Living a Better Life®
(featured column... from the editor's desk)

How to Get Started with Tent Camping -


Frugal Family Fun in the Great Outdoors: Tent Camping 

by Michelle Jones 


Camping is a great way to spend quality time with your family away from home, without breaking the bank. After reading this column you should be able to gather the basic supplies needed for your first family camping trip. Once you have your basic supplies, tent camping can be really fun, and, really cheap! More...



Finding the Perfect Tent

When we bought our first camping tent my husband insisted on getting a pop-up tent (the tents that literally just pop up and require very little work to set up). The problem is, this type of tent is much more expensive, and really not necessary. So instead, I purchased the least expensive one I could find and it served its purpose just fine for a weekend scouting trip.

Later on, as we could afford it, we wanted to take our entire family (of six) camping; with a REALLY BIG tent! Over the next few months we continued to watch the store ads for tents on sale. Finally, we found a great tent at a reasonable price, a 3-room/6-person Hilary from Sears. The tent is big enough for all six of us and after setting up the sleeping bags we still have room for most of our supplies, and whatever doesn’t fit we just keep in the trunk of the car—things like water toys and extra food (which is important to keep stored out of sight so critters won't visit you during the night).

Our 3-room family size tent has room dividers which are sheet-like curtains that hang on hooks inside the tent. We’ve only used them once though, they make the tent seem so much smaller. For privacy to change clothing, we either take turns inside the tent, or take a trip to the bathroom and change there. (Note: If you have young children always pick a site that’s close to the bathrooms, just not right next to them!)

One of the most important things when choosing a tent, is that is has a rain-guard covering, and yes, ours does. If you need to purchase a tent on sale or end up borrowing one from a friend that doesn’t have a covering, you’ll need to bring a tarp to cover the tent when it rains, and chances are, it WILL rain. You’ll also need a tarp for underneath your tent to protect it from dirt and rocks, though we made several trips without one and our tent did survive.

Many good quality new or used camping items can be found at garage sales, craig's list or on ebay. Some items (like tents) we prefer to purchase new, afterall, we do have four kids to pass them down to. However, if you are trying out camping for the first time I would recommend borrowing as much of your equipment as possible, in case it turns out to be your first and last camping trip. ;o)

After your first outing you’ll know if camping is for you or not… for us, we love the challenge of surviving outdoors with our kids and getting the chance to spend time with them away from video games, computers, TV and our busy schedules... we love it!  

Search Camping Tents at Amazon...


Sleeping Bags are Nice, but Not Necessary

So far, we have 3 sleeping bags. Because we don’t want to purchase the cheap ones, we’re taking our time to invest in ones that will hopefully last for many years to come. As our children grow older it will be nice for everyone to have one. The inside of the tent can stay pretty clean so it’s okay to use a bed roll made out of a comforter and sheet from home (keep an old towel or mat in front of the tent opening so most of the dirt and rocks will remain outside, you can also use a cheap vinyl table cloth which will cover a larger area). Since we have the three sleeping bags we can use them either individually, as a base for two of the children with a comforter from home on top, or as a covering over an air mattress or foam padding.

Just as you may wake up in the morning to dew on the grass at home, when camping you may wake up in the morning to a damp tent and bedding. Leave the door flap and windows open (if it's not raining) to help dry things out quickly. On the last trip we took (summer), it was a little warmer than usual and we were able to keep the side windows of the tent open about 10 inches or so (no more than that in case it rained during the night).  We were pleasantly surprised to wake up in the morning to a DRY tent! 

That's another great thing about camping; you appreciate things normally taken for granted at home.

(Note: Be sure to air dry your tent and sleeping bags really well before putting them back into storage when you get home or they will mildew; our previous trip was so damp we had to lay the open bags out on our front lawn for several hours... a little bit of sunshine really helps.)

Staying Out of the Rain, Adding a Porch Covering

Speaking of rain, the latest thing we've added to our camping ensemble is a canopy porch… because during the previous trip it rained for several hours during the afternoon and we had to sit inside the (hot - zipped up) tent until it stopped. You only do that once, then you buy or make a canopy porch!

Prices range anywhere from $12 - $120… I found a nice sturdy one for $30 at Wal-Mart, and it worked great. Although since we are a large family, I think the larger $120 type would be wonderful too. Next time we'll probably just make our own, or add on to the one we have. It shouldn't be too difficult; with a little creativity.

Seating Arrangements

The collapsible chairs that we use for our children's ball games are perfect for camping, and I highly recommend having one for each person. At first, we only had four chairs (for six  people) so the kids would fight over who got to sit down in a nice comfy chair... instead of the picnic table bench that’s provided by the campground or on our large cooler. Really though, any type of outdoor chairs will work... beach chairs, stackable garden chairs, whatever you can fit into your car, just be sure you have a some type of chair for everyone. It will make your trip much more pleasant.

