Camping is cheap, but get serious, and the camping gear is not. It's actually totally possible to stay warm, dry and comfortable in the outdoors for virtually no money, you'll just have to sacrifice some weight and convenience. Here's how.
We review some awfully fancy gear here at IndefinitelyWild. Why? Believe it or not, it's what you want to read about. What's new and what's remarkable is always going to track better than what's perfectly adequate, but unremarkable. But, that's not to say something simple, old and cheap can't hack it outside. So, with the idea being to skew in totally the opposite direction from our norm, let's take a look at the absolute cheapest gear capable of getting the job done. Often, that's gear you're going to have to make yourself.
Shelter: The easiest way to stay dry while you sleep, cook or just sit around the campfire is to use a tarp. They can be configured into a variety of hangs, making them great shelters whether you're sleeping in a hammock or on the ground or even just using one to shelter you while you cook.
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The cheapest tarp is always going to be just a 6mm, woven blue numbers. This one's $13, which actually sounds expensive. They're waterproof (at least through a few uses, these things aren't made well), and can even protect you from the sun's harmful UV rays, but they're heavy and noisy. This 8'x10' number weighs 1.3lbs.
Shedding weight is where camping gear starts to get expensive and complicated and going the DIY route is no exception. If you want something lighter and quieter than the blue tarp, you'll need to make your own using a bed sheet and silicon. Doing so takes a little work, but don't be too intimidated. Pick up 30oz of mineral spirits and 10oz of silicone sealant (the kind you need a caulk gun to use). Mix those in a five gallon bucket by stirring with a stick, then just jam in a bed sheet in a size of your choice and thoroughly mix it in the solution. You can buy old bed sheets at Goodwill or similar for about a dollar. Once thoroughly and evenly saturated, hang the sheet on a clothesline to dry. Tie pebbles in each corner to serve as rope tie-off points and you've got a light, effective shelter for maybe a $20-30 total investment.
Alternatively, you can simply cut a section off a roll of 6mm clear plastic sheet. It's surprisingly robust and will last several trips. Not bad for free (if you or someone you know already has a big roll of it).
Sleep: The cheapest way to keep yourself warm at night is with a surplus wool army blanket. Any decent surplus store should have stacks of those for around $15 a piece and, combined with your layers of clothing, should be enough to keep you reasonably warm down to about 40 degrees. Be warned though, they are big and heavy.
You'll also need some padding between you and the ground. Not just for comfort, but as insulation against the convective heat transfer with the cold ground. Again, the army surplus store is your friend here. They sell basic closed cell foam sleeping pads for $10 or so.
If you want to get fancier, you can make your own hammock. You'll need a large bed sheet, some rope and that closed cell foam pad mentioned above. Here's instructions.
Clothing: Wear what you've got, taking along an extra layer or two for warmth; spending an entire night out in the cold is very different from walking around the block in the same temperature. Wool is hands down the best material for warmth in the outdoors, it won't catch fire and it doesn't lose its insulation if it gets wet. Jeans are fine, just realize that if you get the soaked, you'll need to dry them out over a fire. Pack an extra pair of socks; layer them if you get cold, swap them if they get wet.
One thing you may not have is a waterproof/windproof shell. In a pinch, a contractor bag will get the job done. Poke a hole in the bottom for your head, then each bottom corner for your arms and use a rope to belt it tightly around your body.
More effective is going to be one of those vinyl ponchos. They're not pretty, but they sure are effective and can be found for $5. The surplus store will sell you a camo one if you swing that way.
You'll also want a wool watch cap. Again, find them at the surplus store, they're typically $1.99. More expensive ones from fancy brands aren't any more effective, they just come with a logo.
Photo: Ashley Riggle
Food and Water: A 50 cent can of pork and beans makes as fine a camping dinner as any and can be cooked in its own container. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches work great for lunches. Miso soup packets make easy, convenient breakfasts.
An old coffee can is a durable, lightweight solution for boiling water and general cooking. If you're camping somewhere that campfires aren't permitted, punch holes in the bottom and burn twigs and pinecones and similar in it and you've got yourself a camp stove (pictured).
You can't beat a two-liter soda bottle for carrying water. They're light and rugged. Wrap some duct tape around it and stick some old rope through that to make a carrying handle and to give you some emergency repair capability.
Tincture of Iodine is the cheapest and most effective way to clean water for drinking. Put two drops in your water bottle, shake it up and wait half an hour and you've got safe water.
Photo: Maureen Didde
Lighting: We've recommended it before, but this LED flashlight costs $3.52 and more than gets the job done. I'd had mine for a year and only recently killed it while using it as a dive light in the ocean. It survived about 15 minutes of that.
Tea candles make great lanterns. Drop them in an old mason jar to keep the wind off them.
Photo: India Amos
Tools: Pack an old pair of channel lock pliers for moving stuff on and off the fire. The $13 Mora Companion is a better survival knife than most costing five or six times as much and comes in carbon (for most uses), stainless steel or even a stainless serrated version if you want a good knife to use in and around water.
A Bic lighter from a gas station will start your fires just fine. Make fire starters by soaking cotton balls in Vaseline. I steal both from my girlfriend, so they're pretty much free.
Carrying it all: A big wool blanket, a large tarp, cans of food, a two-liter water bottle and a giant foam sleeping pad aren't going to fit in a simple knapsack. To conveniently and comfortably carry all this, you'll need to suck it up and buy a real backpack or, if that's just too painful for your wallet, do what soldiers used to do and roll it all up inside your blanket, then tie that in a large loop you can throw over your shoulder. You won't want to put in a 30-mile day carrying that, but you can make it into the woods for a couple miles.
Together, all this stuff is far from ideal. A bed sheet is not a tent, even if it's coated in silicone. A blanket is not a down sleeping bag and an old piece of foam is not an air mattress. But, if you're just trying to go camping for the first time, if you're in a real bind and simply can't afford to buy stuff or just have something to prove to yourself, it will get the job done. A few nights with this stuff, especially if you have to carry it any distance, is definitely going to make you appreciate the fancy things though.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.