car camping on a budget

Tips For Car Camping On A Budget

Camping is a fantastic way to connect with nature and experience the great outdoors, but camping can get expensive fast. Whether you’re a seasoned camper or just starting out, these car camping tips will help you save money without compromising on the quality of your camping experience.

These tips are specifically for car camping, where you can drive directly to your campsite. While some tips may apply to backpacking, it’s a different experience with unique considerations.

Planning Your Budget Car Camping Trip

The key to car camping on a budget is planning.

Before embarking on your trip, take some time to plan out what gear you need and what you may already have, and build packing lists and shopping lists.

These checklists will ensure that you don’t forget any essential items and avoid the need to purchase them at the last minute at higher prices at the campground or local stores. By being well-prepared, you can avoid unnecessary expenses and enjoy a stress-free camping trip.

Camping At Campgrounds

Camping at state or federal campgrounds can offer lower-cost or free campsites for budget car camping. These campgrounds often provide amenities such as bathrooms, showers, and potable water, making your camping experience more comfortable. Here are a few tips for camping at campgrounds:

  • Look for campgrounds that offer primitive camping options, which are usually cheaper than sites with full hookups.
  • Take advantage of amenities such as picnic tables and fire pits to save money on equipment.
  • Consider purchasing a camp pass or annual park pass if you plan on visiting multiple campgrounds throughout the year.
  • Pack reusable water bottles and refill them at the campground’s potable water source to save money on bottled water.
  • Reserve your spots as early as possible. During the peak season, many campgrounds are completely booked, and may have been reserved many months in advance.

Dispersed Camping

If you’re looking for a more adventurous and budget-friendly camping experience, consider dispersed camping. Dispersed camping allows you to camp on public lands managed by organizations such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Here are a few things to keep in mind when dispersed camping:

  • Research the specific rules and regulations of the area you plan to camp in, as each location may have different guidelines.
  • Dispersed camping is generally free, making it a great option for budget car camping.
  • Be prepared to bring all your own supplies, including water and toilet facilities, as dispersed camping sites usually don’t provide amenities.
  • Practice Leave No Trace principles by packing out all trash and leaving the campsite as you found it.

Dispersed camping offers a unique opportunity to experience the beauty of nature without the crowds and fees associated with traditional campgrounds. It’s a great option for those seeking a more secluded and budget-friendly camping experience.

Private or Premium Campgrounds

Premium or private campgrounds can often be available when other camp spots are not available, but these will come at a premium price and aren’t a great choice if you are trying to go car camping on a budget.

Buying Used Camping Gear Vs New

When it comes to purchasing camping gear, you have the option to buy either new or used equipment. While new gear is very tempting, buying used camping gear can be a more affordable option especially if you are not camping frequently. Here are some things to consider when deciding between new and used camping gear.

Shopping For Used Camping Gear

Buying used camping gear can be a money saving way to get equipped for camping The key to shopping for used camping gear is knowing what you are looking for, being very patient, and being open to alternate products.

My suggestion is to do your research for the bigger items you need like sleeping bags, tents, and stoves and have a couple options in mind. Then start watching websites like Craigslist, your Facebook Marketplace, and Facebook Buy/Sell/Trade groups.

It may take a little while to get exactly what you want, but shopping used can save you some serious money.

Buying Camping Gear On Sale

If you prefer to buy new gear, consider shopping at outdoor retailers like REI during their sales or clearance events or when they sell off returns. They often offer high-quality gear at lower prices, allowing you to get good value for your money.

Ultimately, the choice between new and used gear depends on your budget and personal preferences. If you’re just starting out with camping and unsure if it’s a long-term hobby, buying used gear can be a cost-effective way to test the waters. On the other hand, if you’re a frequent camper or prioritize having the latest gear, investing in new equipment may be worth the extra cost.

When purchasing either new or used gear, be sure to prioritize quality. Look for well-known brands that have a reputation for durability and reliability. Good quality gear will last longer and provide a more enjoyable camping experience in the long run.

