Can I tell you a secret?

Nearly all of our original camping gear was bought on a budget from Walmart and Target.

Do you know how long our original gear has lasted?

Over 8 years!

As the popularity of outdoor recreation is rising, some might find it kind of intimidating to start something new. We see tons of articles reviewing expensive gear on the internet. But guess what? It doesn’t have to be so expensive.

It’s really easy to start a camping hobby for cheap. Let’s talk about what you really need to start your next adventure:

Essential gear for your camping on a budget arsenal

$60 camping tentTent – $50-$60 for a 2 person tent or a 4 person tent

You’ll need to stay dry at night, and keep the bugs out while sleeping. Keep those two goals in mind when shopping for a tent. Also, it’s important to find a comfortable tent that’s the right size.

The size rating on a tent tells you how many people it can fit, at maximum. Fitting the max number of people in your tent will often leave everyone very snug up against each other. We have a three-person tent, and – while we’ve fit a third “guest” in the past – we’re really most comfortable when it is just the two of us.

A good tent will have “windows” to open so that you can get ventilation into it. This is great for a cross breeze on hot nights; there should still be a fine enough mesh covering over the window to keep the critters out as well.

Inexpensive tents tend to be something that could break early on if treated roughly.  To prolong the lifespan of your tent, we suggest the following:

  • Clear the ground of all twigs and rocks. Make sure you aren’t pitching your tent in a place water can collect if it rains.
  • Use a tarp or footprint below the tent if it isn’t already made out of tough, waterproof material.
  • Always take your shoes off before entering the tent.
  • Always zip the zippers! We only zip/unzip to go into or out of the tent. This keeps the bugs out.
  • Try not to pack the tent wet. If you can, air dry the tent in the sun before packing. If it isn’t possible, make sure you unpack the tent when you get home and air dry it then.
  • You may want to spray some water repellent on the tent before your first trip to keep yourselves dry.

Sleeping bag – $30-$40/person

In addition to being dry, you’ll also want to stay warm on cooler nights. For the budget-friendly option, I’d recommend getting a sleeping bag that’s rated to about 30 degrees.

If you get hot, simply unzip the bag to so you aren’t quite as warm.

If it is close to freezing, or a little below, you can always wear warmer clothes to bed. (I get hot feet at night, and hate socks — camping is the only time I wear socks to bed).

If it is frequently colder than 30, you might want to consider bags with a lower temp rating.

Sleeping pad – $20/person for foam pad, $40/person for inflatable pad

There are a two main kinds of sleeping pads to consider, so let’s talk about those for a minute.

  • The foam pad: This pad is primarily used for insulating you from the ground when it gets cold at night. It isn’t the most comfortable, and …you might wake up with a stiff neck. However, it does the job. You don’t get poked from a bumpy ground, and you stay off the cold ground.
  • Inflatable pads: This pad is primarily for your comfort so that it’s a little more like sleeping in a bed. There are two kinds of inflatable pads: those that will insulate you from the cold ground and those that won’t. Make sure you’re mindful on which kind you’re buying, especially if you’re predicting freezing temps at night. A non-insulated pad will stay cold, and can actually pull your body heat away from you.

There is a third option, and that is an inflatable mattress. However, those can get a bit pricey, so we are leaving those out of our list of essential gear for camping on a budget.

Headlamp – set of 4 for $20

When it gets dark, you’re going to want a way to see around the campsite. A headlamp for each person is perfect for that. No tripping over things, and no walking to the bathroom in the dark.

The not-quite-as-necessary items while camping on a budget (all have to do with food/water)

On your trip, you can bring all non perishable food and jugs full of water from home. However, sometimes it’s nice to have a cool drink after a long hike, or a hot meal first thing in the morning without building a campfire. Here are some items you might want to consider adding to your budget camping arsenal — but don’t necessarily need to buy right away.

Cooler – $40 for a smaller cooler, $75 for a larger cooler

A 40 quart cooler has worked for us in the past for weekend trips, but we have graduated up to a 70 quart cooler for longer trips.

You may need to drain the water created from melting ice. So, it’s helpful to look for coolers with a built in drain spout (otherwise you need to unpack everything to drain it — which is doable, but a little inconvenient).

