Frugal Life

The Best Cheap Family Vacation

Everyone wants to go on great vacations with their family. The problem is that they can get expensive! There's one cheap family vacation that my family keeps coming back to, not only because it's cheap, but because we build great family memories every time. What is this vacation? #Camping! Wait! Take a few minutes to read this post to see if I can change your mind. #cheapfamilyvacation #familyvacation #travel #budgettravel #frugal #savemoney

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Summer is officially here! If you’re like me, your social media is filled with your friends’ vacation photos. Maybe you already have a great vacation lined up. But maybe you’re feeling a little jealous because an exotic vacation isn’t in the budget this year. That’s okay (been there, done that!)! But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with a staycation. There’s one cheap family vacation that my family keeps coming back to, not only because it’s cheap, but because we build great family memories every single time. What is this mystical vacation you ask? Camping!!

WAIT! Don’t click away yet!

I know many of you may balk at sleeping outside and spending time in the woods, but give me five minutes to hear me out. My husband and I converted a good friend who hates bugs, doesn’t really like being outside, and has bad seasonal allergies into a camper who now plans most of our trips. If she can get onboard with camping, I think pretty much anyone can.

Why Camping?

So what makes camping such a great cheap family vacation? Well, the cost, obviously. According to Statista, the average cost of a hotel room in May 2018 was about $130. Obviously if you’re going to a major metropolitan area, your costs are likely going to be much higher. And if you have older children and want to get them their own room, you just doubled your expense. By contrast, the campsites we usually stay at cost between $20 to $30 per night. So with camping, we can usually get nearly an entire’s week vacation for the same price as one night in a hotel. Sometimes, you can even camp for free. For a cheap family vacation, you can’t beat free!

Of course, lodging isn’t the only expense on a vacation. You also have to think about food. In a hotel, unless you have a suite with a kitchen, you’re likely going to be eating out at restaurants for most, if not all, of your meals. That adds up fast! Even if you have a kitchenette and can have some basics on hand so you don’t need to eat breakfast out, you’re still likely going to eat at least dinner at a restaurant. My family of four usually can’t eat out for anything less than $30 per meal at a casual dining restaurant. Again, cities and touristy spots are going to be more expensive. With camping, you can make all of your meals for significant savings.

The last big expense for most vacations is entertainment. This is another reason why camping is such a great cheap family vacation. Your entertainment is nearly built in: hiking, boating, campfires, swimming – kids LOVE these things and they form such warm memories. You may have a cheap family vacation but the memories your family will build will be priceless.

Camping Myths and Realities

There are A LOT of myths and misunderstandings about camping. And these misunderstandings scare people away from enjoying this cheap family vacation. Here are some of the most frequent I hear:

“A pit latrine and no showers doesn’t sound like a vacation to me!”

Okay, sure. Me neither. But camping doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, unless you’re roughing it or going someplace really remote, chances are, your camping experience won’t be like that. I didn’t grow up with camping so when my then-boyfriend-now-husband suggested going camping for the first time, I expressed the same reservations. He assured me that there would be regular bathrooms and hot showers. The campgrounds we go to are well-attended with normal bathrooms that are cleaned regularly. I’ve even seen women use hair curlers and blow driers in the bathroom. A lot of us formed our opinions about camping through movies where the characters bungle through the woods, in some ridiculously remote location, with no amenities. Camping does not have to be like that!

“I don’t want to eat beans out of a can and hot dogs all week!”

I agree! Fortunately, you don’t have to. If you have a camping stove, your options for meals are almost endless! We regularly have french toast, egg sandwiches, and pancakes for breakfast, and pasta, tacos, and grilled chicken for dinner. In fact, my husband and I often find that we eat better when we’re camping then when we’re at home! Don’t believe me? Here are over one hundred camping meal ideas! Even if you don’t have a camping stove, you still have a lot of options with foil meals.

“I don’t want to lug everything I need for a week on my back!”

Same! Who wants to feel like a pack mule? It’s important to understand the difference between camping and backpacking. With backpacking, you’re usually going from point A to point B over the course of a number of days. Because you’re on the move, you need to carry everything that you need with you. That means packing extremely light, usually with a big backpack. On the other hand, with camping, you’re usually going to stay in one spot for a few days. Because of this, most campgrounds are car sites, meaning you can drive your car directly to your site. No need to carry everything with you! You can also use your car to store your gear when it’s not needed.

