Traveling the world is an exciting experience everybody can have. And it doesn’t have to be expensive to be fun. With a few tricks, you can create memories you will never forget. Traveling on a budget doesn’t mean cutting all the fun stuff. Traveling and visiting exciting places is vital for your physical and mental health. In this post, we are looking at tent camping as a genuine method of travel on a budget. We explore the best things to take with you, from choosing the right tent to getting the best lights. We look at some examples, their cost, and how they can fit into your travel budget.
The United States, as our home country, has countless spectacular places offering a unique experience. Tent camping allows you to visit these places and save some money simultaneously. That sounds like a win-win scenario and a great way to travel! But take a look for yourself below. These are just a few of the places we visited. They give you a glimpse into how traveling on a budget can look.
We have much first-hand experience with tent camping and have visited great places. Multiple times each year, we are camping in various new places. During that time, we have tested a lot of gear and can show you the best way to camp. Whenever we return from a trip, we have many ideas to improve our gear or make the experience more enjoyable. Things like better sleeping places, kitchen equipment, food prep, storage solutions, getting shade, better tent equipment, and much more. Since we also travel with a dog, this post also holds some treasures about how to make it more enjoyable for your K9.
There are also other great ways to experience the outdoors, like campers or backpacking. This post is solely about tent camping. It’s the ultimate guide for traveling on a budget.
If you are looking for ways to save more money for your next travel adventure, read our guides “10 Money Tips I wish I knew in my 20s” and “5 Easy Money Moves To Save More“. For ideas to make more passive income, see “Earn Passive Income By Renting Out Your Empty Space With Neighbor“.
Don’t have much time? Here are our Top Tips
- Camping on BLM Land is a free option available to anyone.
- Traveling during the low season is more manageable.
- Basic costs for an average 3-night trip is ~$155
- Choose your tent and sleeping bags wisely.
- Get some lights like headlamps and string lights for your campsite.
- Prepare your food ahead of time using a dehydrator.
- Propane-powered cooking and camping equipment have a lot of upsides vs. wood-burning.
- Try some free activities like hiking, mountain biking, star gazing, and more.
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What does Travel on a Budget cost?
Of course, the travel costs are a massive plus for tent camping. It’s much cheaper than sleeping in a hotel room or Airbnb. But that doesn’t mean you’ll have to miss out on many things. Quite the opposite, actually. You get to experience nature in its most raw form.
You will have to shoulder extra costs to get the most essential equipment. This includes but is not limited to, a tent, cooler, chair, lights, and storage containers. Those items’ prices can vary greatly and depend on your preferences. Once you have those items, the costs for a trip become very predictable.
The Price of Campsites – Travel Budget Calculation
Tent camping sites vary in price depending on their location. You can expect the price to be between $15 to $30 per night. For meals, I think $20 as a daily budget is more than enough for a simple calculation. You can prep some food beforehand and take it in a cooler. Then there is, of course, the cost of transportation. You’ll likely also pay an entry fee if you visit a national park. But besides that, there really isn’t much more. Any additional cost depends more on what you want to do. Some activities like boat trips will add on top.
Let’s take an example. You have travel plans for a 4-day trip, and your campground is 200 miles away. Here are the base costs you will be looking at:
- 4-day trip (3 nights): 3 x $25 = $75
- ~200 miles one way: 20mpg and $4/gallon assumed = $80
- $20 per day for food = $60
As you can see, for just $215 in total travel costs, you can travel the world and see some incredible places! Did I mention all the memories you can create on such trips? These costs are low enough to fit into the smallest shoestring budgets.
Renting A Car For Camping
You can also rent a car if your car is not big enough to carry all the equipment needed. Rental cars cost more, but they are an option to think about. I think you can make almost any car work for camping. It depends more on the kind of equipment you buy and is the better deal. Less equipment, but the right one is my general recommendation. It also cuts down the preparation time for a trip.
It also might make sense to fuel up your car on the way. If you are living in a city, gas stations on the way might offer a cheaper price. Near national parks or in very remote locations, gas often costs a lot of money.
In any case, be extra cautious with a rental car during camping. Some campgrounds are in remote areas, requiring you to go off-road for a few miles. I would recommend getting a 4-wheel drive if that is the case.
Campsite Reservations vs First-Come, First-Serve
To be honest, this question does not get a universal answer. It does depend on where you want to go and when. You’ll need a reservation to visit national parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite during high season. A little bit outside of these parks? Now things get a bit more relaxed. It also gets much easier during the low season. Our experience and preference is to camp 2-3 miles outside these parks instead. You’ll still get breathtaking nature but enjoy much more privacy. This seems like the right place to be for us. It is also cheaper to camp outside, perfect for traveling on a budget.
