Growing up, my parents didn’t have a lot of money, which meant that cruise vacations or trips to Disney theme parks generally weren’t an option. Camping, however, made for a much more affordable family vacation. So in lieu of resorts or hotel stays we often opted to camp out for a week, explore parks and hiking trails, and enjoy our time together as a family. There were some years when I went along grudgingly, but looking back, some of the fondest memories I have from my childhood are those of our family camping trips.
Once I got married, I rediscovered my love of camping thanks to my outdoorsy husband, so when it came time to plan last year’s vacation, we were immediately drawn to camping as an easy, low-cost alternative to some of the other trips we’d taken before having kids. Now that we have children, we’re on a pretty strict budget, but thankfully, camping fits into it perfectly, especially since we already own a lot of camping gear.
Whether your motivation is to spend time in nature, save money, or a combination of both, camping can be a refreshing, liberating experience. Although there are some up-front costs involved coupled with a more thoughtful packing process, camping can be a great vacation option whether your kids are preschoolers, teenagers, or somewhere in between.
Public Campgrounds vs. Private Campgrounds
If you go camping, you need to choose between a public campground and a private one. Public campgrounds are most often found at state or national parks, while private campgrounds are located on privately owned land. You almost always have access to restroom facilities, whether you stay at a public campground or someplace private. Whether you choose to camp in a public park or on private terrain, you need to obtain a permit or pay a fee.
One major benefit of public campgrounds is that they can be considerably cheaper than private campgrounds, with prices ranging from as little as $10 to up to $60 per night for a campsite large enough for a six-person family.
While public campgrounds usually offer restrooms, they may not offer the same additional amenities as private campgrounds, such as hot showers or boating and sports equipment. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the type of experience you’re going for.
Keep in mind that because public campgrounds are often the most cost-effective, they tend to book up early. This especially holds true for holiday weekends, so if you’re planning to camp during peak season, be sure to reserve a spot in advance. Some parks let you do this online, or you can call and speak to someone at the park office to arrange your stay.
Another drawback of public campgrounds is that they often don’t allow pets. So, if you want to bring yours along, you may need to pay for a private campground.
You may be able to save money on your camping trip by going during the off-season, as some parks only charge an entrance fee between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In New Jersey, for example, state parks are free to enter if you go outside of the Memorial-Day-to-Labor-Day window. Other parks offer discounted rates during off-peak periods when their campgrounds aren’t as busy.
Many private campgrounds offer more amenities than public ones, such as showers and electrical outlets in the restroom facilities. Some even offer options like paddleboat rentals, swimming pools, tennis courts, and playgrounds. You may even find an onsite store at a private campground, which gives you the option of conveniently purchasing anything you might have forgotten to bring.
Private campgrounds often cost more than private ones, though this is not always the case. In general, you can expect to pay anywhere from $25 to more than $100 per night to reserve a campsite large enough to accommodate a family of six. Depending on where you stay, the cost can be comparable to that of a public campground, so if you do some digging, you might able to reserve a site with extra amenities for the same price as a public site.
For example, at New Jersey’s Camp Taylor Campground, a family of five can camp for as little as $51 per night. Those who stay can enjoy amenities such as recreation fields, playgrounds, fire pits, hot showers, a game room, and even free WiFi. If you’re worried about keeping your children entertained on your camping trip, a private campground may be worth the extra cost if it offers activities for guests.
Many private campgrounds are pet-friendly and allow leashed dogs on premises. However, some charge extra for the privilege of bringing a pet. Several years ago, my husband and I stayed at a private campground that charged an additional $2 per night for our dog, which was a much cheaper option than paying to put him in a kennel.
As is the case with public campgrounds, you can save money at a private campground by reserving your stay during off-peak periods. Some private campgrounds also offer group discounts, so if you know other families looking to travel at the same time, you may be able to snag a group rate.
Although camping is a low-cost vacation option for families, it does require a number of up-front purchases. The good news is that once you stock up on all the necessary gear, you can use it year after year.
Most camping products run the gamut from basic to high-end, and the cost difference at either end of the spectrum can be significant. You don’t need to pay a premium for every piece of equipment – but when it comes to certain items, such as tents and backpacks, paying more could translate to higher-quality products that last longer.
When making your purchases, consider how much use you think they may get long-term. If you’re planning to take your family camping on a regular basis, higher-end gear is a worthwhile investment. On the other hand, if you’re planning your camping trip as a one-time event, you’re probably better off buying cheaper products or renting.
Before you stock up on camping supplies, read reviews to get a sense of how long different models are likely to last. It may make more sense to spend $300 on a tent that should last five years or more versus $100 on a cheap tent that must be replaced at the end of each season.
