Frugal Living: Does camping have to be expensive?

Frugal Living: Does camping have to be expensive?

In stressful times, especially during a pandemic, money-conscious travelers embrace the outdoors. That’s why campgrounds swelled with visitors over the past few years. This week, we talk about the best free camping options, where to hike, and how to get started as a new camper.

We were lucky to find an expert on the subject. Heather Saulsbury is the owner and co-founder of PNWBushcraft. She hikes and camps, and she centered her life around these activities. During our conversation, we talked about how to have a camping adventure without spending thousands of dollars at an “outdoors” store.

You can listen to Frugal Living with Jim Markus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon,, iHeartRadio, or anywhere you go to find podcasts.

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Camping and Hiking Costs: How To Save Money On Camping

Heather offered several memorable tips on the subject. She starts with the most important point: Don’t buy too much on your first time out to the woods. Most problems, she explains, come from being tired, wet, or hungry. So, address those needs first. If you can avoid discomfort, you’ll set yourself up for a successful first-time out.

So what alternatives exist when you don’t want to buy expensive camping gear right away? Check for rentals. If you have friends who already camp, coordinate a group trip to share the basics. Or, shop garage sales and estate sales for cheap tents and name-brand camping gear.

Interested in relaxing outdoors this year? We recently discussed how to find the best hammock for camping.

Listen to This Week’s Episode

Heather also recommends Hipcamp. I might use it to find cheap campsites near me, but it also works as a way to list property for other campers. She compares it to Airbnb, another popular way to find cheap places to stay (or to list your own property for rent).

How Do You Start Hiking?

Check your local community for existing hiking groups near you, and avoid long hikes if you don’t have experience. Facebook groups sometimes advertise short hikes for novices. We also discuss geocaching as a way to explore the outdoors.

When we discussed other smart hiking hacks, Heather mentioned planning for the essentials. She packs dry foods, including her own dehydrated fruits, when she hikes. She also smokes food so it lasts longer on the trail. She also recommends an emergency pack (with bear mace, fire starters, and water).

Finally, when you’re ready to buy hiking gear, invest in quality. Hiking may be a frugal activity, but that doesn’t mean hikers should skimp on boots. High-quality hiking boots last for years. Cheap hiking boots might break down more quickly and require replacement after only a season or two.

You can find more about PNWBushcraft on Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube. Looking for more ways to save money on camping and hiking? Check out Brad’s Deals for new offers.

Read a Transcript From This Episode

Jim (00:02):
This is Frugal Living. <music> If you’re daunted by the idea of venturing into the wilderness to sleep on the ground unprotected from the elements except for a nylon tent, you’re not alone. It’s daunting going camping, especially if you’ve never done it before. This week, I talk to Heather Saulsbury. She’s the co-founder of PNW Bushcraft, a company that makes rugged outdoor products. And she’s an outdoor enthusiast. Here’s our conversation. <music>

Heather (00:45):
Hello, I’m Heather Saulsbury and I’m the owner and co-founder of PNW Bushcraft.

Jim (00:50):
Again, thank you so much for jumping on the podcast. We talk about frugal living. The idea of, we don’t have to spend a lot of money to have an incredible time or an incredible life. And it seems like what you do for a living falls into that pretty well.

Heather (01:05):
It certainly does. It certainly does. Nature is very inexpensive and very inviting.

Jim (01:11):
Well, what got you into it? Like, what got you into the outdoor lifestyle?

Heather (01:14):
Originally? My parents took us camping as young as I can remember. They’d put us in the car and take us to find a really cool spot next to a creek or river, and we’d put up a tent and spend a week there. So it’s been a lifelong love of being outdoors. And then when I met my husband, he’s a huge outdoor junkie. So we fit perfectly together and it’s just always been part of my life.

Jim (01:36):
That’s amazing. So for you, is it mostly camping and hiking or are you fishing, hunting? What do you do out there?

Heather (01:44):
Mostly, I love hiking and camping. I, I’m a pretty, I don’t wanna say lazy, but I just like to do fun, relaxing stuff because I work really hard during the week. So when I went–get out in nature, I don’t wanna overdo it. I have gone fishing, but I never catch anything. So I’m much better cheerleader fishing than I’m actually fishing.

Jim (02:01):
I feel the same way. A nice, real relaxing trip outdoors is just perfect in my mind. What’s unique about you is this isn’t just your hobby. This is your business. So this is a big, big part of your life. And the reason I wanted to talk to you is you’re going to have some tips, hopefully for how the rest of us can get into this, get outside, and not overspend on it.

Heather (02:25):
Yeah. I was actually really excited you reached out to me about this because we make outdoor gear for a living. So I, it is my life, but I’m really working hard on encouraging women to get outdoors. And I kind of wanted to share how it’s not as expensive as people think it is to go camping. Like, I really want people to learn that they can just go have that adventure without dropping, you know, a thousand dollars on new equipment. So it’s a perfect fit when you reached out about talking about it.

Jim (02:51):
It can be really enticing to go to REI and drop a thousand dollars. What do you actually need?

Heather (02:58):
Yeah, so I was contemplating what people really need to go camping and the basics are, is anytime people talk about not having a good time camping, it involves them being tired, wet, or hungry, right? Three basic needs everyone has, but that’s what can really ruin a camping trip. So I just wanted people to know that they can pick up a tent for like $25 at Walmart. They can pack food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, so they don’t need a cooler. They can bring a Pres-to-Log, so they only have to light it with, you know, matches. They don’t have to get an axe, and a saw, and chop down a tree, you know. So you can get out in nature without having to invest a lot. So those are some of the basics. And the other thing is too, is you can rent camping equipment now, so you can see if you even like it by renting. And I don’t think it’s very expensive. Or you can have a friend that camps and go along for the trip, you know? So there’s lots of ways for people to get outdoors without having to invest a ton of money.

Jim (03:53):
I love that. That’s all really good advice. One thing we did this year, when we went camping is we went to a bunch of garage sales before we went out.

Heather (04:02):
Oh yeah.

Jim (04:02):
And you can’t find cheaper tents or cheaper, like, camp chairs, like all the little luxuries from people who did go and spend a bunch of money earlier on and find out they didn’t camp as often as they figured they would.

Heather (04:13):
Yeah. Facebook Marketplace has some really great deals on camping gear. And then there’s a where you can go and buy or trade camping gear. And it’s used gear and that’s online. So I thought that was a really good resource. So we’re big vintage and thrifters. So I pick up used gear that’s old or used gear that’s just at the thrift store. So that’s another option. Actually, I probably could take, like, 10 families camping, but we do it for a living. So we have a lot of gear.

Jim (04:40):
That’s awesome. No, I mean, that’s a huge point though. Like, bringing friends and finding a community is a great way. Like, you… When we went camping earlier this summer, we went with a bunch of friends. And two different people in our group brought water containers for us. We didn’t have one. We didn’t even think that, “Hey, that would be helpful to have.” But the fact that we went with friends meant we didn’t need to get our own, which was great for us.

Heather (05:05):
Another really fun tip we found camping is we always try to think when we’re done with a trip, what did we miss out on? Like, was there anything we didn’t bring that we might need for next time? And this summer we finally maxed out. We couldn’t think of anything else we needed, but that’s still, that’s been, like, a lifelong journey of, “Okay, what would we have really liked on this trip so that we can add it next time?” And as you know, camping, you can continuously add stuff, but you don’t have to. I mean, it’s all the comfort level that you wanna bring with you.

Jim (05:34):
That’s a really good point. For someone who isn’t normally outdoorsy, where would you start? Is there a type of campground to look for or a type of campsite to look for?

Heather (05:44):
Well, you know, the state campgrounds are very well maintained. We’re in Washington state, but I assume all over they are. And there’s usually a park ranger or a camp host. So if you want somewhere to feel comfortable, that’s really cool. And then there’s also hip camp. Have you ever heard of hip camp?

Jim (05:59):
I haven’t heard of hip camp.

Heather (06:00):
Oh, hip, hip camp’s really cool. So it’s like Airbnb, but for campers. So people open up their properties to you and you can go. We did it for three summers and we loved it. So people would come camp on the bottom half of our property and they would feel safe and welcome. And it was just fun for everybody. But I know they do it all over the US. It’s very popular, and it’s just called

Jim (06:23):
That’s really cool. Yeah, I haven’t heard of it, but that seems like a really worthwhile site and I’ll check it out.

Heather (06:29):
Yeah. Oh, it’s so much fun. ‘Cause you could go from just camping in a field to us. We have, like, a roundhouse, and an outhouse, and a kitchen. So you could have both ends of the spectrum depending on what you’re looking for, so.

Jim (06:40):
That’s amazing. And I mean, that actually brings up another thing that probably is first on people’s mind but least likely to bring up is going to the bathroom when you’re camping. What does that look like? You know, like, do you need to prepare for the worst or…?

Heather (06:52):
You know, when you’re camping in an actual campground, I’ve found that most of the places are very well kept. They’re very clean. I mean, I know a lot of people don’t like outhouses, but my luck has been very, very fortunate. But I do rate campgrounds on how nice their bathrooms are. I’ll be like, “Ooh, yeah, that’s the campground with a great bathroom.” On the trail, whole different story. You know, when you’re backpacking and you have to find somewhere to go, you just, you know, you want your shovel and you want your biodegradable toilet paper and it’s a bit different.

Jim (07:19):
Sure. No, that’s a really good point though. We most recently went camping in Michigan. And the bathrooms there in–it was Hoffmaster State Park. Fantastic. Super well kept up, kinda like a public bathroom, only not at, like, a stadium, like, you know, a good public bathroom, which was not bad. One other thing you do, I think you’ve mentioned foraging? Is that…

Heather (07:39):

Jim (07:39):
something? Okay. Can you tell me a little bit about this? This is something I very little experience in.

Heather (07:43):
Well, we make these wax canvas foraging pouches designed to collect tinder when you’re out backpacking so you can start a fire. But they’ve been great for people who are doing mushrooms or, you know, you’re on the beach and you’re collecting rocks and shells and on the farm and you get eggs. Personally, I just like to take pictures of mushrooms because I don’t have a great deal of knowledge about them. I’m slowly learning ’cause I just don’t, you know, wanna eat something I’m not supposed to. But foraging is just fun because you get to be out in nature and it doesn’t cost anything to forage. I do believe you do need to make sure you have permission for the lands that you’re on, they allow you to forage. But I’m always looking down to see what I can find when I’m walking outside.

Jim (08:24):
I love it. Yeah, I’m with you and same. I, I garden now and just going outside anywhere, I’m looking at, “Ooh, I, I recognize this plant,” or “That’s edible”, you know, or, “That’s a mushroom and I don’t know.” So…

Heather (08:36):
Yeah. That’s me usually. And then I take a picture, and then I try to find it in our books to see if I can identify it, so.

Jim (08:42):
I love, I mean another frugal hobby, right?

Heather (08:44):
Yeah, exactly.

Jim (08:44):
While you’re out enjoying it. I love it. You get to learn something new too.

Heather (08:48):

Jim (08:48):
We’ve talked a little bit about camping. Can you tell me a little bit more about hiking and especially how does a frugal person get into hiking?

Heather (08:56):
Well, I think with any hobby, I really feel like people just need to go out and try it in short doses. Because I think, like, if you’re to go hiking with someone who does it all the time, it’ll feel very intimidating and it might exhaust you on the first trip. So I think it’s really great to try these things out in–They have groups that you can be a part of locally or there’s Facebook groups where they have, like, beginning hikers so that you can kinda get a taste of it and see if you like it. And then once you’ve decided you want to take that more adventurous trip, the hiking equipment I have found tends to be a little more on the expensive side because it’s ultra lightweight. So it’s a synthetic fiber. It costs a lot more to produce, I’m guessing. I don’t know. It’s just expensive. We tend to make our own dried food to take on our trips. I find that to be budget friendly, to do stuff. I mean, especially over the summer when we have a garden, we can dry stuff out to put in our packs and stuff. A lot of the trail food is really high in calories because you’re burning a lot of calories. And that’s why the bars are so concentrated and stuff. Far as being frugal, really, I would find out if you love it first before you start investing. Anytime I go hiking, I always take with me an emergency kit, water, and fire starter. Just no matter what, anytime I go into nature. So it’s always good to have those basic things. And where we live there’s bears and cougars. So I try to bring the bear spray too, because you really have to think of safety. And, I wear a whistle. It’s just a vintage whistle, nothing too expensive, but it’s a good safety skill when you’re out hiking.

Jim (10:22):
That’s a really good point and something I don’t think we’ve talked enough about. The idea of letting nature know you’re there so as not to sneak up on something.

Heather (10:30):
Yeah, exactly. <music>

Jim (10:36):
This episode, as always, was brought to you by Brad’s Deals. There’s a community of people here scouring the web for the best deals on everything. The site is B R A D S D E A L

One trick for deal hunters: You can sign up for the Brad’s Deals newsletter. That way, you’ll have a better chance of snagging something stellar before it sells out. Thanks for listening. <music> Can you tell me a little bit more about–You talk about drying your own foods. Are you using, like, a food dehydrator?

Heather (11:10):
Yeah. We have a big food dehydrator and we’re very fortunate to have some cherry trees, which don’t dry very well, but they’re delicious cherries. And we have raspberries and blackberries and apples on the property. And salmonberries and thimbleberries, so we do a lot of berry drying. But in the garden we’ve dried corn. And we have a smoker, so we’ve learned to smoke meat this last summer. So, we’re trying to do all those things ourselves. And it’s fun.

Jim (11:34):
That, that’s great. I mean, I love that too, because when you buy dried fruits or dried meats or smoked meats, that is expensive. And doing it yourself is an incredible way to save money, so I love that. To tie this more into what you do, one of the reasons I reached out is… It can be tempting to buy really crappy gear to get into a hobby cheaply. But there’s a cost to that. Kinda, the old saying is, you know, like, “Do you wanna buy the $20 boots every year? Or would you rather spend the hundred dollars on boots and wear them for a lifetime?” Can you tell me a little bit about your thoughts on finding quality gear and the importance of quality gear?

Heather (12:11):
Yeah, I think as, definitely as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to lean towards investing in something one time instead of replacing it five times. Especially with outdoor gear and, like you’re saying, boots. I mean, if you get a good pair of boots and you treat them, they’re gonna last, like, 10 years versus six months. So I think once you’re ready to start a hiking or camping hobby, it’s really important to decide what you wanna get. And we’re fortunate now, with the internet, you can read reviews. You can ask people what they think of products. So that’s really nice. We make heirloom wax canvas gear. And our thought behind our gear is that it’s gonna last your lifetime and you’re gonna pass it on to your kids. So it’s an investment that’s creating memories, but you only have to invest in it once, which is so important. So, you know, if you’re just getting something, you know, you’re only gonna use once, you’re not gonna wanna spend a lot of money. But if you know something you’re gonna use for the next dozen years, you’re gonna want to invest in a quality-made product. Some of the things you could look for is… If you’re in person, you wanna look for if your seams are finished, and if there’s loose threads, and if things pull apart. I mean, there’s things that you can check on your own to see if something’s gonna hold up or whether care has been put into it when it was made.

Jim (13:22):
You talk about making waxed canvas gear. Is it because it adds, like, a durability to it? Or is it making it waterproof? Or why wax canvas? Why not just, like, a canvas bag?

Heather (13:32):
So waxed canvas does make it water resistant. It’s almost waterproof, but you can’t really say that. The water rolls right off of it. And waxed canvas is retreatable. So if you use it for a while, the waxes do break down, but then you can add wax and seal it again. So they’ve been doing it since the 1800s. And so when we decided to make gear, we wanted something we knew was gonna last a long time. And it’s my favorite thing to find vintage gear that’s 80, 90 years old and we can still use it because it was made of waxed canvas and you can retreat it. And for me, it’s all about that nostalgic feeling of camping with my grandparents or my parents. And it just, the waxed canvas just makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

Jim (14:13):
Oh, I get that. Yeah.

Heather (14:14):
Yeah. So besides being durable, it’s, it’s a real memory for me, so. I mean, I hope people use our gear to create memories with their family.

Jim (14:22):
I hope so too. There’s something about the intentionality of taking a piece of gear and doing the refinishing yourself. You know, adding that wax again when it needs to be rewaxed or refinished. For me, it adds value to it. It was maybe just a piece of gear before. It was just a, a satchel. It was just, you know, a pack. But now it’s yours. And now you’ve done something to it. And now it’s been with you through this process. I like that about quality anything. Like, a pair of jeans that you’ve had for 10 years, you know, and it’s ripped and covered in patches. And, you know, it’s faded in all the ways that you like it. If you buy cheap jeans, you don’t get that. You know, it’s just gonna tear a dozen times and it’s not gonna hold up.

Heather (15:02):
Yeah. Like, I used to have a camping coat and my dad had given it to me and I wore that for 15 years. I was, like, “We can’t go camping unless I have the camping coat” until I wore it out. But it was great quality. So it lasted a really long time. And it was probably four sizes too big, but it was my camping coat.

Jim (15:18):
So we’ve talked about some of the, the basics here. And now I’m just interested in… Tell me your, your exciting moments out there. Like, what gets you out there every year? What’s the thing that drives you out back to the campgrounds and back to the trails besides nostalgia?

Heather (15:34):
I feel like just being outside resets you. It just reset you and it makes you feel so good. And I’m fortunate that we live on 11 acres. And I have a mountain as a backyard. So, like, every day I am outside because it just refreshes you. And then I love camping because there’s no electronics, and people sit around fire, and the stories are always amazing, and people just pay attention, and that just feels so good. I was fortunate to have a dozen teenage girls come to the property for, like, a campout skills thing. And the conversations that evolved around a campfire are just magical. I mean, they got deep, and it was beautiful to see. And I think when people are without distractions, they’re so much better.

Jim (16:17):
I totally agree. It’s a very hard thing to duplicate in, you know, a busy environment. Even in just, like, your everyday environment, your house might not be busy, but there’s distractions everywhere.

Heather (16:26):
Absolutely. Yeah. And you can’t get anything done camping. That’s a really big thing for me because, you know, the outdoors and nature is part of my day every day. In order to turn it off, we leave to go camping where there is no internet and I can’t get anything done but hang out with my family. And I just think it’s just so important to have that time with people.

Jim (16:45):
I love it. I love the idea, too, of, again, it is an intentional choice to leave your property. It doesn’t cost any money, you know, it just costs time.

Heather (16:55):
Yeah, unfortunately, I live somewhere gorgeous. So, you know, half an hour from the house is a creek, a river, a waterfall. I mean, Mount Baker is an hour and a half drive and I can be up in the snow. So I’m, I’m very centrally located for enjoying lots of nature. So that’s pretty awesome.

Jim (17:10):
That’s fantastic. If you didn’t know… Uh, let’s say you weren’t in–you know, it sounds like basically heaven. How would you go about finding a, like, a hiking trail?

Heather (17:20):
Geocaching is a lot of fun. We call it treasure hunting. You can actually pull up the app and it’ll tell you in your area where there are things to go find. So besides being outdoors, you now have a mission to find a treasure. So I tell lots of people about that because the easy ones are easy. They’re easy to find. They’re an easy walk or an easy hike and they’re all outdoors. So what better way to get outdoors and explore by going treasure hunting? So that’s a lot of fun for our family. And kids love it too. So geocaching is great for all ages. When you’re in a new city too, when you’re traveling, I think geocaching is a great way to find the local parks and stuff when you pull that app up. Again, the internet is amazing for finding places to go. Your city websites tend to have really good information about trails and parks. And your parks and recs. And then what’s nice about parks and recs website is they tend to let know what classes are there and what events are coming up so you can join activities if it’s not something you wanna do alone.

Jim (18:14):
That’s a really good point. You also mentioned one of your efforts being getting more women outdoors and, you know, kind of empowering them to, to make these choices. What more can you say to that? Like, what, what tips do you have for women who haven’t done this yet or as much as they want to?

Heather (18:29):
Well, I think it’s one of those things that it’s not as scary as you think it’s going to be. You don’t need a lot of equipment. And I really feel like the campgrounds are safe. I wouldn’t go remote camping by myself to start out with until I really got the hang of things. But at my place, I will be, like, hosting classes where people learn basic tarp shelters, fire-starting skills, knife safety, because I think knowledge gives you confidence and power. And if there’s a place for you to go learn these things, then you’ll feel so much better. And if you’re in a safe and non-judgmental environment, you’re gonna learn more. ‘Cause I think if there’s a bunch of people camping and you’re trying to learn how to start a fire and seven people are watching you, it’s just not gonna go well. You know what I mean?

Jim (19:11):
Yeah. No, very good advice. Are there any other topics we haven’t really talked about that you wanna dive into?

Heather (19:17):
No. I just really wanna encourage people to get outside. Your whole wellbeing is better just from being outside and hearing nature and hearing birds sing. And I just think everybody needs to get outside. I run an online business, so I don’t have any problems with the internet or being online, but I think there’s definitely a balance of being indoors and outdoors. And if people are feeling overwhelmed, if they just get outside, even just to a local park and just be, they’re gonna feel so much better. And it’s free, doesn’t cost anything.

Jim (19:48):
I love it. I think you’ve brought up a bunch of different reasons you go outside. And if it’s geocaching that gets you out, or if it’s hiking, or if it’s camping, all of these are worth it. And I can’t recommend it enough.

Heather (20:02):
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, even if you just wanna go out and take beautiful pictures with your phone, right? I mean, it’s as easy as that. I’m gonna go get some great fall shots and then you can enjoy them later on your computer, so.

Jim (20:12):
I think we’re very much on the same page. And thank you so much for taking time to chat today. And thank you so much for telling us a little bit about, I mean, what you do in your life. Where can people find you?

Heather (20:22):
Our website is PNW Bushcraft. You can also find me on social media. I’m on Instagram and Facebook at PNW Bushcraft Shop. And that’s like Pacific Northwest, but PNW Bushcraft in case it doesn’t come out just right. We have all our handmade gear. We make it here in the US. We buy our products in the US. We’re very made in America. We ship super fast because I don’t like to wait for stuff. So I like to get it in the mail really fast. And yeah, so that’s where people can find out more about us. And we also have a TV show streaming and on YouTube called PNW Bushcraft Adventures. And then you can learn what we’re up to, and it’s pretty fun.

Jim (20:57):
Awesome. Well, I’m gonna check that out and I hope other people do too, but thanks again. It was a real pleasure talking to you.

Heather (21:03):
Thank you so much for having me on. I’m glad to share the tips and I hope I was helpful. <music>

Jim (21:15):
I really enjoyed this conversation. It reminded me of the quote, which I wanted to end on. It’s from Terry Pratchett’s book “Men at Arms.” “The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.” Special thanks to our guest, Heather Saulsbury. This episode was edited by Genny Blauvelt. I’m Jim Markus.

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To hear more episodes like this, check out the latest episode of Frugal Living. Frugal Living is a podcast for smart consumers. How do you spend less and get more? The show, sponsored by Brad’s Deals, features interviews, stories, tips, and tricks. Jim Markus hosts season four, out now.