Budget camping gear

Camping, also referred to as “car camping” by some, ends up as the introductory overnight activity for many people.

Camping by itself can make an enjoyable pastime. And it serves as a valuable adjunct to other trips.  Joan and I typically camp out on a Friday and then backpack the rest of the weekend much of the year.

A quiet site on a Friday near the trailhead makes an enjoyable way to bring in the weekend.

In the San Juan mountains of Colorado. PCO Joan.

I’ve covered the basics of how, where, and what to do for camping in a previous article.

For a summary, here’s a modified  primary checklist that works well for camping with three-season based day hiking as the primary activity:

CATEGORY  ITEM NOTES
Gear and clothing for the day Items as  needed for the chosen activity This article includes a list of equipment for day hiking.
Shelter
Tent Pre-packed in or near the main tote
Poles
Stakes ”  – We always upgrade our tent stakes. Y” style ones work well and we’ve used the budget ones for hundreds of nights at this point. 
Sleeping Gear
Sleeping Bag(s) Stored next to other totes/gear
Pad(s) “”
Kitchen Gear
Stove, lighter,  and accessories Pre-packed in or near the main tote
Fuel
2  qt and 4 qt pots
9″ Frying Pan
Kitchen Utensils (Ladle, large spoon, spatula, tongs, knife, can opener) stored in a mesh bag
Small cutting board
Personal eating gear (Lexan spoon, knife, and fork. Plastic plate and bowl. Insulated mug)
Cleaning Gear (Purel, paper towels, scrubbie, dish soap, small camp towel)
Garbage Bag(s) and 5-gallon utility bucket
Water Jug(s) Stored near totes
Camp Table(s) Stored near totes
Cooler with bottle opener Stored near totes. Filled with perishable food, ice, and cold drinks when leaving for a trip
Pantry Tote Pre-packed with olive oil, spices, hot drink mixes, and shelf-stable food
Camp Clothing
Warm Hat In personal duffel
Warm gloves
Long underwear top and bottoms
200 wt fleece jacket
100 wt fleece pullover
Light puffy
Long Pants
Rain gear (may already be packed in day use clothing)
Change of socks
Camp shoes such as sandals
Misc Gear
Toiletries (toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, etc.) In personal duffel
Cord. With maintenance tote  I like bankline as an inexpensive and strong option.
Bungee Cords
Duct Tape
Tarp for quick shelter or staging gear when packing/unpacking)
Gutter nails for tarp set up if needed
Poncho Liners and blanket(s)
Carabiners
Small First Aid Kit Should be in day use kit
TP and Trowel In the main tote
Lantern
Headlamp With personal gear. May already have packed in day use kit.
 Knife It may already be with the day-use kit.
Extra Sunscreen With personal gear; clothing may substitute
Work Gloves (optional) With maintenance tote or auto tools below
Camp Chairs Stored near totes and other gear
Basic auto tools In car (recovery straps, battery jumper, toolset, compressor, etc.)

 

But acquiring all this gear seems expensive and a bit intimidating.

Many outdoor magazines and websites shill expensive clothing and gear for what should be an introduction to the outdoors. The average person does not need a $400 sleeping pad, a $600 tent, and a $200+ sleeping bag that pairs with the equally expensive clothing suggestions as stated by some actual articles I found.

Joan and I regularly car camp and do not use any such items.

So, how do you start with quality gear and clothing that won’t melt your credit card? 

Get some budget gear.

I don’t mean “cheap gear” per se; I mean gear that gives a good bang-for-the-buck, lasts for years, and provides a lot of comfort and safety.

For car camping, I find this price range as the sweet spot.  “Cheap gear” can work well but requires some leg work and research to find the gems in the rough. And the very expensive gear rarely makes sense for car camping.

Sure, I’ll use higher-end items when backpacking. But that’s another specialized case. And in my backpacking trips, I still use budget and even cheap gear or clothing for my uses.

Here are some specific suggestions based on my years in the outdoors.

Shelter (Tent)

As I’ve said before, don’t get a car camping tent for, well, car camping.  I find a budget-minded backpacking tent, sized up, works very well for car camping. The lower profile, more weather worthiness, and packability make a shelter that goes beyond calm conditions.

