Dollars & Tents: How To Budget Money Wisely For Your Camping Trip

Here are your top tips for how to save for your camping trip and budget money wisely so you can spend well once you hit the road.

Budget camping trip
Photo by Kevin Ianeselli on Unsplash

Bob and Diane Santy, my uncle and aunt, have visited a variety of gorgeous destinations in the western United States, including California’s Laguna Beach and Utah’s Zion National Park. The Santys are not just seasoned travelers, though— they are financial gurus whose savvy for saving lets them return home from their trips relaxed, refreshed and debt-free. Follow the Santys’ budget hacks to have a fantastic vacation without breaking the bank.

Bob and Diane Santy
Bob and Diane Santy. Facebook by Diane Santy

Make A Plan

The key to a successful getaway is planning it out in advance. For the Santys, this means picking their vacation dates several months prior to their departure and coming up with an estimated cost for the trip. Bob suggested that travelers divide the total projected cost of their vacation by the number of months until they leave to know how much money to set aside each month into a depository known as a sinking fund. He advised vacationers to research their desired destinations and find the lodging and attractions that work best for their budget.

Budget. Pixabay by Mohamed Hassan

Once travelers know what they will be spending money on, Bob recommended making a spreadsheet with several categories: Food, Gasoline, Lodging and Entertainment. Then, budget in estimated expenses for each. He emphasized the importance of planning for unforeseen expenses—in the unfortunate event that the axle breaks on your car, you want to have money set aside to take care of it.

“Even though it sounds restrictive, it still allows you to plan for spontaneity,” Bob said. “It comes down to helping you not come home in a financial bind. It’s not an oppressive thing—it’s freedom.”

Start Small

Camping. Unsplash by Josh Hild

Planning your first camping trip can be daunting because of the sheer amount of necessary camping gear, including: a tent, cooler and sleeping bags. The Santys explained, however, that equipment can be easy to come by if friends and family let you borrow some of their items for free. You should not have trouble finding what you need since, as Bob said, “People who camp love to get other people hooked on camping.”

Diane said that when she and Bob started camping, they stayed in a tent. After a few years, they bought a popup trailer; they now stay in cabins while on road trips. Even though your preferred mode of camping may change over the years, you can reuse the same basic paraphernalia every trip.

“Work your way up to whatever level of camping comfort you’re looking for,” Bob said. “Start tenting on the ground, then get the air mattress. Start at Big Five, that’s inexpensive stuff that will get you through. Once you have the equipment—a stove, hiking shoes, a lantern—you can reuse it for years. You accumulate a pretty good stash.”

Don’t Do Debt

Credit Card
Credit Card. Unsplash by Emil Kalibradov

The Santys cautioned that if you fail to budget properly, you run the risk of charging your whole trip to your credit card—which is fine, Diane said, until you get the bill at the end of the month. Bob warned that the joy you experience on your blissful vacation evaporates when it sinks in that you spent thousands of dollars on a couple weeks in the woods and have nothing to show for your time except mounting debt.

“You’re not just paying for the trip, you’re paying for the trip with interest,” Bob said. “Now it’s more expensive, so it’s keeping you from saving for the next thing. Debt is a burden you shouldn’t have to carry.”

The Best Things Are Free (Or Really Cheap)

Beach Picnic
Beach Picnic. Unsplash by Nati Melnychuk

As you plan your budget, keep in mind the abundance of activities that forge lasting bonds and create unforgettable memories without costing a dime. The Santys have had unexpectedly deep conversations around the campfire that add new dimensions to their relationships with family and friends. After they return home, the Santys always make a video of their vacation to document the experience, which they watch periodically to preserve the memory of their trip and get excited for the next one.

Ultimately, managing your money comes down to small, intentional choices. Whether you use your Costco membership card to save $1 per gallon of gas when you fill up the tank or snack on homemade trail mix instead of fast food, little decisions add up to save you big bucks.

“You don’t have to make six figures to go on vacation,” Diane said. “Finding a great trail to hike on is free. Packing a picnic and spending the day at the beach doesn’t cost you anything. And pack a cooler with your own drinks and waters—you don’t have to stop every 50 miles while driving to get another coffee!”

Even though the idea of budgeting can sound stressful, it ultimately gives you the freedom to decide when, where and how to spend your funds so you can come back from your vacation debt-free. As author John Maxwell put it, “Budgeting is telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went.”

Hannah Larson

Contributing Editor

A southern California native, Hannah is a traveler and thrill seeker whose love of writing is matched only by her passion for adventure. From ziplining alongside Niagara Falls to paddleboarding in Lake Itasca, she is always on the lookout for exciting experiences in beautiful places. Her favorite national parks include the Great Smokies, Sequoia and Glacier because of the spectacular mountain views.

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