You’re likely to need the following items for your family camping trip:
- Tent. Tents come in all different sizes, and the larger the tent, the bigger the price tag. You can find a six-person tent for as little as $90 or upwards of $400 depending on the type you choose, whereas a four-person tent typically costs about 25% less. Keep in mind that a six-person tent doesn’t necessarily mean that six people can spread out with ease. You might consider going one size up when buying your tent to ensure that everyone has enough room. If you’re a family of four, that means buying a six-person tent for additional comfort.
- Sleeping Bag. Sleeping bags cost anywhere from $20 to well over $100 depending on type, and you need one for each member of your family. When buying sleeping bags, think about the weather you’re camping in, keeping in mind that it can get significantly cooler at night in the mountains or on the beach. Higher-end sleeping bags are usually rated to a certain temperature. For example, a 35-degree bag is suitable for fall and spring camping, when temperatures can fall into the 30s at night. The more warmth or the greater the range of temperatures a bag provides, the more you’re likely to pay, but the cost may be worth it to ensure a more comfortable night’s sleep.
- Sleeping Pad. A sleeping pad goes under your sleeping bag to make for a more even, less bumpy surface. Some campgrounds can be fairly rocky, and some people swear that sleeping pads are an essential piece of camping equipment. Sleeping pads cost anywhere from $20 to more than $200 depending on the quality and thickness of the pad.
- Backpack. You’ll need a basic day pack for day hiking trips. All family members should have their own day pack with at minimum a personal water bottle or hydration system in case they get separated or lost. You’ll want enough room to bring along snacks for longer hikes to keep energy up, as well as an emergency kit. Day packs run the gamut in price, but you may be able to find a decent pack for less than $50.
- Camping Stove. Unless you want to be limited to canned or dry goods throughout your trip, you need a camping stove to whip up some fresh food. A basic camping stove costs $50, but these tend to be on the small side. For a larger, more efficient stove, expect to spend $80 to $150 or more.
- Cooler. If you’re car camping, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t pack a cooler full of essentials. Though your goods may not last more than a day or two, having perishables on ice can make for more variety when feeding your family. A basic cooler costs as little as $25, but some cost $200 or more. There are even coolers designed to be bear-proof, though they are more expensive.
- First-Aid Kit. You never know when an injury might occur. A basic first-aid kit costs $15 to $30 and includes essentials such as bandages, ointment, gauze, and blister treatments.
- Infant Gear. If you’re bringing an infant along on your camping trip and expect to do some hiking around your campsite, you may want to purchase an infant carrier. These cost $100 to $200 on average and are usually appropriate for infants six months and up. You also need a portable infant bed, which can cost anywhere from $30 to $70 or more.
- Lantern. You need something to help you see when it gets dark at night, and to that end, lanterns come in very handy. A basic LED lantern costs $15, but you could spend $30 or more on a model with a longer battery life.
- Headlamp. A headlamp can be extremely useful in helping you navigate your surroundings should you get caught on the trails after dark. But it can also make reading at night more comfortable, in addition to helping you navigate your campsite in the dark or early morning. Headlamps cost $10 to $40 on average.
- Compass. A compass can be invaluable should you find yourself lost. A basic compass costs $10 to $20.
- Water Treatment Tablets. Water treatment tablets can be useful for car camping in emergency situations. Being able to purify water means taking advantage of whatever water source you encounter on your journey. A pack of 50 tablets costs under $10, and one tablet is typically enough to purify a half quart of water.
- Clothing. Because temperatures tend to fluctuate in the mountains or out in the woods, you need plenty of layers to ensure that you and your family members stay comfortable. If you don’t already own a few sweat-wicking base layer shirts, consider purchasing one or two per person. These can help you stay cool when you’re hiking in the sun and typically cost $10 to $20 for a short-sleeved shirt and $15 to $25 for a long-sleeved shirt. You also need some warmer fleece layers for nighttime and some type of rain gear. A basic fleece sweatshirt costs $15 to $30, while no-frills rain jackets and ponchos fall into a similar price range.
- Entertainment. You and your kids may be used to watching TV at night, so you need an alternate pre-bedtime activity while camping. Your best bet is to bring along some playing cards or board games without too many pieces. You can buy travel versions of your favorite board games for approximately $10 each, and playing cards are even less expensive, costing as little as $1 per set.
- Hiking Boots. There’s a good chance you may be hitting the trails during your trip. While some people choose to hike in sneakers, hiking boots are a much better option, even for trails that are seemingly easy. Unlike paved roads, trails often contain slippery surfaces, rocks, and uneven terrain. Hiking boots offer much better traction than sneakers and provide an added layer of cushion for your feet to minimize injury in the event of a fall. Look for a pair that provides good ankle stability. You can find a quality pair of adult hiking boots for as little as $50, but you could also pay well over $100 depending on the type of boot you choose. Children’s hiking boots tend to fall into the $30 to $60 range.
