We've compiled a list of eight cheap camping tips to use this summer. Why? Because camping, believe it or not, can cost as much as hotel/motel stays. In an ideal world the outdoors would always be free, but it's not. So if you want to spend time with Mother Nature, here's how to do so on the cheap.
This is especially true if your family is new to camping -- no reason to invest in an activity before knowing it will be a winner. Search Craigslist and Freecycle (a site where you give and get stuff for free) for major purchases, such as tents and camp stoves. Check seasonal deals on sites like Amazon and Overstock.com or go to Retail Me Not to find coupon codes for camping gear. For cheap cooking supplies, sift through yard sales and thrift stores. And always ask family and friends about borrowing their supplies before making any purchases.
Use solar lights.
Flashlights are so last century. An eco-friendly and cheap camping tip we found at Thrifty Fun calls for solar lights. Charge while the sun is shining and use at night to save both money and energy.
Use a shower curtain as a tent tarp.
Another cheap camping tip with a conservation angle comes from Dave's Journey & Adventure. This veteran frugal traveler's suggestion: Turn old vinyl shower curtains into tent tarps instead of throwing them away.
Become a card-carrying member.
Sign up for a membership with a campground chain and get loads of discounts. For example, KOA offers a value card that saves members 10 percent every time they camp at one of its properties. Members also earn points that can be redeemed for rewards and savings for each stay at KOA. Campgrounds come with amenities such as Wi-Fi, cable, fire rings, and food service.
Thousand Trails, a chain of RV resorts and campgrounds, charges a $525 annual fee for up to 30 nights of camping (after that, a $3 daily usage fee applies). Most sites provide electrical, water, and sewage setups. No RV? Thousand Trails offers rentals on cabins, cottages, yurts, etc.
For RV owners, a $44 membership with Passport America's Discount Camping Club is a cheap camping tip that saves 50 percent at more than 1,800 participating campgrounds in North America.
Be vigilant: Check frequently for camping deals on e-commerce sites such as Living Social and Groupon.
Campers who can do without the amenities can try camping for free. Boondocking.org offers a user-compiled database of areas where setting up an RV or tent is a no-cost adventure; not surprisingly, there's an iPhone app that can come in handy. Other free-camping websites to explore include Freecampsites.net and Freecampgrounds.com.
Avoid overpriced eats.
Campgrounds restaurants are expensive. Instead, pack frozen meals in a camping refrigerator or cooler and bring along plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits and other snacks. And always stock lots of liquids, especially water -- no need to pay for pricey bottled water.
Camp with friends.
If friends also enjoy camping, embark on a multi-family vacation. Take as few vehicles as possible and share gear.
Forget about the weekends.
Setting out in an RV or pitching a tent during the week (Sunday through Thursday) is a cheap camping tip that may take some planning but will lessen the budgetary stress. Delaware state parks, for example, offer a $2 discount on weekday nights at a tent or RV site and $14 off on weekday rentals of cabins and yurts.