Cheap Camping Cheats: Tricks for a totally tremendous tenting trip

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School has actually already started here, but I know many of you are taking advantage of the smaller crowds and heading out for one last family vacation before traipsing back to the classroom.

Since camping is such a fun, frugal way to travel, I figured these tricks would come in handy.  And if camping's not your thing, check out this fun edition of Friday Frivolity for some camping-related laughs.

I've shared secrets about how camping allows us to take a free family vacation every year, as well as specific tips for tenting with a toddler that you might not think of.  Check out those ideas, then add in these to the mix:

Set up your compound

I talked about how great it was to have an extra tent for Gv last year, but this go-around, we set up three!

Notice our judicious use of tarps over everything. This allows us to stay dry while moving around the site, even in the torrential rains that occur on a regular basis.  They also provide an extra layer of shade for those days when the sun is beating down on us mercilessly.

If you're heading out just for a night or two, it makes no sense to drag all this extra equipment out with you, but if your plans include an insanely long stay like ours or you're just planning on a week of kicking it around the campsite, then you'll want to make use of this trick.

This year, we set up an old, larger tent to use as both the "play tent" and "closet."

We stuck this old tent under an old screen room because neither one was completely waterproof.  Together, they worked beautifully to keep everything inside nice and dry!

We kept all of our clothes in it (freeing up space in the car or our sleep tent) and since it was a bit taller than the others, it made for a great changing room as well.  

The clothes stayed in three bags on one side of the tent and Gv's toys and and books stayed on the other, which meant that the center provided plenty of room for a cutthroat game of Go Fish or for Gv to sit and color or otherwise play to her hearts' content - well out of the rain and the sun!

We used this small tent for storage:

This is the new tent we picked up last year. Notice the tarp covers just the entrance, to keep us dry while moving between them all.

It mainly held our food prep supplies (all our actual food needed to stay safely tucked away from bears inside our car) as well as keeping our matches dry and being the place to shove all the empty tent bags and containers that we used to haul everything up in.

Keep the sleep tent just for sleeping - just like experts suggest for your bedroom at home!

Even if you don't have little ones joining you in the woods, having an extra tent (or two!) set up can save you trips back and forth to the car and keep your main tent mess-free and just for sleeping.

Have a little forethought with regards to rain

We camp in the mountains of North Carolina - which just so happens to be a rainforest - but no matter where you decide to pitch your tent, you need to consider the fact that it might just rain on you.

And if it rains, it can take forever for things to dry out - especially all the wood that you forage from the forest floor.(We came home with a bag of hiking clothes that - despite being hung up constantly - didn't dry out the entire month!) 

Bring along a giant yard-trash bag or two, just for keeping your campfire materials dry.  We kept one for small sticks and the other for dry leaves, both indispensable for starting a good fire.

Any large logs or branches we found, we just stacked up under a tarp, but to be honest, it's more important to keep your kindling dry than the big logs.

Add a few homey touches

If you're camping in a big campground, chances are, you'll see it all.

Christmas lights, flags, giant carpets and cushy chairs - those RVers have the space to haul around every comfort of home imaginable.

But even those of us toting a tent don't have to scrimp on a few homey touches around the campsite.  Consider adding these to your space the next time you set up:


G surprised Gv with a bouquet of flowers the first day we were up there.

You wouldn't believe the joy those things provided for her - she raced out of the tent each morning to check on her blooms and spent plenty of time caring for them, arranging them, and carefully placing her little "friends" around them so they could enjoy their scent and beauty, as well.

The posies also attracted plenty of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, which made for hours of wonderful wildlife observation.

Solar lights

We have quite a trek to get to our car from the actual tent pad, so lining our walk with solar lights keeps our hands free from lanterns while we load the food back in the car each night.

We even found some fancy ones that changed colors (a butterfly, hummingbird and dragonfly), which was so relaxing to watch while sitting around in our chairs at night!

Tent lights

I strung up a set of battery-operated Christmas lights inside our tent and it was the best thing ever!

Right before it got dark each evening, I'd turn them on in the tent and once again, it saved us from having to carry a lantern around.

By illuminating our tent in a soft glow, we could orient ourselves around the site well enough and then when it was time to crawl inside for bed, it provided just enough light to get settled by - and was far less harsh than a lantern.

Take along a few treats for the tykes

It doesn't take much to keep a kid busy out in the woods.  The forest is teeming with exciting things to explore and you really don't need to bring along very much from home - just a few items for a rainy day (and even a rainy day can provide its own entertainment, as long as you don't mind letting your child get wet!).

But vacation is a special time, so it's fun to have a few treats along on the trip.  For us, camping means at least one night of s'mores around the campfire (a sticky, gooey, sugary treat that even we enjoy once a year!) as well as:

A headlamp

We found one for Gv for just 80 cents at Walmart, and it was the best thing ever.  Ever notice how long a flashlight can keep a kid occupied?  Well, take all that and turn it into a hat, and you've got a headlamp.

Hours.  Hours of fun with that thing.

Every. Single. Night.

Shining on the trees, lighting the way while walking around the site, using its light to create shadow puppets on the tent wall...the list will go on and on as your child's imagination comes up with new activities for the hours of dark.

Glow sticks

These are an especially fun treat while hanging out around the campfire at night - or even just to wear while eating dinner in the dark!

My pal Hil has this great idea for using them for a scavenger hunt outside.  I had great plans to try this out one night during our trip, but decided to hold off until next year, when Gv is a wee bit older.


We're always camping over the 4th of July holiday, but we actually save our sparkler play for later in our big trip.

We stock up on sizzle-sticks when they're crazy-cheap and then bring along a box or two whenever we go camping.  Besides being mesmerized while staring into the campfire at night, there's nothing more fun than a little night-drawing with sparklers!

The best part about all of these ideas is that none of them should cost you very much.  Even if you don't have old tents lying around, you can find a basic one easily for less than $20.

Flowers can be found for pennies if you ask the florist for a deal on some that are old.

Everything else can be found at a dollar store (even the Christmas lights!) or someplace like Walmart for less than $1!

Now you're armed with all sorts of great tips and tricks to make your next camp-out even easier.  If you can, steal away for at least a weekend or so and have one last summer fling before the school year really gets underway.

And if you have to save these ideas until next summer, consider throwing a camping-themed party to get a little taste of outdoorsy fun before then!

Or at the very least, be sure to whip up a batch of these healthy camp cookies to munch on while you go watch a movie like this and then just "camp" on your couch!

Are you a camper, or is your idea of "roughing it" more like the glamping memes so many of my Friday Frivolity pals shared?  I'd love to hear!  Either leave a comment below or email me at lisahealy (at) outlook (dot) com.

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Want to make your next family camping trip even easier?  Grab this fun kit to help you out:

The cutest ideas for a family camp-out!

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