Invest In Mission-Critical Gear

While it’s important to stick to a budget when car camping, there are certain items that you shouldn’t skimp on. Investing in mission-critical gear will ensure a comfortable and safe camping experience. Here are a few items worth investing in:

  • Your Sleep System: Aside from a tent that leaks, nothing makes for a more miserable camping trip than an uncomfortable or cold bed. You can camp using your blankets and pillow for home. Consider a good quality air mattress, and either a sleeping bag or quilt. For car camping, I am a fan of heavy bags like the ALPS OutdoorZ that can double as a quilt for two or be a roomy sleeping bag for one. If you consistently camp with someone you share a bed with, consider getting two and zipping them together or else a two-person sleeping bag. There are a bunch of them on Amazon that are reasonably priced. Plus, cuddling with someone in one bag will help keep you warm.
Large warm sleeping bag for camping
  • Your Camp Stove: Being able to cook food, regardless of having a campfire or not is a must to me. Plus, in many areas, you can’t have an open fire in the summer months. Do your research on what stove you like, but if you are cooking for more than one, I’d suggest choosing one like a Coleman propane stove. These are super reliable, and not particularly expensive. Plus they are a great backup stove in case of emergencies.
Coleman propane stove for camping
  • Good Shelter: The right shelter for your camping trip can take a lot of forms. If you are camping in the desert, you may not even need a tent. In the PNW, you will likey want a full tent with a rain fly and bug screens. Other times, you may be able to make do with a rain fly or tarp. Whichever way you go, be sure you get one that will keep you dry and protected from insects in the night.

By investing in mission-critical gear, you can ensure that you have the necessary essentials for a comfortable and enjoyable camping experience. While these items may have a higher upfront cost, they will provide long-term value and durability.

Essential Gear for Budget Camping

When it comes to budget camping, Once you have the mission-critical items, there are a few essential gear items that you shouldn’t leave home without. These include camp chairs, a cooler, and cooking utensils. Here are some tips for outfitting your camp kitchen on a budget.

Outfitting Your Kitchen

Much of what you need for camping can be pulled from your kitchen, so no need to buy any extra items for your camp kitchen.

  • Pots and Pans – If you have some that will handle going over the fire or camp stove, they will work fine, no need to buy more. Consider bringing a big pot for warming up water for washing!
  • Large Skillet – If you have a large skillet, bring that along. Cast iron is the best, and I advise using extreme caution using coated pans or pans with plastic handles over a fire, they can melt!
  • Mugs and Cups – Plastic or metal mugs are perfect for camping, so if you have extra, bring those along. The cheap promotional travel mugs are perfect!
  • Plates and Bowls – If you are just doing a weekend trip, consider paper plates and bowls. I avoid the disposable plastic ones, because we don’t need to use any more plastic than we have to.
  • Cutlery – You most likely can raid some silverware from home, or in a pinch hit up a yard sale or thrift store for some inexpensive, but durable knives, forks, and spoons.
  • Spatula/Turner – You will need something to flip those pancakes over in the morning. I prefer the metal ones as they won’t melt, which I have had happen before, using nylon ones on hot pans.
  • Can Opener – A must if you have any cans to open. Sure, most are pop-tops these days, but there will always be that one can…
  • Cutting Board – Something that is easy to clean, that you can cut food up on is invaluable. I prefer wood, but the thin plastic ones are good too as they don’t take up much space and are light.
  • Chef’s Knife – You likely already have one of these in your kitchen, so bring it along. For camping, a chef’s knife is a great all-purpose kitchen knife.
  • Dish Soap and Sponge – The ones you have from home will work just fine for the occasional camping trip.
  • Dish Pan – If you have one of these, they make washing up dishes so much easier. If you don’t have one, I suggest picking up a collapsible dish pan off Amazon, like the one I keep in Leif the Adventure Van.
  • Dish Towels – Paper towels are handy, but so is having a real towel to dry your hands off on. I’m sure you have a few extras of these around.
  • Trash Bags – Grab a couple from home and use them! Too many campsites these days are riddled with trash. Don’t be one of the people that makes the planet messier.
  • Salt, pepper & basic spices – Your food will not be a hit if you forget the seasoning. Grab whatever containers of salt and pepper you have, and some all-purpose seasoning and you are good to go.

Keeping Things Cold

igloo Trailmate cooler

You need a way to keep your food cold for the weekend, but that doesn’t mean you need to pony up $250 for a badass cooler, even though Trailmate Rolling Cooler from Igloo in the photo above that looks just so damn cool. An average cooler will do just fine and if you don’t already have one, you can find one used pretty cheap.

One thing you can save some money on is ice. Fill up some empty juice bottles with water, freeze them, and put those in your cooler instead. You can still buy ice if you need to, but these will reduce how much you need to buy, and will make it last longer.

Don’t Forget About Lighting

Things get dark in the woods, so don’t forget to grab some lights from home to take camping!

If you have flashlights, bring those, but be sure to bring along some fresh batteries. No one wants to try and find their way to the bathroom in the dark!

Having a camp lantern is always a good idea, especially if you don’t have a fire going to light up the campsite. You don’t need a huge expensive lantern, and if you have to buy one, I’m a big fan of the inflatable LED lanterns from LuminAID. I keep one in Leif and just throw it on the dash to charge it up when I head out camping. It kicks out a surprising amount of light and makes the campsite visible in the dark.