Since we are traveling with a dog, it also is more relaxing. Our pooch does bark at strangers (or really anything that moves…), so fewer other campers means more relaxation for us. I also find getting a reservation in the most visited parks rather stressful. Sometimes you must book your reservation half a year before if you want a place.
This is probably not the same for everybody, but I enjoy just driving into an area. Once there, I’ll check out a few first-come, first-serve campgrounds. When I have found a good site, I just set up camp. It can be quite nerve-wracking not knowing if there is a free spot. I have done that successfully when visiting Yellowstone, Yosemite and Bryce Canyon, so trust me, it works.
Remember to carry enough money in cash to pay for a campsite. Most campgrounds require cash payments in an envelope, so you better come with some change. You can go to local markets or grocery stores for cash or change. They sometimes have an ATM available to access your bank account.
Camping for free on BLM Land – A Budget-friendly Alternative
When we talk about traveling on a budget, we have to talk about camping for free! Yes, you heard right! Some options offer free accommodation. Camping on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land is the cheapest way to camp. It offers remote areas to camp on and is a great way to save money if you are on a shoestring budget.
Keep in mind that these lands are often undeveloped. They allow for dispersed camping and sometimes also offer RVing sites. BLM camping is the most primitive form of camping, but it is also the most authentic one. They often provide a picnic table and only sometimes a restroom. A fireplace is also offered most of the time.
BLM campsites are always first-come, first-serve, so you need to be early to catch a place. It is also limited to 14 days on most BLM lands, but that is plenty of time.
Choosing The Right Tent on a Budget
In the last 6 years, we tried out 3 different tents. We still have all of them and use them in different scenarios. They vary in size and setup complexity. Since we tested all of them, we have much first-hand experience to share.
Hubba Hubba 2-Person Backpacking Tent
Our first tent is the MSR Hubba 2-Person Backpacking Tent. This tent is ultra-lightweight and very durable. You can build it up in minutes very easily. I can absolutely recommend this tent to everyone. If you don’t have much space to spare, this tent is for you! We sleep in there with 2 people and a 60lb dog. It doesn’t offer much space, but with little over 2lb, there is nothing to complain about. Sure, it has a higher price point, but the durability and manufacturing make it worth it. What we like the most is the magnetic feature of the poles. It almost builds up alone!
If you want to go backpacking, this tent can be your solution!
Core Equipment Core 4 Person Instant Dome Tent – 9′ x 7′
For a little bit more space, we have our Core Equipment Core 4 Person Instant Dome Tent. It provides more space with 7′ x 9′, which is nice if traveling with pets or kids. It also doesn’t cost much money. This one is for you if you want to save money but still have a good tent. It’s the perfect beginner tent and is easy to set up.
For 3 years, this tent served us well. We had to do one minor repair, but that was our fault.
Kodiak Canvas 10′ x 10′ Cabin Lodge Tent
The Kodiak Canvas 10×10 Cabin Lodge Tent provides a LOT of space! With 10′ x 10′ and side poles, you can easily stand in the tent. Honestly, it feels more like a tiny house than a tent. We choose this tent whenever we have the space in the car to take it with us. While being the most spacious tent, it also is the most expensive one. It requires 2 people to set up and is very heavy. I’d say that a tent like this is worth it for longer trips. I would probably choose a smaller tent if I’m just out for the weekend. That said, we absolutely LOVE it! It is very comfortable and standing in your tent is gorgeous! This tent also has an opening to install a wood-burning stove for colder nights. We have not tried that yet, though.
We are also impressed by the quality of the zippers! They open and close easily and feel very durable. Setting the tent up takes ~20 minutes.
As you can see, camping can look quite different depending on your tent. Choosing the right tent takes time and experience. You might have different preferences than we do. Or maybe you are traveling with more people. If you want to try camping and see if you like it, go for a cheaper solution.
Noz2Noz Soft-Krater Indoor and Outdoor Crate for Pets
The Sof-Krate 2 from Noz2Noz is our crate of choice. From the beginning, we have crate-trained our dog, so he is used to sleeping in a crate. This crate is fantastic, as you can fold it pretty quickly. It also isn’t very heavy. We actually have 3 crates of this type. One for the car, another one for the home office, and an extra one for camping trips. That’s how much we like it!
We tried many different crates over the last 6 years. This is very likely the last one we try.
This crate is not a good fit if your dog bites through toys. The fabric wouldn’t hold very much if your dog chews on it.
