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Your Ultimate Guide to Camping on a Budget & Keeping it Simple ~

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!