • miniature deck of cards
  • book or kindle
  • cell phones

P1050915plus clothing:

  • sun hats
  • sunglasses
  • 2-3 shirts each, mostly longsleeve
  • hiking pants, 1 pair each
  • 2-3 pairs underwear plus 1 sports bra
  • long underwear pants and shirts, 1 set each
  • 2-3 pairs of technical socks
  • hiking shoes or boots, 1 pair each
  • lightweight flip flops, 1 pair each
  • down or fleece jacket, 1 each
  • rain shell jacket, 1 each

notice the things that are not on our list:

  • chairs or “chair kits” (camp near rocks that you can sit on)
  • pillows (just use your jacket or some extra clothes)
  • lantern
  • lots of dishes — just one pot, two cups and sporks are all we use
  • solar charger — just keep your phone off for the most part, or keep it in airplane mode if you want to use it as a camera
  • lots of clothes — we take a minimum to keep it light
  • multiple pairs of shoes — it’s not a fashion contest, and shoes are heavy
  • specialty items like gaiters, crampons, etc. — you only need those for true mountaineering. you’ll get rocks in your shoes sometimes, even with gaiters, so save the money and weight.
  • a million emergency/safety gadgets — read up on wilderness rescue techniques before you go, know your local threats, and use common sense. but don’t bring a safety beacon, a snakebite kit, a splint and tourniquet kit, a massive first aid kit, and a weather radio and expect to have a good time. your pack will be too heavy.

where to get gear

ry%3D40026we’ve said it here already, but we’ll say it again: borrow as much as possible. there’s no reason to spend a fortune to do something that humans have been doing since the dawn of time! also consider renting bigger items like tents and camping stoves — outdoors stores can point you toward outfitters in the area where you’re camping.

if you do need to buy something, we recommend not buying the cheapest items. camping, and especially backpacking, will put your gear through more stress than your average at-home living, and buying cheap stuff will guarantee you come back with broken gear. we’ve also stressed the importance of weight throughout this post, and lighter items typically come with a higher price. don’t feel like you have to spring for the lightest and priciest of everything, but compare weights to prices, and find the best value for you.

for things you must purchase, we recommend the following sources:

  • thrift stores, especially in outdoorsy towns
  • craigslist
  • campmor (great selection of past year models, which are discounted)
  • sierra trading post (similar to campmor)
  • steep and cheap (flash sales on outdoor gear — not always incredible deals, but sometimes have huge discounts)
  • rei outlet (especially great deals if you shop during their 20% off sales)
  • the clymb (another flash sale site)

further reading

nothing tastes better than food cooked outside
nothing tastes better than food cooked outside

our goal is to inspire you to get out there and camp, especially if you’ve never done it before, and to show you that you don’t need to buy a whole lot of stuff to do it. but we definitely recommend doing just a little bit more reading before you head out into the wilderness. here are some of our favorite resources:

we’re now 2500 words in, so you get a medal if you’re still reading! let us know — think you’ll start camping soon? for those who are still hesitating, what’s holding you back? for the experts out there, what did we miss?

32 thoughts on “learn to camp, and save lots of money over traditional travel

  1. This is awesome, thanks so much for putting this together. We’ll definitely be saving this post for a re-read once we get closer to make sure that our camping list is similar to what you’ve outlined. I especially like the fact that you don’t need every freaking piece of gear under the sun in order to camp. Just like with everything else, you can go overboard with the gear if you aren’t careful (being a nature photographer, I know the tendency to “over-buy” when it comes to gear).

    I definitely think that we’ll be taking your advice and car camping first for a while. We live pretty close to Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains in southern Arizona, so that might be a nice first trip for us. We can get used to the camping experience first without having to worry too much about how light or efficient our packs are. Of course at some point we WILL need to put some serious effort into that part because backpacking is our ultimate goal.

    Also, I love that you’ve included pictures along the way of what you’re talking about within the blog post – that helps tremendously to visualize how all of these components fit together and the size that we’d be looking at, here.

    We know a couple of backpackers, so we’ll probably take another bit of your advice as well – borrow equipment, especially for the first couple of times out. This will help us to get a feel for what works best for us without the possibility of wasting money on something we don’t like. Love the idea. :)

    Thank you again for taking the time to put this together – it’s incredibly helpful. You can bet that I will probably be asking more questions along the way. :)

    Out of curiosity, where is the most extreme place that you’ve backpack camped?

