Frugal Camping: My Roots In Frugality

My fondest memories of childhood are around camping trips taken with my grandfather.  Even at an early age, I loved the idea packing up his van and heading for the mountains (and occasionally, the beach).  My grandfather has a love for the mountains, and all things nature.  I can close my eyes and instantly jump back twenty years to imagine a cool, fall morning at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The chill in the air; the quietness of being above traffic; the fresh smell of the air, and of course the beautiful views of the mountains and valleys below.  It’s an image I hope to share more with my own kids.

The Frugal Camper

What I did not realize all those years of camping with my grandfather was that he was really preparing me to grow up to be a frugalist.  Instead of buying a giant RV or trailer, like most people we stayed next to along the way in campgrounds, my grandfather outfit his GMC van to handle all our camping needs.  In fact, he did it twice.  He kept that first van eighteen years, and the second is now nineteen years-old.

Before joining the Marines, my grandfather spent a lot of time in and around carpentry, and I’m convinced he could build just about anything.  After buying the second van, he spent some time building a platform extending the width of the van in the very back that would support a twin mattress.  He then designed a second platform running the length of the van behind the driver’s seat that could support a second twin bed, and could fold up during the day.  It was high enough to store coolers and a couple suitcases underneath.  For privacy, he used blue tarp with well-placed grommets, and a system of clothesline and hooks to cover all the windows.  It really was ingenious.

Frugal Meals On The Road

We cooked 90% of our meals on a camp stove, eating from two coolers that we packed meticulously before departing.  Lunches were cold-cut sandwiches, chips and a drink, and dinners were usually built around a pan-fried meat, along with a starch and mixed vegetable.  A few of our favorites dinners were smoked sausage with red beans and rice, pan-fried chicken with noodles and green beans, and for the last night on the road, a steak and potatoes.

We boiled water after dinner to be used in cleanup, and boiled a second batch that we poured up in a thermos for overnight storage.  In the morning my grandfather had hot water for coffee, and I had hot chocolate, and we shared a Pop-Tart or a bowl of cereal.  We could generally go a week before having to stop for supplies.

Some nights we had electricity and running water, but other nights we stayed in campgrounds that did not.  We passed the time before and after dinner learning games like chess, backgammon and poker (my mom was not thrilled with me learning poker at such a young age, but we played for chips instead of cash).  My grandfather introduced me to classical music, and helped cultivate my love of reading.

Technology, Who Needs It?

Most trips were to the Smokies and back, usually less than a week around a school break.  One time we headed all the way to Niagra Falls, then across Vermont and New Hampshire, and back along the East Coast with stops in Maine, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C.  Even for that extended two-week trip we survived on the contents of our van.  No television, no cell phones, only a few restaurants (if the weather was bad), and for several nights, no electricity.

Can you imagine taking a similar trip today with no cell phones, no GPS units, no televisions, no iPods, and no laptop?  Of course, today these things can easily be transported, but that doesn’t make it is a good thing.  After all, it is hard to appreciate the nature that surrounds you with your head buried in a computer screen all day.  It is hard to hear the gentle stream running over the rocks with music blaring in your ear buds.  It is hard to get lost in an adventure trying to find a waterfall, and stumbling on a beautiful, unadvertised view with the help of a GPS unit.  Believe it or not, some things are more fun without technology.

I hope one day soon I can take my own kids on a frugal adventure like the ones I went on growing up.  And I hope to inspire the same frugality in my kids that my grandfather instilled in me at an early age.  Oh, and that old van?  I still drive it to and from work today.  It is nineteen years-old, and besides a busted radio and a few creaks here and there, she still runs just fine.  Some mornings when I get to work I glance back at the old beds, the built in closet, and those old red coolers that served as our rolling refrigerators, and smile.


  1. That’s awesome man! Simply a dream, I wish I could have shared something like that with my Grandpa!

    I love to camp! Speaking of which, its about time to get out and go camping!

  2. It’s hard to imagine a trip without all those things, but when it happens it’s bliss. I went on a trip this weekend and just sitting in the car driving for three hours was bliss. Music and watching the land roll by…simple things still do it for me.

