Camping: Plan The Ultimate Frugal Family Vacation

I have been camping all my life.  As a kid, my family and I would go camping all the time.  We would pack up the station wagon and head out.  We would pitch the tent (I can still hear Dad’s frustration coming out of his mouth loudly) and set up the screen house.  My mom always made sure there were vacations.  Even when there wasn’t a lot of money to do so, mom was so good at those frugal family vacations!!

Camping can be expensive if not done on a frugal budget.  Whether you are a lover of the outdoors, working on getting out of debt or don’t have the extra money to throw away on an expensive getaway, I can show you that camping can be the ultimate frugal family vacation.

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For years as an adult, we camped in a tent. It wasn’t until our boys were small that we borrowed my dad’s pop up trailer and tried our hand at traveling with a camper.

Soon after that, we bought a used camper and have been using that for over ten years.

However, when you are just starting, there is no need to buy an expensive rig to use 3-4 times a year.  And there is zero need to borrow the money to do so.

Try cheap camping first.

How To Find Camping Equipment Cheap

Borrow Camping Equipment

As we did when my boys were small, my first suggestion is ALWAYS to borrow first.  Ask friends and family to borrow tents, sleeping bags, stoves, lanterns, and all other equipment listed on the FREE Camping Checklist below.

Buy Used Camping Gear

If you haven’t anyone to borrow from, consider buying used.  So many times, people purchase all necessary camping gear only to find they didn’t enjoy it.  Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist are LOADED with camping stuff for really cheap.

If you are a garage sale lover, you can also find a lot of camping gear at those, too.

Best Places To Buy New Camping Supplies

My last resort would be to buy it new.  Both Walmart and Target have some pretty inexpensive camping equipment.  Amazon has everything you will ever need.

When you are trying to get away on a little break, the last thing you want to do is invest too much money into something that you and the rest of your family are not even sure you like.


Buy used.

Not new.  Unless you HAVE TO.

Where To Camp

There are three different types of camping when it comes to location.  A private campground, state campground, and boondocking.

They vary a lot on what they offer and what campers and families are looking for in an experience.  How much are you willing to rough it?

Privately Owned Campground

Thes campgrounds are usually the most expensive. They come with all the bells and whistles and then add on a few more amenities.

Pools, game rooms, activities, water, electric, and sewer are typically included in private campgrounds.  But, you will pay for all these luxuries.

Around the Upstate NY area, Private campgrounds go from $40 a night up.  At $40 a night, that is still less expensive than a hotel, and if you have never done it before, it might be an option.

Especially if your children need entertainment, private campgrounds are great places for frugal family vacations because many cater to kids.  There may be shows, arts and crafts, games, and music to keep the littles occupied.

Understand that some of these private campgrounds offer very little privacy per site.  Many of the sites themselves are small and close. If you are looking for privacy, I encourage you to do some research on the campsite itself to see how close your neighbors might be.

Some are better than others.

And we all know that children are not always quiet.

State And National Campgrounds

Our favorite place to camp is the state campgrounds.  We live in the southern part of the Adirondacks in Upstate, NY.  New York DEC offers 41 campsites in the Adirondack Park.  We are less than three hours away from SO MANY CHOICES.

New York offers state camping for $18 a night.  Talk about a frugal family vacation!!

Mind you that means no sewer, water, or electric hookup.

They do have drinkable water spigots every four to five sites; toilets are close by and bathhouses.  Some charge you for hot water and some are free.  I have never paid more than fifty cents for a hot shower.

Our FAVORITE place to camp is Fish Creek Pond in Saranac, NY.  Just about every site is on the lake with fairly decent access.  Many of the sites have sandy access points, so it’s like you have your private beach.  As far as we are concerned, it is the best camping in the ADK.

We have never been to any of the National campgrounds although I am looking forward to visiting someday.  I have watched and read about traveling to them.  National campgrounds and parks prices vary between $18 and $40 — still a frugal family vacation, in my book.

Boondocking Is Free

The most frugal way to camp is boondocking.  This means there are zero amenities and comforts of home.  Most boondocking places do not offer toilets, bathhouses, electric, water, sewer, or even fireplaces.

Many of these places are used as overnight in between travel, but sometimes, you can find a wooded area near a lake or a river PERFECT for a nice getaway in nature.

I have also seen vineyard that will let you camp on their property for free.  This sounds like such fun!  They encourage you to try their wine and tour the vineyards.  It’s always a nice gesture to purchase the product when spending time at these free locations.

Check out to see if there is anything good in your area.

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Top 10 Camping Supplies You Need

A Tent

This seems pretty obvious.  And honestly, sometimes, you do not even need a tent.  My husband and a group of childhood friends go into the mountains twice a year to camp and kayak.  Many places have lean to’s to sleep in.  No tent needed.

Make sure that there are no leaks and can sleep all of your family as well as a place to keep all of your belongings dry.


Sleeping Bag or Blankets

You can find some pretty inexpensive brand new sleeping bags.  Or, if you are going in the summer and you know it’s going to be warm at night, grab the blankets off your bed.  That’s another way to make this an even cheaper family vacation.


Fire Starters

You are going to need a way to start a fire.  You can buy fire starters or even make your own out of toilet paper rolls and dryer lint.

One of those click lighters work great to get things going and even a box of wooden matches.  Just be sure to keep them dry.

My husband may or may not be known for using a propane torch to light a campfire.  I do not recommend this method.


