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:
- Back To Boondocking Basics – 8 Steps To Get You Into The Wild
- Our Top 5 Essential Boondocking Items
- 7 Tips On Boondocking Etiquette -> Rights, Wrongs & Plain Common Sense
- 6 Great Resources For Finding Boondocking Spots in Arizona
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in this blog post may be affiliate links, so, if you click on the link and make a purchase, I will receive a commission. Amazon, the Amazon logo, AmazonSupply, and the AmazonSupply logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates. WheelingIt is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Great post, thank you!
I can’t help but notice how beautiful your hair looks in that volunteer photo. Did you put poo in it? And how is the pit test? Love that you share and are the ginnie pig of your own trials, trails, travels and tails (pun intended).
LOL…very nicely done. Indeed there was no poo, and currently the pit experiment has not caused anyone to keel over and faint (yet) 🙂
Ray Burr says
Great post Nina, this is going to be very helpful for lots of people,especially those just getting started full timing.
Thanks Ray. I imagine you guys will be starting your trip south soon. More boondocking in the future for you.
Howdy, long time no post but have been reading regular. Don’t forget the Golden Passport is available to disabled folks like me regardless of age! Yes it’s a good thing! Later, Sadie n Bill
Good point. Thanks for the extra tip.
Once again a great, and useful, post! We’re not RV’ing for a year because we moved to a smaller house in northern California (9 miles from Avenue Of The Giants!), so busy with a Fixer-Upper, but this post is such a reminder of what we’re missing, and will be a great source of inspiration once we do prepare to get back on the road!
Sounds like you’ve got yourselves a project…and in a sweet spot too (love that area). Glad you liked the post.
Wow.. I never even thought to try to spend less than $500/year to camp.. that’s usually our monthly target these days 🙂 But now that I think back, we pretty much did just that in our first year on the road – we hardly ever paid for camping. Driveway surfing with friends is also another way to keep expenses down, and quality of life up (time with loved ones = awesome).
Of course, the dry camping options will have some upfront investment in making sure you’re outfitted for such situations (like power generation and such).
We like to mix it up ourselves, it’s the variety that makes this lifestyle so awesome for us. Looks like we’re on track this year to average $12/day for our camping fees – and darn, we feel abundant in our always awesome views & perfect locations.
All very good pointers! We like to mix it up, just like you and so far we’ve never felt “limited” in how we camp.
Great article! We are now full timers and while I knew about some of these options, others I had no clue about. I thought we were doing well with our average, but makes me want to take another look at some of these great options.
Don’t feel too bad about your average. Camping style is a very personal choice and most fulltimers don’t go quite as extreme as this. Still, I’m glad I could give you some new ideas. That’s really the purpose of the post…to throw some new ideas out there and open up possibilities.
For Florida senior residents (65+) and some others, their beautiful State Park Campgrounds are discounted at 50% to a cost as low as $8/night mostly with water and electric.
Good tip! Yes, many residents can get discounts in their “home” state, especially if they’re older or qualify for a disabled pass. The FL example is a great one.
Lynne (WinnieViews) says
This post is perfect timing as I am just starting my full-timing travels towards the Southwest, so THANKS!!!!
Familiar with some of these ideas, but you’ve got some new juicy ideas to ponder here too (the Eastern Sierra Summer Pass sounds fantastic!)
Here in the Midwest, boondocking and membership parks are rather far and few between, so volunteering is probably the best way to get a no-cost monthly site, but if you don’t mind just spending a couple nights at a park, another great club option is Passport America for $44/yr — usually the card gets you 50% off for weekday nights, but each park sets their own rules and some will extend the discount longer if they’re not full.
Indeed. Passport America is one of the better camping discount passes out there. I meant to mention it in my post, but forgot so thanks for adding it on.
Thank you, thank you, thank you! As I’ve been gathering information for the past couple of years, planing for retirement which is now a matter of months away, You are writing the “how to” manual.
I’ve bought and read books on boondocking, read all the magazine articles, and my wife and I have made a point of talking and learning from camp hosts. But you are putting all the info together, with links to everything else.
