This is the ultimate analysis on the cost of camping with a done-for-you budgeting sheet.
Camping seems like a great way to enjoy nature and spend time with your family without spending a fortune. But is it really so? How much does it cost to go camping?
Camping is not expensive on a per night basis if you have all the gear. However, if you factor in the one-time costs of most equipment, you can be spending north of $1,000 on a short camping trip.
The total cost of camping will fall between $100 to $200 per day for a family of four if they have all the gear, or $200 to $400 for a 2-day camping trip. The included campsite costs range from $10 to $50 per night. However, without the necessary gear, they can expect to spend additional $1,480 to purchase them. Couples can discount all costs by ~35%.
So how expensive camping is for you depends heavily on what supplies you already have. If you want to learn more, check out our article on the 10 Camping Essentials.
Beyond that, there are campsite costs, transportation costs, food costs, and activity costs.
If you were enticed by the $10 – $50 per night cost of most public campgrounds, you are in for a (unpleasant) surprise.
Below is a breakdown of the different costs in an average scenario for a family of 4:
|Total Costs of Camping (incl. Gear)||$1,825|
|Total Costs of Camping without Gear||$342|
|Camping Gear Costs||$1,483|
Wonder how we got those numbers and want to make adjustments in real time? Well, you can find the online version of the spreadsheet here or download by clicking the button below. It’ll only work well on your desktop though.
Let’s jump into more details now
In order to camp, you first need a place to stay. While the per night rate at a campground will likely be a lot lower than that of an average hotel, they aren’t negligible.
On average, you can expect to spend $60 in total on campsites and related expenses on a 2-day camping trip. This translates to $30 per night. That being said, there is a wide range:
|Established Campgrounds – Minimum Amenities||$10 – $30 per night|
|Established Campgrounds – Basic Amenities||$20 – $50 per night|
|Established Campgrounds – Great Amenities||$35 – $60+ per night|
|Primitive or Dispersed Camping||Free to $25 for backcountry permit|
Established Campgrounds – $15 – $60 per Night
If you want to experience the wilderness without forgoing too many creature comforts, an established campground will be the best choice for you. In fact, this is where most family camping trips happen.
Now we pulled together 3 real-life examples of how much it costs to camp at these campground to show you the variety:
- Camp Richardson at Lake Tahoe — Tent $45, RV $60 – $70 per night. Deemed the crown jewel of the Sierra, Lake Tahoe is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts across the country. So it’s not surprising that it falls at the higher end of the cost spectrum. Plus, this private campground offers top-of-the-line amenities, with flush toilets, showers, hookups, and boat & bike rentals. It’s also close to the key attractions like the Emerald Bay, etc.
- Bayview Campground at Lake Tahoe — $18 per night, tent only. Though it’s located very close to Camp Richardson mentioned above, it’s significantly cheaper due to having fewer amenities. It has a vault toilet (no flush) and no showers. It’s getting close to primitive camping.
- Starved Rock Campground in Illinois — $25 per night, but $35 on holidays. This one has decent amenities with flush toilets and showers. There are also full electrical hook ups and cement pad for RVs. It’s cheaper than Camp Richardson because Starved Rock State Park is only a local attraction with less demand than Lake Tahoe.
Note, nearly all campgrounds will charge an extra vehicle fee if you have more than 1 or 2 cars. This fee will range from $5 per night to $15.
Factors that influence campground costs
You can probably tell what influences campground costs based on the examples above, but below is a more detailed summary:
- Amenities – this is probably the most important factor. If you are a tent camper, book a standard non-electric campsite to save money but still have access to toilets and showers. If you are an RVer, expect to pay more for hookups and all that stuff. A large RV will also significantly limit your choice of campgrounds.
- Private vs. public campground – a tent site at a privately-owned campground likely costs more than $35. A public one owned by the local government is more likely to cost $15 to $30, even if it’s at a very popular destination.
- Season or time of the year – Many campgrounds close during the winter. But some will open at 40 – 70% of the rate they charge during the summer. Also, they can charge up to double the price during holiday weekends.
