5 Ways To Camp For Under $500/year
Having gotten some philosophical musings out in my last post (THANK YOU everyone for all the comments…it really seemed that post resonated deeply with a bunch of folks & many of your thoughts touched me profoundly), I’ve decided to pick a more practical topic for today’s post. This is actually one of the 20+ posts that have been knocking around in my head for months. You see I’ve always loved to uncover money-saving ideas. It started as a kid when I fell in love with thrift stores and has continued for the rest of my adult life. For me, it’s about the thrill of finding the best deal & getting the most out of your $$ and honestly, who doesn’t want to do that?
So a few months ago I started thinking about innovative RV ideas. Is it possible to camp for under $500/year…comfortably…and still have fun RVing? I’m talking specifically about camping fees here, not general RVing expenses (although goodness knows I’ve got another 50 ideas about that), but I thought this would make a fascinating post. It opens up possibilities and gives readers an appreciation for how flexible this life really can be. Not all of the opportunities below fall below the magic $500/year threshold, but some do and I’ve tried to give a taste of what’s possible as well as a few other ideas for low-cost camping. So, here goes:
Probably one of the easiest, most accessible ways to save camping fees on the road is to workamp/volunteer. There are thousands of opportunities to do this across the country the vast majority of which will provide you with a free campsite in return for a given minimal number of work hours. I’ve written extensively about volunteering in my 3-part series HERE as well as a more specific post on lighthouse hosting HERE. Positions vary from trail management to archeological digs to historic houses to camphosting to wildlife preservation. The variety, once you look into it, is staggering. Honestly if you have a passion and you look for it, you will find it!
For more classical workamping jobs, many of which offer some $$ in addition to a site, there are excellent resources such as Workamper News, WorkampingJobs.com, and Workers On Wheels and these are not just all camp hosting jobs. I’ve known folks who have worked the Beet Harvest in the Dakotas, been part of the seasonal winter Camperforce at Amazon, tended gift stores in National Parks, and worked on ranches. Hours and duties can vary extensively, so you need to put in some up-front research before you take a job, but with persistence you can find spots to suit you anywhere in the country.
The point is there are literally no ends of opportunity here, both for singles, families and couples of any age, and I know many RVers who actually love travelling this way. Not only does it save money, but it gives them a purpose and social interaction. These RVers will volunteer or workamp for a month or a few months in a given spot and then move onto the next one, rarely (if ever) paying a campground fee.
Take us as a typical case in point -> We love lighthouse hosting and enjoy spending our summer months on the beach. We get a great, free RV site, in a dog-friendly weather-perfect location amidst beautiful nature with the incredible history of a lighthouse to share with others. Honestly we truly enjoy what we do and consider it no sacrifice whatsoever to RV this way.
2/ Long-Term Camping Rates
A little-considered opportunity for many RVers are long-term camping rates, both on public and private lands.
On public lands longer-term stays are unusual since most public lands have 14-day stay limits, but there are a few notable exceptions. In the west certain BLMs offer Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTVA’s) where you can buy a season pass to stay multiple months for incredibly cheap prices. Typical these areas are primitive offering no hookups, but they can also be incredibly beautiful. In the summer months Bishop BLM (Eastern Sierra’s) offers a $300 pass for the summer season (Mar-Nov) to camp in any one of their 4 gorgeous mountain campsites. In winter (Sept-Apr) CA/AZ offer a joint LTVA covering 7 fabulous desert areas costing only $180 for the entire season. If you decided to do both you could in fact camp for only $480 for the year.
On the private side you can’t get down to $500/year, but you still find pretty good deals. Most private campgrounds provide monthly and (even) yearly rates that are far cheaper than their daily rates. Except for really popular areas, it is not at all unusual for these rates to fall well below $400/month. As an example the nice campground up the road from us here on the coast (Bandon By The Sea) provides short-term monthly rates of $325/month. Unless you’re staying in the Florida Keys or by the California Coast, these rates are not unusual at all. Typically you’ll need to add electric usage ontop of the camp fees, but it’s still a great deal. I have at least one set of RV friends who RV exclusively this way, spending one month in each place they visit.
3/ Public Lands Discounts
In addition to the LTVA’s there are specific discounts on public lands which can make it very, very inexpensive to camp there. The most notable deal we’ve found in 5 years of RVing is the annual camping pass for New Mexico State Parks. For an amazing $225/year (yes, that’s yearly) you can dry camp in any New Mexico State Park as long as you move every 14 days. Hookups cost a mere $4/night ontop. We bought this pass as soon as we went into NM in 2011 and enjoyed over 2 months of amazing camping for ridiculously cheap.
