13 cheap and free things to do outdoors when your family is on a budget
I always encourage everyone to get their families outdoors and spend quality time together. It is the mission of this site to encourage outdoor family adventures. These outings provide valuable bonding within the family and most importantly they are the times your children will be making memories that will last with them for years to come. Sometimes however families feel held back by how expensive family friendly activities can be. Here’s a list of 13 free or inexpensive things you can do to get your family spending time together outdoors.
#1 Go on a Picnic
Simply the easiest thing you could possibly do to get your family outside is go on a picnic. Often overlooked for its simplicity a family picnic is a quick and easy way to get outdoors. Pack a lunch, take some games or even just a Frisbee, and get to a park. Most people reading this will want to laugh and move past it. Seriously, don’t! If you do nothing else on this list, take your kids on a picnic. They will thank you for it later on and it could end up being just the first easy step towards bigger adventures.
#2 Go on a walk or hike
Taking a walk or hike is a great free activity. Not only can it be fun to get out and take in nature and see the sites on the trail but it’s also healthy exercise for the whole family. It’s easy to find trails in every part of the country. Many city and county parks have short walking trails and state and national parks have trails ranging from less than half a mile to massive trail systems spanning hundreds of miles for overnight backpacking trips. Don’t forget to include conservation areas, corps of engineer land, and state and federal recreation areas. If you’re still unsure where to hike there are a few websites dedicated to finding trails. www.Trails.com and www.alltrails.com top the list on google.
A luxury RV like this one will set you back as much as a couple hundred thousand dollars so that’s definitely not budget friendly, but fortunately there are more pocketbook friendly ways to go overnight in the outdoors. If you haven’t guessed it already I’m talking about a tent. This is probably the most expensive option on this list but definitely worth it and a way to plan a family vacation on even a small budget. Amazon basics has an 8-person tent like the one below for 82 dollars at the time of this writing, and the 4 person option is only 32. There are of course different vendors and levels of quality but if you are looking to start on a budget you should be able to get even a larger family into a tent for less than $100. When properly taken care of you can get years of use out of even a budget tent. Amazon even makes their own non-branded inexpensive tent.
If you are camping in warm weather you can get by with just bringing blankets from home but ideally you’ll want to eventually get sleeping bags and they are a requirement for cold weather camping. Pay attention to the temperature ratings. They are rated for a certain temperature which is the overnight low they are designed to protect you from. A 40 degree bag for example will keep you warm down to 40 degrees. Use your own judgement on how you sleep, but I like to have a bag designed for cooler weather than I experience. You can always open it up, but a cold night in a tent takes a lot of fun out of the trip.
Primitive camp sites can normally be found in the $8 – 15 per night range, depending on your area. There are also often free sites if you’re willing to look around more. For a first trip in a temperate climate you can have a budget friendly family weekend outing or vacation for less than $200 and even less for the second trip. Of course, from specialized cooking equipment to coolers and camp chairs there is plenty more you may get over the years and you’ll have to be creative with food if you’re going bare minimum, but it is possible.
#4 Free local amenities
Almost every major city has a list of free attractions, and almost everyone forgets about them when trying to find something cheap to do. Whenever you’re trying to figure out what to do and coming up stumped head to google and search “Free attractions in ” and insert your city. For a free plug on my own city, the St. Louis Zoo was recently ranked by trip advisor as the 4th best zoo in the entire world, and it is entirely free entry. This was of course an easy choice for 10best.com to rank it as #1 on their list of free attractions in the US.
Check out your city, county, suburb, and state; I guarantee it has free events, activities, and attractions that you never dreamed of.
#5 Have a Cookout
Similar to a picnic, but it involves fire so of course it’s better. It’s what these things are for and most parks have them.
Don’t be turned off by the dirty metal cooking grate, it’s steel and when heated by the hot coals it will get quite clean. If there is stuck on debris you can wad up some aluminum foil to make a makeshift brush. A small bag of light anywhere charcoal can be had for 5 – 7 dollars and now you’re cooking with fire. Just make sure to let the coals burn enough that they are ash white in appearance before you start cooking.
Hotdogs and chips make an extremely budget friendly and easy cookout that anyone can do. Hamburgers are a next step. If you’re from St. Louis then pork steaks are the poor man’s best friend. And if you’re asking what a pork steak is, look for a future post from this St. Louis native on them.
Looking for outdoor cooking ideas? Checkout our recipes page.
The classic park side cookout looks a lot like this:
Don’t forget to take those games and outdoor toys like Frisbees and balls that you bought for the picnic. They fit in with the cookout just as well. As an added bonus when you first light the charcoal it looks like this, which boys will love. Dads too, it never gets old.
#6 Take a Bike Ride
Just like taking a walk but on wheels. A new quality bike can set you back, but watch for them on Facebook buy/sell/trade groups, craigslist, or other classified services and you can pick up a reasonable bike for as little as 10 dollars. Once your family is set then just find a trail, many local parks have them, and head out for a ride. Take the time to find a trail as riding on streets can be dangerous, especially with children.
