Camping has become complicated. I know. For years it wasn't. I began camping in my early 20's and started taking my daughter when she was three, in 2010. I loaded my same old tent, cooler, food, sleeping bag and a few other items into the Jeep and we were set.
Now, I've become the opposite of what this blog is talking about. Simplicity & budget. I think I'm still "simple", compared to a 42' diesel pusher, but I pale in comparison to the backpacker. I've gone to the camping, overlanding, & outdoor expos and was inundated with gear and sales pitches trying to convince me I needed a $500 power station. Other favorites that come to mind are the collapsible whisk (Who whisks while camping?), "Camp" Chopsticks (Are their non-camping chopsticks?), or, the big one, the folding camp stove toaster (For the love of everything we know, can we forego toast for one weekend?). If you pare down your list and stay budget-minded, escaping into the outdoors can be a cheap relief from the hectic grind we are striving to get away from. Read on to see what I've learned!
Why Is This Topic So Important?
After exploring, camping, and overlanding for roughly 35 years I've run the full gamut of "gear" related to camping. I was simple early on, then complicated, now I like to think I'm somewhere in between. For me, now, loading up for a quick weekend escape is akin to going to the grocery store to get a 6-pack of my favorite IPA.
I've had plenty of parents tell me they'd love to take their
The author crossing the Verde River, Arizona
kiddoes out for a weekend but they do not know where to begin. It seems to me they are overthinking things; and I get it. Been there. I've done everything from solo escapes, extended overlanding trips around Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, and even a 3-week Jeep overlanding trek down to Cabo san Lucas via the Baja. I've planned group excursions for my daughter and her friends whether dispersed camping on our way to Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon; or, to Zion National Park in our, yes, I have one, a 31' Class A Motorhome. Before you stop reading, please know it's really nice to watch TV outside while cooking!
In the end, I know how to simplify and do so when I can. It's when I can't (insert wife, RV, my daughter and 4 of her friends) that I look like the typical American dad, loaded with everything the wife and kids can pack and trying to find out where to put it. I simplify when I can. So, what are the nuts and bolts of this guide. Why are you still reading? Let's dive in -
The author's current set up
Nuts and Bolts - Keeping it Simple and Cheap
We want to look at the cost-cutting ways to get out there, but even those elements need to be articulated into some sort of plan. I'm not saying you need to have all of this in an excel spreadsheet, but a few notes on location/route, menu, gear, etc will save you from that gut-wrenching feeling of, "Oh, C!@#, I forgot the food in the freezer!", which by the way, has happened to me, aheemmm, more than once.
Firewood Planning Tip #1 - I've purchased the bundled fire wood from the convenience stores when I was in a pinch. The problem is it's not cheap, burns quick, and it's not a hot fire. Heading to lunch one day from work I passed a small, hand-written sign that said, "Firewood". We had a trip in a few days so I stopped to check it out. I walked out with the best firewood I've ever burned. The owner is also a landscaper and they bring all of the trees they remove to this place to be turned into firewood with a variety of types. They had Oak, Olive, Juniper, Mesquite, Pecan, and Pinon. When I told him what I was doing he even had a pile just for the campfire. We fully loaded a large wheelbarrow of wood into the Jeep, I let go of $25, and we now have the best campfires (AZ weather permitting ;-)), all weekend long. Had I bought that from a convenience store I would have easily dropped $50 to get the longevity and heat from the convenience store stuff.
Firewood Planning Tip #2 - This isn't really about firewood but I didn't know where else to include this part. How many of the cheap lighters have you've thrown away? Some brand new! You know the ones. Some have a flexible shaft, you click a button and you get a little fire on the end. Well, forget those. Get a box of the good old-fashioned matches. Remember the ones in the box with the striker on the side? Yeap. You'll thank me later.
