The cheapest way to travel

One of the best ways to save money while traveling is to camp instead of staying in a hotel. Some people might think that this strategy is limited to destinations you can drive to. But it’s not. With a little bit of planning, you can save big on your trip by flying your trusty camping gear and picking up a few items along the way. I call this fly-and-camp strategy travel camping.

Here’s what you need to know to give it a try.

But, wait…

“I don’t want to waste money on things I’m barely going to use.”

That’s often the first response I get when someone first hears about travel camping. Yes, you will likely buy some things on the trip that you won’t use all of, or that you’ll only use a few times before discarding. For budget travelers, it can feel especially weird to pick out a cooler that you only intend on using for a week or so. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make financial sense.

After all, substituting just a single night of camping in place of a hotel stay will undoubtedly save far more cash than you’ll spend on any items you’ll have to discard later. When you add together several nights—and especially if you include cooking some meals at camp—then you’re suddenly savings hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Don’t take my word for it; after reading this post, do some sample math for your next trip and see how much you’d save by travel camping. We could all use some more travel money, right?

To be fair, travel camping isn’t always the best choice for your trip. For instance, if you’re heading to the Sonoran Desert in the summer, I’d recommend staying in a hotel with air conditioning instead of sweltering in a tent (free tip from this Arizona native). Similarly, I’d much rather pay for a hotel room than camp in a Minnesota winter.

And if your primary destination is a major metropolis, your camping options might be pretty limited or less convenient—though sometimes you can be surprised. For instance, there are camping options just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, campgrounds within a 10-minute drive of the major Scottsdale resorts, and plenty of “this-will-do-for-the-night” private campgrounds and rv parks at the edge of most large cities.

Your gear bag

The first thing you’ll need to get started with travel camping is some sort of gear bag to carry everything you’re bringing with you. I happen to use a large duffel bag for this, but you have quite a few options here. The key is to use something that meets your airline’s baggage limits so you don’t have to pay any oversized baggage fees (typically triggered by anything that exceeds 62 inches when you add together the bag’s length, width, and height). Similarly, you’ll want to make sure that this bag doesn’t get too heavy to avoid overweight charges, usually bags weighing more than 50 lbs. Depending on what you’re bringing, that might mean strategically carrying some heavier items in your carry-on to help better distribute the weight. Likewise, some items might simply fit better in a standard carry-on suitcase than a large duffel bag, so keep that in mind when you’re packing too.

I usually try to check a single gear bag of camping gear and stashing my usual carry-on suitcase in the overhead bin. I also carry a daypack as my so-called personal item (be sure that this meets your airline’s size limits, which seem to be getting smaller and smaller). If you plan on travel camping often, you might want to consider buying a large rolling duffel for your gear bag; it’s the easiest to carry around the airport and to your rental car.

gear bag and luggage
All packed up and ready for a travel camping trip—in this case, to Hawaii.

What’s allowed in checked vs. carry-on luggage

Not sure what items you’re allowed to fly with? Below is a collapsable list of camping-related items and whether or not they’re allowed in checked or carry-on luggage. Please note that these rules can change regularly, so please double-check the TSA list before your trip. Also keep in mind the liquids rule for carry-on baggage when you’re packing.

Some items are allowed only in your checked luggage while others can only be in carry-on baggage; a few items aren’t allowed in either checked or carry-on luggage. For more details on each type of item, check out the links I’ve provided.

Sleeping arrangements

The first thing to decide when planning your trip is your sleeping situation. Will you bring a tent? Will you rent an SUV or a minivan that you can sleep in? Are you a hammock sleeper? You’ll also want to consider where you’ll be sleeping. For instance, will you be staying in developed campgrounds, dispersed camping on public lands, or stealth camping in a city?

The answers to these questions will help determine what gear you’ll need. For instance, if you’ll be sleeping in a vehicle, then you don’t need to bring your tent. And if you’re staying in a developed campground, then you’ll likely have a picnic table that you can use for both cooking and sitting at. Consider what items are important for you to have given the circumstances you’ll likely find yourself in.

Will you be cooking?

The next big question you’ll want to answer is whether or not you will be cooking any meals. Cooking your own meals usually saves you a ton of money while traveling, but it also requires additional gear and takes time away from other activities.

Not cooking

Even if you decide to eat out for all of your meals, you’ll still save hundreds of dollars by camping. Just be sure that you’ll be near restaurants during your expected mealtimes—especially if you have any dietary restrictions. You don’t want to find yourself hungry and in a remote area after hours with no place to eat.

You might want to consider how you could supplement your meals with snacks or beverages to save additional cash. For instance, even if I’m not planning on bringing a stove and cooking during a trip, I might still grab some food and drinks to have with me. I sometimes pick up some sort of small cooler (even if it’s a cheap styrofoam one) and toss in some sodas, water, beer, and few snacks—just so I have some options if I get hungry or for when stopping for food isn’t convenient.

