Ah, the humble camping trip: one of the most popular avenues for summer travel and weekend getaways in America. Going somewhere unusual, pitching a tent, exploring the nearby areas, starting a campfire to roast hot dogs or marshmallows, sleeping out in the fresh air ... camping is a tradition that millions of people engage in annually.
Our national parks are among the most popular destinations for camping trips. Not only are they loaded with incredible sights, sounds and opportunities for exploration, they also cater to people of all levels of camping experience.
Another perk of camping: It's relatively inexpensive. Once you have the basic gear, even a large family can do it on the cheap.
Here are ways to minimize the cost of camping in a national park.
Buy inexpensive gear at first -- and borrow before that. While it may be tempting to raid an outdoor store, and spend thousands on beautiful tents and gear, it can actually be a big waste of money at first. The reason's simple: If you're unfamiliar with camping, you often have no idea whatsoever which items you really need and which items make sense to buy on the high-end side.
That's why it's best to start off with inexpensive gear. For your first trip or two, see if you can borrow basic items from camping-enthusiast friends or family (a tent and sleeping bags).
The more you camp, the more you'll develop a sense of what equipment you need and what features are actually required so that you don't feel tempted to bust your budget on getting every piece of equipment in sight.
Eat simple meals at the campsite. Plan on very simple meals that can be assembled with minimal extra materials or gear -- things like sandwiches, fruit, hot dogs and so on.
Buy your items at a discount grocer that isn't close to the park so you can snag the best prices, then pack the food in your car to bring into the campsite. Limit perishables to minimize your reliance on ice, which can be expensive.
Remember, the goal of a camping trip is to enjoy the outdoors, not to enjoy fine cuisine. Simple and inexpensive meals that can be prepared quickly with minimal tools are the order of the day here.
Take advantage of free days. America's national park system offers a handful of free days and weekends throughout the year where you can explore the park without paying an entry fee. Here's a list of these free days from the National Park Service website.
While you will still have to rent a camp site, being able to enter the park for free cuts down greatly on the overall expense of a national park camping trip.
Get a national park pass -- and use it! If you plan to visit several national parks within a year, buying a national park pass can save you quite a bit of money. An $80 annual pass allows you unlimited access to all U.S. national parks for a full year, without the cost of entry. Of course, you'll still have to pay for a camping site, but the cost is much lower than before.
In addition, these groups are eligible for a free pass:
-- Fourth graders nationwide can get a free yearlong national park pass for their family at www.everykidinapark.gov
-- U.S. military members can get a free annual pass at http://store.usgs.gov/pass/military.html
-- Senior citizens can get a free lifetime pass at http://store.usgs.gov/pass/senior.html
-- People with permanent disabilities can get a free lifetime pass, too, at http://store.usgs.gov/pass/access.html
There's also a great volunteer program that can provide free access to national parks.
The catch, of course, is that you need to use this pass multiple times to really maximize the value. If you're just visiting one national park for a day or two, it's cheaper to just pay the access fee.
Our national parks system is an incredible natural resource that can provide vistas and experiences like no other place on earth. National parks are also incredibly accessible to everyone, from the casual visitor to the beginning camper to the experienced outdoorsman. Take advantage of the national parks this summer and enjoy their amazing beauty without spending a fortune.
Trent Hamm is the founder of the personal finance website TheSimpleDollar.com, which provides consumers with resources and tools to make informed financial decisions.