    1. Terrific — glad it’s helpful! We now live in a small town where everyone camps, and haven’t been able to evangelize about it in a while. :-) Most extreme is less about the place, and more about the *when.* We’ve camped in the winter in order to backcountry ski, and that’s a bit extreme because you’re camping on snow and dealing with the cold, but you’re also adding a lot more gear — skis, crampons, ice axes, extra sleeping pads, a heavier 4-season tent, etc. Makes regular backpacking seem like a walk in the park, but worth it for the fun of skiing and the solitude of winter. We also had a bit of a survival epic when camped above 12,000 feet in the Sierra a few years back, but that’s a story for another day. :-) Suffice to say — don’t pitch your tent in the path of massive wind gusts!

  2. Great post. We’ve done tons of car camping, we lived-in our Rv for five years and don’t instead to stop each winter, and I’ve done camping on a canoe trip. These are all great tips. I will say as you age, the RV is very nice and you don’t wake up as stiff and sore. It’s also better if the weather turns foul.

    1. Thanks! We fully support RV camping (currently working on a Sprinter van plan for long term travel, actually), but didn’t focus on it here because it’s the most costly option among these, at least to start. We’re totally with you on having a proper bed — that has tended to be the biggest limiting factor in our trips to date: how long can we sleep on an air mattress without hating life? :-)

  3. Great, detailed article. Everything you need for an adventure (at a reasonable cost).

    Car camping and backpacking are our go-to summer weekend trips. We’ve built our gear up over time (similar to your list) and take advantage of the trails outside Portland (for less car time).

    One of our main/many vacations this year is backpacking the West Coast Trail in September.

    Yes, when backpacking, less is more!

  4. This post opened my eyes a bit. The camping people do in my area is on an island in the middle of a river. It makes the whole packing thing a total pain. Now I’m curious to check out some car camping options in the area.

  5. Wow great in depth analysis. I worked at an RV / tent campground for 5 years as a teenager and into college. So I haven’y had the urge to do it myself since I spent many hours at a campground over those years. I think once I reach FI or move into the burbs again, I’ll definitely give it a shot. Hard to keep a bunch of camping gear in a tiny apartment!

    1. For sure storage in a tiny apartment would be a hindrance, but don’t let you stop you if you feel inspired to camp. There are definitely outfitters in the northeast who will rent you literally everything, so you don’t have to buy or store anything. Or maybe something for the future, as you said…

  6. Very comprehensive intro to camping. Just 2 additions.

    1.) Make your own individualized packing list as a word document. After each trip take a minute or two and add or subtract items as needed to make future packing much quicker and easier. This will save from running to campground stores or gas stations and getting price gouged if car camping (or just suffering if in backcountry) b/c you forgot something or packed too much stuff.

    2.) Coffee is a necessity! For car camping we use the REI French press. For backcountry, Starbucks instant coffee packets.

    1. Pro tips! Absolutely agree on both recommendations. We actually keep our packing lists from every trip we’ve done (we’re more the Excel types) ;-) and can track the gear we’ve added and subtracted over time. This counts as a good time for gear nerds. On the coffee front, we’ve been thinking about making super concentrated coffee for backpacking, bringing it in a small bottle, and adding it to hot water. We know it could add about a pound to our packs (bad!), but would be soooo much better than those Starbucks packets (good!).

  7. Great post! I love that camping can be as luxurious or as rugged as you want to make it. When we don’t feel like backpacking, we car camp.

    Some insight I want to offer, because I wish I had learned this sooner: car camping need not be at an established campground! In fact, we never stay in established campgrounds! If you want the feel of backpacking, but the luxuries of car camping (i.e. pillows, fresh veggies/fruit, cold beer, and acoustic guitars), national forest land is calling your name. Almost all national forests, particularly WMA’s, have roadside campsites/ dispersed campsites that are 100% free. Freecampsites.net is a great resource to find some of these sites, but the best way is to explore Forest Service roads. In our local WMA there are dozens and dozens of free sites right off the road and usually in beautiful scenic spots with water access. These sites are remote enough to feel similar to backpacking (usually you will only see a handful of cars drive by, and folks are always friendly out in the forest). Of course they have no water/ hook-ups, bathrooms, picnic tables, or fire rings. You can filter your own water from a nearby stream, or what I do is fill up old gallon milk jugs with water and bring 3-4 of them for cooking/ drinking/ cleaning. We bring our own folding chairs, and if we are feeling really lazy, firewood. Typically dispersed sites have plenty of deadfall nearby since they seem to only be used by hunters and a few other outdoor enthusiasts. So making a fire is never an issue. We cook right on the hot coals, or using foil as you mentioned. Make sure to pack all your trash out, and leave your site cleaner than when you arrived, just like in the backcountry.

