Try these tips to keep your camping trip comfy yet affordable

When I was growing up, our family had three kinds of vacations: camping, visiting relatives, and hunting, which was essentially camping with guns.

I never felt deprived because I didn't go on vacation to Disneyland or Hawaii like some of my friends and classmates. Some of my best memories were from camping trips, and it's still one of my favorite outdoor activities.

So it bothers me to see the cost of camping going up as gas prices near the cost of cheap whiskey and an overnight stay at some campgrounds cost nearly as much as a cheap motel room.

But camping doesn't have to be expensive. It's pretty easy to keep it affordable and comfortable. Here are some ways to do it:

Camp closer to home: It's easy to return to your favorite places year after year, but you probably drive past some cool places on your way there. Get out a map and look for new spots, whether a lake, river or a just a scenic spot in the forest or desert.

If you like lakes and reservoirs, Lake Cascade, C.J. Strike and Anderson Ranch are within 75 miles and have lots of camping. If you like rivers, the Snake River or the different forks of the Boise all offer good camping. And if you love the mountains, hit the Trinities east of Boise, or go north to McCall or Deadwood Reservoir north of Garden Valley.

Don't stay in campgrounds: Campgrounds are handy and many people feel more secure in them, but there are great places to camp outside of fee campgrounds.

At $10 a night, which is the going rate for a basic Forest Service or BLM, saving two nights of campground fees could buy enough gas to get you to McCall or Stanley, depending on the mileage of your vehicle.

For the cost of a weekend at a state park, you could spend about $50 in camping fees, which buys a lot of gas, or a whole weekend worth of groceries and beverages.

You will forgo some of the conveniences of a campground, and you will have to be fully self sufficient (which should include a portable toilet), but you will also get more privacy and discover some excellent camping spots. Just leave them as good or better than you found them.

Leave the RV at home: I love my tent trailer, but I will leave it behind if I have a long drive to my camping spot, or if I know the weather will be nice and I am going to spend all my time outside. It doesn't make economic sense to haul my tent trailer hundreds of miles if I am just going to sleep in it. A tent with a cot can be almost as comfortable.

Carpool: Putting four people (think two couples) and camping gear into an SUV can quickly fill it up, but if you consolidate your gear and put stuff in a cargo trailer or on a roof rack, it's possible to leave the second vehicle at home. If you split fuel costs among the group, it really reduces expenses.

Buy bulk food and parcel it out for camping: You can buy camp staples, like hamburgers and hot dogs, in bulk and freeze them, then take them on your camping trips.

You can also prepare meals in advance and reheat them while camping, which not only saves money, it also makes cooking more convenient.

Go there and stay there: It's tempting to set up camp and then jump in your vehicle and go exploring, but it adds to the cost of your trip. Instead, explore by hiking, riding a bicycle, or paddling a canoe.

Don't buy better equipment than you need: If you're just getting started, there's a wonderful variety of camping gear out there, and prices vary from reasonable to extravagant.

There's nothing wrong with buying mid-priced or high priced items, but they're not a necessity.

You can often find a less expensive piece of gear that will do the same thing cheaper.

If you camp mostly during summer, you don't need an expensive goose down sleeping bag. Nearly any bag will keep you warm enough.

Here's another example. REI's Web site lists a Coleman two-burner propane stove for an eye-popping $365. Wal-Mart sells a basic Coleman two-burner propane stove for $47. They will both do the same thing - cook your food.

Be a smart shopper and find the best deals. Look for items on sale, especially preseason, and check garage sales, rummage sales and second-hand stores for used camping gear.

Buy a family tent: They're the best deal going. You can buy a quality tent that will hold the whole family for about the same price as a two-person backpacking tent. Make it roomy enough for everybody to spread out, and also have room for clothes and gear. If you're a family of three, buy a five-person tent.

Rediscover a cot: If you don't like sleeping on the ground, don't. Cots have come a long ways from the old wood and canvas models. Modern cots are lightweight, comfortable and break down to a manageable size for stowing.

Add a foam pad or a self-inflating air mattress, and you have a cozy place to sleep. You can also store stuff underneath, which comes in handy in tight quarters.

Roger Phillips: 373-6615