Primitive or Dispersed Camping – Free to $25 for Backcountry Permit
Maybe established campgrounds are too expensive for you, or you want to truly get away from the crowds. Then go for primitive or dispersed camping, which are usually free.
Yep, you heard that right. Not only do you have a lot more options as to where to camp, but you also end up saving money.
The tradeoff is, of course, the lack of amenities. You are in the wilderness with no campground host, no showers, no toilet, etc.
Now you may be wondering, how do I find dispersed campsites? Checking the BLM website is a good place to start if you are camping out west.
Some popular destinations may require a backcountry permit. These usually cost less than a few bucks per night. If you buy a yearly pass, even the most iconic places like Yellowstone and Grand Teton cost only $25 per year.
This fee is sometimes negligible. But some parks will charge $5 – $15 per day for entrance. If your campsite is located inside the park, you will need to pay the fee to access your campsite.
Camping Gear and Supplies Costs
This is where the fun begins. They say camping is where “you spend a fortune to live like a homeless”. While campsites are usually pretty affordable, you can indeed spend a small fortune on camping gear.
Of course, the costs will vary widely depending on what type of gear you want to buy, what you already have, and what you decide to go without.
The table below shows the costs of essential and highly recommended camping gear. To buy all of them, camping gear will cost a family of four $1,480 on average, $480 on the low end, or $2,480 on the high end. For a couple, the average cost goes down to $880.
Here’s a breakdown of all of them for a family of 4:
|Item||Quantity||Average price per item|
|Tarp or footprint||1||$25|
|High quality stakes (by pack)||1||$20|
|Hammer or mallet to install tent stakes||1||$10|
|Sleeping pad / Air mattress||4||$90|
|Headlamp or flashlight with batteries||4||$10|
|Power bank (large capacity)||1||$33|
|Large water jug or dispenser||1||$18|
|Stove with fuel/propane||1||$75|
|Garbage and recycling bags||1||$20|
|Firewood (5 bundles)||1||$35|
|Fire starter of any type||1||$18|
|Light fleece or jacket (adult)||2||$35|
|Light fleece or jacket (kids)||2||$20|
|Rain jacket/rain poncho (adult)||2||$18|
|Rain jacket/rain poncho (kids)||2||$13|
|Ear plugs (pack)||1||$10|
|First Aid kit||1||$25|
|Duct tape (pack)||1||$15|
|Pocket knife / multitool||1||$18|
Tent and Accessories
Tent prices range from $60 for the most basic 4-person tent to more than $350 for those premium ones. How much you should spend on a tent depends on your camping frequency, weather conditions, and other personal preferences. Accessories will add another $20 – $50.
A tent is probably the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about camping. A good shelter is key to making sure your camping trip goes smoothly.
So you don’t want to get the cheapest tent possible. These usually have very poor weather protection, limited space, or poor build quality. These things can ruin your camping trip. I’m sure you don’t want to wake up soaked after a rain shower, right?
Thankfully, you can get a good tent under a hundred bucks. There are just a few things you need to look out for. The Coleman Sundome tent below is a great example of an entry-level tent that will satisfy most campers:
But before we get there, do you really need to buy your own tent?
If you are brand new to camping or camp only once or twice a year, it may be better to borrow or rent a tent.
Borrowing from a friend is practically free, besides that you may want to pay back the favor in some other way. Make sure you don’t get the tent too dirty or damage the tent if you go this route. And setting it up in your backyard before you go is always a good practice.
When it comes to renting, it’s only cost-effective if you will be using the gear for 3 or more nights. Why?
Because most places like REI rental charge a lot more for the first night than subsequent nights. For example, the first night in a 4-person tent is $40, and the nights after that are $6/night.
Ok moving on to buying your own tent.
The first thing to keep in mind is the amount of space you need. Don’t be fooled by the manufacturer’s labels. A “4-person” tent packs 4 people who sleep in sleeping bags side by side.
So don’t expect it to be comfortable for a family of 4. Prices will rise to above $100 for most basic 6 person tents if you opt for the upgrade.
Now consider the weather protection. You don’t want your tent to get blown away or leak during rain.