    Around here Google maps is dicey on the forest service roads, but your national forest’s ranger district should be able to direct you towards a decent map. Many rangers/ WMA check-in stations will even give you information on free dispersed sites. Doing a little research can go a long way. When we are planning a vacation, we decide where we want to go, I find the nearest national forest, look up the correct ranger district, then call for more info. Folks are always willing to help.

    The only catch to car camping in the backcountry like this is it helps to have a vehicle with high clearance. Forest Service roads are always gravel and are usually poorly maintained. Many have small water fords. That being said, we do all our car camping in my 2006 Honda Accord. The skid plate has taken a beating, but I have never had issues with getting stuck or not being able to climb or clear roads. If you have never driven on Forest Service roads, the first couple times can be a white knuckles experience. Just take it VERY slow and enjoy the scenery. As with anything, carry an emergency kit and a spare tire.

    Campgrounds are fine, but the noise/ lights/ smells/ etc from other campers, coupled with little privacy, ruins the essential experience for us. We really love camping our way because it enables us to get away from development and enjoy the solitude and beauty of nature without all the work involved with backpacking. I work an intense manual labor job, so usually when I get a few days off, the last thing I want to do is lug around a backpack all weekend. Another perk to being out on FS roads is you can usually pick up long-distance trails off these roads. In our area, the AT, the Bartram Trail, and the Benton MacKaye trail all cross FS roads many times over. We camp near a trail crossing, then get up the next morning and hike 10-12 miles without a big pack. Usually these stretches of trail are so remote you get them all to yourselves – which is an extra bonus for us.

    1. What a great suggestion! Only note would be on fires — in the west, we would definitely recommend skipping the fire if camping this way, since everything is way too flammable. Usually fires are only allowed in official campgrounds, and everywhere else, you’re limited to a small gas stove. And to add to your suggestion, also for the west, BLM land would offer much the same opportunity. It’s like less regulated and less visited FS land. Thanks!

  8. What an awesome list, onl! I have bookmarked your post as a reference for our camping trips – it’s nicer looking that my Google Sheets ;) We absolutely love camping and will be taking our Little Man on his first camping trip later this summer, hopefully he will join us in our love for nature and the wilderness. One thing we did not do much before was backpacking, we had done a portaging trip (in Ontario) and one time where we canoed in to our site. Definitely something I want to do more of when our son is older. There is something about being in the wilderness where it’s completely quiet and serene…

    1. So glad it’s helpful! We LOVE canoe camping, and have done some up in the boundary waters of Minnesota. It’s kind of a cross between backpacking and car camping, because you can bring a little more stuff than you would for backpacking, but you still have to carry it sometimes! Hope your little guy gets the nature bug too!

  9. This is a great resource! We also stick a bear bell on our kids’ wrists. If the yelling, singing, screaming doesn’t scare the bears away, the bell on the wrist and the running will! :) But I prefer to stay in a cabin in Alaska (unless dipnetting and camping on the beach to do so) because then I can actually sleep and not worry about bears!

    1. It makes me want to pee my pants thinking about camping around grizzlies! Eeeeeeek!! Black bears, fine. But grizzly bears… I am impressed that you venture outside at all! Hahaha. I definitely don’t blame you for putting bells on the kids, and sleeping in cabins!

      1. We had a close call with a moose by our car yesterday as the kids went sprinting outside without seeing it and I thought “if we can survive up here, we can do anything!” :)

        1. Haha! #truth

          That was like me with a flock of wild turkeys I came across recently. I went running after them, camera out, and my friend was screaming, “Get back! They could be aggressive!” Who had the right instincts in that moment? I’m guessing it wasn’t me. ;-)

        2. OH I always say if I was in the Hunger Games, I’d be the first to die. While I live in Alaska, I’m convinced I’m destined to die by bear or bush plane. I’m not that hearty! :)

  10. We have done all types of camping, and have changed our main style over the years. Three items I suggest for backpacking are lip balm, hanky (I’m a snot factory when hiking), and hardcore painkillers. My husband broke his leg near the summit once… the painkillers made a huge difference. We RV camp now with a lightweight travel trailer that we pull with our Subaru Outback (R-Pod). It’s designed to handle dry camping and forest service roads, so it gives us more options when choosing camp sites. Now that I’m older, sleeping on the ground is a hardship, plus it’s nice to have a toilet and shower!

    1. I’ve never considered bringing painkillers of that level! But wow — sounds like they were a lifesaver in your case. What an ordeal. :-( We’ve considered an R-Pod to pull with our Subi but are now leaning toward a self-contained micro RV because we aren’t feeling great about pulling a trailer on ice and snow. (Chasing the powder will be a big thing for us in retirement!) But totally with you on wanting a REAL bed these days and not sleeping on the ground anymore. ;-)

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