Nature Isn’t Free - Camping on a Budget

When it’s time to take a weekend getaway or a longer vacation, heading to the outdoors seems like the cheaper option, especially if you have kids in tow. Spending $15-20 per night at a campground sure beats shelling out hundreds of dollars per night at a hotel. But camping isn’t always cheap when you consider how much you’ll spend on gear such as tents, sleeping bags, chairs, and so on.


Purchasing all the gear to outfit all of your camping trips is an investment that pays off in the long run. And accumulating all the gear you want also happens over time. Unless you’re plucking your dollar bills from a tree in your yard, then you probably can’t buy everything all at once anyway.


Here are some ideas for how to acquire gear and save a little bit of money while you’re at it:


Become an REI Lifetime Member:

Membership is a one-time cost of $20 and lasts for your entire life. At the end of each year, you’ll receive what’s called a dividend, which is a voucher for 10% of all you’ve spent that previous year. You can use the voucher for future purchases at REI, or you can simply ask for the money back in the form of cash or a check.


Our garage sale find.

Our garage sale find.

The other great benefit of being an REI member is that you can purchase gear at their “garage sales.” REI will sell a bunch of items that are used or slightly damaged at these garage sales, and there are tons of bargains. For example, Katie and I bought our two-person tent at an REI garage sale for $45. Someone had returned the tent because the poles were bent. Well, we bought new poles for $45, so the total we spent on that thing was $90. At full price, the tent is nearly $200, so we saved over 50%! And the tent itself was in very good condition, needing only the new poles.


When going to a garage sale, arrive early, right when the store opens if possible. (Some people even camp out overnight! But call your local store before you wake up at 5 AM. Some stores use a raffle system and there is no need to get there super early. Just arrive prior to opening to get your ticket.) It can become a madhouse! But it’s worth it when you consider what you might find and save. There are usually plenty of chairs, headlamps, backpacks, sleeping pads, and more. If you’re feeling particularly energetic and there are multiple REIs in your city, then you can store-hop. We’ve heard of people doing this, but haven’t tried it because we can usually get a good haul from just one store.


If you find out about a garage sale, just go even if you aren’t a member. You can purchase your membership card on the spot. But REI only advertises the garage sales to current members. Check your emails from REI to see when the next one is scheduled.


Rent or borrow the gear:

Why buy when you can borrow?
— A Wise Old Soul (Katie)

Another option, if you aren’t quite ready to invest in your own gear, is to rent or borrow. If you are lucky enough to know some kind people who have been camping for a while (ahem, shout out to my in-laws), chances are you can borrow some stuff. And if you know us personally, we’re glad to loan some of our things, too!


You can also rent the basics from REI or other outfitters. If you are a student, check to see if your school offers rentals. One local option in Austin is to rent gear from the Outdoor Center at The University of Texas, but you need to have a valid UT ID.  If you aren’t affiliated with UT, Austin Outdoor Gear rents out the basics. You could also Google for options in your local area. Some campgrounds will also provide rental service.


Register at an outdoors store for your wedding, birthday or other life event:

When Katie and I got married, we were already living together and had most of the household goods we needed. So we decided to register at REI for our “second home” in the wilderness. We acquired most of our gear from kind friends and family who gifted us items from our registry. Thank you!


“Well, I’m not getting married any time soon,” or “I’ve been married for a while already!” you might say. There’s always Christmas and birthday wish lists, my friend.


Use items that you already own:

Don’t let a lack of funds keep you from getting outside! If the suggestions above aren’t feasible, just use what you already have at home! Want to go car camping and own a truck and an air mattress? Throw the air mattress in the bed of your pickup with some blankets and pillows to make a comfy sleeping area. Likewise, if you have a tent, but no sleeping bags don’t worry! Just bring bedding from home.


Other ideas:


  • Any type of foldable or collapsible chair can be used for camp.


  • Bring a plastic sheet for a shade tarp.


  • If your camping location has picnic tables then there is no need to bring a table.


  • Head to your own kitchen for pots, pans, and all other cooking and eating gear. You can also bring paper plates and plastic eating utensils if you prefer. Just be sure to coat the bottom of any pans with soap before cooking over a fire. This will allow you to clean the black soot off the bottom of the pan.


  • No headlamp? No problem, old-school flashlights work fine.


  • Put together your own first aid kit with items you already own.


  • Either cook over a campfire or bring charcoal to use in a grill at the campground or in a fire pit.


So don’t let the issue of money deter you from enjoying the outdoors. Nature isn’t free, but there are ways to go camping for cheap(er).