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Great Family Vacations for Less
by Susan Peterson Gateley
Camping on a shoestring

Camping out is a time-honored way for travelers to save money.
Camping before the era of the RV was an inherently low cost,
back to basics activity needing little more than bedding and
cooking gear in good weather. Camping in the fall or spring,
when the crowds have gone back home, means easy access to low
cost state parks and public lands.

In my younger days, I have camped out on a small island with
my canoe, in a friend's boat, and at least once in my car to
save money. I was never really introduced to the idea of
camping as a pleasurable recreational activity until I
acquired a Colorado born spouse.

Perhaps all those wide open spaces and public lands
contributed to his aptitude for
camping. Or maybe it was a
childhood spent with five brothers and sisters and one wage-
earning parent. His family always camped when traveling. They
didn't have any choice. They soon figured out how to make it
as economical and comfortable as possible. So I've learned to
camp. Not with a costly air- conditioned RV though. We car
camp in a 14-year-old pick-up, sleeping in the back covered by
a small truck cap. We haven't yet gone so far as a young lady
I met once. She drove across the country on her own with $150
in her pocket. To save on overnight costs, she parked her SUV
in a used car lot, at least once, blending in with the other
merchandise while she slept in the cab. Nor have we stooped to
the Wal-Mart parking lot option where I've occasionally seen
the massive RVs and land yachts anchored for the night.

We prefer the out of doors and nature to asphalt, so like many
family campers we head for state parks along our route. Be
aware that they fill up fast during the prime season of
summer. For big savings and quiet campgrounds, go after mid-
September or before school is out. Most state parks fees are
pretty reasonable running perhaps $10 to 15 a night with rates
usually dropping during the off season.

If you plan a camping holiday on a busy summer weekend, you
may find all the state park slots are full and you'll have to
make do with a $30 a night KOA camp ground. Besides, in the
spring and fall, you'll often have fine weather, fewer bugs
and plenty of solitude.

For real camping bargains, check out the possibilities of the
various National Forest Preserves. Though the largest areas of
public land exist in the western US, there are dozens of
National Forest areas in the Northeast and Midwest. This past
April we camped in southern Illinois and in the Ozarks, as
well as in Colorado's Pike National Forest. Fees for National
Forest camping range from three dollars a night for a formal
campsite with a latrine, tables and garbage pickup to free for
a pull off spot along the road. No reservations required. In
the Ozarks, nary a car passed our pull off from a well-kept
dirt road during the night.

While four wheel drive is nice for the back country out west,
the only time we resorted to it on last spring's odyssey was
during an excursion on a logging road that went straight up a
mountain. We could see the signs of things to come several
miles ahead of time, as the road dwindled to a track and then
to two ruts. Had we been in a two-wheel drive vehicle we could
have bailed out before we got to the vertical part where we
HAD to keep going! It was definitely not a route for the
family Geo. However, if you scope out the territory ahead of
time using a map, you can find very car-accessible areas for
camping, some of which have "improvements." Places like the
Turkey Bayou campground in the Shawnee National Forest in
Illinois, where we stayed, usually feature a metal lock box
into which you drop your fee of perhaps $3-10. On a late April
day here, we shared the campground with only one other group
of travelers.

Most National Forests have some sort of Ranger headquarters
and office complex where you can get maps and brochures to
guide you to camping, hiking and other points of interest. You
can also obtain information on road conditions either from
maps or by asking the staff. Some of the more marginal roads
are marked with signs with little pictures of cars, jeeps and
ATVs to suggest the appropriate mode of transport over them.
Even a good dirt road can suffer a washout. Anything posted
with a little jeep picture is going to require a high
clearance vehicle like the pick up we drove in.

If you are adventurous and willing to do some sleuthing, you
may also be able to find public state lands closer to home.
Some of these state owned forests and public hunting lands may
not be accessible for fall camping because of hunting season,
but for summer use would be safe enough. Try your state Fish
and Game department for information and for camping permits.
Some of these hunting lands (like those of NYS) may require a
request in writing several weeks ahead of time.

One of the big dollar-stretching aspects of camping is doing
your own meals. No expensive restaurant meals required when
you're a self sufficient camper. But take an inexpensive camp
stove along. It makes the cook's task far easier and some
heavily used state areas may prohibit firewood gathering.
Sometimes excessive dry weather may trigger a ban on open
fires. I still remember one of my early attempts to go
camping. I figured I'd cook my hot dogs over a nice drift wood
beach fire. Except it rained heavily that afternoon and I
could get nary a soggy stick to burn that evening. I sat on a
damp log and devoured a can of cold stew.

For food storage, freezing water in a pop bottle or a gallon
milk jug before you leave home makes an inexpensive ice block
that you can drink after it melts. For water transport,
bladders from boxed wine make handy small water containers,
while the versatile five gallon plastic pail with a lid that
seals (such as restaurant sized quantities of pickles come
in), make excellent water containers for larger quantities.
These same pails are also good rodent proof storage for food.
They also can double as camp stools for sitting on.

Avoid the summer holidays and the camping crowds and enjoy
some hassle-free budget travel. As a bonus, you'll see some of
the prettiest places in the country. Listen to the
whippoorwills at night, watch the early morning wildlife, and
enjoy the natural beauty around you. After all, these places
are here thanks to your tax dollars at work!

8,337 Posts
We have the free national parks pass and we get 1/2 price at state and local parks....... We'll spend this summer in the motorhome.........
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