Thursday, June 2, 2016

Camping for $25 a night

We set out on our adventure with a budget.

We made the budget well before we even bought the RV as part of our planning, because let’s face it, if we couldn’t afford to go, there was no point selling the house and buying an RV!

I did some research on camping costs. Initially I was thinking $30 to $40 dollars a night based on our experiences to date in commercial RV parks and in State parks.

Our favorite RV club has a great forum and I discovered a previous thread about budgets. The majority of people responding had a budget of $25 a night OR LESS!

At first I thought I was misreading it, where can you camp for $25 a night every night?

Well it turns out I was misreading it, what it means is an AVERAGE of $25 a night over the course of a year.

That didn’t suddenly reveal the secret but it did help us in appreciating how to achieve the mythical $25 number.

I expect you want me to tell you the secret too huh?

Firstly you need to consider what kinds of camping there are.
Commercial Parks
State Parks
National Parks
Camping Clubs
Dry Camping (Also called Boondocking)

Commercial Parks are pretty obvious, there’s a great free cellphone app called “RV Parky” that will locate parks near you anywhere you happen to be or you can search an area you might be heading for. The app tells you what parks are around, what they might charge per night (It’s not always up to date), what facilities they have, the contact information and sometimes reviews of the park. A very handy tool.

One thing you need to know about Commercial Parks is that they give discounts to members of certain RV clubs. In addition there is something called Passport America, to whom you pay about $40 a year and they have negotiated discounts at parks all over the country usually around 10% but sometimes as much as 50%. Be aware though that they may restrict what days they give discounts on.

Good Sam’s Club, Family Motor Coach Association and Escapees also get discounts at some parks.

In our experience we get the best discounts at the most parks with Passport America, Escapees and Good Sam in that order.

Another thing to consider also is that most parks offer discounts for weekly and monthly stays. They can be very beneficial especially if you are going to spend the winter somewhere. Our favorite winter spot in Casa Grande AZ has amazing facilities and is under $25 a night based on the monthly rate.

So if you get 3 – 4 months a year under $25 a night it really helps the AVERAGE for the rest of the year. Those peak period, tourist area parks that may cost $70 a night OR MORE! Get averaged out nicely thank you.

State Parks in our experience are NOT the bargain most people assume them to be. They seem to be charging around $35 a night in the places we’ve been to and they usually don’t have full hookups either. Sometimes you can get a discount if you camp in your home state and they have a senior citizen pass. We did get a Passport America discount at a State Park in Ohio but only for 1 night.

National Parks have campgrounds too, although some are difficult to get into due to demand. (For instance Yellowstone has a 1 year waiting list). Some of their campgrounds also have a size limit for RV’s and most have limited hookups or none at all. The great thing for senior citizens is the “Golden Age Pass” or whatever it’s called lately. For a one-time payment of $10 you get into ALL National Parks free and get up to 50% off camping there.

NOTE! As of Jan 1 2017 the price of the senior pass will be $80.

BUT the pass also covers parks administered by the US Corps of Engineers (COE). Never heard of them running campgrounds I’ll bet? Well they have some really nice parks, on lakes usually where they are in charge of the dams. 50% off can mean $10 a night. Great for that budget.

I’m also throwing in another government agency here. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They administer huge swaths of the US and have areas you can camp at really cheaply and in some places FREE. Even better for the budget, BUT it’s usually dry camping often out in the wilderness with no facilities at all (More on this later)

Camping Clubs. We once were given membership to a camping “Resort” in Virginia which was nice for free. Except you had to pay annual “Maintenance” of $300 and they weren’t associated with any other campgrounds so you were stuck in the same place. Luckily we were able to give it away and get the dues off our backs.

Another camping club we bought into just for our full time trip is Thousand Trails (TT). They have campgrounds on the West, East and Gulf coasts but not anywhere else. You have to BUY a membership then pay annual dues, for that you get 30 days a year free camping and $3 a night after that. They usually have pretty good facilities and mostly full hookups. Some parks are pretty run down and some are small, but generally we like them. 

BUT don’t buy a membership at one of their parks, they’ll charge you thousands of dollars. Look on Craigs List or E-Bay and buy a USED membership for around $1000. Bear in mind that (TT) will charge a transfer fee of $750. Try and get one that has it’s annual membership fee paid up and still has the 30 days free for the year you buy it. Even with the fees etc we AVERAGE $15 a night in TT parks. UPDATE. I did the math again and it's $21 a night which isn't such a bargain. I laid it all out in another page of this blog:
The Escapees have “Coop Parks” that are owned by the people who stay there. There are several on the West Coast and in the “Snowbird” winter spots. If you are a member of Escapees you can get good overnight rates in these parks and they also have dry camping spots for around $5 a night. They have great facilities with pools and rec halls etc.

Some “Clubs” aren’t camping clubs at all but you can camp at their facilities. Who? Try Elks Lodges, VFW, American Legion, Moose Lodges. You have to be a member, and not all lodges allow camping so you have to research it. We’re in the ELKS and have camped at Lodges all around the country for between $5 a night dry camping and $25 a night full hookups. And the lodges have a warm welcome, cheap drinks and excellent food too!

Dry Camping (Boondocking).There is a whole subculture dedicated to boondocking which people take to the extreme. By using solar energy and blackwater systems with macerators or even composting toilets enthusiasts are able to camp without any hookups at all for months on end. Staying on BLM land that has no camping fees or property that is perhaps for all intents and purposes abandoned they live off the grid and extremely cheaply. More power to them!

We limit our boondocking to what is sometimes called “Blacktop Boondocking”. That means we stay at places like Walmart where we have permission from the manager and it’s legal to do so. Other opportunities are Cracker Barrel restaurants, Lowe's home improvement stores, Cabellas stores, casinos, and maybe friends driveways. (Sometimes called Mooch Docking!!)

Usually these are FREE!! So if your camping budget is getting too close to exceeding the target of $25 a night you can do some free boondocking and get it under control again!

To be honest if you’re only stopping the night to break a 400 mile trip into 2 - 200 mile days then stopping in a commercial park, setting up, eating getting to bed, waking up, dumping tanks and packing up again seems like a big waste of time compared to pulling into Walmart, finding a restaurant, going to sleep and hitting the road again the next morning.

So can it work for you? SURE IT CAN. 

Looking at a couple of months of our budget tracking shows February, March and April of this year averaging $20, $10 and $19 per month respectively using the techniques I’ve described.

We just completed out first full year (Jan 2016 to Jan 2017) and I pulled all our numbers together off the cost spreadsheet I run.
During the year we stayed at campgrounds that cost $75 a night for over a week and one month we averaged $35 dollars a night.
BUT the final average for the whole year was $24.30!!!
So it is certainly possible without spending every night at Walmart.

Now get out and camp!!

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