Camping: splurge or save?

When friends visit from out of state during the winter and complain about the weather, I don’t try to convince them they’re wrong. 

Minnesotans know winter here can be more than tolerable if you embrace it by getting outside and skiing, running or even fat-tire biking. 

But it’s a rare outsider who can be convinced of that while staring out the window at a sleet storm. It’s hard enough convincing ourselves.

Instead, I admit to them that winter sucks. 

“But,” I say, “the summer in Minnesota is what people write poems about.”

Which is true. Summers here are stupendous. Which is why it’s so important to get outside and enjoy it. For me, one of the best things about summer — besides the reduced complaining from visitors — is camping with my kids.

Here’s where to splurge and where to save when it comes to family camping. (By the way, I’m talking about simple family camping trips — car camping — and not the Boundary Waters.)


Tarp and tent: You’re not taking the kids into the Yukon — it’s a fun family weekend — so you don’t need to buy expensive stuff. Look for used items on Craigslist or in the clearance section at REI. Sierra Trading Post is another good option. Borrowing is even better. If you can, get a nice big tent — if there are three of you, get a four-person tent. If there are four of you, consider a six-person model. 

Bedding: It’s hot in Minnesota in the summer, so your daughter’s Disney Frozen sleeping bag will suffice, or just take blankets and sheets from the beds. You’ll definitely want some thick blankets or mattress pads for under the sleeping bags for cush and comfort.

Pots and pans: If you have a camp stove, you can bring your cookware from home. But if you’re planning to cook over open flames in a fire pit, you’ll want to buy a cheap cook kit because the bottoms of pots and pans will get blackened. A large cast-iron skillet is heavy, but a good, cheap bet for open-fire cooking.

Food: It’s economical and a lot easier to keep food simple and, as much as possible, pre-made. Make chili ahead of time and warm it up on the stove. Hot dogs and brats roasted over the fire are fun and don’t require any plates. Bring bread, peanut butter, and jelly for lunch, or cold cuts. Premix a box of pancake batter, and all you have to do is pour it on a hot skillet. 

Location: Hey, that’s what camping is all about — avoiding ridiculous hotel prices. There are lots of cool places to camp in Minnesota for free. Go to to explore some options. The state-park system in Minnesota is top-notch, and you can camp in most state parks for about $25 a night. Choose a park that’s relatively close to home to keep the commute to a minimum, and you’re saving on gas, too.

Entertainment: Pick a park that has special attractions like a playground, a swimming beach, a ranger program or some easy hikes.


Flashlights: Actually, this one is save and splurge. You’re spending because you want to have a flashlight for every member of the family, so the kids don’t argue over them. But you can get cheap ones. Kids are going to be walking with you to the bathroom, not cutting through the jungle. You can get cheap lanterns, too — no need to buy the fancy ones that burn kerosene. They’re messy and expensive.

Cooler: We use coolers all the time, not for just camping. A good one will last decades.

Disposable plates: Use paper as much as possible — it’s cheaper than buying camping dishes, and when you consider how much water you use washing “real” dishes, the impact on the environment is about the same. 

Safety and medical supplies: You won’t want to be without a useful first-aid kit, ample sunscreen or effective bug spray. 

Firewood: The campfire is pretty much the centerpiece of a good camping experience, and you don’t want to run out of wood too early just because you were trying to save a few bucks. Stock up at the ranger station, start burning before dinner, and keep it stoked until bedtime. The kids’ll love it, and it’ll discourage the mosquitoes.



That’s more “save” than “splurge,” which makes camping an inexpensive way to build memories to last you through the next cold winter. 

What will you do with all the money you save? Put it in a college fund.

Eric Braun is a Minneapolis-based writer, editor and dad of two boys. He’s currently working on a financial literacy book for young readers. Learn more about his other published works at Send comments or questions to