It’s early November, so what have I been doing lately? I’ve been planning next year’s summer family vacation. We’re going to Yellowstone!
The truth is that the fall is actually a great time to start thinking about next year’s travels, particularly if you want to enjoy the beauty of the world on a nice, tidy budget. One of the best ways to do that is to camp and, at the same time, take advantage of one of the best bargains offered to American citizens, our national park system.
The national parks of the United States contain a nearly infinite array of natural beauty, from the northern landscapes of Denali to the gorgeous vistas of Glacier, from the stunning forestry of Acadia to the unbelievable hot springs of Yellowstone. Yosemite. Grand Canyon. Joshua Tree. Shenandoah. I could go on and on and on. Suffice it to say, there is more stunning beauty to be found in our national parks than you can possibly explore in a lifetime.
Even more amazing is the fact that you can see all of this beauty on what amounts to a shoestring budget. A vacation centered around a national park can actually be very inexpensive!
So, why post this in November? It might seem a bit out of place to post this now, but the reason leads right into my first tip…
Plan Way Ahead
One of the biggest savings offered by a national park vacation is the fact that you can camp instead of staying at a hotel. That move alone saves hundreds upon hundreds of dollars over the course of several days of vacation.
The problem here is that many of the campgrounds in national parks and around national parks tend to fill up several months in advance, particularly at the most popular parks in the national parks system like Yellowstone. You usually can find a place to camp somewhere reasonably near a national park even close to the trip, but you’re likely to be camping a substantial distance from the park (meaning a long commute into and out of the park) or else be gunning for a “first come first serve” campground (meaning you’ll have to get lucky to get a camping spot).
The best route is to simply start planning now and reserve a spot at a campground as early as possible. Tools for finding such a campground are listed below, but the key thing to remember is to start planning ahead now.
If You Have a Fourth Grader, Get in For Free
The National Park Service currently offers the “Every Kid in a Park” program, which gives every fourth grader in the United States a free year-long national parks pass for their family. That means you don’t even have to pay an entry fee to visit those national parks that require one, further reducing the cost of a national park vacation.
The process for signing up for this free pass is very simple. Your fourth grader can do it on his or her own and will learn about the national park system in the process.
For us, the occasion of our fourth grader picking up a national parks pass means that we’re planning a vacation that centers on Yellowstone, but actually involves stops at other national parks as well for a day or two. Since the pass works for all national parks, this is a great time to plan a trip to multiple national parks for multiple days.
Do It at Your Own Pace
The idea of hitting multiple parks over the course of a number of days brings me to my next point. A national parks trip is a highly self-directed trip, which means you can do things at your own pace without having to carefully plan days or make appointments.
Most of the trails and majestic sights that you’re going to see in a national park will be there tomorrow or the day after. You don’t have to schedule things. You don’t have to rush to jam everything in on a single day or two. You can do things at your own pace.
Furthermore, there are opportunities for all different levels of physical exertion in our national parks. Most parks feature amazing sights that require almost no trail walking and there are trails and hikes available in most parks with a huge variety of different lengths and different difficulties. Some are basically walks along an elevated boardwalk for half a mile through a beautiful forest, while others might involve many miles of hilly trail hiking – and we’re not even talking about backcountry hiking. You can find something that perfectly matches your fitness level and desire to hike and you can spread different walks and hikes throughout the trip. You can even see many beautiful sights from your car window if you so choose.
Driving to a national park is actually a great way to save money on the trip as compared to flying, particularly if you’re traveling as a family. Driving allows you to pack your camping gear with you instead of having to mail it or take it through airport luggage. It also greatly enhances the freedom of the trip and allows you to make stops and side journeys along the way.
For example, on our upcoming Yellowstone trip, we’re planning on spending most of two days in Badlands National Park on our way to Yellowstone from Iowa, then spending a day at Devil’s Tower National Monument. If we so choose, we can also stop at Mount Rushmore and at Custer State Park on the way (all but Custer are free thanks to our free pass, as described above). If we flew for this trip, we’d miss all of those things.
Use the Library as a Great Planning Resource
Your local library likely has a travel section that has a ton of books on any national park or part of the country that you might wish to visit. Even if they don’t happen to have a book on your specific destination, it’s very likely that the librarian can acquire one for you via interlibrary loan.
I think that using a travel guide is still the best tool for planning a vacation, simply because it takes pieces of information that are spread out all over the place online and puts them all in one single volume where you can find everything you need.
I typically check out several travel guides during the planning stages of a vacation, such as when we’re figuring out what campgrounds we’re going to use, where we’re going to stay, and what trails and sights we might want to see. While I don’t usually mark things down in stone this far in advance, I do usually reserve campsites based on travel guide recommendations as far in advance as possible as well as make lists of recommended hikes and recommended things to see in the national park.
If possible, I’ll often check out those travel guides again close to our trip and take them with us. This can sometimes be “hit or miss” depending on other travelers, as sometimes others check out such travel guides during the summer months.
Eat Simple… But Tasty
One of the biggest money savers when it comes to a national park trip is food. Rather than eating at restaurants all the time as would often happen on vacations, the entire trip is much more conducive to eating simple meals at your campsite.
While I tend to get into preparing interesting meals in a Dutch oven over a campfire, you can prepare lots of different, tasty, simple meals without any tools. For example, this article from Country Living offers a ton of simple recipe ideas that work well while camping that go far beyond simply making sandwiches for every meal (though sandwiches should be a staple – a simple sandwich is practically designed for camping).
This is another reason why driving to a national park is helpful. It enables you to take a cooler along, which you can use to keep items cool, it gives you a secure spot to stow food away from wildlife at night. It also makes grocery shopping easy, since you can simply go to a grocery store somewhat near the national park and fill up the back of your vehicle with food you might want to have on the trip.
Strategize Your Camping Gear
The biggest cost that people bring up when it comes to a camping trip is the cost of gear. You’ll need some kind of shelter at the very least, which means you’ll either need to have a tent or come up with some other form of housing (which is likely to be much more expensive).
Here’s the thing, though: if you camp regularly and make camping part of your family’s activities (particularly during the summer), the cost per trip for a family tent and sleeping bags and other materials goes way down. Let’s say you invest $100 on a simple family tent and then buy a few sleeping bags to boot at, say, $25 each. That’s $200 in gear – expensive, right? Well, consider the fact that you can use that gear over 20 camping trips. That means your cost per trip for that gear is $10 per trip. It quickly becomes dirt cheap. (There’s also the fact that you can use sleeping bags at home for various things, such as sleepovers and for winter blankets on the coldest nights.)
Another thing worth noting about camping gear is that many people overdo it in terms of what they need. Out of inexperience, they buy everything that they think they might possibly need and then find out that they don’t need a lot of it. If you’re going on a typical tent camping family vacation, all you need is a tent that comfortably houses your family, sleeping bags (and that’s even kind of a maybe, as you can use blankets), something with which to start a fire, and a flashlight or two (which you probably already have). Additional gear is unnecessary until you can figure out why you need it, so just take it all slowly and frugally.
If I include the prorated cost of our camping gear and all of the cost of driving, eating, campground fees, and everything else, our family’s summer national park vacation will cost us substantially less than $100 a day. There’s almost no vacation we could possibly take that would be less expensive than that. Not only that, the trip offers us a unique opportunity to see the natural beauty our nation has to offer.
I consider that to be an incredible bargain, but part of that bargain comes from starting our planning the fall before our trip. If this kind of trip sounds intriguing to you, I encourage you to start planning now.