So thank you, not just for this post, but all the others.
Really looking forward to hitting the road for more than a week or two at a time.
Glad you like it Russel! Maybe one day I’ll get around to putting all this stuff into a book 🙂
Dena @ 40 Fit in the Mitt says
I cannot wait to put these tips into good use, I’m still a few years out, but hoping to do some renting of RV’s and start traveling before we officially retire and buy our own! Such a great post. Thanks
Happy to help you along on your retirement dream! Glad you like the post.
Such a helpful post. Thank you for sharing all your experience and research!!
linda manzon says
Just want to say how much we value all of your posts from musings to your very detailed research on useful topics. So far we are vacationers … but hope to be F/Timers by next year. You give us so much to think about and so many ways to prepare. We always look forward to your next post and hope you know how much they are appreciated. Happy Travels.
Thanks for the lovely comment! Good luck with all your fulltime plans!
$180/year here! Today was Opening Day at the LTVA. However, the high temp at Imperial Dam today was 110°F with lows in the 80s. Much too hot for me and the cat. We generally like to get there the first week of October. Hope you will finally visit us!
Yup, you’re one of those people who manage that magic $500/year number. Definitely still too toasty in the desert right now, but the good times are coming. We tend to like November weather down there.
Pete Olson says
Nina – Have you seen this?: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=GBaHPND2QJg
Great post as usual…in the beginning our average was $7.00 a night not sure what are average is…I do find it easier to dry camp etc in the west compared to the east…not as many open spaces there….
No doubt the west is easier than the east for cheap camping. Far fewer free sites out east, and for our size rig we’d be forced into more private parks too. You guys have always managed to find inexpensive camping. Of course you have the Senior Pass (Golden Age) too.
In the fulltime RVing family crowd we seem to be one of the few dissenting voices about the Thousand Trails system. We’re also not huge fans and posted a review of it here: http://boyinks4adventure.com/our-travels/thoughts-on-thousand-trails/
Thanks for adding the link to your review, Boyink! It’s good to have multiple opinions out there & I remember you guys mentioning your thoughts on this when we last met outside of TT in AZ. I’ll add this into the main blog post this afternoon.
Jodee Gravel says
Very valuable information in one spot! We are definitely planning a similar combination of free-thrifty-splurge. For us the boondocking is what we are most looking forward to – knowing the splurges will come when there are no other options for a great area 🙂
I think the mix of camping styles is perfect. At least it works for us! We never feel “limited” in where/how we camp. Our goal is nature and beauty and we hit that just about everywhere we go.
Love this post. I think there’s a misconception out there regarding the realities of camping fees. When we first started out we planned our camping fees budget at around $25/night average. The first year we were around $18, and then last year we dropped down to $13/night average. If I knew it could be done so cheap we would have taken the leap much sooner! Of course, many people spend way more than this, but you give some great examples of how it can be done on the cheap. Very helpful!
Our camp fees have followed a similar path. We started out around $30/night and have reduced ever since. The past few years we’ve been well below $15/night.
Marty Leake says
I have been researching full-time RVing for the past 9-months and between your blog, along with following the Huggins’S, the Technomadia couple and Nick’s blog, I become so excited with every bit of information I collect from you all. Thank you so much!
Your listing of the many different options available are a real treat, but the newest one you listed, “Harvest Host” is one that I will join and look forward to becoming apart in the spring of 2015 when I plan to launch my full-time Rving debut.
I look forward to meeting you and the rest of the those I have followed for the past 9-months.
Please stay safe and travel well.
We’ve never personally used Harvest Hosts, but have multiple friends who have. ALL have said they enjoy it, so I don’t think you can go wrong with a subscription.
Great ideas and ways to save $$.
How often do you typically need to empty your gray and black tanks or refill your fresh tank when boondocking? When you do, do you come back to find you need another spot? I imagine you can leave your car there to save your spot.
I noticed the DRV in one of your photos. Looks like they drive two trucks, so they could leave one behind to save their spot. We’ll have a 5th wheel but just the one truck to pull it. Any ideas how we could save our spot when the tanks need tending?