You can save money on your camping gear by purchasing it at the end of the season, when many stores tend to offer significant discounts. You can also try buying some of your gear used. Sites like eBay and Craigslist are excellent resources for used camping equipment, as are garage sales in your neighborhood. Sierra Trading Post is another great place to look for gear. Its prices tend to be quite competitive, and the site offers live help and chat to assist you in your search.
Some private campgrounds have stores onsite that carry essential camping gear, but you’re better off avoiding them, as they tend to charge extra for the convenience. It’s one thing to rely on a campground store to replenish your paper towel supply, but it’s another thing to buy your tent there.
Food and Water
The amount of food and water you need for your trip depends on the number of people you’re bringing along and the length of your stay. As a general rule of thumb, you need to have two quarts of water on hand per day, per person in your family – more if you’re hiking or doing strenuous activities.
If you stay at a private campground, you may not have to worry about accessing clean water, as it may be available to you. However, public campgrounds don’t always offer clean water. Also, don’t assume that river or stream water is safe for drinking – it often isn’t.
You can find bottled water for as little as $2 per gallon. If you’re a family of five embarking on a three-day camping trip, you need approximately eight gallons of water to be on the safe side.
In addition to water, you need to bring enough food to keep yourselves nourished during your stay. If you have access to a cooler, you can bring everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, to milk and cold cuts. A camping stove is generally a good idea, which allows you to cook food and have access to boiling water. Your overall cost of food depends on the number of people you need to feed and the specific items you pack.
Food for Car Camping
Here’s a basic checklist for car camping, which includes a mix of perishable and nonperishable food and drink items:
- Breakfast cereal
- Instant coffee and hot chocolate
- Cheese and sandwich meats
- Crackers, trail mix, pretzels, granola bars, and other dry snacks
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Canned fruits and vegetables
- Canned beans
- Dinner proteins such as chicken, hamburgers, and hot dogs
- Graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate bars for s’mores
When camping, the key is to keep your meals simple. When my family used to go camping, we typically ate sandwiches for lunch and had things like grilled chicken and potatoes or franks and beans for dinner. We usually packed dry snacks, as cooler space was always limited, and avoided products that would spoil easily or melt in warm weather.
Just because your campsite has restrooms doesn’t mean it has soap and toilet paper. To be on the safe side, pack your own, as well as any other essentials you can’t live without, such as medications and personal hygiene items.
You should also be sure to load up on the following:
- Hand sanitizer
- Bug spray
- Lip balm
- Paper towels
- Paper goods and plastic utensils
- Ziplock bags and airtight containers to store your food and leftovers
- Garbage bags, as some campsites have a “carry in, carry out” policy
Remember that leaving food out at a campsite is never a good idea, as it can attract bears and other wildlife. Always store your food in sealed, closed containers. If you’re car camping, your best bet is to stash it in your vehicle’s trunk once you’re done eating.
Travel to Campsite
Choosing a destination is a big part of planning your camping trip. State and national parks, especially famous ones, are popular choices for camping, but choosing a state or national park could mean paying an entrance fee on top of your campsite reservation fee. State parks typically charge $10 or more for entry, whereas many national parks charge at least $25 per vehicle.
Many state parks only charge an entry fee between Memorial Day and Labor Day. And while many national parks charge entry fees year-round, they also offer certain free days throughout the year.
The cost of getting to and from your campsite depends on where you choose to camp out and the distance of your destination from your home. Staying at a campground closer to home can eliminate some of the costs involved in traveling, but you might find a lower-cost campground by traveling an extra 50 miles to a more remote location. Your best bet is to crunch the numbers and see what makes the most sense for you.
Whether you decide to camp out at a state park, national park, or private facility, keep in mind that driving in parks often means tackling mountainous terrain, so you may not get quite the same gas mileage you’re used to. Budget in a little extra to account for that added fuel.
You can save money on travel costs by not hitting the roads during peak periods of traffic. The less gridlock you encounter, the more fuel-efficient your trip can be. If you have the option, try heading to or from your destination on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, as these days tend to see less traffic. Planning your trip outside of the summer months can also help you save on travel costs in this regard.
Camping can be a great bonding experience for families with children of all ages, and once you purchase the bulk of your gear, you may find that you can easily escape for a week and spend very little money in the process. If you’ve never been camping before and are hesitant to commit to a week in the woods, start slowly by camping out for a weekend, or even a single night. You may be pleasantly surprised to see how much you enjoy it.
Have you taken any recent camping trips with your family?