And, if you do purchase the collapsible chairs, the small cheap ones (priced at $5.00 – $6.00), won’t hold up as well as the bigger, more expensive ones—but they are fine for children. On one of our trips, our camping neighbors had a lounge-type collapsible chair that even had a built in footstool, now that's camping in style! We also have a small collapsible fabric table that has 4 drink holders built-in, I think we paid about $6.00 for it. This comes in real handy for the children during mealtimes! 

Cooking with Charcoal, Gas Stove, Sterno and Fire

Although we now have a gas camp stove, we are also able to manage just fine without one.  We use the campfire ring that’s usually provided at the campground, and we bring our own charcoal (in case there is no firewood available—like when it rains overnight and you forgot to cover any for the next day), lighter fluid, and waterproof matches (found in the camping section of your local stores). You can also use inexpensive Sterno cans, but they don’t provide much heat and it takes a long time to boil a pot of water for coffee or hot chocolate.  You might want to try the charcoal cooking first, then if you find yourself camping a lot, go ahead and invest in a gas camp stove (definitely worth the cost).

Iron skillets are great for camping if you have one. As a southern cook I have two well-seasoned skillets that come in handy… if you need more information on this just let me know. Stores also have special camping pots that work great and aren’t too expensive, but iron cookware is worth every penny. You can also get by with just one large size pot, you do NOT need a whole set. Whatever you do, don’t use your good kitchen pots, they are not meant for cooking over a campfire!

If you're like us, you may use charcoal for most of your campfire cooking, but you’ll still need firewood at night for roasting marshmallows and making S'mores, of course! You can purchase or gather your firewood (and starter wood if possible) either before coming to the campground, or sometimes firewood is available for purchase at the campground office.  Or, if it’s dry, you can hunt for seasoned firewood in the woods. (Note: Popular campgrounds can be picked over pretty well, a long hike might be required.)


Here’s a quick note about S’mores in case you don’t know how to make them… 

* First, roast a large marshmallow over the campfire with a long stick, or untwisted wire coat hanger, for several minutes—until it’s all gooey inside and toasty on the outside-YUM!  

* Next, place the roasted marshmallow in-between two graham cracker squares with a small piece of a Hershey chocolate bar. Let it rest for just a minute until the marshmallow melts the chocolate. Serve immediately.

Warning: Limit intake to 1-2 per person if you don’t want anyone to get sick!

(Camping Recipes: I'll share some more of our favorite camping recipes with y’all soon if you’d like, including omelets in a bag and our favorite dessert on a stick!  If you have a camping recipe you’d like to share please e-mail me at, I'd love to hear from you!)

Additional Items We Recommend for a Successful Camping Trip

If the idea of camping seems overwhelming to any of your family members, just start out with a short trip, for one or two nights

Things to bring...

- Pillows

- Extra towels (for who knows what might happen, we just always seem to need them)

- Dish soap, dishcloth and hand towels

- Paper plates, bowls, cups and utensils

- Plastic bags, garbage bags

- Picnic tablecloth, for the table (the inexpensive vinyl kind are great)

- Rain ponchos, or at least one

- Lanterns, flashlights

- Cards, 1 or 2 games, books

- Small whisk broom for sweeping out the tent to keep it clean (and for when you roll it back up to go home—you may need to sweep it out first)

- Camera, writing journals

- Two pairs of shoes, for each person!

- Expandable clothesline (of course you can just use some cording from the garage but this thing is really great, available in camping section of the store for about $1.00)

- Special tent mallet for putting in and taking out stakes (comes in real handy, and the kids love to help because it’s so cool)

- Drinking water, that doesn’t have to be kept in the cooler

- Empty gallon jug for getting wash water if needed

- A little bit of cash, at least $20

- Your heath insurance card (in case your son falls out of a tree and needs a quick trip to the nearest E.R.)

Okay, what do you think?  Are you ready for your first camping trip? I’ve given you the basics to get started, plus several more tips that we’ve learned so far. Now it’s just a matter of getting some equipment together, getting your calendar out and calling your state park or nearby campground to make reservations for your trip. 

Enjoy your frugal family fun in the great outdoors!

Read my column "Great Camping Recipes"

*  *  *


Copyright © 2005, 2012 by Michelle Jones. All rights reserved.

Author of...

Dealing with Debt, Frugal Family Recipes Cookbook

The Better Budgeting Class: A 5-Week Course, and 

101 Coupon Tips... To Help You Save More at the Store!


Want more money-saving tips?  Get a FREE Subscription to our monthly newsletter!