#7 Lawn Games (at a park or in your yard)
Even if you’ve already ate lunch the games aren’t off limits. You’re classic picnic games can be played all by themselves. Here’s a few ideas for cheap games and many can even be made at home with little skill.
Buzzfeed has an extended list with some great ideas here.
#8 Public Access Swimming or Fishing
A pool pass is far from cheap and forget about water parks but fret not, most states have public access water areas. If you live near the coast there are plenty of free public beaches and if you are inland there are many lakes and rivers with free or very inexpensive public access. Grab your suit and head out on a hot day to cool off or if swimming isn’t your thing grab a pole and try to catch a free dinner for the cookout later. Public access to water, particularly rivers and streams, brings us to my personal favorite.
Floating in a canoe, kayak, or raft through a commercial outfitter is anything but cheap. Lucky for you I know a cheaper way to enjoy the water. This one will take a bit of planning on your part to figure out the fine details in your area but once you have it down this provides countless adventures for your family.
What you are looking for is a place where you can stage your vehicle downstream from an access point. This can be two public access points a short distance apart on the same stream or a single point where you can park downstream and walk up. If you have two families together or two cars you can spread the float out by parking one vehicle at the end and then driving up stream to another access point to start your float. I wouldn’t try any more than 1 mile of stream until you have a good idea how this works.
There are a variety of options and price points for this but even a reasonable tube can be found on amazon for 15 – 20 dollars. Like anything, the more you spend the longer it will last, but for short floats on smaller creeks you can even use a basic inflatable pool mat. I want to urge caution here, the smaller mats are only acceptable for short floats. When you work your way up to longer floats on larger rivers please use an appropriate tube or raft and life preserver.
If you are just starting, or looking cheaper, find a small creek that averages 1 – 2 ft in depth where you can park the car and walk a few hundred yards up stream to float back. Rinse and repeat! I’ve put together a list of a few products on amazon to give you an idea of what is available.
Intex River Run I Sport Lounge, Inflatable Water Float, 53″ Diameter $16.95 at the time of this writing.
Intex River Run II Sport Lounge, Inflatable Water Float, 95″ X 52″ $30.25 at the time of this writing.
Intex River Run Connect Lounge, Inflatable Water Float, 51″ X 49.5″ $21.90 at the time of this writing.
I have all 3 and for the price you can’t beat them. The connect lounge has an interlock system to connect tubes together. I normally have rope with me and tie off to the handles instead but that’s a personal preference.
Once you build up to it you’ll be looking as content as this fine blogger floating on the Gasconade river in the Missouri Ozarks.
#10 Plant a Garden
Moving back to something a bit more simple, gardening can be a great way to spend time together as a family outdoors. If you live in a house on some land a small garden can be an easy thing to do but don’t think apartment or city living should stop you. Check out the balcony garden below for an example of what can be done with planters, or for an even better option look for a local community garden.
Communitygarden.org has a find-a-garden tool here or use google to look for urban, shared, or community gardens. Take your kids to help pull weeds and learn about the steps involved in growing food. You’ll also be helping the environment and providing directly for your family at the same time.
#11 Go Star Gazing
The night can yield an amazing and wondrous universe overhead. If you live in a big city like New York you’re going to have to travel quite a distance to get to a view anywhere close to the one above, so combine this with a family camping trip. For the rest of us a park outside city limits should do fine. If you’re wanting the stars to really pop, you’ll want to plan this around a new moon or close to it since the moonlight will wash out smaller stars.
Many parks close after dark, so you’ll want to find something star gazer friendly. I’ve put together a short list of sites that may help. There are also several free apps, such as google sky map, to help with your star gazing experience.
Check state and local parks to see if they allow star gazing after dark or during specific periods.
#12 Mushroom Hunting
If you find yourself planning that walk or hike between March and May you may want to look into Morel Mushrooms. Considered a delicacy by many it drives scores of mushroom hunters into the woods every spring and enlisting your family to help could just be the perfect way to build in some family time.
It’s so popular and so much has been written about it already that I won’t attempt to reproduce exact directions on how to hunt for them or what to do with them. Instead I’ll just give you these references. Field and stream has a great beginner’s guide here and Mother Earth News has a recipe for grilled mushrooms here that could go great with your next cookout. If Mushrooms aren’t your thing you can also sell your harvest to morel brokers for over $20 a pound which can help fund other outdoor adventures.
#13 Combine it All on the Ultimate Camping Vacation of a Lifetime!
If you go out and buy all the gear at once a camping vacation might not be low budget, although it will still be much less than a Disney vacation. Once you’ve build up you camping equipment, bought your tubes, mastered your outdoor cooking skills, and built a wide variety of yard games you’ll be ready to put together a vacation that your family will remember for the rest of their lives.
On your camping trip you can hike to scenic overlooks, float beautiful rivers and fish in majestic lakes. Bring your catch back to camp and cook dinner over an open fire. Close the night out watching the stars as you roast marshmallows over the fire. Relax in nature with your family and build the kind of memories that money can’t buy.
So, what do you think of my list? If you have any questions, or have tried any of these out and want to share your experience please leave a comment below. Let me know if you need help figuring one of these out in your region and I’ll see what I can do.