“Bugs.”

Alright, you got me there. Yes, if you’re going to be outside, there are going to be bugs. But like I said, my friend hates bugs but she found the benefits of camping (cheap family vacation!) far outweigh the inconvenience, or yuckiness, of bugs. There are a few ways to deal with the creepy crawlies:

  • Keep your campsite clean. This is the biggest factor in keeping the bugs at bay. Clean up spilled food (challenging with little kids, I know). Wipe down your table, cooler, and cooking surfaces, and store your food in the car.
  • Keep your tent closed! Whenever you go in or out of your tent, zip it up behind you as quickly as possible to keep the critters out.
  • Get a good bug spray and reapply often. My husband likes Repel Sportsmen Max, however DEET (what repels the bugs) gives me a massive headache so I need a DEET-free option, which I also prefer for the kids. I just purchased Nantucket Spider Summer Camp and I love it! The trick with any natural bug spray though is frequent reapplication (usually every thirty minutes or so).
  • Burn citronella candles when you’re hanging around the campsite. Or surround your site with a few Tiki torches. Just be sure your campground doesn’t have restrictions against this, and always put your candles/torches out before leaving your site or going to bed.
  • Bugs don’t like the smell of sage, so throw some in your campfire to disperse the smell and keep them away.

This is what has helped my family to keep the bugs at bay but if you’re looking for more ideas, here you go!

Getting Started with Camping

As I’m trying to convince you, camping is a great, cheap family vacation. But it can require an investment to get started. If you want to try camping, my best advice is to tag along with friends or family who camp. This is an easy way to get started and learn the ins and outs of camping. Or if your friends or family no longer camp but still have their gear, see if you can borrow it.

If you don’t have anyone in your circle that camps, another option is to rent camping gear. Many local and national outdoors stores, such as REI, rent camping gear. Do an internet search for “camping gear rental” to see what your options are.

Unless you’ve enjoyed other outdoorsy activities and are reasonably confident you will enjoy camping, I would not recommend you going out and buying everything you’re going to need to camp. Or at least don’t buy everything new. Check out Letgo, Decluttr, Craigslist, or OfferUp for used camping gear (more about gear in the next section).

For your first trip, don’t stray too far from home. If it doesn’t go well, you don’t want to have a ten hour drive back home. If you haven’t been camping before, you have a lot to learn. You don’t need to have the added stress of being in an unfamiliar area.

Gearing Up

Camping is a cheap family vacation, but it does require a bit of an upfront investment in equipment. When you’re just starting out, borrow and buy used what you can. Start making an investment in gear once you’re committed to camping. And as you buy things, make sure to check out Ebates to get cash back on all of your purchases!

Camping is one of those things where you do not want to cheap out on your gear. It is worth it to invest in high-quality gear. The last thing you want when you’re camping is a leaky tent, a sleeping bag that rips, or a stove on the fritz. Even though it will drive up your initial expense, pay for the higher quality. You’ll end up saving in the long run, and your trips will be much more enjoyable. Case in point: before we started purchasing our own gear, my husband and I used the gear he had been camping with all of his life. At that point, everything was over twenty-five years old but still getting the job done!

So what do you need? Well, there may be some variations depending on where you’re camping, but there are some basics you’ll need regardless of the trip.

Tent

This is probably pretty obvious, but you’re going to need some kind of shelter. Of course, if you’re really not sure about camping, reserving a rustic cabin or yurt could be a great way to get started.

The problem with tents is that they’re expensive, so borrowing or buying used (as long as it’s in good shape) is a smart way to get started. Once you’ve decided you can’t get enough of camping, then it’s time to invest in a tent. My family uses the Marmot Halo and I’m completely in love with it. It has an extended rain fly and vestibule that keeps us dry in the heaviest of downpours. The tent has amazing airflow due to the vents running the entire length of the tent sides. Additionally, the tent has dual doors allowing air to flow through the tent and keep you cool.

Our friends have the Eureka Copper Canyon, which is a bit more reasonably priced, but the rain fly isn’t quite as good. One big advantage of the tent is that a single person can set it up, which we discovered when our wonder woman new camper who I’ve been talking about set it up by herself!