Cooking

Being prepared to cook at least some meals provides you with the most flexibility on your trip. After all, you can always grab a bite at a restaurant if you’re feeling lazy or if you run across a place that’s too good to pass up. You’ll want to do some pre-planning before you hop on the plane. First, you’ll likely need a few basic items: a stove, a cooler, pots/pans, plates/bowls, and utensils. Depending on your trip and what you already own, you could bring all of these, buy them all at your destination, or a combination of the two. I tend to pack gear I already own that’s easy to bring on the plane, and then buy the remainder when I arrive.

What to bring and what to buy there

While I own plenty of compact and lightweight backpacking gear, I usually bring slightly bulkier car camping gear when I do these sorts of trips. For instance, I prefer to bring my Coleman single burner stove that uses one of those ubiquitous green 1 lb propane canisters over my much smaller backpacking stove that uses a harder-to-find isobutane canister. While the larger stove is a bit bigger to pack, its fuel canisters can be found at just about any grocery store, gas station, or Walmart. It also cooks a bit more evenly and is more stable while holding a heavy pot. The same goes for my cookware; it’s usually my weekend car camping set, not my lightweight titanium backpacking pot. Keep in mind that this is just personal preference, so choose the gear that works best for you and your trip.

Plates, bowls, and utensils are items that you can either decide to buy there—you can usually pick up disposable items for relatively cheap—or to bring with you, depending on space considerations. Remember that if you’re cooking, you’ll also need to consider how you’ll be doing dishes, too (this is where disposable items are especially useful). You can often find free condiment packets, salt & pepper packets, napkins, and plastic cutlery at most big gas stations, grocery store deli counters, or fast food restaurants. I often snag some of these instead of buying large quantities I’ll never use up during a trip. However, I do bring some smaller and less common items, like a particular seasoning I like on my sandwiches, along with me so I don’t have to buy a large container of something I’ll use just a bit of.

You can’t bring stove fuel on the plane, so plan on buying a canister when you arrive. You’ll also need ice and a cooler, too. You can usually pick up a cheap plastic cooler for about $15-20 or so; I usually grab either a 28 qt or 48 qt size, depending on how much food and beverages I plan on having at any one time. I usually grab a cheap plastic bin to keep my food dry inside the cooler. My general preference is to buy just a few days’ worth of food at a time instead of plotting out every meal for the trip in advance; I always seem to end up with quite a bit extra food/drinks when I try to buy it all at the start. Also don’t forget to grab a gallon or two of water. You can usually refill these at campgrounds when you run low.

The cheaper (and less enviro-friendly) styrofoam coolers are also an option, though they come with quite a few downsides. First, you’ll need a lot more ice to keep your food cold, as the lid doesn’t close very well. They can also be a bit top-heavy, so you’ll want to brace them in the vehicle so they don’t tip over. Unfortunately, they also squeak quite a bit (especially when braced in), which quickly drives me nuts. No matter which route you choose, check out my post on how to make ice last longer in your cooler for some useful tips.

I do my best to buy only simple, easy-to-prepare meals that don’t require many a long list of ingredients to make. Items that can do double-duty in more than one meal are great too. For instance, sliced cheddar cheese works great in both grilled cheese sandwiches and as a snack when paired with pepperoni and crackers. Items that don’t need to be kept especially cold—like the aforementioned cheddar cheese and pepperoni—make it a bit easier to manage while you’re on the road. I generally recommend sticking to foods and meals that you’re already used to making and that you enjoy eating. It’s never fun when dinner isn’t as appetizing as you imagined it’d be, or worse when doesn’t quite agree with you and you’re stuck running repeatedly to the campground toilet.

Campsite at North Cascades
You don’t need much to enjoy travel camping, as we recently did here in North Cascades National Park.

Here’s exactly what gear I’ve brought on trips

Every trip is a bit different with its own unique gear needs. In the collapsible sections below, I’ve listed the gear I packed for three very different travel camping trips. The first was a road trip through the Pacific Northwest where we brought quite a few luxury items. That’s much different than our trip to Hawaii, which featured just the basics for sleeping at a campsite. The last trip—a solo, fast-paced but frugal road trip through the South—sat somewhat in the middle of the other two. I’ve listed these to provide a bit of context into the various pieces of gear you might bring for each kind of trip. Keep in mind that your own travel or camping style may require a much different packing list than what I brought.

This trip featured a combination of hotel stays (3 nights in Seattle early in the trip, and then a night in Bend in the middle) along with 7 camping nights scattered across Washington. We had opted for a cheap economy rental car, so we would be sleeping in our tent. Our schedule was rather variable—some places we’d just be quickly crashing for the night, while others we’d stay for three nights and spend a lot more time at the campsite. We were also a bit worried about possible rain, wanted to ensure that we could shower at camp, and expected to spend several nights enjoying an evening campfire. As a result, we brought quite a few “luxury” items that I normally don’t bring on travel camping trips. Because of the crowds expected for the impending solar eclipse, we also reserved sites in developed campgrounds for each night we weren’t in a hotel. Each of them had flush toilets, but only one listed shower facilities.

Chairs near firepit
Backpacking chairs are great for those nights when you’re planning to enjoy an adult beverage or two around a campfire.