Choosing the proper Sleeping Equipment on a Budget
When going camping, having a comfortable sleeping place is key. You can choose from air-filled mattresses, iso mats or a cot bed. Also, the sleeping bag you choose really influences your sleeping experience. It’s key to know the temperature range of your location. Winter caping requires a lot different equipment than summer camping. We tent to go camping when temperatures are higher, so we only have one set of sleeping bags so far.
At the beginning, we used an air-filled mattress for 2 people. It works well and is easy to set up. Some of them even come with a built-in pump. One major downside is that you might wake up when the other person turns. Using 2 separate mattresses would solve this problem, though. As another option, we recently tried a cot. Here are some examples of what that could look like. They are very comfortable and multi-functional. You can move them out of your tent during the day to rest or sunbathe. We even use it at home in our backyard.
Budget-friendly Solutions for Lights on the Campsite
Lights are pretty important on your campsite. When it gets dark, you want some ambient lamps and a headlamp available. We like to have some string lights on our campsite like the AUDLES Camping String Lights. They are chargeable by USB and provide multiple light modes. They also come with a flashlight option.
But their best feature is that they do not tangle up. Honestly, we’ve tried quite a few string lights; these are the only ones that do not have this problem. Their charge doesn’t hold as long as I’d like, but it isn’t too bad.
Here, you can see our tent with the string lights attached to it. I really like the color of these string lights. They make our campsite shine at night. Many other campers asked us what lights we were using.
As mentioned before, headlamps are essential for camping. We decided to go for headlamps with a regular battery. The reason is simple: You don’t want your headlamp to turn off without being able to bring it back on quickly. We always have a few batteries, so swapping them is quick.
Here are some cheap headlamp options on a budget:
Storage Solutions on a Budget
We need a good storage solution since we have many items to do everything we want. Finding something that works is not easy. We tried big boxes, smaller boxes, and bags that you can hang somewhere. Recently, we switched back to smaller boxes because the bigger ones we used before were always getting chaotic over time.
Your storage solution does not need to be expensive. Set yourself a budget of, say, $150 and see what you can get.
Here are some ideas we think work great. They are all stackable, which is pretty essential on the campground. Some can be opened from the side, and others can be rolled.
We ended up with 2 bigger boxes for the bulky equipment and 5 smaller boxes for kitchen supplies, proviant (non-cooled), dog items, first aid kit, and bathing items.
For the food that needs cooling, we have. a big cooling box. We chose a very high-quality cooling box, just. to make sure our food stays cool for longer, but you can also get a cheaper version if you refill the ice every few days.
Street Food vs. Meal Prepping – Which one is Budget-Friendly?
When you travel on a budget, visiting local restaurants to get local food is expensive. Sure, you get local street food experience, but it can weigh heavy on your travel budget. We instead like to prep some meals ahead of time. Most of the time, grocery stores or local markets are available if you need to stock up.
We often take some English muffins, toast, or oatmeal for breakfast. It is easy to prepare on the campsite and tastes excellent.
At lunchtime, we usually aren’t at the campsite. We are either on a hike or any other activity. That’s why we prepare some sandwiches and take them with us. Another great idea is dehydrating cooked meals at home. You can get a dehydrator and use it for almost any food. Cook your own meals at home and take them with you. All it takes is hot water and 10 minutes to rehydrate them. We have done that on hikes many times. There is something magical about having a delicious meal on top of a mountain! And it pairs well with traveling on a budget.
Dinner time is when we start the grill…or the Stove Top and the LavaBox. More on that below 🙂 . We mostly bring all the food we want to eat with us. Popular meals are burgers, finger food, sticks with food to put on a grill, and more.
Fire Wood vs Gas – Which one is Budget-Friendly?
A few years ago, I was one of the guys who always wanted to set up a fire with real wood. I just love the smell and sound of burning wood! Since we camp in California a lot of times, there are sometimes fire restrictions in place. The last thing you want to happen is arriving at the campground without an option to warm yourself up due to restrictions.
We have not entirely switched over to gas. This includes a stove with 2 burners, a Jet-Boil for hikes, and the most awesome fireplace replacement I will show you below! There are several upsides that I can tell you after 2 years of using gas-powered equipment:
- Smell: Our clothes used to smell like crap after 1-2 days due to the smoke
- Speed: Starting a stove is a lot quicker than starting a fire!
- Space: A propane tank takes up much less space when traveling compared to wood
- Price: Propane is much cheaper than firewood – perfect for traveling on a budget
If you are traveling on a budget, propane is for you. But I think propane is honestly for everyone. It doesn’t mean you can’t start a fire with wood. By all means, if you can’t without it, go for it.
