It’s the classic camping paradox: You flee to the wilderness for the simplicity of a night in the woods, only to end up packing half the house in the car anyway.
Between shelling out for the portable furniture, cooking supplies, sleeping bags, tent and oversized cooler, camping can be expensive — but there are some supplies you can slash costs on by making yourself.
Here are our favorite do-it-yourself camp projects (and the low-cost alternatives you can pick up on the way to the campground in case you forget anything).
A little hands-free light comes courtesy of a headlamp, but it’s nice to have a lantern to provide a little extra illumination on picnic benches and inside tents for everyone to enjoy.
Still, we’d rather spend our money on something more interesting (like fish tacos and Netflix). Chances are you probably already have everything you need to cast a glow anyway.
Here’s how: Fill a gallon-sized plastic jug with water, then slip your headlamp over the middle of the jug. Point the bulb toward the jug and click it to the “on” position. The reflection of the light on the water will act as your lantern.
The buy-it alterative: If you’re investing in a lantern, make it one that pulls double duty. We like this Arka LED lantern that charges cell phones, cameras and GPS units and converts to flashlight mode when you need it.
Trail mix is like the hiking-fuel trifecta: filling protein, natural energy and a much-needed caloric punch from nuts, seeds, berries, chocolate and dried fruits. Sounds foolproof, right?
Too bad the store-bought versions are bogged down with bad-for-you added sugar and sodium. Play it safe and whip up a batch of your own so you know exactly what’s in the mix.
Here’s how: Visit a pantry-style store (the ones that let you take giant scoops of nuts and candy out of plastic bins) and pick up your favorite nuts, seeds and berries.
Look for nuts that are unsalted and dry roasted or raw, and stay away from extra salt and sugar. Dried fruits should be low in added sugar; a good mix of chewy (cranberries, pineapple, raisins) and crunchy (bananas, apples) adds variety.
Add in some chocolate if you need it — aim for an all-natural dark chocolate — or get creative with low-fat granola, oyster crackers, coconut flakes or pretzels. Toss together and you’re done.
The buy-it alternative: We like portable, individually packaged fruit-and-nut bars made with pistachios and cranberries.
Gasoline is dangerous. Twigs can get damp. Dryer lint isn’t exactly what we want to inhale. Let’s focus on a fire starter that’s a little more reliable (and one that comes with less danger of losing your eyebrows).
Soy candle wax and used coffee grounds make a foolproof igniter you can use when you have less-than-perfect campfire conditions. It smells great, too.
Here’s how: Collect used coffee grounds and spread them out on a cookie sheet. Set in the sun or bake in the oven at 250 degrees; the goal is to get as much moisture out as possible. Dry the coffee filters as well. Scoop dry grounds into an empty egg carton, then tear the filters into small pieces, twist and place them on the grounds (stick matches in as well if you have them).
Melt some wax and pour evenly on each egg cup. Let cool and cut off one individual cup at a time. All you have to do is light the match or filter and watch it burn; place it under a small teepee of twigs and logs to get your campfire going.
The buy-it alternative: Look for an eco-friendly fire starter that won’t emit strange odors. Bonus points if they’re packed in a repurposed container, like the used soda bottles from TerraCycle.
If you have plans to rinse off your stink in a nearby stream or lake, or if your solar-shower runoff will end up in the soil, hand-craft some camp soap devoid of artificial colors and fragrances to protect the environment.
Here’s how: Boil a cup of distilled water, add four tablespoons of castile soap and toss in a few teaspoons of an essential oil like lavender or rosemary. Shake together until you see a few suds appear, then toss in a portable soap bottle. Because this is a natural soap, you won’t see as much lather; that’s a good thing, and you’ll still be squeaky clean.
The buy-it alternative: Pick up a soap fragranced by natural distilled ingredients like bark, moss, mushrooms and other plants found in the Oregon backcountry.
If anything can convince a diehard camper to book it to the Motel 6, it’s a swarm of bugs. Muggy weather, high grasses and wetlands are ideal conditions for insects, but you can fend off mosquitoes and ticks with a few natural ingredients.
Here’s how: Mix one part tea tree oil with two parts water in a small spray bottle and squirt your shoes, socks and pant cuffs to ward off ticks.
For mosquitoes, fill a spray bottle with boiled or distilled water, then add witch hazel and 30 drops of essential oils like rosemary, clove, cinnamon, peppermint, eucalyptus and lavender (the more you use, the stronger the spray).
No oils? Add a few tablespoons of dried herbs like spearmint, catnip and cloves to boiling water, then strain out the herbs and combine the remaining water with a cup of witch hazel or rubbing alcohol. Apple cider vinegar can stink, but it’s another powerful bug repellent. Throw some sage on a campfire for the same effect.
The buy-it alternative: Stick to the herb-and-oil formula, and look for a spray that won’t damage fabric or equipment.