The main video above provides some additional context and reasoning for the items we brought. Here’s the list:

This trip was evenly split between hotel nights and camping, which saved us well over a thousand dollars due to Hawaii’s expensive hotel rates. We decided to skip cooking and eat out every meal on this trip for two main reasons. First, we were bringing all of our snorkeling gear, so we weren’t sure it’d all fit in our normal gear bag and didn’t want to pay for an additional checked bag. We had several inter-island flights, so not only would we have to pay for that extra bag on each flight segment, but we’d also have to continually buy additional supplies (like a cooler, stove fuel, lighter, etc) between flights. This just seemed like too much of hassle.

Because the climate in Hawaii is so mild, we skipped sleeping bags and instead brought a $23 lightweight full/queen comforter from Ikea to share. It was tightly rolled in plastic, so it was easy to pack for the flight there. But we weren’t sure if we’d be able to get it packed again once we used it, so we were willing to donate it instead of bringing it home. With some compression straps, however, we managed to make it fit and we’ve used it on several other road trips since then. Sometimes, picking up some additional gear is worth ensuring you have a great experience.

As you can see from our gear list, you really don’t need much to pull off a few nights of camping—especially if you aren’t going to be cooking.

olowalu campsite
A campsite with featuring your own private snorkeling beach and new toilets/showers at only $20 a night on Maui? SOLD!!

Quick note about where we camped

During this trip, we primarily camped at Camp Olowalu on Maui. They have recently renovated their campground and installed some very nice outdoor showers and toilets. We loved the place—we even had our own private beach that we could snorkel off! Best of all, it cost $20 a night instead of the $280 we would have paid in the city. To be honest, we actually enjoyed the campsite more than any of the hotels we stayed in and should have booked several additional nights there. Did I mention that we hung out with some sea turtles right off the campsite?

Last spring I did a 9-day multi-state road trip around the Deep South to mark off a handful of national park units and other attractions I hadn’t yet visited. With an expensive trip to the US Virgin Islands & Puerto Rico coming up just two weeks later, I really needed to pull this trip off as cheaply as possible. I was able to pick up my flights using airline miles and had one free hotels.com night stay to use, so I’d need to camp the rest of the time to make my budget.

Because this would be a solo trip and I had an aggressive itinerary of destinations to visit, I knew that it’d be go-go-go the entire trip. I also didn’t have a set itinerary planned out in advance, so I’d need to look for a campsite on the fly. I usually prefer to save my longer drives for after sunset in order to maximize what I can see during the day, so it seemed likely that I’d be arriving in camp late each night after driving several hours from my last destination.

So while I brought several items intended to comfortably pass the evening hours at camp—the hammock, tent, and backpacking chair, for instance—I fully expected that I’d be arriving late and leaving early. On this trip, camping was primarily a way to save money on hotels. Because I got a great deal on a large SUV for the trip, I mostly planned on sleeping in the back of the vehicle. This would allow me to avoid setting up and tearing down camp every day, saving me both time and hassle—especially since the forecast called for rain for much of my trip.

I kept my meals simple and ate out about half the time. That usually meant bagels with cream cheese and a yogurt for breakfast, random snacks during the day (sometimes making a sandwich or heating up some soup or chili), and often grabbing a quick sub or some fast food for dinner before hitting a local brewery to sample their offerings. I ate cheaply in part so I could enjoy these brewery stops, which also gave me a great opportunity to research possible spots to camp each night. It also provided a bit of social time with locals (solo travel can get a bit lonely at times). If I was hungry later, I’d just heat up some soup or snack on something when I finally arrived at camp.

Here’s a quick (and poorly-shot) video on what I brought with me for this trip. I’ve also included the list below.

Other items you don’t want to forget

  • Headlamp
  • Towel(s) for showering
  • Camp/shower shoes
  • Ziploc bags (especially useful for repacking snack foods)
  • Can opener (though I try to only buy cans with pop-tops)
  • Bottle opener/corkscrew
  • Paracord

What to do with items that you can’t bring home

If you purchase items like a cooler or other food you don’t use, consider how you can best donate it at the end of your trip. If I’m staying at a developed campground, I’ll often donate my half-full propane canister and other camping supplies to the camp host to use or redistribute to underprepared campers. Another option is to look up a charity like Goodwill where you can donate items like a cooler that’s on your way to the airport. With leftover food or beverages, I usually donate them to panhandlers before I fly home.

Some recommendations for first-timers

If you’re not a seasoned camper, you can still have an excellent travel camping experience. I recommend easing yourself in on the first trip or two so you can get the hang of it. That means:

  • splitting your time between camping and staying in hotels
  • reserving every campground you’ll need in advance
  • choosing campgrounds that provide both flush toilets and showers
  • being ok with eating most meals out (in case you need or want to)
  • scheduling a more leisurely itinerary
  • bringing or buying some snacks so you always have something to eat

The goal here is to give yourself the best shot at enjoying the experience, even if you end up making some mistakes along the way. Once you get a trip or two under your belt, you’ll have a better idea of what works best for you and your own preferences and can modify from there.

Have a good travel camping story?

Tell me in the comments!


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