How to Camp on the Cheap

The first time I tried independent camping (without the parents) proved to be a memorable one. My good buddy Stewart and I decided one weekend to head out into the woods behind my parents house, situated next to a large lake. We were equipped with a couple cans of food, some pieces of plastic to make into tents, sterno and as much beer as we could possibly carry. After finding a nice clearing overlooking the lake, the beer became top priority. We were having a great time, not worrying about a thing (such as food prep or actually setting up camp) until the rain hit and we were nearly out of beer and hungry. Stewart fared a little better than me by actually getting his food luke-warm using the sterno and managing to build sort of a lean-to to sleep in. I decided just to eat my food cold and wrap up in my plastic sheet. I ended up next to a large, decaying log that was providing shelter to all sorts of bugs. By morning they were sharing my plastic bedroll with me. Despite the miserable experience, rather than becoming discouraged, we decided we had a lot to learn and equipment to acquire.

In the more than 20 years since that inaugural fiasco my family and/or various friends and I have camped in county, state and national parks. We have camped in seven states including all over my home state of Iowa. If you have never been here before, yes, we grow lots of corn, but we also have beautiful flowing rivers, several large forests, hills, caves and friendly, well maintained county and state park systems.


We started out buying all of our equipment used, mostly from garage sales, which is still a great way to get started. Two items I would suggest buying new are your tent and sleeping bags. My experience has been that once those two items are put into a garage sale they have experienced a lot of use and wear. We have used half worn out old comforters and blankets in place of sleeping bags during moderate and hot weather. If you are young enough an air mattress will seem like an unneeded extravagance; otherwise buying a nice thick one could be well worth the expense. I have used pole tents and dome tents, and the domes win hands down, if just for ease of set up. A large tarp to more than cover your whole tent is vital in case of rain, as the rain fly on most average family tents will turn into sieves during a downpour, no matter how many cans of waterproof goo you have sprayed on.

Clothing for casual camping will require you to just bring what you already own. Check the weather forecast and pack accordingly. No matter how hot it is I always pack long pants and a long sleeved shirt, just in case I have to wade into the woods.

A five gallon plastic dry wall bucket is a very versatile item to bring along. It can hold equipment, carry water, serve as a dishpan and turned upside down becomes a footstool or a chair. Also pick up a propane lantern and a few flashlights, fairly common garage sale items. Don’t forget to pack a first aid kit. You can usually raid the bathroom cabinets for what you will need. There is a lot more equipment that I bring along and use but the above items will get you started.


Pots and pans, plates and utensils, everything you will need to cook out with and eat off of can be found dirt cheap at thrift shops. When they break, wear out, get fire charred or lost go back and spend another 25 cents each for what you need. The only exception to that advice is a good cast iron Dutch oven. If you are going to learn to cook using one I would buy it new or look for an older one in good shape at flea markets or antique shops. There is nothing like cooking with cast iron.

A propane stove comes in handy for boiling water or heating up food quickly. I also like to use it for cooking breakfast, as opposed to squatting over a smoking fire in the morning. Otherwise we cook over the campfire. Many campfire pits or rings have a grill in place, but not all. I pulled a stove rack out of a junk stove sitting on the curb and always bring it along just in case.

You will need a good cooler or two to store food and beverages. We always designate one to serve as the food cooler, which stays closed for long periods of time, and the other for beverages. Fill a half gallon plastic water container with water and freeze it to go in the food cooler. It keeps everything cold, can last for several days and there is no melted ice mess to deal with.

We usually will make sandwiches or bring some cold fried chicken for our first evening meal to spare us the food prep time because we are busy setting up camp, looking for firewood, and just exploring our surroundings. We try to bring as much food as we can that we already have from home. This helps to determine our menu, and bringing frozen food to gradually thaw in the food cooler also helps keep surrounding food cool.

An internet search can find a wide variety of camping recipes, so I won’t go into specifically what we like to cook, the exception being what we call Hobos. This is one of the easiest, cheapest, and best tasting campfire meals you can make. We layer on a large sheet of aluminum foil: sliced potatoes, chopped onions, sliced mushrooms, celery, and whatever else sounds good, topped with ground hamburger rolled into small balls. Add any desired seasonings. Then reverse the layering until you end with a top layer of sliced potatoes. Fold the foil lengthways and then fold up the ends. I always wrap them again, seam down, for added protection. Set the foil packet on the grill over the fire and cook each side for around ½ an hour. The grease from the hamburger mixes with the water released from the veggies and steam cooks the contents. Remove it from the grill, cut it open and eat right out of the packet. Mix any leftovers with eggs and cook up for breakfast the next morning.

Drinking water is available and free at many parks, but it’s best to make sure before you go in case you will have to pack in your own. I have used the collapsible five gallon containers for years, but just recently came into (yes, garage sale again) a hard plastic container with a screw on lid and a spicket at the bottom that I really like. The only problem is it takes up more room when empty.


We have both cut our own wood onsite and brought in firewood from home. The stuff brought from home has either been cut from trees on my property, wood I have cut and brought home for free from friends and family, or miscellaneous limbs and branches and bundles I have picked up from the curb. All free. Unless you live in (or are camping in) a dessert, or are physically unable to cut your own, there is no reason to ever pay for campfire wood. Usually the farther away from home we have to drive to our campsite the less likely we will be to bring our own wood. At almost every place I have camped (the exception being in Colorado during a red flag warning) we have been allowed to pick up dead wood to burn. Many times previous campers have left behind small amounts of firewood they did not want to cart home. When we have not brought our own wood I drive around the campground and pick up all of that left behind wood. When we are done camping we make it a point to leave some wood behind to help out the following campers.

A large bow saw with a sharp blade can make cutting your scavenged firewood to size an easy chore. A sharp hatchet can come in handy for everything from splitting small logs to driving tent stakes. All of my hatchets and bow saws have come from garage sales.

The above advice and tips apply to basic family car camping, using tents. I think this kind of camping serves as a wonderful teacher of basic outdoor skills, and can lead to greater adventures. My son, an Eagle Scout, might agree with that statement. He’s spending this summer as a high adventure canoe guide.

Further Reading:

Check out this link for a great camping checklist.

This weekend is the Great American Backyard Campout.

Like to hike? Check out the AHS.

If you find yourself in my neck of the woods a visit to the Mississippi River is a must, including a drive along the Great River Road.

Find a national park to explore here.

Roadside America offers some interesting stops along the way to the campground.


  1. This is a fun article! It's funny how you had a miserable experience camping for the first time, then grew to love it. I've known a lot of people who have been through the same exact thing.

    That hobo recipe sure sounds good, i'm going to have to try making that next time I go camping. Thanks for all the great advice!

  2. Thanks for the nice comments...I hope you enjoy the hobo recipe! We try to make them every time we go camping.


Agree? Disagree? Questions? Leave a comment!