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You don’t need to be a financial wizard to know that money is tight just now.
As inflation soars, energy prices rocket and the cost of living spirals upwards, belt-tightening and cutting back on spending are the order of the day for pretty much everyone.
Camping is generally a cheap way to enjoy a family holiday, but as you’ll see, it’s possible to cut costs even further.
Camping magazine editor Iain Duff explains how the humble camping trip can help you beat the cost of living crisis.
- Introduction to camping on a budget
- How to plan a low-cost camping trip
- Buying camping gear on a budget
- Where is the cheapest place to go camping?
- How to eat and drink well on a budget
- About our magazine
Introduction to camping on a budget
One of the greatest pleasures of camping is the fact that it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. It is perfectly suited to families wanting a cheap holiday for a few days as and when they can, and even the most basic of equipment will be enough for you to enjoy a great, relaxing break.
Recently, we read some research carried out by a travel insurance firm that put the total average cost of a two-week family villa holiday in Spain at almost £5,000. Based on a rough back-of-a-beer-mat calculation, I quickly worked out that you could get at least seven years’ worth of brilliant camping trips in the UK for the same amount of money.
Don’t believe me? Let’s say you pay £20 per night for a pitch for a family of four, in high season. Over 14 nights that works out at £280 – and if you repeat that seven times it comes to £1,960. Add in spending money, travel costs, a couple of family tents and some other gear and you’re still under the £5,000 cost of one foreign holiday.
Of course, once you’ve made the initial investment in the camping equipment you can use it as many times as you like. In fact, chances are you’ve already got almost everything you’d need anyway.
So you’re not getting the guaranteed good weather of a trip to the Continent. But equally you don’t have to worry about getting to the airport for a 3am departure, hotel transfers, screaming kids on the plane and, worst of all, the endless hours spent in the check-in lounge thanks to delayed and cancelled flights. Not to mention the massive post-Brexit queues at passport control.
And with the money you’ve saved on your main family holiday, you can always get your fix of foreign travel with a cheap city break later in the year.
How to plan a low-cost camping trip
Family camping on a budget does take a bit of planning, though. With so many considerations to bear in mind – from where to camp and how to get there, to what kit you will need – it’s no wonder the thought of keeping the cost down can seem daunting. It doesn’t have to be, of course, as long as a bit of thought is given in advance.
Set a budget
Could you survive on a budget of, say, £15 a day? If you do your own cooking and keep extraneous spending to a minimum then it should be possible. The important thing is that you should decide in advance what you’re going to spend and stick to it strictly.
There are lots of ways to keep costs down while you’re on holiday. Cook your own meals and take packed lunches on trips. Take advantage of free activities nearby – beaches, museums, castles, etc. If you are going to splash out on a theme park visit, try to get hold of 2-for-1 vouchers in advance. Socialising on site, rather than going to pubs or restaurants, will save a fortune. When was the last time you played a board game with your family?
Buying camping gear on a budget
So what do you really need for a cut-price family camping trip? Actually, not as much as you might think! Start by writing a list of what you’d need for a fortnight under canvas, then check off everything you already have.
Once you’ve done that you can draw up your shopping list and start bargain hunting.
If you’re starting from scratch and want to buy everything new then your best option is to look for a package deal from one of the big retailers. These deals change all the time and you need to search around to find the offer that suits you.
The second option is to go online and trawl eBay or local Facebook selling pages. Again you need to spend a little time and effort searching for the ideal tent and equipment but you could land yourself some great deals this way.
Another approach is to buy non-camping equipment from supermarkets and other budget stores, particularly for kitchen gear such as pots and pans and cooking utensils.
With a bit of research you’re sure to find some good deals online or in the shops. Cheap and cheerful is always tempting, but remember we’re looking long term here. Quality brands tend to outlast their cheaper rivals so it might be worth investing in something a bit more expensive that will do you for seven years or longer rather than having to fork out every couple of years for a replacement model.
In saying that, our first family tent cost a grand total of £99 from the cash-and-carry outlet, Makro. The package also included two chairs, a table, a stove, airbeds, and four sleeping bags. Granted, it wasn’t all the highest-quality gear, but five years on everything was still in regular use.
Top tips for bagging a bargain
New camping and outdoor gear can be expensive, but you don’t have to spend a fortune to land yourself some great kit.
Your priority when it comes to camping equipment should be a sturdy tent. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just well constructed and reliable in bad weather.
Checking for reviews and Facebook group comments online is well worth doing once you’ve narrowed down a shortlist of possible models; there’s nothing better than hearing the honest opinions of people who have experienced them first-hand.
Follow our tips and you can pick up a new tent, sleeping bag or a pair of hiking boots for a fraction of the usual cost.
1. BUY OUT OF SEASON
The golden rule for finding a real bargain is to go shopping when no one else is buying. Outdoor shops struggle to keep up with demand at the start of the season and during the peak holiday months, but when winter comes around they suddenly have to find ways to clear their shelves and make room for the new season’s gear. That’s when prices fall and you can pick up a great deal.
2. GET AN OLDER MODEL
Every year, tent manufacturers launch dozens of new models onto the market. Yes, they might come with a new design or some extra features but chances are they are not going to vary much from what was on sale last year. So instead of getting the latest and greatest, it’s worth considering picking up an older model at a knockdown price.
Some shops will be happy to flog ex-display models, too, and these can be another source of deals. But beware – if the tents have been displayed outdoors for six months they may well have suffered UV damage and have been clambered over by eager shoppers, so check thoroughly before buying. A bargain’s only a bargain if the product does what it’s supposed to do.
