Great Family Vacations for Less

by Susan Peterson Gateley


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Does Anyone Really Camp Anymore?

Camping out is a time-honored way for travelers to save money. Camping before the era of the RV was an inherently low cost, back to basics activity needing little more than bedding and cooking gear in good weather. Camping in the fall or spring, when the crowds have gone back home, means easy access to low cost state parks and public lands.

In my younger days, I have camped out on a small island with my canoe, in a friend's boat, and at least once in my car to save money. I was never really introduced to the idea of camping as a pleasurable recreational activity until I acquired a Colorado born spouse.

Perhaps all those wide open spaces and public lands contributed to his aptitude for camping. Or maybe it was a childhood spent with five brothers and sisters and one wage-earning parent. His family always camped when traveling. They didn't have any choice. They soon figured out how to make it as economical and comfortable as possible. So I've learned to camp. Not with a costly air- conditioned RV though. We car camp in a 14-year-old pick-up, sleeping in the back covered by a small truck cap. We haven't yet gone so far as a young lady I met once. She drove across the country on her own with $150 in her pocket. To save on overnight costs, she parked her SUV in a used car lot, at least once, blending in with the other merchandise while she slept in the cab. Nor have we stooped to the Wal-Mart parking lot option where I've occasionally seen the massive RVs and land yachts anchored for the night.

We prefer the out of doors and nature to asphalt, so like many family campers we head for state parks along our route. Be aware that they fill up fast during the prime season of summer. For big savings and quiet campgrounds, go after mid-September or before school is out. Most state parks fees are pretty reasonable running perhaps $10 to 15 a night with rates usually dropping during the off season.

If you plan a camping holiday on a busy summer weekend, you may find all the state park slots are full and you'll have to make do with a $30 a night KOA camp ground. Besides, in the spring and fall, you'll often have fine weather, fewer bugs and plenty of solitude.

For real camping bargains, check out the possibilities of the various National Forest Preserves. Though the largest areas of public land exist in the western US, there are dozens of National Forest areas in the Northeast and Midwest. This past April we camped in southern Illinois and in the Ozarks, as well as in Colorado's Pike National Forest. Fees for National Forest camping range from three dollars a night for a formal campsite with a latrine, tables and garbage pickup to free for a pull off spot along the road. No reservations required. In the Ozarks, nary a car passed our pull off from a well-kept dirt road during the night.

While four wheel drive is nice for the back country out west, the only time we resorted to it on last spring's odyssey was during an excursion on a logging road that went straight up a mountain. We could see the signs of things to come several miles ahead of time, as the road dwindled to a track and then to two ruts. Had we been in a two-wheel drive vehicle we could have bailed out before we got to the vertical part where we HAD to keep going! It was definitely not a route for the family Geo. However, if you scope out the territory ahead of time using a map, you can find very car-accessible areas for camping, some of which have "improvements." Places like the Turkey Bayou campground in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois, where we stayed, usually feature a metal lock box into which you drop your fee of perhaps $3-10. On a late April day here, we shared the campground with only one other group of travelers.

Most National Forests have some sort of Ranger headquarters and office complex where you can get maps and brochures to guide you to camping, hiking and other points of interest.

You can also obtain information on road conditions either from maps or by asking the staff. Some of the more marginal roads are marked with signs with little pictures of cars, jeeps and ATVs to suggest the appropriate mode of transport over them. Even a good dirt road can suffer a washout. Anything posted with a little jeep picture is going to require a high clearance vehicle like the pick up we drove in.

If you are adventurous and willing to do some sleuthing, you may also be able to find public state lands closer to home. Some of these state owned forests and public hunting lands may not be accessible for fall camping because of hunting season, but for summer use would be safe enough. Try your state Fish and Game department for information and for camping permits. Some of these hunting lands (like those of NYS) may require a request in writing several weeks ahead of time.

One of the big dollar-stretching aspects of camping is doing your own meals. No expensive restaurant meals required when you're a self sufficient camper. But take an inexpensive camp stove along. It makes the cook's task far easier and some heavily used state areas may prohibit firewood gathering. Sometimes excessive dry weather may trigger a ban on open fires. I still remember one of my early attempts to go camping. I figured I'd cook my hot dogs over a nice drift wood beach fire. Except it rained heavily that afternoon and I could get nary a soggy stick to burn that evening. I sat on a damp log and devoured a can of cold stew.

For food storage, freezing water in a pop bottle or a gallon milk jug before you leave home makes an inexpensive ice block that you can drink after it melts. For water transport, bladders from boxed wine make handy small water containers, while the versatile five gallon plastic pail with a lid that seals (such as restaurant sized quantities of pickles come in), make excellent water containers for larger quantities. These same pails are also good rodent proof storage for food. They also can double as camp stools for sitting on.

Avoid the summer holidays and the camping crowds and enjoy some hassle-free budget travel. As a bonus, you'll see some of the prettiest places in the country. Listen to the whippoorwills at night, watch the early morning wildlife, and enjoy the natural beauty around you. After all, these places are here thanks to your tax dollars at work!

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