Tom Stienstra’s Top Budgeting Tips for Campers

At lakeside, a dome tent is pitched amongst coniferous trees.
Tent camping at Rae Lakes. Photo by Miguel Vieira licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Setting a Camping Budget

When I learned how to fly, I asked my instructor, “How much money should I put aside for flying?” My instructor thought for a moment, and then answered, “All of it.”

You can approach the outdoors the same way. It’s easy to spend a fortune on outdoors gear, especially if you become an expert at boating, fishing, and biking, which are among the most expensive activities. However, for camping, that is not necessary or desired.

What is more common is that you accumulate gear over the years, as it is needed for each trip. For example, if you are not going to see wildlife or birds, or that is not a passion for you, it is not necessary to buy binoculars.

Avoiding Going Over Your Budget

There’s no shortage of items you can buy. One of my mottos is whatever you must have, then make sure you have it. Personally, I have no use for a camping chair; I prefer to lean against a tree or sit on a downed log with my Therm-a-Rest pad. But if your own chair is what flips your pancake, then make sure you have it. Camp your own camp.

Anything that requires huge batteries is usually a mistake. I’ve found mosquito lanterns to be largely ineffective, but that might be operator error, because like most people, I’m not going to sit right next to the thing all evening. Cheap air mattresses are also low on my list; they always end up leaking after light use.

Choosing Used Equipment

For camp gear, I don’t like used equipment. However, used activity gear often works as good as new.

When I’ve loaned out camp gear, it has been returned to me in lesser condition. Except for my boys and my extended family, who can use anything I have, I don’t loan out equipment anymore. Along those lines, it is usually a mistake to buy used camp gear. There’s a reason it’s being sold; it most likely failed its intended application.

There’s another thing. Camp gear becomes personal. Just looking at it, touching it, and picking up the familiar smells, you will find that you are imprinted by your past camps, and there’s no way you want those memories compromised. Using somebody else’s stuff just doesn’t feel right.

On the other hand, if you can buy a used kayak, canoe, raft, fishing rod and reel, mountain bike, or any other gear used in activities, a deal is a deal. For example, I bought a canoe for $200, and I have trucked, boated, and paddled that thing at four hundred lakes and on multiple expeditions. Best $200 I ever spent.

Renting an RV and Making Campsite Reservations

So there are no surprise costs, determine the fuel cost of your trip prior to booking your RV rental. There’s a formula to calculate that for all trips. Most RVs average 10 miles per gallon. The average price of gas right now in California is about $3 per gallon, which means it costs $3 to drive 10 miles in an RV. From San Francisco to Yosemite or South Lake Tahoe, a distance of 187 miles each way, an RV driver would use 18.7 gallons one-way, which would cost $56, or $112 for the round trip. If you have an ambitious multi-week trip across the Western United States, you can calculate your real fuel costs before renting the RV. For some people, this is not an issue. For others, when you are paying double to drive an RV compared to your average 20 MPG vehicle, it might be a deal breaker.

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