The Tale Of Two Camping Adventures: Frugal and Free

Ah! Camping, the great American enigma. With first world amenities in our home, like running water and electricity, I yearn for the warm summer nights when we sleep on the ground and cook by a campfire.

I love camping and I can not pinpoint one particular reason. Maybe, it is a chance for my wife and me to unplug from the digital world. A chance for my kids to step away from their Fortnite obsession and act like kids instead of marauding killers in a video game.


During the long slog of winter and spring in the great Pacific Northwest, I daydream of the camping trips we have planned for the upcoming Summer.

Recently we wrapped up the two big camping trips that we had planned for August. One was virtually free and one cost almost $500. Both trips equally fun but why was one so much more expensive than the other?

The tale of two camping trips

Expensive Camping

Our first camping trip itinerary included a two-night stay at Lake Wenatchee State Park and a one night stay at Leavenworth, KOA.

Lake Wenatchee State Park

Price: $70 for two nights

This was our 4th year camping in this gorgeous state park. Nestled in the Eastern Slopes of the Cascade Mountains, the deep blue waters of Lake Wenatchee do not disappoint. Carved out by a glacier, this lake is deep and cold. The water always feels refreshing when the average air temperature hovers in the upper 80’s. This year we picked up a couple of blow-up rafts from Target and we floated around in the lake for the better part of the day.

Sunset over Lake Wenatchee

The park is clean and very well maintained as most of Washington State Parks are. But this comes with a price tag. At $35 per night.

Also conveniently located within the park is a snack bar and hamburger stand. They do serve delicious ice cream but after lunch and ice cream for my two boys and the friend they brought along, the damage was $40.

After two nights we packed up the tent and drove 30 minutes to the beautiful town of Leavenworth.

Leavenworth KOA

Price $45 per night.

After reading a blog post from Angela, at Tread Lightly Retire Early I learned there was a KOA campground just on the outskirts of this quaint Bavarian-themed town.

The campground was clean, with friendly staff. Like most KOA campgrounds there was a pool, which our kids found to be a big bonus. This particular KOA is nestled in the bend of the Wenatchee River, where my wife and I spent most of our time lounging in the cool glacial runoff.

Again, very conveniently at the campground, were a coffee stand/ice cream shop and a camp store with prepared food. Total damage for both days with the ice cream, snacks, and milkshakes was $50. This campground was a big hit with the kids and they are already asking to camp there again next summer.

The real money was spent at the Safeway grocery store, one-half mile down the road.

Note to self, never camp near a grocery store. It is far too easy find yourself buying dinner rather than cooking at camp.

After a couple nights of eating camping dinners, my kids felt like the Safeway Deli would have more palatable food. We treated our children and let them pick out dinner from the deli. Oh, and my wife and I picked up a coffee from Starbucks. Price $40.

While it may sound like my children were eating junk food the whole trip, we ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at camp (with the exception of the Safeway trip).

I had no problem paying for treats

I had no reservations treating my children to some snacks during our camping trip because all things considered camping is a frugal vacation. Even at roughly $500 dollars for lodging, food, and gas, I felt that this was about as frugal as a family summer adventure can get. Far cheaper than traveling out of state and staying in hotels.

Free Camping

If frugal camping sounds interesting to you check out this article by Melissa at Sunburnt Saver, 19 Experts Share Their Top Frugal Camping Secrets.

Our second camping trip included a 3-night stay, off-grid, on a Western Washington river gravel bar. When I say off the grid I mean no power, no running water, no cell phone service, and no ice cream stands. The only way to get to this location is by 4 wheel drive. By the way, this annual, off-grid camping trip, is one of the reasons I still drive my 18-year-old Toyota Tacoma. You can read about my truck in this post, Are You Spending Too Much On Your Vehicle.

Not another soul around at our free campsite.

Once we traversed the crazy muddy 4×4 road, we arrive at the river’s edge. The forest opens up to the crystal clear waters of an Olympic Peninsula river. This year we had the whole river to ourselves. We were able to set up a couple tents in short order and get the camp kitchen set up. This year we forgot a table so we had to use my truck tailgate. Oops.

There are no designated campsites, so the kids got to work building a fire ring out of river rocks and making a clothesline to dry wet swim shorts while I set up the tent.  My two children could spend all day swimming in this river. There is no glacier that feeds this particular river, thus the summertime water temp runs warm at 60-65 degrees F.  A perfect temp for a swim on a hot summer day.

With the nearest grocery store 40 minutes away, there would be no trips to the store for treats or snacks. This was about as close to roughing it as you can get. We had a fairly strict meal plan that we stuck to. I had packed enough food for 3 meals per day and some snacks. Surprisingly I did not hear a single complaint from my children or their friend. Probably because there were no alternatives to the food we had packed. No Safeway nearby. Incidentally, they were hungry from playing all day in the river and devoured any food I placed in front of them.

