How To Create A Frugal Outdoor Lifestyle

By James P. Johnson

In the mid-1990s, my wife, two children, and I were setting up camp at a Mount Rainier National Park campground when a couple driving a tiny, well-kept Datsun B210 drove past. It was rare to see a ‘70s-era Datsun still on the road, and I took notice. They pulled into a campsite, and the couple, who looked to be in their 70s, moved with the agility of twenty-somethings, quickly putting up a small tent.

I admired not only their apparent good health, but also their simple and frugal ways. When huge RVs were the norm for retirees, driving an old economy car and camping in a tent really struck me. I thought to myself, that’s how I’m going to be when I’m their age.

Twenty-five years later, I’m not far from being there. How am I doing with that pledge I took?

This millennium, I’ve gone through two Japanese economy cars that I bought used and kept until they had 250,000 miles. Frugality-wise, I think that rates even with owning an old Datsun.

And I’ve used a 2-person tent I bought over 25 years ago so often that I have no idea how many times I’ve put it up. I count us even in the tent department, too. I’m still several years away from reaching their age, though, so I’ve got to keep it going to match up.

I was impressed watching that couple so long ago, but frugality has always been part of my mindset. I was probably destined to tread the same path as them.

Compact Toyota car and small tent at a campsite.
Toyota and tent for frugal camping. // Photo: Jim Johnson

After divorcing in the early 2000s, I moved into a smaller house and left my 16-year job for one that was less demanding, more enjoyable, had greater freedom, and paid much less. I had just reached the top of the pay scale and had 20 years of maximum earning potential ahead of me, and I gave it up. I’m sure 9 out of 10 financial advisors would have told me I was foolish.

My new job was part time and my income was one-fourth of my old job. But my frugality allowed me to pay off my mortgage and have no debt when I made the transition.

Several times over the years, I ran into former work colleagues who complimented me for doing what I did. The field I worked in, teaching in public schools, had become very challenging. A few expressed a desire to do what I had done; however, nearly all of them could not swing it financially.

I consider it fortunate to have positioned myself to make such a big change. I’d always pined for greater freedom, and having a demanding job infringed on that. Part of my rationale for being frugal was that if I limited my acquisition of things and saved enough money, I could purchase some freedom. And that’s exactly what I did.

The desire to live simply and give greater value to time instead of earning money had always been part of my make up. I’ve never regretted making the change.

My new job took me all over Eastern Washington and North Idaho. After my workday, I’d often hike near the town where I was staying. Sometimes I brought my bike for post-work rides. I got to know our beautiful Inland Northwest so well, I could give advice on where to hike just about anywhere.

Overseas trips and air travel are rarely part of my vacation plans, though I’m not so strict I’d rule them out. There is so much to see in the Northwest, even for a native-born like myself, that I’ve found plenty of enjoyment and novelty taking frequent trips in our corner of the country. I’m inclined to take the back roads, which has taken me to new, impressive vistas.

The freedom to pursue my outdoor interests has kept me in good physical condition too. I hike just as often and as far as I ever have, and I have the time to indulge in other hobbies as well.

My downsized lifestyle has proved very satisfying, and perhaps several years from now, when I’m 70, the circle will be completed when that one person watches me put up an old tent next to an aging economy car and says, “I want to be like that guy when I’m his age.”

Originally titled as “They Were Car Camping in a Datsun” and published in the September-October 2021 issue for the Last Page.

Jim Johnson is the author of “50 Hikes: Eastern Washington’s Highest Mountains.” He previously wrote an article for Out There in 2016 about turning your yard into a native plant sanctuary for Out There back in 2016.

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