I recently stumbled across a camping meme which said, Camping: When you pay a small fortune to live like a homeless person.
Apparently you can buy it as a wall decal too on Etsy.
Considering that the average American spends $1,145 per person on vacation – or $4,580 for a family of four, this meme is ridiculously inaccurate. (Yeah, I know it is pointless to get annoyed by inaccurate info on the internet 😉 )
That doesn’t necessarily mean camping is always a cheap vacation. Some campgrounds cost more than hotels. You have to buy or rent gear. And, you actually have to get to your destination, which admittedly can be tricky if you don’t have a car or live somewhere with decent public transportation (i.e. the entire USA).
But the cost of camping still isn’t as much as you’d think. I’m going to break down the costs of camping, giving prices for the low-end and high-end options, so you budget for your own trip.
*I’m assuming that we are doing a spring, summer or fall camping trip. Winter camping is possible, but you’ll need a lot more knowhow and expensive gear!
Cost of Camping Gear: One-Time Investment of $231 to $2,762*
*Add $86 (low end) or $1,077 (high end) per additional person!
You can rent camping gear at campgrounds, but it will be really expensive. If you think you’ll go camping more than once, it pays off to buy your own camping gear. Or, even better, BORROW camping gear. It is free this way and you can get a feel for camping without any major investment. Just make sure to follow the etiquette rules of borrowing camping gear.
You can also save money on camping gear by buying used camping gear online. You can get awesome tents, sleeping bags, and pads this way for dirt cheap.
Backpack with Rain Cover: $0 to $150
On the low-end, you can just use the backpack you already have. Put a trash bag over it for waterproofing. That will basically cost you nothing. By contrast, you can pay upwards of $150 for a quality hiking or backpacking pack. Usually only one or two people in your group need a pack.
Tent: $50 to $400
Please don’t buy a crappy tent. If it rains, you are screwed (as happened to some people I met on a mountain and I had to “rescue” them). That doesn’t mean you need a super expensive tent though.
My first tent cost about $50 and held up great even in windy, rainy conditions. If you are looking for large family tents, they will cost more but still costs less than a hotel room for the night.
The professional quality tents will run upwards of $400. Again, you don’t really need to spend this much on a tent. The expensive tents are great if you want to transition to lightweight backpacking though, as they weigh a lot less than cheap tents. Read this 15 Minute Guide to Buying a Tent
Sleeping Bag: $20 to $100 (Per Person)
Any sleeping bag which costs over $100 is either going to be ultra-lightweight or made for four seasons. If you aren’t going to camp in the winter or do long-distance trekking, then you don’t need anything more pricy than this. My first sleeping bag cost around $30 and then I upgraded to a lighter once which cost about $70 on sale.
Sleeping Pad: $10 to $150 (Per Person)
If you don’t mind sleeping on hard surfaces, a cheap $10 sleeping pad should be fine. You can even use tricks like piling a bunch of leaves under your tent before pitching to make a natural cushioning layer.
For extra comfort though, pay a bit more for a good, self-inflating sleeping pad. These can also be found for cheap but the brand-name ones will run upwards of $150 or more.
Stove and Fuel: $10 to $200
As I wrote about in this post, I used to use a super-cheap puncture-style gas stove for camping. It was fine for just my daughter and me. Now I’ve got a “pro” camp stove. For larger families who are car camping, you’ll probably want something even bigger with two burners. These can be purchased for around $100 and the pricier ones run around $200. Here’s a Guide to Backpacking Stove Types.
Cook Set: $25 to $$140
Most camp cook sets include a couple fire-safe pots and pans, cups, and utensils. The difference in the price is the material. The lighter and more durable the material, the more the set will cost.
Cooler: $0 to $350
I write $0 because this is a completely optional item. But most car campers will probably bring along a cooler (or so I’ve been told). Having a cooler means that you can save some money on instant meals.
Water Bottle or Hydration Reservoirs: $0 to $75 (Per Person)
You can just use normal plastic bottles for transporting your water. If you want to get fancy, there are plenty of insulated flasks and hydration packs specifically made for camping and hiking.
Rope: $5 to $15
You need this for a laundry line, fixing broken shoelaces, hanging a bear bag, and a zillion other things. Paracord is a good, all-purpose rope to buy.
Headlamp: $25 to $140 (Per Person)
Don’t spend less than $20 on a headlamp or you’ll end up with a giant piece of plastic bobbing on your forehead, and one that eats through batteries. For a cheap headlamp, I like the this Coleman headlamp.
If you have a good headlamp, you can skimp on the flashlight. There are some cool higher-end flashlights which are solar charging or have super strong beams.
Lantern: $10 to $150
This is another optional item but useful item when camping. Modern camping lanterns have cool features like being collapsible and having Bluetooth connectivity. A cool camping hack is that you can turn a flashlight into a lantern by shining it through a water jug.
Rechargeable Batteries: $6 to $12 (Per Person)
You’ll need these for your camping lights. Always opt for the rechargeable ones because they pay off in the long run! I’m basing the cost on the fact that most flashlights and headlamps use 2 or 3 AA or AAA batteries.
First Aid Kit: $20 to $75
Building your own first aid kit can be as cheap as $20. To buy a pre-made camping first aid kit, you’ll spend around $75. Here’s a complete camping first aid checklist.
Water Treatment System: $25 to $150
You might not need this if your campground has safe drinking water, but a water treatment system is great to have if you go on hikes or are wild camping. I use the Sawyer Mini and it costs just $22. There are other options too, like UV filters, water purification tablets, and larger filters. Backpacker has a good article on choosing a water treatment system.
