Camping is a no-brainer when it comes to budget-friendly, rewarding travel. Out-of-state camping, on the other hand, can easily take a toll on your wallet if you’re not careful. Consider the fact that for those living in Hawaii, out-of-state camping always involves airline travel. Multiply those airline costs by five, and you’re looking at the predicament we face every summer. And while driving might seem like a great alternative for those on the mainland, time, distance, and gas prices often make this option less viable.
What’s a family on a budget to do?
1. Get the best airfare possible
There are lots of great articles about airline hacks. Some of my favorite can be found on the Thrifty Nomads blog. Sites like Expedia and Hotwire allow you to bundle deals (e.g. flight+hotel, car+flight, etc.). We’ve had great luck bundling flight+hotel to get reduced airline fares. What do hotels have to do with camping, you ask? Turns out, adding even as little as one night of motel to the beginning or end of your trip can do wonders for your airfare. One important thing to note: adding a car to your bundle doesn’t affect your airfare costs. It’s the flight+hotel option that’s key.
2. Be flexible
Use flexible dates options on sites like Kayak to find the best deal. Flying out on a Tuesday or Wednesday is almost always cheaper than flying on the weekend. Red-eye and early-bird flights can be hard with kids, but they’re usually cheaper. Be willing to fly into a smaller or lesser-known airport with a smaller, lesser-known airline–it might require a little more drive time to get to your destination, but the savings are often worth it.
3. Travel light: quality vs. quantity
That means no check-in baggage if you can swing it. Carry-on luggage is often free or at the very least, less costly than check-in baggage. Packing light isn’t about depriving yourself–it’s about packing smart. How often have you lugged around a fifty pound suitcase, only to return home with a mile-high stack of unworn outfits? Instead, learn to love dri-fit. Invest in 2 pairs of performance underwear. Embrace wool socks. The beauty of these materials is that they can be easily hand-washed in motel sinks and backcountry collapsible buckets alike, and they dry quickly, too. Make a routine of washing your outfit every night, and you might just find that two outfits may well be all you need to get you through a multi-week camping stint. And less weight in your carry-on means less weight on your shoulders when you backpack into your campsite.
4. Cost vs. weight/space
This tip works in tandem with tip #3. Camping gear can be heavy. And bulky. Every summer, we pack 5 sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and a tent into our carry-on backpacks. This wasn’t always the case, though. One summer, our poor 6-year-old sat in a compact car (in a booster seat, no less) with a 6-person car-camping tent propped between his body and the door. The trunk was bursting at the seams with a full-size suitcase, 48-can cooler, Coleman camping stove and rolled, uncompressed sleeping bags. Not only did we incur $100 in baggage fees, we were cramped and uncomfortable. It was a mess, to say the least.
In my frugal mind, we were saving money by using what we already owned. But that $100 in baggage fees could’ve gone instead toward compression sacks for our sleeping bags, which would’ve saved us the pain of a huge suitcase AND baggage fees. Plus, those compression sacks could be used for years to come, saving us space and money in the long run. As our adventures have come to include backpacking and less car camping, I’ve come to weigh (literally and figuratively) every item we pack in terms of cost, weight, and space. Klymit sleeping pads, no larger than a water bottle and just over a pound in weight, mean more investment up front but HUGE savings in the long run. We can’t afford to replace all of our gear at once, of course, but it’s something we’re always working toward. We’ve since replaced our car-camping tent with a backpacking tent and traded in our trusty Coleman 2-burner for 2 backpacking stoves. Less stuff means we can easily fit into a compact car (vs. a van), and in turn, a smaller car means less gas. With a ripple-down effect like this, a few replaced items here and there really adds up to big savings in cost and weight!
5. Plan early and monitor often
Planning your adventure early gives you maximum time to look for the best deals in airfare and gear. For gear, I shop sales at Amazon and REI. Sites like camelcamelcamel allow you to monitor prices and predict drops/increases in price. We’ve also scored gear scouring Lightning Deals on Amazon. REI always has discounted items and sales, too, especially in their outlet store. When it comes to airfare, always search using your browser’s private mode–airline and travel sites store cookies that monitor demand for a location. Searching for the same destination repeatedly drives your airfare higher.
Knowing plans several months in advance allows you to book National Park campgrounds. Campgrounds in places like Yosemite and Yellowstone book up months in advance, so it pays to plan early. And for good reason, too–nothing beats camping in the parks! Visiting a park is great, but waking up to a Grand Teton sunrise just outside your tent is another thing entirely. Camping in the parks is unbelievably affordable, too. The most we’ve ever paid was $22 a night for our family of five. Compare that to the average KOA tent site, which runs about $40 a night. Factor in the cost of gas to drive into the park plus commute time, and camping in-park just makes good sense. And for those who love the backcountry, backpacking is even more affordable than car camping. Backpacking permits for parks like North Cascades in Washington are free. Free! That’s not always the case in most parks, but the cost is nominal, something like $5 per person over 16. Some wilderness areas require reservations 4-6 months in advance for just a handful of highly coveted permits –yet another reason to plan early and monitor often.
Out-of-state camping doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive if you plan early and shop smart, so get out there and make it happen! It’s sure to be a rewarding travel experience both you and your family won’t soon forget.