Eight Free Ways to Upgrade Your Next Camping Trip
Forget expensive new gear. Here’s how to have more fun—for zero dollars.
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I get it. Between $10,000 mountain bikes and $59 merino T-shirts, outdoor activities can get real expensive, real fast. But buying things isn’t necessarily the best way to have more fun outdoors.
Here are eight solid upgrades you can make for free, all guaranteed to boost how much fun you’ll have on your next camping trip.
Make Better Maps
Traditional printed trail maps are often years out of date, and are created for the general user, not those with specific needs. You can do better, for free, with just a few minutes of work.
First, visit Caltopo.com, find the area you’re traveling to, then click through the available maps to find the one that suits you best. Next, add information layers, like satellite imaging, snow depth, or wind speeds. Finally, don’t forget to mark your destination, trail, and points of interest.
Once you’re done, export the custom map as a geospatial PDF, and send that to your phone. Download the Avenza Maps application (free, iOS, and Android), and use it to open that PDF. It’ll show you your location with a little blue dot, any time you need it. While you’re out in the field, keep your phone in airplane mode, with GPS location enabled, so your battery lasts longer.
Unlike Google Maps, this approach works even when your phone’s offline, and gives you a vast amount of additional information, like topo lines and all the above-mentioned custom data points.
This sounds more complicated than it is. You’ll be shocked by how empowering deep map information can be. Explore new areas, find new campsites and secret trails. Beg GPS coordinates for a secret waterfall from a friend, then navigate through a strange jungle to find it. Find your own secret spots, save their location, then find them the next time you visit, too. And, so long as your phone has battery left, you need never get lost. Which brings us to our last piece of mapping advice: print out a paper version of your map and stick it in one of your pockets.
Wash Your Down
Want to stay warmer in the winter without buying a new sleeping bag or jacket? Over years of use, your body oils and dirt accumulate on the down clusters inside your gear, limiting its ability to fully loft—and thus keep you warm. Restore the full loft of old down gear simply by washing it.
To do so, you’ll need a front-loading washing machine, a gentle detergent (NikWax Down Wash Direct works best), a dryer, and a tennis ball. Set the washing machine to its gentlest, coldest cycle, run your bag through it, then do the same with your dryer. Throw the tennis ball in the dryer with your sleeping bag or jacket to help knock the down clusters loose from clumps. It’ll probably take two dryer cycles, but your old down gear will feel like new again right after.
Take Less Stuff
Keep things simple, proven, and multi-use. Take things you need, not things you might want.
Less stuff will create more room in your car. It’ll make your truck safer and easier to drive off-road. It’ll help you walk farther, faster. It’ll make your campsite look like less of a garbage dump.
Looking for some easy things to drop? Take one flashlight and have it double as your lantern. Carry a lighter sleeping bag and wear your puffy inside it at night. Sit on the ground, not a chair. Drink whiskey, not beer. Lay out everything you plan to take ahead of time, then go through and ruthlessly ditch anything that might be excess.
Research Destinations and Trails
Last weekend, I visited some hot springs I’ve camped at probably a dozen times before. This time, we explored a nearby canyon I’d never been into, and discovered something really amazing that we were under-prepared to tackle. Had I done my mapping research beforehand, I’d have known to allow more time, to pack a rope, and to bring day packs.
The same can be said for virtually any outdoor destination. What’s nearby? What’s the terrain into like? Is there cool stuff to see or do? Read forums, dive deep into a Google search, look at satellite imagery, and buy old, out-of-print books about the area from pre-Internet days. You’ll be amazed at how valuable even a few minutes of virtual exploration can be: I cut the distance of one of my favorite backpacking trips in half last year, simply by carefully plotting alternative routes online.
Get in Shape
You know that getting in shape is going to make hiking and other activities faster and easier. But working out can also help ease the discomfort of sleeping on the ground and help prevent injuries.
The beneficial effects accumulate. If your ankles are strong and stable, then you can wear lighter footwear, which will in turn make hiking easier, which means you can do it more often, and go farther into the woods.
Right now, I’m planning a surfing trip to El Salvador with some buddies who are retired special forces soldiers. I don’t know how to surf. Being as fit as possible will speed my learning curve in the water. And because I hike almost every day, I know ahead of time that I’ll have an easy time on the trek through the jungle to the beach.
Learn to Cook
By far my favorite activity while camping is cooking. Whether it’s fresh yellowtail tacos on a beach in Baja, wild mussels seared on a campfire’s coals while backpacking the coast of northern California, or fresh elk heart bruschetta served the night after a successful hunt, being able to whip up a tasty meal never ceases to make an already great experience even better.
Being able to find and use fresh ingredients you find is also an incredibly special way to connect with the environment you’re in. If you’re not yet confident enough to do that, then just knowing how to make the night’s burgers really good or how to whip up pancakes in the morning will make being outdoors more fun for you and anyone you’re with. That it can save you money is just icing on the cake, (which you’ll hopefully know how to make in a dutch oven).
Lose the Fear
Taking risks and trying new things is a sure fire recipe for fun. In fact, that’s pretty much the whole point of recreating outdoors. Whether it’s a precipitous trail to a beautiful view, a bigger climb than you’ve ever completed before, or your first drive off-road in your new Jeep, if you don’t try it, you can only regret the missed opportunity.
Practice to Make Perfect
Want to get good at an activity? Spend more time doing it. Planning an epic mountain bike trip? Try to ride your bike every day, even if that means peddling a 29-pound enduro machine to work and back. Going backpacking? Walk as much as possible.
The same goes for using all your gear. Do you know if your sleep system will be warm and comfortable enough? A couple test nights outside in your yard should provide an answer. Do you know how to set up your tent? Your living room makes for a great practice area.