We typically go 2-3 weeks (4 is our absolute max) between tank dumps. Since most BLM has 14-day stay limits this matches quite well with moving to a new spot.
If you’re staying in a LTVA (long-term) area you can leave behind your tow car or camping stuff (chairs etc.). That will usually “alert” other boondockers to the fact that the site is taken.
Jenny Waters says
This is a great post, thank you. Have you and Paul joined Harvest Hosts, or is it just a mention? I learned about it from Gone With the Wynns, and it looks interesting. It seems like it would be fun, but I’m not sure I love the one-night stay standard. You would have to move a lot.
Michael Herrmann says
I met Jake several months ago when he stopped by my camp on the Taos Plateau. His company, leading adventure travels, is based in Las Cruces. I thought you might enjoy this post:
Awwww…what a cute (and rather amazing) story. Since all of our pets are rescue animals I totally connect with this.
No, we’ve not joined HH, but both our buddies The Wynns & Technomadia have used and liked them so I felt it worth a mention in the post. We do plan to try them out at some point. By the way even though the recommended stay is 1-night, from what I’ve heard many places will allow you to stay longer if you ask them. You’ll still need to move quite often, but can probably get at least 2-3 nights out of each spot if you check ahead.
Jeff Stone says
Just wondering on the Gray and Black tank emptying. That would be a hidden cost in your post.
Yup, there are hidden costs to boondocking which I haven’t specifically mentioned in this post, but I’ve written about in previous boondocking posts. Typically dump/water costs money (around $5-$10) and we usually need to dump once every 3 weeks or so. Also, solar (if you want to go that route) is a pretty significant up-front investment to install. Or, if you don’t have solar you need to run the generator daily to recharge your batteries. Also some $$ involved there. Lastly propane (for cooking/fridge) has a cost although it’s very low.
So yes, always some extra $$ involved.
I did want to mention here that Cabela’s is a great place for free dumping at most of their stores all across the country…we have used them several times…they are very rv friendly
Very good tip Jill. I often forget about Cabela’s. They are, indeed, very RV friendly.
In the winter LTVA program, dump and water (as well as trash) is covered by the $180 7-month permit. AFAIK this is not the case with the summer program.
Yup, you’re absolutely right Doug. Thanks for adding that. If you pay for the winter LTVA you have dump/water/trash included. For free BLM boondocking this is not the case.
And surprisingly there remain a few scattered places on the planet where you can still dump and fill for free. Sanidumps.com is a great resource for finding these hidden gems.
Sharon and I are sitting in our recliners, her with her laptop, me with my Kindle,each of us reading your post. How bad have WE got it?
We like the idea of free boondocking. I know it won’t always be available, but I’m in the beginning stages of equipping the “Roo” (Bounder) with solar, somewhat patterned after yours. Hmmm…since at least some of my equipment may come thru Amazon, I wonder what I did with that search box I saw somewhere. 🙂
Changing the subject (ya, sure), our blog is sufficiently underway that we have gone “live”. When you don’t have anything else to do, I’d sure appreciate any feedback. It’s a work in progress. Aren’t they all? Heard from Michel once again. Stiil working on Moran in 2016.
Your blog looks great. Like the sleek, easy layout. Some good musings in there so far. Looks like you’re rocking it on eBay!
And thank you (very, very much) for the Amazon purchases. Very exciting to get solar. We LOVE our install.
Cheryl Keeffe says
Thank you for the comments on Thousand Trails. We were going to stay at one of their parks in Washington (through Passport America) and didn’t care for our limited choice of sites. The lady there gave me the sales pitch and it did sound very appealing, but we like to land somewhere for longer than two weeks before having to roll out again, so I don’t think we’ll be doing it.
Yeah, not everyone buys into the TT idea. Some people do (and love it), but others don’t. Trying out some of the parks (like you did) is absolutely key. We’re not TT people (and likely never will be), but I wanted to throw it out there as an option for those who might be interested.
