Budget Camping

by M.D. Johnson

Of all the excuses I’ve heard over the years for why folks decide not to go camping, ranging from “I don’t know where to go… “The bugs are going to be atrocious,” or “Sleeping on the ground is ridiculously uncomfortable…” it’s this one that stops me in my tracks.

Camping, whether for a hunting or fishing trip or just for the fun of it, is a big part of the outdoor lifestyle.

Camping, whether for a hunting or fishing trip or just for the fun of it, is a big part of the outdoor lifestyle.

“It’s just too darn expensive!”

There’s no denying the fact that camping, like many other wilderness pursuits, can indeed be quite costly, particularly for those just getting into The Great Outdoors. Recreational vehicles can and often do cost tens of thousands of dollars. High-tech tents and sleeping bags, dehydrated MREs (Meals, Ready-To-Eat) and the finest in camp cookware aren’t, by my own admission, cheap.

Yes, camping can be expensive; however, it need not be. It’s quite possible to get everything you need to live outdoors, and live right comfortably, I might add, without taking out a second mortgage.

Get Secondhand Gear 

If you shop around, say online, there’s an awfully good chance you can find new camping gear at very reasonable prices. A four-person tent measuring 9-feet by 7-feet at Walmart.com will set you back $40. That’s a good price, especially if you’re really comfortable with the other three adults you’re about to share a tight, 63-square-foot living space with. A quick check of my local craigslist.com listings revealed an 8’ by 11’ Coleman four-person tent, used once, for the same $40. A three-person ‘like new’ dome tent, also Coleman, had an asking price of $30. Yet another, a three-person by the maker Greatland was being offered for just $25. It may take a little digging and a bit of sifting through the not-so-good, but the Internet deals on camping gear are out there for the diligent to discover.

My favorite places to find almost anything outdoors, including camping gear, are garage sales. Not too awfully long ago, my wife, Julie, an experienced ‘shoestring camper’ in her own right, came home from a morning spent going door-to-door as part of a local small city-wide garage sale. In the back of the truck, she had an Old School 10’ by 10’ canvas Hilary wall tent; perfect, even down to the zippers, floor and support poles.

“Guess how much,” she said, dismounting the Ford, with a smile. “Wait! I’ll tell you. It was $20. Not a rip. Not a tear. All the poles. Thing looks brand new.”

And she was right; the Hilary did look brand new.

Recently, we found and rescued a similarly-sized canvas wall tent, this one a J.C. Higgins, aka Sears, model, from the top of a street-side rubbish pile destined for the landfill. The price? Absolutely nothing.

Along with garage sales, farm auctions are excellent places to find budget-priced camping gear. To date and at auction, I’ve purchased several Coleman white-gas lanterns, most ranging from $2 to $4. Likewise, sleeping bags, air mattresses, slightly battered pots and pans, eating utensils, cooking utensils, fishing gear, tents, two- and four-burner cookstoves—all have been mine for literally pennies on the dollar once the gavel has fallen and the auctioneer has shouted SOLD!

Two words of warning, though, to those who might purchase secondhand camping gear—buyer beware. Be it garage sale or auction, most sales are conducted on an as-is/where-is basis. What you see is what you get, with few, if any, exceptions. This noted, go to lengths to inspect your camping items prior to bidding or making an offer.

Save Money on Meals

I’ll be perfectly honest here and say I never eat as well as I do than when I’m camping. Thanks, mind you, to my wonderful wife, and her more than 40 years of camp cooking experience.

Proper planning and preparation on your camp meals can save money and make for some mighty fine eating.

Proper planning and preparation on your camp meals can save money and make for some mighty fine eating.

“Eating outdoors—camp cooking—doesn’t have to be tasteless,” she said, “nor does it have to be expensive. When it comes to camp cooking, simple is always better. And being prepared ahead of time is better still.”

What Julie does are The Three Ps: Plan, Prepare, and Pack.

Before leaving for a trip, be it a weekend or a week-long venture, she plans her meals, including snacks.

“Planning allows me to go to the grocery beforehand, and stick to a list,” she said. “That way, I’m not over-buying, and I’m not buying food items on the ‘off-chance’ we’ll use it.”

Secondly, she prepares many of the meals in advance. Once on-site, they merely need heated through or, at most, assembled, put in a Dutch oven and left to simmer.

“Breakfast burritos, roast and vegetables, sausage sandwiches, taco meat, spaghetti sauce, chili, soups,” she said, “can all be readied in advance and actually used as cooler ice.”

Which brings us to the last ‘P,’ Pack.

“I’ll prepare these meals,” she said, “freeze them, and use them to ice the cooler chests. Day One goes on top, Day Two next, and so on. If it’s a longer trip, say a week or more, I might back two coolers, one for breakfast and lunch, and the second for the bulkier dinner menu. “Oh,” she adds with a smile, “and my cast-iron skillets and cook pots. I never leave home without ‘em.”

In this hectic day and age, people can produce any number of reasons for not going camping. Money, however, shouldn’t be one of them, not when there’s secondhand gear to be had, and plenty of inexpensive—and tasty—meals to be enjoyed. And didn’t you know? Even Spam can rival filet mignon on the palate; that is, when served with a side dish of stars at the edge of an unmapped trout stream.


The Union Sportsmen’s Alliance website is designed to provide valuable articles about hunting, fishing and conservation for members of AFL-CIO affiliated labor unions and all sportsmen and sportswomen who appreciate hunting and fishing and want to preserve our outdoor heritage for future generations. If you would like your own story and experience from the outdoors to be considered for our website, please email us at USAmembers@unionsportsmen.org.

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