Tips for Budget-Friendly Camping

Glenn Marshall — 1 July 2022
We look at how to make your next great outdoors experience economically friendly!

Australia is a nation of campers. There’s nothing more we love to do than venture out and explore new places. This hobby can be expensive but there are steps you can go through to take out the sting. After all, the cheaper you can make camping, the more trips you can take, and that’s good news for us all. 

Budget camping can be fun; the satisfaction gained from setting a budget and sticking to it is priceless. And when you take out the option of paid entertainment, it’s amazing to see what kids and adults can do with just nature and their imaginations to guide them.

Set your budget

It’s hard to stick to a budget if you don’t know what that budget is. Having an established budget is an important part of low-cost camping. Calculate how much fuel your car uses and use that as a starting point. Prebook (or pre-plan) your accommodation so you know exactly how much you’ll need for campsites. If you’re travelling with friends, have a chat about dinners and plan who will provide what. Travelling with friends also means that you can cut down the equipment you take. For example, why take two camp ovens when one will do? Coordinating your lists can save on fuel consumption.

Meal planning

Buying food ahead of time at a large supermarket can save valuable money down the track — groceries in smaller towns can be expensive due to higher freight costs. Another great idea is taking pre-cooked frozen meals. These act as ice, so can keep everything cold on the way to your location.

Camping and barbecues are almost synonymous but cutting out pricey meat can help the budget considerably. Swap out the steak for sausages, or even a nice vegetarian option.

Free or cheap campsites

Caravan and tourist parks do have some great amenities, but there are cheaper options. WikiCamps, a camping app, has a list of free or cheap campsites. Showgrounds, free camping sites and national parks are often a cheaper alternative. Camping in the great outdoors can also get you closer to nature. There are some beautiful budget camping sites around Australia that offer peace, nature and relative solitude.

Of course, self-sufficiency is essential for free camping. If you don’t have the right set up, consider a cheaper park option. Many showgrounds and budget parks offer much-needed amenities and do not cost as much as established caravan parks. It is worth checking caravan parks to determine if they have any special deals on. If you do opt for a caravan park and you’re somewhat self-sufficient, ask for an unpowered site.

Pack wisely

Overpacking is something we’ve all been guilty of at some point. The lighter you pack, the better your fuel consumption will be. This can often be a struggle for families whose children want to pack all the toys and sports equipment, but just be mindful that overpacking may blow the fuel budget.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you take only your clothes. Entertaining kids can be an expensive undertaking, so ensure that any items you do pack (e.g., totem tennis, footballs) will entertain the kids for long periods of time. Sports equipment is always a winner in this regard. Pack a few board games too. They are lightweight and useful if you end up being caught in unfavourable weather. Rain is often the time when campers set off to see pricey attractions and undertake paid activities.

Drive safely

This is good advice for several reasons. First, obviously it’s best for you and other road users to obey speed limits. Second, travelling at a lower speed (your vehicle’s ideal torque level) burns through less fuel and will make the trip cheaper.

Driving sensibly and in response to the conditions will prolong the life of your car and ensure safety for yourself and others. And let’s face it, nothing is worse for the budget than a speeding ticket.

Fire wisdom

Fires are an integral part of camping, but they can be a pricey activity. Buying kindling, wood and firelighters can quickly add up. Try to find free firewood and use nature’s kindling. If you have children, collecting kindling can be a fun activity. It also encourages them to get out into nature, away from Minecraft! 

When you do have your fire roaring, consider your next few meals. It is a good idea to cook in advance so that all is needed is a quick reheat.

Won’t someone think of the children?

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about budget camping, it’s that child boredom is the most likely cause of broken budgets. Take plenty of snacks for the kids and ensure that the equipment you do pack will entertain them for longer than 10 minutes. Kids love getting out in nature. A simple walk is often enough to entertain smaller children. 

Before you leave, print out some ‘spotto’ games. Kids love spotting things in nature and the activity is free and time-consuming. It also helps with car boredom and keeps them off screens.

Plan, plan, plan

Enjoying a budget camping trip begins at the planning stage. Consider your location carefully. Are attractions spaced geographically apart? Opt for a holiday with many attractions close together to save on fuel costs. Visiting a beautiful town with one or two attractions may sound appealing, but you’ll end up driving to other towns to fill your time, which will extend the fuel budget.

Do your research on the holiday location. Check out the nature walks and see if there’s a tourist information centre. Information centres often have free booklets that help you explore the local area. Another great way to beat the holiday bill is to look out for free events and attractions. Not every site costs money to see. Nature is beautiful … and free!

If you do pay for a tour or to see an attraction, ensure that you are investing your money wisely. Opt for attractions that offer more than a few minutes of awe. Guided (or self-guided) walks are often the best way to see a town and they offer a morning or afternoon’s worth of entertainment.

Equipment care

It may seem counterintuitive, but consider buying more expensive, high-quality gear. It will last for longer if you take care of it and you can get more bang for your buck! Pre-trip vehicle checks are also important in this regard. Towing your vehicle home or paying for repairs in small towns is not a great way to end your holiday. It is worth having a mechanic service or check your car before undertaking any long trips.

Insurance is another consideration. While it requires laying out even more money, it does ensure that your most treasured camping assets are secure in the event of an accident or emergency.

Set a splurge budget

Realistically, at some point, campers will feel the need to splurge or spend money on an unplanned activity. When setting your budget, allocate some to a ‘splurge’ pool that can be accessed when the need arises. Building this into your budget takes away the guilt of spending and also ensures that you are still controlling what you spend. Splurge budgets can be anything you can afford. Perhaps it's $10 to buy the kids an ice cream. Maybe it's $100 to buy a pub meal and a few drinks. Whatever your splurge budget is, stick to it.

Enjoy yourself

Camping on a budget doesn’t mean it will be less fun. It’s pointless budgeting to take a great trip only to stress constantly about money — that’s the beauty of setting a budget. The goal is to take away the stress and allow yourself to relax knowing that you’ve pre-planned your trip and are ready for any emergencies. So, relax and have fun in the knowledge that your hard work this trip means another holiday is just around the corner!

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