A Voice in the NELA Wilderness: Camping on Zero Dollars a Day

2018 A Voice in the NELA Wilderness Christopher Nyerges Columnists Editions February

Camping in the hills of NELA was a big deal when I was a boy and looking back, I realize it was a no-budget activity. Today, I don’t mind spending money on an item if I know it’s the best and if my life may depend on it. But I still like to go as light as possible.

Here then are some of my boyhood practices and how I’ve changed them – or not! – as an adult.


We wore “play clothes” that could get dirty or torn, but were durable enough for camping. If it was cold, we took an extra sweatshirt. We could have used better shoes. Now, I invest in the best footwear I can afford.


We wrapped a small kitchen knife in cardboard for safety and put it in our gear. Eventually, we received Boy Scout knives as Christmas gifts and carried them all the time. Now, I wouldn’t leave home without a Swiss Army knife.

Mess Kit

We would pack an old pot, pie tin or empty can from our kitchens, along with plastic utensils and maybe a metal fork or spoon. I still carry just an old wooden bowl, a Sierra cup and an old coffee can. 


I used a glass mayonnaise jar wrapped in cardboard. Eventually, I paid $1 for a metal WWII canteen, a great investment. Today, cheap water containers are everywhere, but so is plastic trash. Use a lightweight, stainless steel container.

Stove and Fire Starters

Stove? Fire starters? We cooked on a small camp fire. Book matches were free from the supermarket and we took stick matches from our kitchens, wrapped in layers of plastic. Today, I carry a magnesium fire starter on my keychain and one or two Bic lighters.


Flashlights we found at home usually didn’t work. So, I never got addicted to using them and rarely carry one. I find that my eyes adjust to the darkness fairly well if I let them.


Remember, we had no budget. A lantern, if we had one, would have required fuel, wicks, etc. On some occasions, we would construct a lantern by cutting up an old soup can just so, inserting a candle and using a clothes hanger for a handle. Though I still rarely carry a lantern, I have purchased a collapsible solar lantern that works really great.


Too heavy and expensive, so I have never carried one, unless you count the tube tents I used a few times in the 1970s. You can usually avoid the need for a tent if you pick your campsite well.

Sleeping Bag

I started out sleeping in a hammock with a tarp, moved onto my first sleeping bag– actually, my older brother’s layered paper sleeping roll – and have tried blankets, including an emergency space blanket. I was always cold. To stay warm, I have learned to sleep in holes, lean-tos and natural shelters with no sleeping bag.

Map and Compass

We simply followed the trail, often guided only by a rumor that it would lead to a really good place. These days, I generally stay on trails and study maps before I take a trip into unchartered territory. If you choose to carry a compass, learn how to use it.


When we set out for the hills, we looked more like we were running away than going camping, with our stuff packed into paper bags. Eventually, we bought inexpensive canvas packs at the Army surplus shop, then in Pasadena, an excellent investment. But you can’t beat today’s sturdy, lightweight packs.


We would buy dry food like rice, spaghetti, dry soup mixes and instant potatoes. We’d buy nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and maybe some cheese. I still buy more “camping food” at Trader Joe’s than at backpacking stores because it’s generally better and cheaper at TJ.

Travel light. Avoid clutter. Work together to meet the challenges and reap the rewards of the outdoors. And let me hear from you about your own low-cost camping methods.


Christopher Nyerges has been leading wilderness field trips and botany walks since 1974. He is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” “Self-Sufficient Home,” and other books. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.