Budget Camping: Our Guide to Getting the Best for Less

Got a bad case of wanderlust? We’ll guide you to the best sources and RV camping discounts so you can get back to nature.

by NEA Member Benefits

Taking to the open road, camping under the stars, hiking through the woods and returning to your campsite to roast marshmallows by the fire. It all sounds dreamy, doesn’t it? What if you want to go all-out and rent camping gear or an RV to visit destinations far and wide? 

Getting back to nature can require serious planning and serious camping gear, and it’s understandable if you don’t want to spend a significant chunk of change for equipment that you might only use rarely. Rentals can deliver substantial cost savings, but you first have to determine what you need and you need to know where to look.

This guide will help you plan a great camping trip on a budget.

Gotta-have gear

It goes without saying that you must have a tent and tent pegs if you want to camp. What are the other must-haves?

  • Water
  • Mallet
  • Lantern and matches
  • Flashlight
  • First-aid kit
  • Pocket knife
  • Sleeping bag
  • Insect repellent
  • Bear spray

If you plan on cooking on-site, you’ll also need:

  • Camping stove
  • Gas/charcoal
  • Lighter fluid
  • Lighter/matches
  • Tableware
  • Utensils
  • Can opener
  • Food
  • Cooler/ice packs

Nice-to-have gear

Nice-to-have gear can make your camping expedition more comfortable and more enjoyable. Consider adding:

  • Air mattresses
  • Ear plugs
  • Pillows
  • Blankets
  • Duct tape
  • Collapsible furniture, such as cots and chairs

You can rent camping gear from area outdoor and sporting goods stores. Your local REI, for example, will rent camping stoves, tents, sleeping bags and backpacks, as will Eastern Mountain Sports. Price and selection vary, so call for availability.

Online rent-and-ship programs might be an even more convenient way to rent your camping equipment as you can expect service to your doorstep. Although not convenient for spontaneously made plans, they’re worth checking out as they offer competitive pricing and a wide variety of merchandise. LowerGear is such an outlet, and Mountain Side Gear Rental offers complete rental kits and discounts. OutdoorsGeek offers camping packages that include everything you might need, which is convenient if you don’t want to pick and choose. A quick tip: If you’re an educator attending graduate school, check with your university. A few schools offer outdoor rental equipment for cheap.

Not all camping gear can be rented. Or, you may rent a piece of equipment that you decide you can’t live without. Or, you might plan on camping more than once, making purchasing some essential gear worthwhile. When any of those scenarios occur, check NEA Discount Marketplace to look for discounts from outdoor retailers such as LL Bean and Cabelas.

Rent an RV

Want to get a little fancier with your camping expedition or visit multiple sites during your vacation? Your driver’s license qualifies you to rent an RV and indulge in even more adventure. The age restrictions that apply to car rentals also apply to RVs. You usually have to be at least 25 years old, but check local laws.

If you think of an RV as a home on wheels, you may be surprised. An RV can be as basic or as luxurious as you want it to be, and not all RVs come with a lot of creature comforts. Remember, you’re probably going to spend at least a week—if not more—within the confines of the vehicle you choose, so what looks manageable at first glance might get increasingly uncomfortable over time.

RVs fall into three categories, from Class A through Class C. The A grade is assigned to bus-style motorhomes that are usually the largest and most luxurious. Van-style motorhomes are classified as Class B and are the smallest (making them easier to maneuver) and the most fuel-efficient. Class C RVs are “cab-over” styles, which means there is an additional bed over the cab area. There are also additional types of larger RVs, travel trailers and fifth-wheel trailers that can be hitched to a truck but are inaccessible while the car is in motion.

Renting RVs from national companies is a good idea because you can pick up and drop off at locations that work best for you. These companies often also offer kits with pots and pans and the like that might prove convenient as well.

A few companies that offer RV rentals include USA RV Rentals, Cruise America, and El Monte RV. RVshare lets you rent directly from an owner, so it’s sort of Airbnb for RVs.

Don’t forget rental insurance. The rental company will typically offer you the opportunity to pay for insurance, but sometimes insurance is included in the cost of the rental, or your car insurance might cover RV rentals. Just make sure to check with your provider and read the fine print. If you do need it, MBA Insurance sells coverage for $20 to $30 per day.

RV best practices

Renting an RV is fun and can make for a memorable vacation, but be sure you know all the ins and outs before hitting the road.

  • Don’t forget to factor in gas costs. Fuel efficiency varies, with the typical range falling anywhere from 7 to 20 mpg.
  • Try to travel outside of the peak summer season, if you can, for cheaper rentals.
  • Staying in public campgrounds (reserve these well in advance) can also cut costs.
  • Larger RVs sometimes come with generators to charge your microwave, for example. Make sure to find out what the additional charges are.

Camping, whether you’re going bare-bones or full tilt, can make for a memorable vacation. A little research and careful planning will take your dollar even further and you can hit the road in style. Don’t forget the marshmallows!

Travel-related benefits for NEA members