Budget Camping: Stove

Camp Stove – $50 – $60 + another $10 for fuel

It’s always fun to cook over the campfire, but sometimes it takes time to get the fire going. Sometimes you just want to fix up a meal quickly and get on the road. Or, perhaps there’s a burn ban in your area and you aren’t allowed to start a fire. The easiest solution is a camping stove.

Be sure to bring a lighter if the stove doesn’t have an automatic starter. You’ll need to use the lighter to get the fuel burning for your stove top.

I wouldn’t suggest using your own cookware over a propane camp stove though. So, you’ll probably want to tack on an inexpensive cookware set.

Camp cookware set – $20

So that you don’t harm your dishes from home, it’s best to buy a camp cookware set if you’re going to be cooking on a camp stove. You can definitely spend a lot of money on these items if you’re not careful. Believe me, I love to browse camp cookware all the time — there are so many fun gadgets!

However, you really only need a pan and a pot. All of your kitchen utensils, silverware, plates, and cups can be brought from home. Try to bring things you won’t miss if they get lost… and also aren’t too heavy.

In a pinch, you can also opt for disposable items. However, if you find yourself camping often, I would recommend getting something reusable.

Don’t forget to bring dish soap and a cloth to clean your dishes afterward!

What about water? Store bought jugs vs. and Aquatainer.

You can buy jugs of water at the store and bring those with you (or refill old milk cartons). However, if you find you are going to be camping for an extended period of time in a place where there isn’t any water, you might want to invest in an AquaTainer for about $20 for 4 gallons and $30 for 7 gallons.

This will allow you to fill up with water at home, and then bring it with you to the campground if there isn’t water available. Also… even if the campground does have water, it keeps you from running back and forth to the water spigot all the time.

Making a campfire to cook.What about cooking over the fire, will I need anything special?

To get your fire started, you can use newspaper. However, you can also use this fun trick: Get a used fabric softener sheet from your dryer. Then put lint from the dryer lint trap in the sheet, and roll it up. This works great for fire starter, it’s compact, and it is easily stored in a Ziploc bag.

If you are in a regular car camping campground, you’ll most likely have a firepit with a grate over it. I often put tinfoil over the grate because it can be very dirty, then I simply cook on top of the tinfoil.

You can also use foil and put all the food in a nice foil packet and throw it on top of the grate, or set it next to the coals of your campfire. After a period of time, you’ll have a nice, hot cooked meal in the packet ready to eat.

You can also go the traditional route and find a stick to cook your food on over the campfire coals. A nice hot dog roasted this way is always fun, or — for your sweet-tooth — roast marshmallows for that delicious s’mores experience!

What other items should I bring?

Nearly everything else you need, you’ll likely have at home:

  • Ziplock bags for storing food (either that you prepared before leaving home, or a place to stash leftovers).
  • A pocket knife if you need to cut something
  • Plates and utensils from your own kitchen (think about what you are cooking, and what you might need to cook & serve).
  • Soap for cleaning the dishes
  • Fold up chairs for sitting around the campfire
  • Duct Tape for anything that might break
  • Paper towels
  • Trash bags
  • First aid items like band-aids and neosporin.
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Any personal toiletries you might need (deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, etc).
  • Wet wipes are nice if you don’t have access to a shower.
  • A towel

The total cost of camping on a budget

Packing our budget camping gear into the car.The nice thing about camping is that once you buy the gear, you won’t have to buy it again for a while. If you take care of your equipment, you can get a lot of mileage out of it, even if you bought it all on a budget.

Overall, starting costs will look like the following:

Essential Gear: Tent, Sleeping Bag, etc. Cost Including Cooking Gear, Cooler, etc.
Family of 2 $170-$240 $290-$435
Family of 4 $270-$400 $390-$595

Once you make the initial investment in gear, the only thing you’ll have to do is pay for your campsite and the gas it takes you to get there. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can find a site that’s free. If you haven’t read our article about finding awesome campsites, we invite you to check it out. You’ll discover details on how to find free camping, along with other tips and resources we’ve picked up along the way.

Do you have any tips for camping on a budget? Let us know in the comments — we’d love to hear them!

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Camping on a Budget: What gear do you really need?