Is Camping The Ultimate Frugal Vacation? (Plus Five Tips For Starting Camping Without Going Broke)

As I write this, the CMO clan just got back from camping in Connecticut near to Rhode Island. We first started camping right after my husband got sick and almost died five years ago. When he was young, his family of six would go camping every summer in Rhode Island, but my family had never been camping when I was young. In fact my own mother still can’t understand why I enjoy camping. Every year she talks to me about how I need to buy a camper, or perhaps camp somewhere with air conditioning, or maybe go on a vacation somewhere more fun (because camping outside couldn’t possibly be fun).

Not having fun at Block Island, a day trip from the camp site

And sure, camping has its downsides. Bugs. Rain. Cold. Heat. Noisy campsites with inconsiderate neighbors. I have been known to once proclaim, in a bad camping moment, that the only good thing about camping is reminding us how good our house is. But camping can also be fun, and a great way to have an inexpensive vacation. Typically the biggest cost of going on vacation is the hotel, followed closely by food. If you camp, you essentially take your home and a stove with you, greatly reducing the cost of your trip. And camping can be as fancy or as simple as you want it to be.


Is Camping The Ultimate Frugal Vacation?

When someone says camping, you might think about pitching a tent somewhere in the woods, after a 20 mile hike, and communing with nature around a fire. Sleeping in a sleeping bag on the ground, waking up and eating re-hydrated food, headed out for another day in the woods. You can see the stars and hear the animals in the woods.

That kind of camping would be wonderful if it was just me, and I was a lot younger with a stronger back, but with three kids (including a tiny guy) and a back that gets sad when I sleep on the ground, we go for car camping at campsites. Traditionally we’ve gone for the same place in RI, but this year we tried a different place that boasted a lot more fun activities for kids. Unfortunately it was also noisy as heck, with inconsiderate campers and karaoke until 10 PM. Not going back there again!

Why is camping the ultimate frugal vacation? Because you can save on both food and lodging. Once you’ve bought a tent for under $100, you can use it again and again. You can camp somewhere different every night, or drive to one place and use it as a base camp to make trips in a new area (which is what we do). We camp and then go to the beach, the arcade, museums (on rainy days), and just hang around the campsite relaxing and doing outdoor stuff. We practice cooking over a fire- I’ve made roasted kabobs, cornbread, stew, and even pizza on a fire. Plus of course the obligatory smores.


Camping is less expensive than a hotel – by a long shot. The place we usually stay at is only about $20 per night (or less), although the exact cost depends on the time of year you’re staying. And for food, although it won’t be as inexpensive as home, you can do most of the cooking yourself. We bring the ingredients from home to make pancakes, biscuits, cornbread, and other things. As long as you have a cooler, and you don’t leave the food outside (either in the car or in a large container that snaps shut) you should be able to easily store food to cook yourself. So yes, overall I’d say that camping is the ultimate way to take a frugal vacation.

Camping to Reset Your Standards

One concept that stood out to me in Tim Ferriss’s book Tools of Titans (check out my book review!) was the idea of living in a very minimal way to reset your standards, and increase your appreciation of the things you have in your life.

You can start to take the comforts of home for granted. Hot showers and baths whenever you want them. Heat and air conditioning at the push of a button. Running water. Flushing clean toilets. Large houses with a room for every person, and all your toys/books/etc. right there. Electricity to bring you the entire internet, all the seasons of Game of Thrones, or whatever video game strikes your fancy.


While you’re camping, you don’t have most – or any – of that. You’ll only have what you brought with you, and you’ll need to make do. Without electricity you and your kids will need to find something to do that doesn’t involve TV or video games. Although we limit videos (no cable here) and games to a short time each day, the kids can still use a detox/break every year. And frankly so could the adults. I usually only watch Netflix on weekends, because I’d rather be doing other things with my time (part of the reason I can accomplish so much). But that doesn’t mean that I still couldn’t use a detox. I have a particular attachment to my phone, and although I did keep it charged in case of a work emergency, I didn’t use it nearly as much as I normally would.

Five Tips to Getting Started Camping Without Going Broke

Are you interested in giving camping a try, but you just don’t know where to start? Maybe you’re worried about the kids spending the entire time just complaining that they want to go home and watch TV, or you don’t want to spend a fortune on equipment when you don’t know if you’ll enjoy it.

  • Start Small: All we had the first year was a tent, some sleeping bags, a cooler for food, water, and something to cook with (a camping stove owned by my aunt and unused for 20 years). As time went on, we slowly added more things to make camping more enjoyable.  If you’ve never been camping before and want to give it a try, see if you can borrow or rent some equipment from a family that camps regularly.
  • Build Slowly: To gather additional equipment, for Christmas and birthdays we’ll ask for gifts of camping equipment – you can give that a try too. Every year we’ll pick up one or two things to make the trip more enjoyable, like some metal skewers to roast meat over the fire.
  • Use What You Have: We also bring a lot of things from home as well – like our French Press make fresh coffee. We’ll bring pre-ground coffee in a Tupperware container and boil water on the camp stove. We also use cast iron cookware at home (my cast iron set is 15 years old and still going strong) and it goes over the fire wonderfully.
  • Don’t Dread Convenience Foods: I speak from experience when I say that if you’re camping for a long time, you’re going to want to go out to eat eventually. In order to head off temptation, be sure to bring plenty of quick food that can be eaten cold, or with minimal preparation. My kids love this part because it’s one of the few times we get those little bags of chips, cans of soda, and small boxes of junk cereals (the other time is on road trips). We don’t keep this in the house so it’s a real treat for them.