A word about tents. They never sleep as many as they say they do. For example, our Halo says it sleeps six people, and it probably would if everyone was stacked end to end. But once you add a bag or two, you start running out of space. If you have a family of four, I would suggest going for a six-person tent.

Sleeping Bag

Again, this is a no brainer. You can get a sleeping bag from almost any outdoors store, in addition to retailers like Target or Walmart. When shopping for a sleeping bag, consider where and when you will be camping. If you’re going to be going predominately in the summer or in warmer climates, you’ll probably be fine with a 40 degree bag. If you plan to extend your camping season into the fall and spring (remember, camping is a super cheap family vacation so it’s easier to get away frequently!), you will probably be more comfortable with a 20 degree bag.

Air mattress/sleeping pad

Sure you could sleep on the ground in just your bag, but you’re going to be a lot more comfortable with an air mattress or sleeping pad. Personally, I prefer a sleeping pad. Air mattresses are a pain to inflate and invariably you get a leak, but you’re not going to discover it until you’re on your trip and then you’re stuck. If you do opt for an air mattress, make sure you get an electric air pump that you can plug into your car. These aren’t beach balls and you’re not going to have an easy time inflating them with just your lung power!

A few years ago, my family transitioned over to self-inflating sleeping pads, and we have been so happy with the switch. I find them much easier to use than air mattresses. Once we set up the tent, we unroll the pads, open the valve, and give them a few puffs to get started. They inflate themselves and you can always manually blow some more air in to get it to suit your comfort level. We like the Therm-A-Rest LuxuryMap.

Camping Stove

A stove isn’t completely necessary, but it gives you a lot more options when it comes to meals. And maybe most importantly: it makes coffee possible. We have the Coleman Guide Series Powerhouse Dual Fuel Stove. It is a workhorse, and is the updated version of what my husband’s parents had over thirty years ago! When you’re shopping for stoves, consider whether you want to use propane or white gas. Propane is easier to find, but it doesn’t work in colder temperatures. Do your research, and talk to other campers in your area to make the best decision for you.

Cooler

If you’re only going overnight, you might be able to get away without a cooler, but if you’re staying for longer, you’re probably going to want something to keep your food cool. Of course, you could eat out, but that starts making your cheap family vacation less cheap! Coolers are easy to find at a variety of stores and come in at all kinds of price points. Choose a size that is right for you and make sure the seal is tight so your food keeps cold. Another tip? Freeze water bottles or tall plastic containers before your trip and put them in your cooler before you go. They’ll take awhile to melt and will help keep your food colder for longer.

Mess Kit

If you’re going to be cooking, you’re going to need pots and pans. To save on space, look for a nesting set. Generally, you’re going to want one large pot and one or two small to medium pots. In many cases, the lids of the pots double as frying pans. For eating, you could use paper plates and plastic cutlery, but that is wasteful and you’ll end up paying more in the long run. Rather, buy some reusable metal or plastic plates that you can keep with your camping gear. For cutlery, just get a regular, basic set of silverware. No need for it to specifically for camping (and if it is, you’re probably going to be wasting your money!).

I typically like to provide links of suggested products to buy, but I couldn’t find any pots and pan sets, or mess kits, that I was really thrilled with. My advice would be to go to your local outdoors store and talk to the associates. Tell them the kind of camping you’re going to be doing, how long you’re going, and what you want to cook. See what your options are and make the best choice for your family.

I also like to bring both my cast iron pan and my cast iron grill pan. They cook evenly and take a beating, which is perfect for camping.

Other things to have

  • Flashlights/lanterns
  • Folding chairs (for sitting around the campfire!)
  • Canopy/tarp to provide shade
  • Flip flops for the shower
  • Rain gear
  • Water jug: not essential, but it makes life easier!

Give Camping a Try

If you’re looking for a cheap family vacation, camping can’t be beat. I know the gear list can seem a bit intimidating, but remember, it’s a one-time expense. My in-laws’ gear has lasted for thirty years. What I like about camping is that I can get away several times over the course of a year, rather than have just one vacation at a hotel. Whether it’s for a long weekend or a full week (or more) away, camping is a perfect cheap family vacation, though the memories you will build are priceless. I hope I’ve convinced you to give it a try. Still have questions? Drop me a line in the comment field below!

Happy camping!

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