Cot, Air Mattress Or Sleeping Mat

I think it is essential for comfort to have something under you to sleep.  Inflatable pool rafts are great for kids to sleep on and you can buy them at discount stores for just a few dollars.

Adults may need a more sturdy, reliable foundation.  An air mattress might be the only thing I would buy brand new.  I am not willing to take a chance on buying it used or borrowing one only to realize it leaks.


Aluminum Foil

This is a camping must. Aluminum foil is the best way to cook your food over the open fire.  You can cook just about anything in foil!!


Camping Coffee Maker

Coffee has never tasted as good as it does when you are camping.  If this list were in the order of importance, this would be first.  No the tent or sleeping bag, but the coffee maker. When going on a frugal family vacation, coffee outranks everything else!

There are so many to chose from!  We have this one from Coleman that sits on our stove but you could also get an old fashioned percolator that looks like the ones in the cowboy movies my Gramp used to watch.

You could also go with the French press which makes very good coffee!


Bug Spray

Personal confession:  I am not an outdoorsy kinda gal.  I am not a fan of nature, and I never have been.

When I was a kid, my mom would make me go out and play.  I wasn’t thrilled, and most of the time, I would grab a book and sit on the porch, waiting for her to let me back in.  Too many bugs.

I can (with all honesty) say I DETEST bugs and bug bites.

So, when going camping, bug spray is a MUST!  And this might surprise you because I am a firm believer in a chemical-free home, but when it comes to bug spray, I need the mega stuff.

The stuff that nobody will penetrate through.  It doesn’t happen a lot, but when I use bug spray, I use the big guns!


Lantern or Flashlight

This lantern is our favorite.  I found it at the Coleman Outlet store YEARS ago.   It has four separate lights that come apart for each person in the family.

Regular flashlights or headlamps work just as well.  Sometimes you can find them at the dollar store.

Headlamps are great because they are on your head, freeing up your hands to do other things.  They also work GREAT for reading in the evening by the fire.




A hatchet is a great tool to have to cut down your firewood into smaller pieces and kindling.  Smaller pieces make a fire easier to get started.


Tarp And String

Having a tarp and string on hand is a must when going camping.  Tying it to trees can give you cover from both the rain and the sun.  I suggest bringing a tarp large enough to put over your tent and your picnic table.   This way, your site is dry and cool.


Bonus: A Great Book

This would be right up there with a coffee maker.  My boys say, “It’s not a good camping trip if Mama doesn’t finish a book!!”

I could not agree more.  I always bring a couple with me.  And those headlamps above really do come in handy for reading.

What To Eat When Camping

Pinterest has a bazillion great recipes for camping foods – so many delicious and easy recipes.

When we go camping, we don’t try new recipes but stick with what we know and like.

We plan and prep as much as possible before we go.  I have a camping binder that has all my camping meal plans in.  Perfect for references.

Any of the typical grilling foods are great for campfires.  Burgers, hot dogs, marinated chicken, and steak are all deliciously cooked over a fire.

If you have a camp stove, you can make eggs and pancakes, as well as toast and grilled cheese for lunch.

Soups, stews, and chili are good cooking over a campfire all day in any cast iron crock.

Many times we stick to cereals and fruit for breakfast.  When the boys were small, I would buy those little boxes of cereals as a special treat.  That was the only time they got them, and they were so excited.

The same goes for lunches.  Sandwiches and salads work well.

Don’t forget the S’Mores!  It is by far one of the BEST parts about camping!

Wood For Cooking And Relaxing

  • You will need wood for your fire.  Many states have regulations on bringing wood into a state campground.  Please understand the rules for your state.
  • The sites that we go to have a truck that delivers wood right to you.  Other camp stores may sell wood.

How To Keep Food Cold When Camping

One word: cooler.

There are so many coolers on the market ranging in price, and I think everyone knows someone who has a cooler — a nice thing to borrow instead of buying if you don’t already have one.

Please don’t spend the money on a Yeti Cooler!

If we are planning to have marinated chicken breast on the third night, I will marinate it and freeze it.  This helps with keeping it (and other things) cold in the cooler.

Everything in the cooler goes into zip bags to make sure it doesn’t get waterlogged when the ice melts.

The campgrounds we visit have a truck that comes through selling ice.  It might be a tad more expensive than leaving the campsite and going to the convenient store, but sometimes the cost evens out.

Try to keep your cooler closed as much as possible.  Opening and closing the lid numerous times will p not help the cols stay contained.

How Camping Is Good For You

We make it a rule to unplug when we go camping.  No TV, video games, and no phones. It gives us an opportunity to talk to each other.

We are forced to find other things to do like go for walks and bike rides, take the kayaks out, go swimming, or explore the surroundings.

We play Uno and Monopoly.  We have a nice collection of board games in the camper.

Being outside does fantastic things for your mind as well as your soul.

As a child, its good to be bored and have to find a stick to draw in the sand with. Or find other kids to play hide and seek.

My husband loves to do the cooking when we go camping so I do all the prep work beforehand and he takes care of all the cooking.  He enjoys it, and I get a little break.

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Camping As A Vacation Alternative

Let’s face it. Camping is not a vacation.  It is a LOT of work.  From the preparing before you leave to the packing and then setting everything up (and then taking everything down again).

But it can be a cheaper vacation alternative when you need to getaway.

We have some fantastic memories of camping through the years, and even though my boys are older now, I hope to continue making these memories with their families in the future.

So, while you are in the season of your life when you don’t have the extra money to go on an expensive vacation, or you are putting every extra penny toward the dream of being debt-free, camping could be just the frugal family vacation that you need.


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