We have a detailed article on how to tell if a tent is waterproof, but it all boils down to these features:
- Waterproof rating above 1000mm, if provided by the manufacturer
- Waterproof treatment on the seams — taped, inverted, or welded. Many cheap tents don’t have this since it adds to the manufacturing costs
- Bathtub floor — thick floor materials extending up the tent walls to prevent groundwater seepage.
Once you have the space you need and decent rain protection, you’ve got the basics down. But the sky’s the limit on what you can spend on a tent.
Some upgrades you can get:
- Near vertical walls and tall ceiling to maximize headroom
- Full coverage rainfly with vestibule for extra storage space
- Screen room for hanging out and storing items
- Multi-room tents for privacy
- Extra weather protection
- Canvas tents that last for decades with great insulation; these can cost more than $1000
Many tents come with stakes that bent too easily, which would fail to secure your tent. And placing a tarp under your tent can make your tent floor last a lot longer. Thankfully, these items will usually cost less than $30 in total.
A sleeping pad usually costs anywhere from $30 to $150. A sleeping bag usually costs anywhere from $20 to $200. That adds up to a total between $200 to $1000 for a family of 4. The costs depend heavily on whether the gear is ultralight or is designed for cold weather.
However, you can save some money by bringing your quilt from home or using an air mattress you already have.
Sleeping pad is the cushion between your back and the rock-hard ground. Not only does it add comfort, but it also helps to keep you warm at night. If you are wondering if you can use a yoga mat as a sleeping pad, I guarantee you will regret it.
A sleeping pad is quite affordable, usually under $70, if you are car camping in fair weather. But if you want something ultralight while still comfortable, be prepared to pay more. If you camp in colder weather and need something with better insulation, most options are more than $100.
An air mattress will do just as well for summer car camping trips. But you have to make sure it actually fits into your tent. For a more detailed comparison, check out our article on cots vs. air mattress vs. sleeping pads.
Sleeping bags are what you should sleep in. These are filled with insulating materials and wrap around your body.
Similar to sleeping pads, they are quite affordable unless you need something light for backpacking or highly insulating for cold weather.
While you can substitute sleeping bags with your own quilt to save money, the latter is quite bulky. It will take up a lot more space in your car.
An average headlamp costs about $5. They are an extremely worthy investment to ensure you do not fall at night while keeping your hands free. You may get back to your campground after sunset, cook at night, or have more mid-night bathroom breaks than you expect.
Clothing and Rain Gear
An average rain poncho costs around $10 to $20, which adds up to $40 – $80 for a family of four. You may also need to invest in thermal underwears that cost $15 to $30 per person if you camp in colder weather.
There are plenty of options for outdoor clothing. Most resist rain and wind better than your day-to-day ones and thus cost more.
But you don’t have to invest in these unless you are going on extensive hikes or expect temperatures below 50 F. For the most part, regular clothing with terrain-appropriate shoes will serve you just as well.
That being said, you really shouldn’t skip the rain poncho. You never know when the weather will turn for the worse. I’ve seen “weather forecasts” that change by the hour. And staying wet can be extremely uncomfortable or downright dangerous.
Plus, a rain poncho can be quite compact, so it won’t take up much space in your backpack when not used.
A camping experience almost feels incomplete without a crackling campfire. To accomplish this, you need some kind of firestarter.
Fire starters usually cost less than $20. You can use matches in a waterproof case, one with a ferro rod, or a lighter. The first option will cost less than $5 or free if you already have matches.
Check out our comprehensive article on how to build a campfire if you are interested.
To build your budding flame into a steady campfire, you need to fuel it with firewood. In most cases, these are available for purchase near the campsite.
On average, you need 3 to 5 bundles of firewood per day, and each bundle of firewood costs $5 to $7. So fire woods would cost $15 to $35 per day, or $30 – $70 for a two-day camping trip. That being said, the costs will vary based on the amount of firewood you use and your locale.
You can save money by cutting your own wood, but it may be pushing the limits of your survival skills.
You’ll have to find dead trees because you need dry wood. Then you have to cut it down with a hatchet (another investment by the way). And you may have to study and follow local regulations regarding the use of wood. Not worth the hassle for most people.
