Thursday, August 21, 2014

Low-Budget Camping

[Christopher Nyerges is the author of  books on the outdoors, including How To Survive Anywhere.  He regularly teaches self-reliance and wild food classes, and he blogs at  A schedule of his classes is available from School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

Some time ago, an editor of a magazine called and asked me to write an article for his readers about “low budget camping.”  My first question was, “What do you mean by low-budget?”

He thought about it for awhile, and then told me to keep the total shopping list under $2,000.  Wow!  That’s low-budget?  He then explained that he was assuming that the reader had absolutely no equipment at all, and he or she would have to go out and purchase everything from scratch. 

I eventually wrote the article, entitled “Backpacking on a Shoestring,” and everything I suggested could be purchased for under $300 or so, if you followed my instructions.

However, I had to think back when I was 10 or so, and how my brothers and I got interested in hiking and backpacking in the Angeles National Forest.  Even if we couldn’t get a parent to drive us, we could just walk outside our door and in a short while through Altadena we were in the mountains.  We certainly enjoyed exploring the hilltops and valleys and hidden canyons.  That appeals to everyone.  But unlike so many of the urban attractions, we knew that we could do our mountain exploring without ever having to pass through a ticket booth where someone collects an admission fee.  For all practical purposes, the mountains belonged to the people and they were free for anyone to enter and explore.  And for us at that age, that was critically important.  We didn’t go hiking on a “low-budget.  We didn’t even know what the word “budget” meant.  We went hiking and backpacking on NO budget.  We had no money and none was needed to head to the hills. 

Over the years, of course, I have gradually acquired camping gear that works for me, and that I feel is worth having.  I dont mind spending extra money on an item if I know it’s the best and if my life can depend on it.  On the other hand, to this day I don’t care much for useless gadgets that just take up space and add weight to the pack.  I like to go as light as I possibly can.

So, I thought that readers would enjoy hearing how we went hiking on no budget.  Some of you will chuckle at our youthful enthusiasm and silliness.  A few of you might even think we had a few good ideas.

We NEVER purchased special clothes, designed for hiking or backpacking.  We just wore what we called our “play clothes” -- clothes that we didnt worry about getting dirty or torn, but durable enough for a weekend or a week in the hills.  We simply dressed for the season, and took an extra sweatshirt along if it was cold. 

The one area that could have used improving was footwear.  I usually had poor footwear on the trails, but I never let it bother me.  The worst time was when I had some old suede shoes while hiking in the snow.  My feet were wet and cold the whole time, so I was either constantly moving or sitting by the fire all the time.  Eventually, I learned that you could put a plastic bag over your socks and keep your feet sort-of dry in the winter. 

But since most of our hiking was in fair weather, wearing our city shoes” into the hills was usually not a problem.

Heck, every kitchen has a knife, doesn’t it?  We just wrapped a small kitchen knife in a piece of cardboard for safety and put it in with our gear.  Eventually, we received Boy Scout knives as gifts one Christmas, and we carried them all the time.  Now, I wouldn’t leave home without a Swiss Amy knife.

Why would we need to go out and buy something special just for hiking and backpacking when every kitchen in the world -- well, at least OUR kitchen -- had dishes and silverware and pots?  We’d pack an old pan and pot, and would sometimes just carry an old pie pan and an empty can.  We reasoned that with the pie pan and can, we could crush them and bury them before returning home and wouldnt need to carry them back.  We’d also grab a few plastic forks and spoons, and maybe an old metal one. 

Nothing more was needed.

Back in the mid-1960s, plastic wasnt as ubiquitous as it is today, and the plastic that was around back then was low quality.  So we didn’t have plastic containers to use for water.  On occasions, I actually carried a glass mayonnaise jar as my canteen, and I wrapped it with cardboard so it would be protected.  Eventually, I spent about $1 and purchased a metal WWII canteen.  It was a very good investment.  

However, we tried to plan so many of our hikes around the known water sources, that I never bothered to carry a canteen half the time. 

Today, inexpensive water containers can be obtained just about anywhere, so humanity seems to have solved this problem.

Stove?  We simply cooked right on the flames of our small camp fire.  I’ve never carried a stove -- to this day!

Sometimes we’d find a flashlight in a drawer at home but more often than not it simply didn’t work.  Perhaps the batteries were no good.  So I never got addicted to needing a flashlight at night.  Did you know that the average adult has the ability to see in the darkness almost as good as an owl after 30 minutes in the dark?

Lantern?  We had NO budget.  If we had a lantern, we’d have to buy fuel and wicks and stuff called “misc.”  However, on some occasions, we actually carried an old soup can.  We cut out both ends of the can, and put an old clothes hanger through the can for a handle.  Then we cut a hole in the side of the can, and inserted a candle.  That was our “lantern.”