Nina, you are such a service to the RV community. I love having all of these ideas in one quick place. I just wish there were things as inexpensive on the east coast where we may find ourselves stuck with all of our boondocking set ups (solar etc).
Indeed East cost “freebies” are very hard to come by. Even the State Parks (in many cases) are more expensive. We were able to find some lovely, low-cost camping in the National Forests out east (especially TN, NC), but were unable to find any boondocking (free camping).
We are fortunate to not have to worry much about minimizing camping fees, however, we love to boondock and find it to offer some of our best camping experiences. (We currently are at a $40/night park in Moab, yet are still averaging less than $20/night for the year.) National forests have been great this summer, except for the fires.
You’re a great example of the exact flexibility I’m talking about. Without much effort at all you’re down to $20/night in camping, a number most folks would consider quite inexpensive. Glad you enjoy the boonies as much as we do.
Great site and information; really love your writing style. I have seen you post now several times about RV length and that if you were to do it over you’d probably go shorter. What, in your experience, is a good size for State Park living?
Thank you in advance,
Personally I think something in the 35-foot range would be ideal. A really nice mix of space/comfort versus flexibility. Although we’ve thought of smaller too (we think about it constantly).
This post and the images brought back some great memories of time we spent boondocking with the two of you in CA. You have passed on a tremendous wealth of information to so many of us out here, laying the way for a wonderful lifestyle. As you have pointed out, the options are limitless and I know that we have benefited greatly from your sage advice. We can’t thank you enough for your generosity. 🙂
Yup, I figured you would recognize those pics 🙂 I still think fondly of the time we spent together in the Eastern Sierra’s. Hope to see you again soon.
Looking forward to a meet-up hopefully this winter.
Another great post for a soon-to-be retiree! I agree with you about the thrill of finding the deal. It doesn’t come from a place of lack, but rather the reward of the hunt. 😉
Suzanne…who is missing the coast
So beautifully put, as usual Suzanne. I like that…the reward of the hunt!
Karen @ Sock Monkey Trekkers from NM says
I don’t know what happened to my original comment. Fantastic post! Love NM landscapes, campgrounds and hikes. There is a reason we are known as the Land of Enchantment! OK, yes – I am a little bit biased.
We loved (loved, loved) New Mexico. Looking to go back again, maybe next year.
Karen @ Sock Monkey Trekkers from NM says
If you get to Los Alamos/Santa Fe area or Northern NM let us know. We would love to meet you in person. We know lots of cool hiking areas.
Thanks for such an educational post. I take everything I can get, everything I find useful, for the type of fulltiming I’ll want to do, organize it, and file it away for easy reference. You aided me in adding to my collection…again.
Thanks again! 🙂
Good Day to you, What are your thoughts on a composting toilet? Would that increase your boondocking time? Gone with Wynn’s are not using their black tank and I think the are using it as a grey water take to extend the time boondocking…is this something that is feasible in cutting costs also? Thank you for your feedback and also for the wonderful tips that I will be using in a couple years for my adventure.
We’re not big fans of composting toilets simply because of the pee issue. Poo composts nicely, but you still need to empty the pee bucket every 3-4 days and I do not want to be dumping that much pee at a boondocking site. So, for us it wouldn’t work. Also since we mostly boondock in 14-day limit areas, and our tanks can easily handle that timeframe, we don’t worry too much about extending.
That said, if you’re in a longer term area (LTVA say) and have a good way to get rid of the pee, there’s no doubt that not using the black tank and combining it with the grey would extend potential boondocking time.
Lee Vining says
2/3 of the Elks lodges have camping with full or partial hookups and are far cheaper cost than campgrounds.
Ya have to join the Elks, most lodges annual dues are about $100.
We pay on average $15 per nite for hook ups, $5 for dry camping.
Just returned from Page, Az where it was $15 per nite with 50 amp and water and dump.
Elks Lodges are definitely a great resource. We are not members, but know many who are. It won’t get you under $500/year, but they can definitely save you some $$ compared to “regular” camping.
Try coytoe howls east in why AZ $550. a year water WiFi clubhouse laundry lots of things great place
What a DEAL! Cheers for mentioning it.