    He didn’t drink the soda, but he did enjoy stacking them in towers.
  • Avoid Glamping: Yes, apparently Glamping is a real word and a real thing. Frankly it’s really just like staying in a hotel – with a similar cost. And you can go too far getting stuff to make your camping trip more like home – just walk into a Cabella’s and you’ll see there are plenty of opportunities to be separated from your money. Just keep it simple to start, build it up over time, and be mindful of camping “lifestyle inflation” and you’ll have a great time at a great price.

What Do You Think?

Is camping the ultimate frugal vacation? Or a nightmare? Do you think the kids would go crazy without electricity? Let me know in the comments.

Want to learn more about teaching kids about money? Check out this great page with my top articles and resources I’ve found from around the web.

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25 thoughts on “Is Camping The Ultimate Frugal Vacation? (Plus Five Tips For Starting Camping Without Going Broke)”

  1. My wife and I just did a kidless camping the Poconos last weekend. Frankly I enjoy camping over hotels in a lot of ways: I know it’s clean, no risk of bed bugs, the price, and even when it goes wrong their is a story. Add to that the places I like to vacation are less likely to have a hotel.

  2. Camping was my family’s go-to vacation growing up and I love it! Not only is it frugal and fun, but it taught me so many lessons on being resourceful, creative, tough, and adventurous 🙂 I’m glad you had a great time!

  3. We’ve talked about camping, but never pulled the trigger. Jon camped a lot when he was younger, though, and Little Bit and I are scheduled for a trip through the scouts in the fall, so it might be a good option for us, especially since we already have a lot of the gear.

    I get you on the reset. We go to my dad’s lake house (No wifi! The horror!). I think it’s good for all of us to spend time outdoors on the water or indoors with a book instead of in front of a screen for a week.

    1. Hope you enjoy camping! We did some smaller camping with scouts and with summer camp for years before doing camping as a vacation. So if you enjoy it, you just might keep it up!

  4. The other great thing about building up your equipment slowly is that you’ll have a better idea of what you actually need, and what you think you might need!

    My family camped for vacations for the first 11 years (until my brother broke his collarbone mountain biking and cut our vacation short :P). Loved camping as a kid, and I still love it!

  5. We are heading to Colorado in September (to the MMM Headquarters for a two week course!!) We are flying because our house will be closing and we still need to get our other house ready – so time is tight. But we are taking about 4 extra days out there to see a few things too. We were looking at AirBNB’s and finally decided that since we’re flying Southwest – we each have two suitcases for free. PLENTY of room for a tent/sleeping bags, etc. We haven’t camped in years – but we can’s wait! Our lodging for 15 nights should be in the $350 range (and that’s a few nights at a hot springs – where the admission to the springs is a part of the tent rate). There may be plenty to write about as this unfolds! Great post!

  6. Camping was all we could afford just starting out. We just got back from an epic 28 day road trip with 20 days that camping. the other 8 where points for hotels or staying with family. Camping also relaxes you and unplugs the kids. Nothing more fun than digging holes, chasing squirrels, skipping rocks, and hammock napping.

  7. We’re just a few short weeks away from our first camping trip with both kiddos. In high school and college, I liked “hardcore” camping with long hikes, spelunking and other adventures. With the kids, we’re mostly looking forward to letting them dig in someone else’s dirt and eating smore’s (and of course, getting to see a total solar eclipse).

    I’m hoping that when the kids get just a bit older, we’ll be able to enjoy at least a few more nature related adventures when we camp.

  8. We are incredibly lucky that both my mom and my in-laws live on lakes where we can go visit and stay for free – ultra-frugal vacations! However, as the little man gets older, we want to take him to visit all the National Parks and can’t wait to start camping and doing those road trips. Such great family bonding time and frugal friendly! Looks like you guys had an amazing time on your trip 🙂

  9. My mom is very much like your mom. We went camping over the weekend – $6/night – near Chattahoochee National Forest. No water. No electricity. And it rained one night. When I showed my mom the pictures of our tiny tent in the middle of a beautiful wooded clearing, her immediate reaction was “You’re out in the woods! How can you sleep out there?? How would you ever feel safe?? Why would you stay somewhere where’s there’s no electricity??” I just chuckled. We love camping. It is indeed the ultimate frugal vacation. Our whole weekend, including a 3-hour rafting trip for 2, only cost us $44.

  10. We’ve camped ever since we were dating. Originally we would just drive out into the national forests on the logging roads and find a wide spot in the trees, preferably with some sort of water (which was really fun when you got there at 10 at night like we often would). We would also just cook over the fire. The advantage there was that there was no one around, except maybe a truck or two that would drive by each day and also lots of firewood. The disadvantage was no showers, bathrooms, etc….

    Now since we moved to the east we mainly camp in campgrounds, unless we backpack somewhere. I don’t really like paying for a site and having someone twenty feet away, but the bathrooms are nice to have and the ranger programs are often really fun. I’m not sure why camping is fun, but somehow it is. I think it is just neat to set up a little home outside in the woods and survive without all of the conveniences. I usually am a bit leery the week before we go, but when we are leaving we always start thinking about when we can go again.

    On food we used to prepare some fairly extensive meals, but I’ve found now it is better to do most of the prep work at home so that you can just dump stuff into a pot in the camp site – avoiding especially cutting things up since the prep area is usually pretty lacking. Really, your food costs could be the same as at home if you just plan ahead and prepare fresh instead of going all packaged.

  11. We just went on a camping trip to Vermont. It’s great to become part of nature and get away from the city. One tip, for coffee we used hot water and Starbucks Via.

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