Firewood Planning Tip #3 - Starting an awesome fire is like a nice Scotch. It's an acquired skill/taste and it takes time to develop. Enter fire starters. Some commercial products are cheap enough but lest we forget, we're on a budget. One day I was wasting time on the internet and found a DIY fire starter video. It was simple enough so I gave it a try. I got the paraffin/candle wax, paper egg cartons, lint from the dryer, and string needed for this exercise. Jo was little and would collect lint from the dryer for weeks and put it into a ziplock we kept nearby. She also made sure mama bought eggs only in paper cartons. On a Saturday I would proclaim it fire starter day and Jo would get so excited. She's 14 now and would rather watch paint dry, but I digress. We'd melt the wax, cut the egg carton apart, stuff each shell with lint, wrap and tie it up with string, then dip it into the wax. After an hour or so we would have 20-30 fire starters. Holy Fire & Smoke, Batman! These were like pouring gas sans the missing eyebrows and small explosion. There are plenty of DIY videos out there on this. Buy if you want, or, share great times with the kid(s) and let them help!
Depending on your state this can be easy and free, or challenging and cost a few bucks. In my state of Arizona, dispersed camping is widespread. I can easily be on FR 300 (Rim Road) on top of the Mogollon Rim and get set up in 3 hours in a remote corner with a fantastic view. In the cooler months we camp dispersed near Sedona, away from the crowds, and drive into town for a long day on the mountain bike. Other states are not so easy. A buddy of mine who I've camped with relocated to S Carolina and has faced this. He called to catch up one day and he lamented his camping challenges. There was no such thing as "dispersed" camping. You couldn't pull off of a Forest Road and set up. It was all city, county or state parks, reservations required.
The point here is - check your local policies and laws and abide as required. If you do need a reservation be sure and secure this well in advance. The pandemic brought out a lot of folks who discovered the outdoors and camping and places fill up fast. Do your homework.
Share the Gear
An easy way to soften the financial blow is to share. If you're with a large(r) group, not everyone needs to bring a stove. Yes, you'll need more than one. But you probably don't need five. Now, if all you have is a single-burner JetBoil, you should probably take that into consideration.
Another "shareable"; you will want lighting around the campsite but you don't need it lit like a runway. A few lights hanging around are usually plenty so check with your group and see what others have. USB rechargeable lanterns have come way down in price and last plenty of time to prepare supper, clean up, and guide you to your camp chair. As a birthday gift one year for our daughter, my wife found an LED collapsible lantern that was solar charged. I was amazed at how inexpensive yet how bright it was. Score one for mama!
Borrow/Rent the Gear
Borrowing is kinda' a simple thing. If you don't have it, ask a friend. I've loaned a lot of gear but as with tools, the hard part is remembering who borrowed it, or that you borrowed it, and getting it back! I've borrowed from friends but be sure to check the serviceability of that piece of gear. On one trip my daughter and friends wanted to sleep outside in a tent. I didn't want to buy one so borrowed. After setting it up I found that the zippers on the door and screen closure were not working. This meant true open air, and bugs! After three nights of critters invading the tent, I woke on the last morning to find the RV strewn with sleeping bodies. They had had enough. Lesson - make sure the borrowed stuff works!
The other option is renting. I was invited on a bucket-list backpacking trip to Havasu Falls in my homestate of Arizona. I'm not a backpacker and didn't have the gear but it was too good to pass up. After a quick Google search I found everything I needed and could rent it for a fraction of the cost of buying. I already owned some of the bigger ticket items but needed a good backpack, chair, waterproof dry bag, and a few other pieces. When I told them what I was
doing they sized me for a backpack, they had a sweet folding,
The broken tent near Zion Nat'l Park
miniature chair, and I even got two hiking sticks which were awesome. I walked out of there well under $100. The best part was after the trip, I knocked the dust off and brought it back. No perpetual gear cleaning, washing, and drying that occurs after all of my trips. A quick Google search for "rent camping gear" and you'll find local outfitters that can set you up. If you don't have one close, there are those that mail the gear to you and include a return shipping label. I haven't tried them, but Kitlender offers this service.
