For an inexpensive and fun vacation full of adventure, put away the hotel directory and pick up a campground guide instead.
By Gary Orlando
Airfare and hotel accommodations are getting more expensive every year, and forcing more and more families to look for a vacation they can take without having to spending a ton of money, or go into debt with their credit card. So how does one accomplish an affordable vacation that's still adventurous and fun? The answer lies in packing up and going camping. Camping does not have to cost a lot of money, and can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
First, there's no need to buy transportation tickets or plan your schedule around travel times. You don't need a camper or RV to go camping, either. The family vehicle will do nicely as transportation, as most camp grounds are paved or have very well-maintained roads. Some campgrounds even offer camping cabins for a slightly higher fee, if you don't want to go the tent route. Find out about your campsite in advance; some have electricity available at campsites, which comes in handy for lanterns, radios, and even small appliances. Many campsites have water available also, which makes it easy to clean up after meals, brush your teeth before going to bed, and wash your face in the morning.
There are usually only a few things that can get a little pricey if you have to buy them. The tent, a camp stove, and a lantern are all pretty standard items for camping, and they come in all types and all price ranges. But before you buy any equipment, particularly if you're new to camping, you should check around with family and friends; you may be able to borrow most, if not all, of the equipment you'll need. If not, your local Rent-All center may have tents and stoves, and perhaps other camping gear.
Some military surplus centers have a ton of different types of camping gear. If you have more than one surplus center in your area it would pay to shop, as their pricing is anything but uniform. Last, but not least, you can check out the sporting goods stores in your area. Even chain department stores like K-mart and Walmart have camping supplies, and usually in different price points. It depends on your needs, but if you have to buy new equipment, a new small 3- or 4-person tent can be had for under $100, and a camp stove for about $40. A good lantern can cost anywhere from $10 for a battery-operated one to $35 for one that takes white gas or propane. If you have a choice, get a stove and lantern that use the same fuel, as it will be cheaper and easier to pack.
As far as the rest of the gear goes, just use your common sense. Sleeping bags will not be needed when it's warm. Bring an old blanket or comforter and some sheets from home. Everybody already has at least one cooler, so you can use that to take food with you. The rest of the equipment is whatever you think you might need―flashlights, pocket knives, a compass, a first aid kit, the correct clothing for the area you will be camping in, etc. If you're taking children camping, be sure to bring along any games the kids might like to have. Getting them out of the house and into the outdoors may be your opportunity to get them away from the iPod, cell phone, or video game machine. There are plenty of adults today who grew up with old-fashioned board games and puzzles and that's it―and they turned out okay! Besides, there will be hiking, maybe fishing, and lots of things to see and do while camping, whether you're at a modern campground with facilities and planned activities, or out in the wilderness away from civilization.
As far as food goes, bring what you want. It will be much cheaper to prepare it yourself than to go out and eat, and there's a certain charm and adventure to cooking your own food outdoors over a fire. You can easily take perishable food camping; just freeze your meats and store them in the cooler on the bottom by the ice, and if your cooler is a good one, the meat will stay cold for a couple of days while it keeps everything else in the cooler fresh. As for the meal plan, the simpler the better. Eggs, bacon, or sausage are fantastic when cooked outdoors on an open grill. Hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks, or chops for grilled meats, and potatoes cook nicely in the coals from a campfire. As far as other vegetables go, canned vegetables can be heated up in a pot placed on a grate over a fire, or freeze-dried vegetables may work well if you have a good clean source of water.
Think about your utensils and select the ones that can be used in many different ways. Don't double up on them, as they can be heavy. If you stay at a campground that has sites with electricity, consider taking along an electric frying pan, which is the most versatile of all small appliances for camping. You can prepare most meals in an electric frying pan―from sausage and eggs to sautéed vegetables, grilled cheese sandwiches, soups and stews, and even toasted bagels. After dinner, just heat clean water in the pan and it doubles as a place to wash the dishes. As for basic cooking utensils, be sure to take at least one good knife, eating utensils, one or two serving spoons, and a spatula. Just use your imagination, and if you forget something you can always pick it up in town, or at the camp store if there is one.
As you can see, there is a way to take a relatively inexpensive vacation and get some good family bonding time in also. If you're not sure whether you or your family will like camping out, plan a few days somewhere with an inexpensive motel close by, but don't tell the family. Then, if it doesn't go very well or the kids just get tired of it, you have an out and will be the hero all over again. Some of the best, most memorable times a family can have will be discovered on camping vacations.