LuminAID inflatable lantern for your campsite

Camp Essentials

In addition to the essential gear mentioned earlier, there are a few other items that are important to pack for your budget camping trip. These include:

  • Personal items: Don’t forget to pack toiletries, medications, and any other personal items you may need during your camping trip.
  • Camp chairs: Having comfortable seating options will make your camping experience more enjoyable. Look for lightweight and portable camp chairs that are easy to set up and pack away.
  • Water bottles: Staying hydrated is crucial while camping. Bring reusable water bottles for each member of your camping party, as well as a larger 5-7 gallon jug to refill them from.

By packing these essentials, you’ll be well-prepared for your budget camping adventure and ensure a comfortable and enjoyable experience for everyone.

Budget-Friendly Meal Planning for Car Camping

Meal planning is an important aspect of budget car camping. By planning your meals in advance and purchasing groceries before your trip, you can save money and ensure that you have delicious and satisfying meals while camping. Here are some tips for budget-friendly meal planning:

  • Make a list: Before heading to the grocery store, make a list of all the ingredients you’ll need for your meals. This will help you avoid impulse buys and unnecessary purchases.
  • Choose affordable ingredients: Opt for budget-friendly ingredients such as canned beans, pasta, rice, and frozen vegetables. These items are often cheaper and can be used in a variety of meals.
  • Pack snacks: Bring along snacks such as granola bars, trail mix, and fruit to satisfy cravings between meals. Packing snacks will prevent you from buying expensive convenience store snacks.
  • Utilize your cooler: Use your cooler to store perishable items such as meat, dairy products, and fresh produce. This will keep your food fresh and prevent spoilage.

Affordable camping meal ideas include simple dishes like pasta with marinara sauce, grilled cheese sandwiches, and foil-wrapped meals cooked over the campfire. Get creative with your meal planning and use ingredients that are both delicious and cost-effective.

How can I save money on camping food?

Saving money on camping food is a priority for many budget campers. Here are some tips and tricks to help you save money on your camping food expenses:

  • Plan your meals in advance: Make a meal plan and create a shopping list before heading to the grocery store. This will help you avoid impulse purchases and ensure that you have all the ingredients you need.
  • Shop at budget-friendly stores: Consider shopping at discount grocery stores or using coupons to save money on your groceries.
  • Pack snacks and drinks: Bring along snacks and drinks from home instead of buying them at convenience stores. This will save you money and ensure that you have your favorite snacks on hand.
  • Utilize your cooler effectively: Pack your cooler with perishable items such as meat, dairy products, and fresh produce to keep them fresh for longer. This will reduce the need to buy expensive food at the campsite.

By following these tips, you can save money on camping food and still enjoy delicious and satisfying meals during your trip.

Easy and Affordable Camping Meal Ideas

When it comes to camping meal ideas, simplicity and affordability are key. Here are some easy and budget-friendly meal ideas for your camping trip:

  • Foil-wrapped meals: Prepare individual foil packets filled with vegetables, meat, and seasonings. Cook them over the campfire or on a portable grill for a delicious and hassle-free meal.
  • One-pot meals: Create hearty and flavorful one-pot meals by combining ingredients such as pasta, canned beans, vegetables, and spices. This will save you time and minimize cleanup.
  • Skewers: Skewer chunks of meat, vegetables, and fruit for a tasty and fun camping meal. Cook them over the campfire or on a portable grill for a satisfying outdoor feast.

These meal ideas are not only affordable but also easy to prepare and cook while camping. Get creative with your ingredients and enjoy delicious meals that won’t break the bank.


Car camping can be an exhilarating adventure without breaking the bank. Whether you opt for campgrounds or dispersed camping, budget-friendly gear is a must. Invest wisely in essential items like shelter, sleeping gear, and lighting. Plan your meals smartly with affordable options and proper food storage. Remember to explore free campsites for added savings. Embrace the outdoors, enjoy the simplicity, and make unforgettable memories on your budget car camping trip!

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Find Free Campsites?

Finding free campsites can be an excellent way to save money on your camping trip. Here are a few options for finding free campsites:

  • Check out websites and apps that list free camping options, such as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and dispersed camping areas.
  • Some Walmart parking lots allow overnight camping, providing a convenient and cost-effective option for car campers.

Can I Camp in My Car at Any Campsite?

While car camping is a popular option for budget-conscious travelers, not all campsites allow camping in vehicles. National parks and state parks may have specific rules and designated areas for car camping.

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