Camping and Fishing Dockside at Water's Edge Campground, Dease Lake, British Columbia (photo by Simone Cannon)
Camping season is almost here and since Luis and I have lately been, shall we say, cash-challenged, yet still hopelessly addicted to travel, camping trips to sites within a few hours drive of our apartment has been the answer to staving off our travel DTs. We even managed to get as far as Whitehorse in the Canadian Yukon Territory this summer, where we made some amazing discoveries about the many free and extremely cheap things that are part of our "1/2-star" travel style.
1) Free Campsites: campers (including car campers) can park overnight in Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Flying J Truck Stops parking lots for free. Keep in mind that this is meant to be a temporary stay, not long-term camping. It's important to respect other campers and to not take advantage of this privilege. The arrangement also benefits the stores because many campers go inside to replenish their supplies and buy gas before setting out on the road. Other big box stores such as K-Mart and Costco also occasionally offer this courtesy, but it's best to check ahead of time at specific locations, since several do not allow overnight parking. Many national, state and provincial parks offer free campsites as well, but they are often classified as "primitive", meaning that there are no facilities at all and are usually quite remote.
2) Save Money on Taxes: if you are US resident, you can deduct the bank loan's interest that you used to buy your a trailer or camper just like mortgage interest because the IRS considers it a home. You don't have to be a full-time camper/RVer to take advantage of this tax benefit; even if you use the camper as a second holiday home and not as your primary residence, the interest is still deductible. Check the IRS website for complete details and current status and requirements of this benefit, as tax laws change constantly.
Welcome sign at the Robert Service Campground, Whitehorse, YT, Canada (photo by Simone Cannon)
4) Ask About Long-Term Discounts: many campsites offer separate areas for long-term campers with discounted rates. You don't have to settle in for the season to take advantage of these bargains; often the minimum stay need only exceed 7 days. Ask at check-in if you are eligible for the reduced fees.
5) Area Discounts: you can take advantage of your status as a guest at a campsite by asking about discounts on day trips, public transportation, local restaurants, firewood, camping supplies, etc. The campsite office should have lots of information about local activities, complete with maps and coupons. They also are often able to arrange group excursions to visit local sights or participate in an activity such as kayaking or rock-climbing.
Campers in the solarium on the deck of a ferry of the Alaska Marine Highway System (photo by Simone Cannon)
6) Alternate Forms of "Camping": most ferries offer free camping on their open decks included in your fare. No need to buy a pricey cabin or pay for an extra night at a hotel when taking a ferry; just hop aboard and stake out a place for yourself as soon as you can. The ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway, for example, allow passengers to sleep under the stars for free, even providing a plexi-glass shelter from the rain and overhead heaters. When you board the ship, head immediately to the top deck, grab a reclining deck chair or lounger and put your sleeping bag on it to claim it. The ferries are generally very safe and there are lockers available for your belongings, although few people use them. There are also free, clean bathrooms with hot water showers and an inexpensive cafeteria with a wide variety of food, although many people choose to bring their own food and picnic.
7) Flash Your Pass: buying National Park Annual Passes and State or Provincial parks can save a fortune in camp-site fees. These camp-sites are exceptionally well-maintained, safe and beautiful and usually have facilities such as bathrooms, picnic tables and BBQ areas. They also often host concerts or festivals in the summer months and offer discounts out of season. Many have beaches, hiking trails, boat rentals, fishing docks and other amenities and many have well-stocked camping supply stores. The passes are available in various categories and prices, e.g. adult, senior citizen, physically challenged visitor and park volunteers. One adult pass will allow up to four people and one vehicle into a park for stays between 1-7 days, depending on the park.
Luis enjoying a "home-cooked" breakfast thanks to our new camp stove (photo by Simone Cannon)
8) Cook Your Own Meals: buying a camp stove will cut your food bill by at least 50% and will help you to eat fresher, more nutritious food. Before we had our stove, we would groan at the thought of lighting a campfire each morning to make coffee and our breakfast, then waiting for it to die down before we could head out for the day. In the evenings, we were wiped out from hiking all day, so generally just picked up some food on the way home. Also, the search for dry firewood is especially challenging here in the rainy Pacific Northwest, especially in the cold and darkness of the evening. Once we broke down and bought our Coleman stove, life changed dramatically. Now, we cook almost every meal at your campsite, make coffee and tea and have had some lovely, romantic dinners under the stars. We bring along staples such as eggs, bread, peanut butter (a necessity for me, although Luis would rather eat the cat) and also take advantage of the fare at farmers' markets and road-side produce stands.
9) Hang with the Locals: check local newspapers and community bulletin boards when you arrive at a new location. They often have events such as church barbeques, seasonal festivals, fairs, free concerts, art shows, etc. Most tourists are not aware of these generally inexpensive events so there is a chance to get to know the residents and learn about their lives, as well as get a real feel for the community. It is also a way to eat and be entertained much more cheaply than sticking to the worn and often over-priced tourist trail.
10) Take Advantage of Local Services: walk and use public transportation as much as possible. Buying a pass for the time that you will be in one location is usually the cheapest way to go. Most systems offer a 1-, 3- or 5-day pass which includes buses, subways and transfers and often also includes ferries and trams. If you will be staying in one place for a month or more or if you frequently visit one area, it may be worth investing in a stored value card, such as Puget Sound's ORCA card.