Jetboil Flash Camping and Backpacking Stove Cooking System
This little helper is a real powerhouse! It can boil a full load of water in 1-2 minutes! We have taken it on hikes with us to rehydrate dehydrated meals on top of mountains (doing that is another great tip, by the way! Try it 🙂 ). It’s also great for preparing your morning coffee. You can easily rely on the Jetboil as your only stove system and get away with it when traveling on a budget. You only need a more complex system to prepare more complex meals.
The JetBoil is also very good for backpacking trips due to its ultra-lightweight design. We have used it for a long time and can absolutely recommend it. The investment is definitely worth it, as the great reviews can attest to.
Camp Chef Mountain Series Everest 2X High Output Two-Burner Cooking System
With this Two-Burner Cooking System, you can prepare almost every meal! It is the first thing we start in the morning to get our breakfast going. This is the most robust and most versatile cooking system of the cooking gear we have tested. It works well with a small griddle like the Bruntmor 2-in-1 Cast Iron Griddle.
The system is easy to clean and durable. We did have an issue with the hose and are in contact with the support. Let’s see what they say after 1.5 years of usage.
LavaBox Vol-CAN-No Tabletop Firebox Combo
The LavaBox is my absolute top tip for you! This little gadget has been a game-changer for us. It is like an instant campfire, just without the smoke. You can sit around it and warm up in seconds.
The flame it produces looks beautiful. In the images, you can see that the flame is actually quite large. But I usually only turn it 20% up, so it can grow MUCH larger. 6-8 people can easily sit around this little box and warm up.
We have used it on every trip, every day, and it keeps going. No major defects or really anything to complain about.
It’s easy to say that this gadget has been our best investment so far. And the LavaBox is also multifunctional. We use it to cook water or prepare marshmallows. Even the griddle can be put on top to make some sandwiches. The paint on the box is non-toxic by design. The LavaBox from the images can be bought here.
If you plan to get a firebox, try the LavaBox. They also have other models like the Hekla Stainless Steel Fire Pit. We have not tried this version, but from our experience with the LavaBox, we trust the brand greatly. Although it isn’t the cheapest solution, we still think it will be of great service for traveling on a budget.
Outdoor Activities When Traveling on a Budget
You probably don’t go camping just to sit at the campsite all day. Let’s explore some free things and free activities you can do with your time.
Hiking – Exploring Nature by Foot
The most apparent free activity that comes to mind is, of course, hiking. AllTrails is one of the best places to start your search. The app allows you to filter for many criteria to find the hiking trail that’s right for you. Recent reviews from other hikers also warn you about the trail conditions.
Traveling on a Budget and hiking are 2 things that go hand in hand. It’s fun, free, and you get to see amazing places. What more do you want?
Mountain Biking – Longer range and budget-friendly
If you are up for more challenging trips, mountain biking might suit you. Of course, it isn’t entirely free as you’d need a bike and a bike rack for transport. But the activity itself doesn’t come with any extra costs. As mentioned above, AllTrails can help you find the right trail that allows bikes too.
The nice thing about mountain biking is that you can cover much more ground on a ride. You can explore the area and find some amazing places on the go. Mountain bike tours are among the best trips we’ve done so far.
We recently bought the MERCARS Hitch Cargo Carrier with Bike Rack. Our first trip carrying 2 bikes was pretty flawless. Setting it up was easy. They recently adjusted the rack since some people reported a durability issue. Everyone who bought the old version got a new one for free. I really like that kind of service.
For trips where you don’t want to bring the bikes, you can still use it to carry some extra boxes, should you need more space.
Star Gazing – Amazing Sky, Best Place to be
My favorite free activity when it gets dark is star gazing. I find it just magical to stare into the sky and see star after star appearing in the night sky. You don’t get to enjoy seeing the Milky Way when living in more densely populated places. Maybe you get to see a shooting star!
Final Thoughts – Traveling on a budget
In this post, we did a deep dive into camping as a cheap way to travel. If your travel budget doesn’t allow you to stay in luxury hotels or fly to foreign countries, camping might be just for you. But honestly, even if you have the money, I’d choose to go camping over staying at a luxury hotel any day. The best memories are created on camping trips.
We covered many areas about travel on a budget, including a basic cost calculation, tips for campgrounds, various camping equipment, and some activities for you to explore. The truth is that camping can get really complex over time. But it doesn’t have to be complex to get started! A basic setup is all you need to travel on a budget. And the good thing is that you can do it on a shoestring budget.
I hope this blog post has awakened your inner fire and made you curious about camping.
Have you tried camping yourself? Please share your stories, locations, and equipment choices in the comment section below.