3 SHOP ONLINE
Most outdoor retailers have their own websites and sometimes you can get special web-only deals. The downside of buying online is that you can’t see the product in person – and if it’s clothing or footwear you’re after, you can’t try them on before buying.
4 BUY SECOND-HAND
Buying second-hand camping kit is a great way to get a bargain but make sure you check the condition before you part with your cash.
Charity shops and car boot sales are very hit or miss generally, but they can be good for pots, pans, cutlery and crockery and you can often find good-quality outdoor clothing at knock-down prices.
Supermarket community notice boards, postcards in newsagent windows and campsite notice boards often throw up secondhand camping bargains so it’s always worth giving them a glance when you’re passing.
5 HIT THE MIDDLE AISLES
Budget supermarkets, Lidl and Aldi, are a great source for picking up decent-quality camping kit at bargain-basement prices. Both introduce a range of outdoor gear to their famous middle aisles a couple of times a year and generally speaking it’s good stuff.
We bought a set of heavy-duty tent pegs in Lidl for £6 five years ago and they’re still going strong. We’d maybe steer clear of supermarket tents and we’d recommend that you don’t buy a super-budget piece of gear anywhere unless you are 100% certain it’s of a good standard.
Make do and mend
If you have old kit which appears to be past its prime, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should write it off. Instead, think about how you can breathe new life into these older pieces of equipment.
Get your tent repaired rather than paying full whack for a new one. Your original supplier should be able to put you in touch with a bona fide repairer.
Use waterproofing solutions such as Nikwax to help your waterproof jacket keep the elements at bay.
Borrow from friends
If you’re a complete camping novice and are just looking to test the waters without committing to buying, a great option is to ask friends and family if they can lend you some kit.
There’s no better way to experience the great outdoors than by pulling together a few items that will do the job, leaving you to concentrate on making the most of your experience.
This extends to clothing, too – simply take along what you have at home, rather than spending unnecessarily.
Where is the cheapest place to go camping?
After buying your camping tent and gear, your biggest outlay will be on site fees, so it’s important you spend some time and effort choosing the right place to stay.
The temptation when booking a site is to find somewhere as far away from home as possible. But to save fuel (and money), why not look for somewhere relatively close to home instead? A 50-mile journey should take most people in Britain to a campsite in an area worth visiting, whether it’s on the coast, in the countryside or one of our towns or cities.
A remote campsite can be idyllic, but being near a built-up area is good for keeping costs down in other ways. Petrol costs will soon soar if you have to drive miles to get anywhere and easy access to a big local supermarket keeps food costs down.
For the ultimate in cost-effective camping, nothing beats wild camping. It really is simplicity itself – just decide where you want to go, pack a rucksack and head off on an adventure! And the big plus is that it’s completely free. For peace of mind, you should seek permission from landowners first.
Wild camping is not for everyone – especially if you like your creature comforts – but for a memorable camping experience with older children, there’s nothing better.
Finding the best value campsite
More likely you’ll prefer to stay on a campsite. While prices seem to be permanently on the rise, it’s still possible to book a pitch for as little as £5 per person, per night, but remember for a family holiday you’ll need decent facilities, like showers, baby changing rooms and play areas.
These sites will cost more – these days a pitch on a family campsite can be anything between £15 and £50 a night, depending on the facilities, the size of party and the time of year. Try to weigh up the cost against the amenities. Search online for a site at Campsite Finder.
Consider also joining one of the two major clubs, the Camping and Caravanning Club and/or the Caravan and Motorhome Club. The membership cost can easily be recovered by staying just one week on any of their own sites – but in both cases check out their suitability for tent camping.
Budget camping in Europe
What about camping abroad? Where are the cheapest countries for camping in Europe? A recent study found the lowest – and highest – priced countries to pitch up.
It may not be top of many people's travel bucket list, but the results of the study revealed that Albania was the cheapest option. The average cost per night for two people during peak season, including a pitch, vehicle, electricity and local taxes, is just £11.04.
Elsewhere in Europe, it costs less than £13 for two adults to spend a night pitched up on a campsite in Romania, Turkey, Moldova or North Macedonia.
How to eat and drink well on a budget
An obvious way to keep costs down is to cook your own food. A decent cooker is essential, but if you’re trying to save money, don’t bother buying specialist cookware – pots, pans, knives, forks and utensils can be borrowed from your kitchen at home or can be bought from places like Ikea.
Campsite shops are convenient but tend to be quite expensive so consider a site within driving distance of a supermarket. It’s a bit boring, but planning your meals in advance will also save you money. Draw up a menu and buy as much as you can in advance.
Don’t forget this is a holiday, though. If you can share the cooking duties, all the better, and if your budget allows it, try to treat yourself to a nice meal out once a week.
A few pints in the pub is nice but can be expensive. Taking advantage of supermarket special offers on booze and relaxing with a few drinks on site of an evening can be just as enjoyable as visiting the local hostelry – especially if you’re camping with friends.
So is it really possible to get seven years of camping for the price of a fortnight in a villa? Finding the right site is vital for a start and there’s no doubt that a £15 a day budget would be difficult to keep to. But with planning and willpower it is certainly achievable.
But don’t forget – camping is supposed to be fun, so don’t turn the whole thing into a nightmare for the sake of a few pounds, or you might find it difficult to persuade anyone to do it again next year!
Want more great camping equipment information?
Our "Buying camping equipment: How to choose the right gear for you" is full of great kit buying advice.
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