For me, cooking is the epitome of my trip. Buddies I go with prep and sometimes cook their meals at home so it's a heat and serve thing. Me, naaah, I wanna cut veggies, simmer, stew, stir, ladle, taste, and repeat all while nursing a cold IPA. I think it's a Cajun thing! As far as the kitchen needs, they're simple. You need food, a fire, something to eat with, and something to eat on.
This is where sharing and planning can save a lot of money. If in a large group assign meals for each day. One of my overlanding buddies hates cooking the larger suppers for our 4-5 men but is the breakfast guy. He does it very well.
Like I said, I enjoy the cooking part and like to take my time. Others like to cook their assigned meal at home, or a part of it, so it's heat and serve. Either way, planning ahead and shopping conservatively can save you plenty of cash. This article also has some great recipes and ideas for a weekend trip.
Keeping food cool can be a challenge but if only a weekend trip, you do not need an expedition-grade cooler. So many people think these are a necessity when they're not. These are great and can keep things cold; but unless you pre-cool it and follow the ice rule, you have a very expensive ice-melter. For these, they generally suggest your cooler is 2/3 ice to 1/3 food/beverage. Unless it's a huuuuuuge one, you'd struggle to fit food for a family of five in only that 1/3 space deemed allowable.
You'll need a cooler, but don't fret not looking like the neighbors if you don't have a Yeti.
Yes, cook on the campfire if you can. I don't know if it tastes better, but it sure is fun, and it's a built-in stove. That however can have it's drawbacks. Sitting pots and skillets on the fire is tricky. And, your nice pot from home will turn black. Period. But, the campfire still reigns supreme. A penny pincher idea for cooking over the fire is to grab a grate from your oven and use it. As you set up your fire and fire ring position a few rocks to hold it steady and you're golden. Give it a wash when you get home and you're done.
The option I've used for the better part of 25 years is the Coleman Classic 2-burner stove for under $50. Here's one at Target. It runs off of a one pound propane bottle and I buy those in a 4-pack. I've looked at the high-end stoves like Partner Steel and had to laugh. Yes, it's cool. Yes, it's very "overland" looking. And yes, it's expensive. Too expensive for the amount of BTU's you get which are about the same as my Coleman. No thanks.
Early on I had reusable which meant washing. And I washed a lot of dishes! I actually don't use plastic. I found disposable bamboo utensils on Amazon that are easier on the environment. Here's the ones I purchased. Regardless, you'll want disposable to cut down on washing. I've been on trips with the kid and her friends. I found I was either prepping, cooking or cleaning, or a combination of all three. It was nice to find these bamboo versions.
We saved the best for last because this topic can be a quandary. How big of a tent? How expensive? How often will I use it? Comfort? When you answer those questions you will have narrowed things down. My general rule of thumb is this. If it says it sleeps 5, it sleeps 4. If it says it sleeps 8, it sleeps 7. You get the picture. Now, I've read "how to" camping guides and they inevitably link to some $500 tent. If you're trying out camping, try to rent one. If you can't rent, try to borrow. If you can't do either, in my humble opinion, ye ole' faithful Coleman tents will get you through the weekend. Outside of a torrential downpour you should be good to go and even then, if it's short-lived, you'll be fine. The bottom line is asking yourself how often you will use it. You don't want to drop hundreds of bucks on a first trip only to learn your wife's idea of camping is bad room service at a local resort.
Bedding can be simple and cheap. Unless you're doing the winter/snow camping thing a few blankets from home laid on the ground can soften the blow. And sleeping bags can get very inexpensive. When I had an Overlanding Jeep Rental business I'd buy the cheap ones at Wal-Mart. Buy the type that fully unzip and throw that down as well. Curl up in a blanket and your favorite pillow and you're set!
We've covered a lot here and my hope is you feel empowered to conquer the fear of a camping excursion. I have had countless memories with my daughter while in the middle of nowhere that I wouldn't trade for the world. I have memories of solo trips where I didn't speak to anyone for days. Finally, I reminisce over extended trips with buddies and being on backroads for days and days, exploring, camping, driving, and crawling into camp sites tired & dirty. You too can have these experiences if you want. You can also do it simply and on a budget. You just have to do it.