As of this year, Joan and I use an Alps Mountaineering Chaos 3.  The side vestibules, ample room for two adults, and the structural design made us comfortable in the wind and rain we encountered over the trips we’ve done since we bought it.   Alps Mountaineering makes some very good “bread and butter” gear, and at $200, the Chaos tent strikes a good balance between price and quality. The newer Zephyr looks like a similarly-priced successor. 

In the Abajos. PCO Joan.

I find Kelty and Eureka also make similar quality tents at a reasonable price point. The REI Garage typically provides factory closeouts or earlier models at a good price, too.

Sleeping system

Assuming spring to fall camping, you’ll want a sleeping system that won’t make you swelter in the summer but will keep you warm in the crisp air of fall.

We’ve found a versatile system for our use as a rectangular sleeping bag/fleece blanket/poncho liner combo.

With this system, we’ve slept at comfortable temps on the Nevada summer nights and kept warm during October in nearby Colorado.

We use two inexpensive synthetic rectangular style sleeping bags that allow more room than mummy bags for $40 total. The 25F rating ends up as rather optimistic for comfort, of course. But paired with two separate twin-sized blankets ($30 total currently), the warmth gets extended a bit. And to bring the system into the fall and have some excellent throw blankets for the camp chairs, get a poncho liner at about $25 used, an excellent piece of kit for an excellent price.

For about $125, Joan and I have a complete, versatile, and warm system we’ve used for well into fall.

Sacked out in the back of our truck using this system during mid-October in Colorado. Read here for more info about our Tacoma setup. PCO Joan.

And to go with this sleeping system, you need comfortable and well-constructed sleeping pads. The cheap inflatable air pads popular for summer will leave you cold on the ground.

I find that the Lightspeed Outdoors pads strike a balance between comfort, price, durability, and bulk. Joan and I use the 3″ pads for deep winter camping. But most three-season campers will find the slightly less expensive, but the smaller dimension, 2″ pads at $58 ea. working for their needs.  The 2″ pads will work well into fall.

If you are new to camping, I’d save deep winter camping for the future with its more specialized gear, clothing, and techniques.

The Kitchen

Of all the areas, even more so than clothing, the cooking and eating gear seems the most overpriced area for car camping. Very cheap quality pots and pants get sold for a lot of money in dedicated outdoor stores.  And if you believe the outdoor magazines, you absolutely need the most expensive stove, table, and utensils. And a $500 cooler to store your food, of course.

Nonsense.

I emphasize we camp all the time, eat well, and enjoy all four seasons. And don’t use overly expensive gear to do it all with. And that includes our kitchen gear, too.

A stove should be the first item you purchase for the kitchen. Though a simple one-burner stove works well for quick camping trips, I’d buy a two-burner propane stove for more versatility overall if you just buy one stove.

Perhaps it’s my cultural background, but I enjoy cooking—a lot.

And make excellent use of our camp stove when I can. However, I also recognize most people want simple fare when camping and do not want to spend as much money (about $140 for the current re-branded Camp Chef model).  The Coleman two-burner propane stove for $75 works well for many people. With windbreaks, a healthy 11,000 BTU per burner, and a piezoelectric starter, this stove works for many people, including many of my friends.

In Dinosaur National Monument. PCO Joan.

Note I suggest using propane as propane is easy to use, convenient, and safe. However, those 1lb green fuel bottles add up in cost. Instead, I’d purchase a $25  propane adaptor so you can use it with a standard BBQ-style propane tank. The refills end up less expensive, and you do not have to worry about fuel on a long weekend.  If the 20lb tank’s too large, you can purchase smaller sizes as well.

For pots, pans, and utensils,  I find my checklist above works well. However, there’s no need to purchase expensive pans and potential pots from the outdoor store. An inexpensive non-stick frying pan from the discount store or similar works very well with an ~9″ pan about the right size.  The pan is thicker, does not burn as easily vs. outdoor store frying pans, and less expensive.  Pair it with a simple set of 4 quart and two-quart pots, and you have a versatile set for two people for cooking meals, heating hot water, and packing quickly. Or just buy the basic set you find in many discount stores for about $30.

Similar logic for the kitchen utensils. Outdoor-specific utensils tend to be more expensive than their discount store counterparts as well.

An eating kit of cups, bowls, plates, and eating utensils makes sense to purchase an inexpensive set for about $10 each.  Don’t forget your favorite coffee mug as well!