3 Day Camping Meal Plan

Here is a look at the 3-day meal plan I used for this off-grid camping trip.

Day 1

Breakfast– homemade oatmeal packets with hot chocolate.

Lunch– Turkey Croissant Sandwich and chips.

Dinner– Fajitas. I sautéed sweet onions and bell pepper and reheated chicken  I had precooked at home.

Day 2

Breakfast– Sausage, egg and croissant breakfast sandwiches.

Lunch– hot dogs grilled over the fire.

Dinner– Hearty turkey chili I precooked at home and froze then reheated for dinner.  Day 2 was overcast with drizzle and we really enjoyed a hot bowl of chili for dinner.

Day 3

Breakfast– Pancakes from homemade scratch pancake mix.

Lunch– Turkey croissant sandwich and chips.

Dinner– Spaghetti with sausage.

Day 4

Breakfast– pancakes

After day 4 breakfast, we packed up camp and headed home.

If you find the meal planning for a camping trip difficult, check out an article by Melissa at Sunburnt Saver, Beginners Guide to Camping: Camp Food Ideas.

Camping Tips

When it comes to camping, I find food is one of the most difficult aspects to prepare and pack for. Here are a few tips I use when I plan meals.

  • Make your food do double duty.  I used the leftover sausage from the breakfast sandwiches for the Spaghetti at dinner. I used croissants for both the breakfast sandwiches and turkey sandwiches.
  • Precook at home as much of the meal as possible. The fajita dinner was super easy because the meat was already cooked and just needed to be warmed while the veggies were easily sautéed over the camp stove.
  • Pre-freeze as much of the food as possible to limit the amount of ice you have to buy.
  • Use watertight jars or other containers to keep ice-chest water from infiltrating your food. There is nothing worse than making delicious pasta salad only to find that when you go to eat it, the pasta salad is soaking in water at the bottom of your ice chest. My favorite fix for this is to pack food into quart size mason jars. The rubber gasket in the lid keeps the water out and your food dry. I recently found half gallon size mason jars and these are a godsend for camping and food storage.
  • A camping bucket is always on my list of camping supplies. From carrying water for dousing a campfire to holding dish cleaning water, I never go camping without a bucket. I use an old Costco detergent bucket. The price of the bucket was free, I just had to buy a one year supply of laundry detergent. Hahaha.

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Camping Must-Haves

Lodge Cast Iron 20″x10″ Rectangle griddle.

I love this lodge Cast Iron Griddle for placing over a two burner stove to cook pancakes or just setting directly over hot coals of a campfire. It is reversible and irresistibly versatile

Lodge Cast Iron 10.5″ Round Griddle

This little gem of a griddle is probably my favorite of the two griddles. I use this griddle primarily over a single burner stove to make pancakes for a small crowd or hot sandwiches for lunch. This griddle is perfect at camp or at home. My round 10.5″ griddle lives on my gas cooktop at home most of the year.

mug mate

I love, love, love this single cup coffee filter. You simply place the filter in your cup, add coffee grounds, pour over hot water and sit back for a couple minutes while you wait for your delicious coffee to brew. If you are a coffee snob, you will not be disappointed with the rich, bold coffee flavor that this little filter provides.

Camping Kettle

This kettle is used frequently at camp to heat up water for everything from making hot chocolate and coffee to hot water for washing dirty camp dishes. The lid stays in place while you pour from the cute little spout.

Half-gallon Canning Jars

These versatile jars have endless uses for camping but I primarily use them in the cooler to store food that I want to keep dry such as pasta salad.

Portable Charging Power Pack

That feeling you get when your cell phone is about to die and you have nowhere to charge it can be erased with this small but mighty power pack. I can get 6-8 charges for my iPhone with this single power pack. I try to unplug from the digital world when camping but I still use my phone for pictures. With this portable charger, you can guarantee you will have enough juice to snap that next picture.

Coleman LED Lantern

Years ago, I used to fuss with an old school white gas lantern. You know, the one where every time you went to use it the
mantles needed to be replaced. Now I just bust out this LED Lantern to shed some light on the situation. With long-lasting power, this is my go-to light source at night. This model is particularly neat because the four panels break away to be used individually on trips away from camp. When we need to take a late night trip to the bathroom, we just pull off one of the side panels, and off we go.


There it is, my 2018 summer camping recap. One camping trip was frugal and one was not. They were both tremendous fun.

So next time you set your mind on camping, see if you can find a free or low-cost campground.  You might find you like the solitude and peacefulness of camping away from others and save a little money at the same time.

Hopefully, you found my tips, meal plan, and camping must-haves useful. If you have any tips or great camping meals to add, please share in the comments section.

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