The Cheapest Vacation You’ll Ever Take

Save money on your vacation this summer by investigating the wilds of…your backyard.

June 19, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—This dire economy has caused a lot of us to relearn to love our backyards—as a source of homegrown produce, a place to read free library books, and a convenient location for low-budget holiday barbecues. Now, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is trying to turn the backyard into the next hot vacation destination.

The nature-minded nonprofit is sponsoring the Great American Backyard Campout on June 27th, as part of their “Be Out There” campaign to get kids interacting with nature more than they do with video games. “Kids are spending nearly 60 to 70 percent less time outdoors than previous generations,” says Mary Burnette, spokesperson for NWF. Part of that reason, she says, is our love affair with indoor technologies like computers and televisions. But it’s also because kids are so highly scheduled, she adds, between soccer practice and ballet lessons, math camps, and so on. “Kids have much less time to go outside and chill, where they can explore nature and use their imaginations. Spending a night in your backyard can be one fun, cool way to get started,” she says.


Whether or not you participate in the campout on June 27th, here are five ways you can your family can enjoy a free vacation anytime, without having to travel more than 50 feet:

1. Leave the cell phone inside. The whole point is to disconnect from daily life and reconnect with your family and the outdoors. Ditto the Blackberry, cordless phone, laptop, and other umbilical connections to the world beyond your fence. “Go outside and really focus on each other and the wildlife you encounter,” says Burnette.

2. Organize a mini bioblitz. Speaking of all that wildlife, Burnette recommends that parents or grandparents visit to find out what sorts of critters you might find in your backyard. Make it a game on the night of your campout to document all the insect, plant, and animal species you find in your backyard. To attract a mind-boggling array of odd-looking insects, drape a plain white (or other solid light color) sheet over a length of twine or clothesline tied between two trees, and illuminate it with a flashlight or worklight, or a lamp lit by an ultraviolet bulb. Pick up an insect ID book, and a kid-sized insect net and bug-viewing chamber, and you’ll be checking out bugs all night.

3. Set up cheap shelter. If you don’t have a tent, borrow one from a friend or neighbor, or fashion your own A-frame shelter by draping a plastic tarp over heavy twine strung between two trees (keep the tarp from collapsing or blowing away with heavy rocks). To protect yourself from moisture in the ground, make a sleeping pad with newspapers covered with a plastic tarp, and lay some blankets and pillows on top. If that’s more roughing it than you prefer, some camping-supply stores will rent you a tent and equipment at a relatively low fee (which is also a great way to try it out before you buy).

4. Plan ahead. Sure, the house is just a short walk away if you forgot something. But constantly dashing back and forth between home and tent kind of kills the mood, so do your best to bring everything you need. (Think if it as a dry run for camping away from home.) You know to stock up on basics like bug spray, food, and water. Other helpful gear includes a dust broom to sweep dirt out of your tent, tweezers for removing ticks or splinters, and lyric sheets for singing camp sings. If you’re camping with a bunch of kids, remember to bring enough flashlights for everyone so there’s no fighting over who gets to hold the light.

5. Find other campers. If you feel like the idea of camping in your backyard is too solitary, find an organized group of campers at NWF’s website, Or form a group with family, friends and neighbors, and register for special advice, recipes and other resources.

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