Every spring, I make a vow to get the kids out doing lots of fun things during their summer break. Lots of swimming, hiking, geocaching, and camping, with some visits to places like the zoo or the science center. My plans usually fall apart when reality hits and I realize, after our first trip, just how much gas it takes to haul our camper any distance, or how expensive it can be to stop at the grocery store to grab a few things for a last minute picnic lunch.
Compared to a lot of other trips, camping is fairly inexpensive. If you look at the cost of spending a day in an amusement park with a family of four, and how much it costs to spend a day hiking, with a picnic, the difference is significant but it can still get pricy.
Two nights of camping in a provincial park costs about $100 for the site. On a trip to Algonquin last summer, where we didn't do much extra driving, we put about $160 worth of gas in our SUV (keep in mind we were towing a 13' fiberglass camper) and food wise, we probably spent another $150 (including a lunch at the Visitor Center cafeteria.) Compared to 2 nights in a hotel, dining at restaurants three meals a day, it's still cheaper, but it was still a good chunk of money for us at the time.
With the price of food and gas rising, a summer full of even day trips to places that don't charge admission can tax your budget. Then there are the times unexpected expenses crop up that leave little for fun trips. I know it's advised to have an emergency fund to cover those costs, but lets face it, not all of us do. If you plan ahead you can enjoy lots of outings without dipping into your normal grocery budget, or taxing your normal gas budget.
1) Start a summer-fun-fund
By putting money aside every month, all winter long you can cover the cost of gas, at least some it, for those times when money is tight.
2)Book campsites early when possible.
By booking early (Provincial Parks let you book up to 5 months in advance of your arrival date) you aren't paying for reservations while also covering the other costs of your trip. Not only that, but you get a better range of sites to choose from. Those beautiful sites on the water, with lots of privacy? They go fast, so plan ahead. If you want to arrive on July 13, you can book that site as of 7am on February 13th. It doesn't always mean you'll get the site. Since you can book a trip for more than one night, (up to 23 nights I believe) it's possible someone has already booked it as part of a longer trip.
3) Create a camping stock pile
When pancake mix comes on sale, grab an extra box. Make a list of foods you usually take with you camping, or items you usually pack into a picnic. A lot of them have long shelf lives, so when they come on sale if you grab a few and set them aside, you'll be reducing the amount of money you'll have to spend last minute. We tend to be really bad for this. We stop at the grocery store on the way to the campground to buy our supplies. Not only are we paying full price for things, we tend to add impulse items that we don't really need. Also, keep in mind the things you tend to pick up at the campground's store (if they have one) the prices tend to be a bit higher there, so if you know you'll probably end up buying candy or chocolate bars, it makes sense to have bought some before hand for a lower price. If you can get them on sale, and add some coupons, you'll be saving a lot of money. The only issue now is not to eat them before hand. Try keeping these items in a storage box, or hidden somewhere. If you can't see them all the time, you'll be less likely to dip into them.
Keep in mind expiry dates, and don't go overboard. This isn't Extreme Couponing, you don't need 150 boxes of granola bars, or 800 bottles of sports drink. Don't buy things you won't use.
4) If you do a lot of back country camping, consider dehydrating your own meals. There are a lot of good videos on youtube with recipes and how-to-advice. There is a bit of a learning curve, but it can save you a lot of money compared to buying the dehydrated meals sold in stores. Think drying your own food will limit you to basic, boring fare? Think again. There are some fabulous books full of recipes that are anything but boring. Think Sweet Potato and Red Pepper Soup, Shrimp and Herb Pasta, Blueberry Pancakes and so much more. You can also make your own fruit roll-ups and know that your kids aren't getting a bunch of added sugar and preservatives. I'll be writing more on this topic in the future.
5) Find local trails and destinations. I bet there are more options close to home than you might think. Check out Ontario Trails for your region and see what you can find. Also, there are still some places where it's possible to backpack or canoe camp on crown land, so there is no permit required and no fee.
By planning ahead, it's possible to enjoy a summer full of exploring and adventure, without hurting your budget.