Camping, a Low-Cost Vacation

Everyone wants to get away from it all sometimes, but a hotel anywhere will cost you around $100 per night anymore. Try to go somewhere like the beach, and you’re looking at $300 per night. This doesn’t include meals out, flights, and rental cars. But there is a way to get away from it all without spending a fortune.

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A great alternative to the normal vacation experience is camping. If you get the right camping gear, go to the right places, and cook your meals rather than going out all the time, you can have a great time without blowing a couple thousand dollars or more. In this article, we’ll talk about what you’ll need. In future articles we’ll talk about where to go, what to do, and how to cook when you’re out in the great outdoors.

What You’ll need

You can end up spending a lot of money on camping gear (and then spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to pack it all, setting it all up, then breaking it all down). Most people bring way more than what they need. You really only need a few essentials to have a great camping experience. Here’s a consolidated list:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bags
  • Ground Pads (or air mattress)
  • Flashlights
  • Knife
  • Cooler
  • Cooking gear (pot, skillet, utensils)
  • Stove

Tents: A tent will help keep you warmer (your body heat will make a tent 50-60 degrees F when it’s 40 degrees F outside), give you privacy, and keep you out of the rain. There are cheap tents made by manufacturers such as Coleman and then there are more expensive tents made by companies like Kelty, NorthFace, and EGGO. A cheap 2-person tent will run about $80, where a quality tent will run around $200-$300. Larger tents obviously get more expensive, but not necessarily proportionally. A lot of the cost of a tent is the manufacture, so adding some more material doesn’t cost that much.

Cheap tents and expensive tents will provide about the same experience once you set them up. The difference in cost is in how easy the tent is to use, how heavy it is, and how long it will last (if cared for well). Cheap tents may have poles that are difficult to slide through the sleeves, making it harder to setup. They will have fiberglass and other heavier materials, making them heavy for backpacking but making little difference if you’re carrying them from your car to the tent pad. They may last 2-5 years if you clean them when you get home and store them in dry, temperate conditions with the poles relaxed. A quality tent will last 20 to 40 years under the same conditions.

An example of a good cheap tent is the Coleman Sundome 4-Person Tent, Green, which sells for about $60. This tent has some nice features like plenty of ventilation, a nice, square shape to maximize room, and simple setup. This would be great for a family of two adults and two smallish kids or two to three adults. (Note on tent size, you always want a tent that is more “men” than you have since you’d need to be very friendly to fit as many people in as the rating says and you’d have no room for anything but people.)

Coleman Sundome 4-Person Tent, Green

If you wanted to have a lot more room, and maybe the ability to stand up in the tent to change, you could get a 6 or an 8-person tent for a family of four. Note, however, that big tents are cooler in the cold since they’re heated by your body heat and are hard to light with flashlights. You also need at least four people to setup an 8 person tent.

Kelty makes some good, lower-price but high-quality tents. An example for a single person is the Kelty Salida 2-Person Tent. It is light and easy to set up. Note that this is a good size for a single person and leaves room for gear. For two people, you’d want to get a three-man version. Kelty also sells bigger tents, such as the Kelty Sonic 6-Person Airpitch Tent or the Kelty Camp Cabin Tent (6 Person), Grey, which would provide for more head room. If you’re buying a big tent, however, you will probably be happy with a cheaper version since you are probably not carrying it far. These would be easier to setup and last longer, however.

Kelty Salida 2-Person Tent

An alternative to a tent if you live in an area with plenty of trees, especially if you’re hiking in at all, is to get a hammock. Many people find they sleep better in a hammock. These are very lightweight and give you somewhere to relax during the day as well. You can get away with just the hammock in warm, dry weather, but you’ll need to get a rain fly as well if it might rain or to stay warmer on cool nights. A rain fly will add dramatically to the setup time, so you’ll only want to use one if it is really needed. A rain fly will also cost as much as the hammock or even more. You’ll still want to use a sleeping bag with a hammock, and a ground pad if it will be cold or the part of your body facing the ground will be cold all night due to radiation.

ENO – Eagles Nest Outfitters DoubleNest Lightweight Camping Hammock, 1 to 2 Person, Red/Charcoal

Sleeping Bags and Ground Pads

You could bring sheets and blankets, but a sleeping bag puts it all together in one in a package that can take a little bit of dirt and moisture. Some bags are also designed to keep you warm in cold weather with lots of padding, radiation reflecting fabrics, and other space-age technologies. You’ll also need a ground pad (for colder camping or backpacking) or an air mattress (for warmer camping near the car).

With sleeping bag, again, you can get cheap gear or pricey. And again, the cheap stuff won’t work as well, will be heavier, and won’t last as long. If you’re really thinking that you’ll be camping for years to come, investing in a quality sleeping bag, which will last your whole life if you care for it properly, is worth it.