You’ll want to purchase a cooler to keep your beverages and food cold—no need to buy a $350 tacticool lifestyle cooler.  We use an Igloo cooler initially purchased from Costco about a decade ago, and we keep our food cold before needing new ice for roughly five days just fine. That version is no longer available, but similar ones seem to work well enough. Or you can buy Igloo’s tacticool one, too! Or, if you have the room, get a boat cooler.

Quick Tip: Take many of that corporate schwag or volunteer give-a-way water bottles/bladders and make ice blocks in your freezer ready to go before a trip. 

Keeping with the budget vs. cheap theme for water jugs, I’d eschew disposable water containers. In the longer run, you are better off purchasing a sizeable reusable water jug. We’ve used the Aquatainer style ones for many years now.  A seven-gallon one lasts two people a long weekend and costs $27.

If you are just starting off camping, you probably camp in established campgrounds with amenities such as picnic tables.

However, as you start expanding your comfort zone and camp in free dispersed areas, you’ll want a table.

I find a children’s Lifetime table perfect for holding up the heavy water jug. Additionally, the Alps Mountaineering camping table gives enough room for the stove and a cooking area and is stored efficiently.  At first glance,  a total cost of $140 does not seem budget-friendly for two tables. However, we find we do not need the amenities of an established campground.  Amenities that quickly add up when spending $25 a night in many cases. And when we do stay at an established campground, we do not have to take over a picnic table that our friends without similar tables may need.

Lastly, I’d invest in a 5-gallon utility bucket.  Found at your local hardware store with a lid, it costs all of $5.  Perfect for putting in a garbage bag and recyclables (place on the bottom of the bucket under the bag) and prevents the garbage from leaking over the back of the vehicle when you drive home and prevents rodents from getting inside. Or you can buy the $70 version to pair with your tacticool ice chest…

Clothing 

Though you may have some or even most of the items below for day hiking, I find many people new to overnight activities may not have the essential clothing for comfort during colder three-season conditions.

If you pack the following items in your overnight duffle, you’ll be comfortable in cooler nighttime conditions and not just summer temperatures.

Here are the essential overnight clothing items I suggest if not already in your day pack-

  • A 100 wt fleece pullover serves as a very versatile item and is the piece of gear I wear in all four seasons. Any inexpensive one works fine. Heck, your local thrift store probably has one for $10 or less.
  • Pair the above fleece with a heavier 200 wt fleece jacket for increased warmth and layering. As with the above, any fleece jacket works well enough and is often found cheaply at the thrift store.
  • A light puffy jacket adds a third layer for particularly cool-to-cold evenings. There are many ones in the ~$30 range. They are not as light or of the same quality as those for backpacking that we use, but they fit in the category of “good enough,” especially for camping. Throw on the puffy with fleeces above, and you’ll find yourself toasty. (Note: These light puffies are more akin to an early fall jacket than a deep winter one. See this article for more discussion on the puffy types. These light ones provide the most warmth when paired with other layers. )
  • Add to these clothing layers an inexpensive fleece beanie and a pair of light fleece gloves.
  • A pair of long underwear top and bottoms also add much warmth when around camp and when sleeping. The military surplus layers are inexpensive, durable, and warm. Get the “silk weight” ones for cool weather; the LWCWUS ones if you run colder.
  • A pair of track or wind pants goes easily over your shorts and adds a surprising layer of warmth when in camp
  • Don’t forget to pack an extra pair of warm wool or fleece socks.
  • If you need good rain gear that’s a good “bang for the buck,” the Red Ledge brand jacket and pants are no frills but works well. And light enough to bring backpacking, too

…and throw all your personnel gear and clothing in the bomber and inexpensive flyers kit bag.  Only about $30 used. It will swallow your gear and take a beating.

MISC

…and organize the gear with plastic totes.  Organizing the equipment and staging is the key to getting out as much as your time bank funds allow. Plus, the totes double as furniture!

_______

Car camping makes for the gateway outdoor activity for many people. And serves as a valuable adjunct to other outdoor activities as well. Good quality camping gear need not be expensive. There are plenty of affordable options that last for years and will get you outdoors with many memorable destinations.

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Colorado Jones
Colorado Jones
3 months ago

Great advice, Paul! Personally, I’ve obtained much of my budget car camping gear at the local Army Navy Surplus Store, Costco, etc. As weight and bulk is not really an issue when car camping as it is with backpacking, there’s really no reason to spend a lot to get started.

Cindy Anderson
Cindy Anderson
3 months ago

All great info. I may have missed it, but, what are gutter nails for?