Dawn McNabb, center, helps serve dinner to Grace McCrorie, 13, far left, Jenna Laskowski, 13, Nora McNabb, 8, Rachel Laskowski, 9, and Grace McNabb, 11, far right, during an annual multiple family camping trip at Falls Lake Shinleaf Campground, June 10, 2011, in Raleigh, North Carolina. The families pre-make salads and casseroles to add to the meat that is grilled at the campground.
Camping ranks high on the list of low-cost vacations. And with smart planning, camping becomes even more cost-effective. It's possible to stake out money-saving opportunities with free campsites, low-cost gear and other strategies.
Cost-sharing: Julie Rains of www. workingtolive.com, a blogger with two kids, teams up with other families to share costs on meals, supplies and site rentals. Her strategy worked well for us when we set up camp at Oleta River State Park in Florida. We traveled with two other families, with each group renting an affordable, air-conditioned cabin. We split the costs of fuel, food supplies and equipment rentals. Fellow campers shared cooking, cleaning and child care duties.
Fees: Cheryl MacDonald and Lisa Chavis of www.whatboundaries.com recommend tracking down free campsites. In Hawaii, MacDonald and Chavis discovered that Haleakala National Park on Maui and Volcano National Park on the main island allow free camping on a first-come, first-serve basis. Boondocking.org features a list of free and nearly free places to camp. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management allows free camping on certain public lands. Travel blogger Lisa Overman is a huge fan of the National Park Service's artist-in-residence program, which offers stays ranging from two weeks to several months at little or no cost. Check www.nps.gov for details.
Gear: We've found killer deals at overstock stores such as Big Lots. Max Levitte of www.cheapism.com, a website that reviews products for quality and affordability, recommends Coleman's Andover sleeping bags for off-the-shelf affordability at less than $30 each. For tent functionality and affordability, Levitte suggests the South Bend Sport Dome tent made by Wenzel, which fits up to four people and is available for less than $50.
Logistics: For simple but efficient cleanups during camping trips, Linsey Knerl of the www.freelancefarmer.com uses soap pads to avoid leaky dish soap containers. Knerl also recommends a plastic tote for organizing family footwear inside the tent.
Before a camping trip, Katie Lee of www. chaosinthekitchen.com freezes meat ahead of time to create a block of ice that can be used to keep other items frosty in the cooler. This strategy avoids the watery meltdown of traditional ice (which can make the other groceries soggy), and the meat can be thawed and ready to cook by the time you set up camp, Lee said.