Bear Bag or Canister: $0 to $55
A cheap way of hanging a bear bag is to use your rope (budgeted above) to hang food in a plastic bag. Or, just use a bear canister. Learn how to hang a bear bag here.
Clothing: $25 to $600+ (Per Person)
I never stop being amazed at how expensive “camping clothes” are. You can buy clothes made from all sorts of space-age, high-tech materials. A single t-shirt can cost over $100! Unless you are going to some hardcore location, there are NOT necessary!
Just use the clothing you already have. However, you may need to buy:
- Waterproof jacket or poncho: $10 to $300
- Long Johns: $10 to $100
- Waterproof/wool socks: $5 to $30
Daily Camping Costs: $8 to $110 per person, per day
Food: $8 to $60 (per day, per person)
This one is really hard to calculate. I go the ultra-cheap route and dehydrate my own instant meals, and also make my own GORP. But I did have to buy the dehydrator… I’d say that food probably costs around $10 per day, though Outdoor Blueprint gives an estimate of $8 per day for trips.
By contrast, you can buy fancy freeze-dried boil-in-the-bag camping food. These usually cost around $5 per meal, or $15 per day. You’ll also need snacks in addition to this, so calculate in another $10.
Another option is to buy meals at the campground or nearby restaurants. That will usually cost a small fortune though because of the tourist markup. With this route, the costs will probably be the same as food costs for a non-camping vacation, which is about $40 per day according to Value Penguin. Vacation Kids estimates a higher amount of $60 per day per adult though.
Campground Costs: $0 to $50 (Per Day)
I prefer to go wild camping because it is completely free and you don’t have annoying neighbors. But that also means you have to backpack to the site while carrying all of your gear, dig a cat hole, and carry all your trash out.
So I understand why most people prefer to stay at campgrounds which have amenities like showers and toilets. The cost of campgrounds varies drastically though.
As USA Tourist points out, there are plenty of “primitive” campgrounds which cost just about $5 to $10 per night. You might get a bathroom, but don’t expect an electric hookup or water hookup.
I checked the prices at many National Parks in the USA. At a Yosemite campground, for example, camping costs $26 per night. Other National Park campgrounds are also in this range.
Then there are the private campgrounds, such as KOA campgrounds. These tend to cost more but you get some better facilities. I remember staying at KOA campgrounds as a kid (my dad had a membership) and some had pools and activities.
And then there are the luxury campgrounds with nice showers, electric hookups, laundry facilities, restaurants (and lots of other things I don’t really want or need while camping!). These generally cost around $50 per night (check out this list of California State Park campground prices to get an idea). This is still cheaper than most hotel rooms though.
Other Camping Costs: $43 to $304
Permits and Entrance Fees: $0 to $60 (for entire family)
Lots of visitors flock to State and National Parks every year. There are plenty of beautiful places around the world that require absolutely no entrance or permit. Choose these places and the cost of camping will be even less.
As for State and National Park costs, I checked out some prices of the most-popular USA parks. At Yosemite, the entrance fee is $30 per vehicle (no per-person fee) or $15 per person on foot. The entrance is valid for 7 days or you can buy a yearly pass for $60. In Everglades National Park, the entrance fee is $25. In Glacier, it is $30…
Transportation Costs: $38 to $224
I take trains and hitchhike to my camping spots, so it tends to be very cheap. However, I know that most people aren’t going to do this 😉
According to this report, campers travel an average distance of 186.7 miles for camping trips. Using an average fuel efficiency of 24.8 miles per gallon and average price per gallon of $2.47, that comes out to almost $19 in one direction. Of course, this figure could be a lot more or less depending on your vehicle, how far you go, etc.
According to Value Penguin though, the average transportation costs for a vacation is $224. So, I’ve put that price as the higher range.
Buy Spray and Sunscreen: $5 to $20
Optional Camping Costs
And just to be even more thorough, here are some potential other camping costs that you might incur. All of these things are completely optional, and you can probably use stuff you already have (like the folding chairs sitting in your garage).
Chair: $10 to $140 (per person)
Table: $20 to $170
Hammock: $20 to $250
Tarp: $15 to $100
Camping Shower: $15 to $100
Camping Toilet: $20 to $80
Camping Fold-Out Kitchen Station: $50 to $200
Pop-Up Privacy Station: $20 to $140
GPS: $30 to $600
Solar charger: $60 to $170
Radios: $20 to $50
Binoculars: $20 to $200
Maps: $5 to $20
Compass: $5 to $90
Guidebook: $10 to $25
Camping Costs Grand Total:
Gear Costs: $231 to $2,762 (Add $86 to $1,077 per additional person)
Daily Camping Costs: $8 to $110 (per person, per day)
Other Camping Costs: $43 to $304
For a family of 4 on a 10-day camping trip, that adds up to:
Low End = $612
High End = $7,397
Notes On the Real Cost of Camping
You’ll see that the high-end camping cost estimate is insane. But, assuming that you don’t go overboard in a camping store and splurge on unnecessary expensive clothes and gear, you’ll probably spend a LOT less than this.
Even if you do buy insanely expensive gear, here is the thing:
Camping gear is a ONE-TIME COST.
After the first camping trip, the only costs you will have are for food, transportation, park entrance fees, and maybe for some more batteries or luxury gear.
The more you go camping, the cheaper it is. 🙂
How much do you think you paid in total for your first camping trip?