None of the other states offer quite as good a deal as NM, but certain public lands do offer nice discounts. National Forests typically offer developed forest camping from $10-$20/night, depending on state while BLM will often have campgrounds down to as low as $5/night. Again, most of these are primitive (no hookups) although you can occasionally find a deal with hookups too. As an added bonus if you’re old enough (62 and over) to afford the Senior Pass (only $10 and it’s a lifetime pass) you get 50% off these fees!! Holy moly what a deal!!
This is also where having a smaller camping rig can make a big difference since many national forests (especially) can only take smaller-sized RVs. As an example, when we were travelling the Olympic Peninsula in WA this summer there were 16 national forest campsites (over 900 sites) costing between $10-$18/night. Unfortunately only 2 could fit our size.
Boondocking is the ultimate natures lover outlet. This is the act of camping for free (absolutely nada, zip, zippo, free) on our public lands. Most of these lands are out west comprising around 30% of the entire land-area of the US and they provide no end of sweet, private, amazing spots to camp. I’ve written extensively about boondocking including tips on how to do it, proper boondocking etiquette, and our top (most essential) boondocking items. I consider it of absolute importance to respect the land for all who decide to do this (and we work hard on this aspect ourselves), but this is a unique resource available to us in the US and an amazing way to save $$ on camping. We typically boondock most of fall/winter in the SW and consider it one of our absolute favorite things to do.
5/ Club & Membership Sites
We’re not really “club” people and never have been, but for those who like them RV clubs actually provide several opportunities to camp inexpensively across the US.
Probably the most well-known camping club is Thousand Trails. These guys offer a “zone” type membership where you typically pay just over $500/year for a given zone which gives you 30 nights of free camping followed by fees of only $3/night after that. There are lots of little fine-print gotchas including the fact that you can only stay 14 constitutive days in the system and then have to be “out” of the system for 7 days, but there are also lots of potential upsides. Typically TT offers a 2nd zone free (this offer has been going for years even though it says “limited time only” on their website), plus they also offer lifetime or elite memberships that allow continuous stays and/or more zones with better discounts.
At first pass it sounds like a spectacular deal so why don’t all RVers buy into this?? Well, the TT campgrounds tend to be very variable in quality and not all of them are in areas you want to visit, plus customer service has a rather poor reputation. On the other hand if you like the parks and use the system (this is key) it’s a really inexpensive way to fulltime RV. If you decide you might like this I highly recommend buying a year zone pass to see if you like/use it BEFORE committing any additional money. If you decide you love it there are many (many, many) 2nd hand lifetime memberships for sale at deeply discounted prices on the RV forums. Don’t pay full price! To read some other takes on Thousand Trails see this post, this post, this post and this forum thread.
Another well-known membership club is Escapees. This organization has been a supporter of fulltime RVers since before that term even came into existence. Membership to Escapees costs only $29.95 (current special offer until Oct 1st) and gives access to their excellent Day’s End Directory (extra $10/year) which is an extensive & well-managed list of free or very low-cost spots across the US. As a bonus you get access to the SKP park system, most of which offer monthly rates well below $400/month and are typically very nice parks with a friendly atmosphere. Escapees is actually one of the few memberships we buy on a regular basis.
For alternative free camping there are several other well-established and growing membership sites such as Boondockers Welcome ($24.95/year), Harvest Hosts ($40/year) and overnightrvparking.com ($24.95/year). All these guys provide directories of free or very inexpensive places to camp for limited time-frames. It might be tough to camp all-year in this fashion (you’d have to move often), but you’d certainly have no end of choice. It’s yet another way to find free spots without much effort at all.
What do you think? We’ve never personally tried to hit the magic $500/year number, but I do know some RVers (mostly fulltime boondockers or fulltime volunteers) who do. Our personal preference is a mix of volunteering, boondocking and “splurging” and although I’m frugal by nature we don’t allow camp fees to dictate our travels. Our average so far this year is $10/night with very little effort at all and I expect this to drop a bit before the year is out. Other RVers spend much more (or even less). What your final number is will depend entirely on your travel preferences. The point is if you want to be flexible you certainly can and that’s quite a freeing notion.
Related Posts On Volunteering:
- Volunteering On the Road Part I – Why Do It?
- Volunteering On The Road Part II – Where To Look For Openings
- Volunteering On The Road Part III – 4 Steps To Securing Your Dream Job
- Top 10 FAQ -> Lighthouse Volunteering/Hosting
Related Posts On Boondocking: