Camping: a low cost vacation alternative

It doesn't take a large investment of cash to have a great family vacation this summer. You can find many destinations a short car trip away to pitch a tent and enjoy low or no cost activities like hiking, biking, swimming and fishing packed with family fun. ReserveAmerica.com is a great place to explore campgrounds in your own backyard with a variety of amenities starting at less than $10 per night. Once you have booked your site, here are five tips to keep your vacation budget on track:

1. Share the cost-Many campgrounds allow 4-6 people and 2 vehicles on a campsite. Team up with another couple of campers and divide the dollars. Splitting the bill will not only decrease your expenses, it will increase your good times.

2. Bring your own firewood-With a bundle of wood averaging 5 to 6 dollars, and a dusk to quiet hours fire consuming 2-3 bundles, the cost of lighting up the night can easily exceed the cost of your campsite. Scouting for downed wood at the campground and/or saving wood throughout the year to bring with you on your summer excursions can all but eliminate this expense. Word of caution: make sure your DIY firewood is properly seasoned or you will end up with more smoke than fire on your site.

3. Ice-This most critical of camping necessities pretty much doubles in cost once you reach the boundaries of the campground. You can buy 25 pounds of ice for under 3 bucks at a wholesale club the night before you leave, or pay a dollar a pound at the camp store on arrival. Do the math. For the most frugal of campers, start filling bags in your freezer a week or 2 ahead of time for a cost free way to chill out.

4. Keep the cost of gear under control-You can find all of your camping essentials for a fraction of the cost on eBay. Auctions almost guarantee you'll pay the lowest price. A little patience can help you score both new in box and gently used gear for less than half the retail price. Word of caution: make sure to research the current retail rate at a site like Amazon to avoid over-bidding.

5. Firestarters-Sometimes the best things in life really are free. DIY fire starters are a great example. You can make these bad boys from remnants around the house that would otherwise be tossed, and they are more effective than the costlier version for sale in the camp store. My snappy camper secret recipe: take a handful of dryer lint, place on a piece of wax paper, pour melted candle wax over the lint, place in a paper sandwich bag and voilà, you have the world's best fire starter.

A little creativity on the spending side can save you some green without compromising your good times!

Homemade fire starters will have your campfire roaring in no time at no cost.

Jennifer Wells is a former marketing program manager at MMI.

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