  3. Great post! We love camping. Although I do have a small pop-up camper, we don’t bring any technology with us and it’s wonderful. Great for our family. Great for our marriage (nothing like talking for hours around a camp fire). Great for our budget. Highly recommend!

  4. I love your post. I grew up camping at state parks in a modest travel trailer. The toilet was a coffee can! Good times though. Wife and I have made reservations to tent camp at a state park this summer. I’m hoping my 17-year old will still want to participate.

  5. Great post. I was a boy scout and loved camping with my dad and the rest of the troop. I still take a tent and go out to an island on the lake and camp each spring. The point of camping is to get away from technology for a little while. It is nice and I plan on sharing it with my son as well.

  6. This is a great post! What wonderful memories! I’d never been camping until I met my husband, but it’s now my favorite way to travel. When we went out to Washington State last year, we stayed in our tent most of the time and then had room in the budget to go out for a few nice meals at local, sustainable restaurants. I would so much rather spend our travel money that way than on a cheap hotel room (that’s still expensive). Plus, there’s nothing like curling up in your own sleeping bag at night.

  7. It must be the cold weather making us think about travel. I posted today about vacations I took when I was younger, too! Enjoyed your post. Those memories with your grandfather are irreplaceable. We, too, enjoy camping and there is no better (or cheaper!) way to see the country up close and personal.

  8. My girlfriend and I love to go camping, and we never take electronic devices with us. It doesn’t make any sense to do so. We are out in the wilderness to get away from all of that, and to disconnect ourselves from the “real” world. Even when we travel internationally we make a point to let people know we arrived safely, but that is all. We don’t email everyday or call. We leave the world behind and enjoy ourselves surrounded by a new culture and different environment.

    I love our trips that we get to camp, and I look forward to our upcoming trip to Arizona and Utah, because we will hopefully be doing quite a bit of camping when we are there.

  9. Great post! The Blue Ridge Parkway is truly magnificent. Some of the most beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen. We get so caught up with the latest gear and high tech equipment that sometimes we miss the the splendid scenery all around us.

  10. We took our first child camping when he was 3 months old (yes tent camping)! We now have 2 kids that would rather go camping than do just about anything else. Would never dream of bringing electronics, they barely have access to those at home. We go camping while hunting, fishing, climbing mountains, and just for the beautiful scenery. This year we are going to try and beat our old record of 30 days spent in our tent in a single year. 🙂

  11. I love camping and it has to be in a tent although I have given in to the air mattress with the sleeping bags on top. The aroma of camp fires, eggs and bacon and coffee in the morning!

    So simple, so absolutely delicious! And no tech stuff other than a cell phone for emergency use only.

    Thanks for bringing back memories of past camping trips and hopes for those still in the future.

  12. So true. I too have fond memories of camping with my parents and grandparents as a child. A couple of years ago we bought a small caravan which we try to use as much as possible. We don’t have a TV (which puts us well in the minority in every caravan park we’ve stayed in). I do take my laptop for downloading my photographs to and an iPod which we use as a radio in the van. Like some other commenters, our kids would rather go camping than do just about anything else. It’s not expensive, it’s social and fun!

  13. I introduced my kids to van camping at an early age and they loved it, altho due to milking cows, we couldn’t get away as much as I would have like to, nor as much as my folks did with us as kids.

    Now my grandkids are lucky enought to have not only their folks, but adopted aunts/uncles, as well as my boyfriend and I take them on bare bones basic camping trips – tents and streams – no electronics …well except for a cell phone which I consider my personal safety device. Sometimes its just day trips – and I am lucky enough to have a boyfriend who enjoys just packing a picnic lunch and spending the day or overnight up in the woods where the cell phones don’t reach – ah! What relaxing bliss 🙂

    I wish every kid could know the job of being out in the woods and learning to just get by with next to nothing, and have lots of fun doing it! Great teaching tools!