Another variation of the can-lantern is to cut open an aluminum can so that, when standing upright, it appears to have two “doors.”  You then hang the can by the pop-top, put a candle inside, and you have a lantern.  If made properly, the wind will catch the doors and turn the candle away from the wind.  I learned about this from fellow survival instructor Ron Hood.

Though we have marveled at the beautifully-carved walking sticks at backpacking stores, we never even came close to buying one.  For one thing, after you spend $40 for a beautiful stick, who wants to mess it up on the trail.  Additionally, we discovered that there was never a shortage of sticks in the woods which could serve as a walking stick.

Tent?  Those are heavy and expensive.  I have never carried one.  The closest I have ever come to packing a tent was when I used tube tents a few times in the early to mid-1970s.  But otherwise, you can usually avoid the need for a tent if you simply pick your campsite well.

Get real!  We simply went up to the mountains and followed the trails, and often had no idea where we were going, other than some obscure rumor from someone that a friend of a friend talked to and suggested that maybe this particular trail actually led to some really good place.  It all sounds very silly and imprecise as I think back on it, but that’s how we did things.

After awhile, we got to know more and more of our local trails and we would go back to our favorite spots again and again, day or night, summer or winter.  No map or compass was ever needed, and we never got lost.

We would take book matches that we got for free at the local supermarket, and stick matches from our parents kitchen, and wrap them up in several wrappings of plastic.  Back then, there were no Bics, no magnesium fire starters, and none of the high-tech devices that today assure fire for even the village idiot.

Food in the backpacking shops always seems to cost too much.  Freeze-dried, specially portioned exotic meals, MREs, special candy bars, juices, etc. etc.  Why?  We would just go to  the supermarket and purchase dry things like rice and buckwheat groats and spaghetti.  Then we purchased dry soup mixes and instant potatoes. Then we’d get a bottle of dried spices, and then some nuts and seeds, and some fresh fruit like apples and avocadoes and perhaps some cheese.  After awhile, you have good food at a reasonable cost. 

But in the very beginning -- as I said, we had NO budget -- we just looked through our parents’ cupboards and picked out anything that was dry and light and that we thought we might like.  Doesn’t every kitchen cupboard in the world have at least enough odds and ends to make a few decent trail meals for a week or so?  Ours always did.  And though some of our meals were very slim, it was partly because we didn’t want to carry any more weight than was absolutely necessary.  Which is why I have pursued the study of wild edible plants for most of my life -- but that’s another story.

Some of these ways that we did things might help some of you to keep the weight in your pack as low as possible, and to retain as much money as possible.  I have always believed that simple enjoyment of the outdoors should be as unadorned as possible.  Part of the attraction -- to me -- is to be in the outdoors where you can think and be with your self and your friends.  Why clutter it up with all the overpriced gimmicks and gadgets that take up weight and occupy too much of your time?   

I’d like to hear from readers who have unique low-cost camping methods to share. 


Linda said...

I loved this piece of writing. The nostalgia and the way people don't have to have special "stuff" to enjoy most pursuits delighted me.

Okay, I don't camp and won't camp. The night air would cause me to go to the nearest doctor after the first morning.

My parents would pack us all up before sunrise and drive us to a nearby national park. Daddy would cook bacon, hard-fried eggs with the yolk spead, all in cast iron skillet. He would make the bread hot, sort of toasted, and we would eat salted and peppered fried egg sandwiches about time the sun came up.

Then, we would all go down to the river to wade or sit about. That was not camping, but it was the closest I ever came.

sundance293 said...

I grew up in SC in the 60's and 70's. We never had any real camping gear when I grew up, except Coleman lanterns, everything else was scrounged up from the kitchen or bedroom. I'll bet my friends and I spent a thousand nights that way and had a blast. Necessity is the mother of invention and kids are masters of it, or at least they were before modern electronics.

sundance293 said...

I grew up in SC in the 60's and 70's. We never had any real camping gear when I grew up, except Coleman lanterns, everything else was scrounged up from the kitchen or bedroom. I'll bet my friends and I spent a thousand nights that way and had a blast. Necessity is the mother of invention and kids are masters of it, or at least they were before modern electronics.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the 60's in S FL. We did use a lantern to attract fish and shrimp while fishing but always had a fire to help chase off mosquitos at night!! We did manage to get a surplus canteen too but most anything else was brought form home or built on site.

Misunderestimation said...

Sounds just like my childhood camping memories and methods.

Christopher Nyerges said...

It's funny that we all think this is "nostalgic," because too many are hooked on all the gear that we now believe is "essential" to go camping. I still go out with very little, which I think is a good thing to do. All the stuff gets in the way of your commune with nature, your thinking, your focus on skills and your communication with the people you are there with.