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An example sleeping bag that would work for warm and cool season camping is the MalloMe Single Camping Sleeping Bag. It is rated down to 35 deg F (meaning that you should be warm enough above that temperature, is square (which is nice for most people) and comes with a great little bag that can be clipped onto a backpack.

MalloMe Single Camping Sleeping Bag – 4 Season Warm Weather and Winer, Lightweight, Waterproof – Great for Adults & Kids – Excellent Camping Gear Equipment, Traveling, and Outdoor Activities

If you’re going to camp at temperatures below freezing (and why wouldn’t you?), you’ll need a bag designed for cold temperatures. Many sleeping bags have temperature ratings in their name, which tells how cold it can be outside and you’ll still be comfortable. For example, a 0 deg bag will be good down to 0 deg F. Most bags designed for cold weather will be mummy bags, meaning they have tapered legs, since having your feet together helps keep you warm. They will also come over your head, putting you in a cocoon. An example cold weather bag is the Coleman 0°F Mummy Sleeping Bag . Note that many people don’t like having their feet together when they sleep, so you may want to stick to a square bag unless you really need it for cold weather. Plus, a cold weather sleeping bag in hot conditions is really uncomfortable and sticky.

Coleman 0°F Mummy Sleeping Bag for Big and Tall Adults | North Rim Cold-Weather Sleeping Bag, Olive

In addition to a sleeping bag, you’ll need a ground pad or air mattress under you. This isn’t just for comfort from sticks and rocks under you. If you don’t have something between you and the ground, the ground will suck the warmth out of you, making you very cold. A good ground pad or air mattress is a must have pretty much all times of the year.

An air mattress is more comfortable and a great choice if you have a big tent with lots of room. If you’re in a camp ground or have a pump that plugs into your car, and you can park at the site, you can make your camping trip almost luxurious with a good air mattress. There are even double-thickness air mattresses that are even more comfortable and easy to get up and down from. And don’t forget to get a good pump with it.

A ground pad is thinner, making it more easy to transport. You can also blow them up by mouth, meaning that you won’t need a pump. These are mainly for backpacking, although they are smaller, making them more suitable for smaller tents. Because they’re easy to blow up, they also mean one less thing to do when you get to the campsite.

Gear Doctors- Self Inflating Camping Sleeping Pad – 4.3 R-Value Lightweight Foam Filling 1.5-inch Thick Mat Perfect Size Mattress for Camping Backpacking Travel with Insulation for Cold Winters

Other gear

Flashlights: You’ll need to see at night (obviously). You’ll want to have a few personal flashlights or headlamps (which are compact and keep your hands free to do things). You can also get a traditional or battery powered lantern to light up the campground, making it a lot nicer at night.

A headlamp will allow you to see while having your hands free. great if you need to set up a tent after dark.

A bright, compact flashlight is a necessity in the woods.

Knife: There are so many reasons that you’ll need a knife when you’re outdoors. You should get a 2-4″ folding knife with a locking blade and carry it with you all of the time. (The locking blade is important to keep from accidentally cutting yourself because the blade folds up on you.) You might also want a larger, fixed-blade survival knife if you’re doing things like fishing.

A survival knife is great if you do things like fishing where you need a big blade.

You’ll find a thousand uses for a good, folding pocket knife. Get a locking blade for safety.

Cooking utensils: Depending on what you’re cooking, you’ll need pots, skillets, spatulas, cooking knives and a cutting board, ladles, spoons, etc…. Don’t forget a lighter and/or matches, a can opener, and a pot holder. A great idea is to get a plastic tote and put all of your camping cooking supplies inside so that you’ll be able to just grab it and go rather than looking around for things the day before and forgetting something. You don’t need to buy a lot of new stuff for camping. Just use those beat-up pots you have or hit the yard sales and see what is there.

Everyone gets their own fork for hot dogs or marshmallows.

You can buy separate pots and pans made just for camping or use old ones in your pantry.

Stoves: There are camp stoves, which are designed for carrying from the car, then there are backpacking stoves, designed to be small and highly portable. You can use a backpacking stove for everything, as long as you’re cooking for just a few people and don’t need to use a huge pot. For many years we just brought a grate and cooked over the fire in an old pot we didn’t mind getting covered in soot. this works great as long as there is plenty of wood around. Dutch over cooking is then another whole area unto itself.

These Coleman backpacking stoves are bulletproof and can be used when in a campground or in the back country. The fuel container is integrated with the stove in this case. Some stoves have the fuel bottle separate. This one can also be refilled with camp fuel or unleaded gasoline.

A traditional camp stove, with a windscreen and two burners. This stove burns propane from bottles you could get at any Walmart.

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