  14. Jason – my usual childhood camping trips were in the Ocala National Forest – Alexander Springs, Jupiter Springs, Manatee Springs, FishEating Creek and all along inland central Florida. 40 years ago, those places were just pristine wilderness 🙂 Very good memories. Thanks!

  15. jason! your story made big tears well up in my eyes! What wonderful memories and how cool you still drive that old van today. Indeed the simple pleasures in life truly are the best

  16. This is a great post. We are toying with the idea of a Cross Country Vacation this summer. If we do it it will have to be frugal. We are trying to work out the logistics of traveling on a budget with four kids.

  17. Awesome post – you are lucky to have beautuful memories of time spend with your grandpa. I never got to see my both sets of grand parents. You are so right – Kids need to enjoy the simple pleasures of camping without any technology to distract them.

  18. Hey, that’s how we camp today! Where we tend to go, there is no cell signal and no wifi. We pack enough food to feed an army for a month and start gathering firewood the instant we’re set up. We watch “caveman television” until well after dark and cook biscuits in an old dutch oven, a REAL dutch oven. Ain’t nuthin’ like it!

  19. Here in the UK children it is a common sight – children from as young as eight with earplugs and a mobile constantly in their hands. Many go home to spend hours alone in their rooms interacting with a virtual world on their computer.

    Taking these children into the camping world you describe would be a revalation for them, something to give them the chance to be a kid.

    We camped as well as rented cottages – very basic cottages – in France. These can be as cheap as camp sites! My two still talk about their childhood holidays with pleasure.

  20. Great post. While I never went camping as a kid I am planning on taking my son when he’s a little older (1 1/2 right now). I’ll take the cell phone, but no laptop, GPS or any other gadgets.

  21. Hi Jason,
    What a wonderful post! It brought back so many memories of camping with my parents when I was younger. I’m 30 now, but I can remember those trips like it was yesterday. My Dad was one of the world’s greatest campers- I remember waking up each morning to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and sizzling bacon he would cook over his coleman propane stove… sigh… Sadly, those days are gone, but they’ll live on in my heart forever. I just lost my Dad on October 8, 2008 and I miss him something God-awful. He drove around a 1997 Dodge Conversion Van, and the title is now in my name. I drive it back and forth to work every day, just like he did before he retired. In a way, it’s like having him right alongside of me when I make the commute every day to work and back home. My husband and I actually camped in the van last summer over 4th of July weekend. We had a tent, but my Dad insisted that we borrow his van “just in case”. Well wouldn’t you know it! There was a severe storm warning and the sky turned an awful shade of bluish-black, right after we had set everything up. Just as it started to rain and the wind started kicking, we ran into the van and locked ourselves in for the night! Thanks to my dad, we stayed safe, warm, and most importantly (for any camper!) DRY!! (Thanks Dad… for always looking out for me… and thanks for STILL looking out for me. I love you)

    Jason, thank you so much for helping to bring back some of the most wonderful memories of my childhood. 🙂

    Warmest Regards,
    Jennifer G.

  22. I actually thought I would hate camping—turns out I love it! And being without cells, GPS, etc, is so enjoyable. My husband and I fondly remember living in his house after it sold, with no cable, no phone, no internet, and extremely sketchy cell service. We consider it some of the best days of our lives.

    Hot dogs, s’mores, cold beer from the cooler, and the stars all around you; it doesn’t get much better than that.

  23. Loved this post. I take my kids on camping trips like yours now. They are 13 and 16 this year, and we’ve been camping, just the three of us, for the last five years. They can take their electronics in the car for the ride, but once at the destination we are so busy setting up, hiking, rafting, cooking and roasting marshmallows that those things usually don’t come out much. We tent camp – usually at campgrounds with running water as I like to get clean once in a while. 🙂 We’ve had so many great times together…I hope they will continue the tradition in the future.

  24. I had to laugh because this is how I grew up camping. But my kids… well, we are camping this upcoming weekend to the Kern River and my son wants to bring the computer! LOL. I told him the whole reason to camp is to toss the stress and enjoy mother nature.