You want to make a delicious meal with your family to make your camping trip unforgettable. And you need some supplies to make it happen.
The most basic camp kitchen set consists of a two-burner stove and cooking pots. You will need to invest $30 – $120 for the stove and fuel. Assuming you already have a pan, pot, along with cooking and eating utensils, anything else is free.
All that being said, you can argue that you don’t need to cook while camping. There are plenty of options ranging from dehydrated meals to calories-dense snacks. Not to mention, you can drive to any nearby restaurant if you were car camping.
But just keep in mind that dehydrated meals are pretty expensive at $5 – $7 per serving. So even though you save on cooking supplies, you may end up spending more on food overall.
In addition, you can also wrap food in tin foil and cook them directly over a campfire, making a stove unnecessary.
Water Jug (with Dispenser)
Getting dehydrated outdoors is not only uncomfortable but also potentially dangerous. You may be surprised at how much water you end up using when camping.
Not only are you drinking more due to the higher activity, but you also need water for washing hands, washing dishes, etc.
A water jug with dispenser costs less than $20 and gives you up to 5 gallons of running water right at your campsite. It also won’t tie up your hands, one of the downsides of pouring from a water bottle.
No one likes to think about what could go wrong when they plan a camping trip. But things happen. Many times it won’t be anything serious, but even small wounds can lead to infections if left untreated.
A basic first aid kit costs $10 to $40 and contains necessities like bandages, alcohol wipes, and emergency whistles. It is an extremely worthy investment that can make your trip ten times more comfortable in case of an accident.
Other Optional Gear that Can Jack Up Your Costs
Camping is as basic or luxurious as you want it to be. If you truly don’t care about costs but only the connection with nature, then look into glamping. It costs at least as much as hotels at $150+ per night, but you enjoy the outdoors in true comfort.
Even if you don’t want to splurge like that, there are still a long list of nice-to-have items that can sky-rocket your costs. But most of them aren’t necessary unless you camp often.
Below we listed some popular nice-to-have options:
- Coolers for storing raw food and beverages – $50 – $200
- Dutch oven for those who desire more options when cooking over a campfire – $40 – $80
- Rain pants for protection beyond a rain poncho – $25 – $100
- Base Layer or thermal underwear for colder weather – $20 – $50
- Water shoes for a “stroll” in a forest creek – $7 – $20
- Camping chairs and camping tables (usually only needed if campsite doesn’t offer picnic tables or for very large groups) – $55 – $200
- Portable shower for multi-day hiking trips – $20 – $50
- Hydration pack – $20 – $70
- Water purification system for long hikes or backpacking trips – $20 – $40
Food Costs (and Other Consumables)
Nothing is worse than being hungry when you are enjoying yourselves outdoors. Meal planning is strongly recommended for camping, since you may not have access to restaurants all the time.
It’s also helpful to know in advance what you will get for your next meal so that it causes minimal interruptions to your trip.
Assuming you cook most of the food yourself when camping, it will cost $10 – $20 in food for each person per day. This translates to a total cost of $80 – $160 for a group of 4 for a 2-day camping trip.
That being said, food costs can be much higher depending on what you plan. If you eat out, costs can easily go up to $15 per person per meal. So feel free to modify the spreadsheet as per your budget.
If you are taking a cooler, ice packs can also cost up to $50 depending on the cooler size and the length of the trip.
This one is straightforward enough. You need to pay to get to your campsite.
Assuming you will be driving, this will mainly consist of the fuel costs.
After considering the distance, fuel economy, and cost per gallon, we expect average camping families to spend $35 to $100 on transportation.
Here’s how we got that number:
Average distance driven – according to the 2017 camper report, the average American camps ~137 miles away from their home. So we will take the round trip distance as 274 miles.
Fuel economy – this one obviously varies based on your car model. But assuming you will be driving on highways for most of the trip, we will take 25 mpg as an average.
Cost of fuel – again this can fall anywhere between $2/gallon to $5/gallon. If you are driving anywhere in California, you know the gas can be expensive.
Of course, costs rise dramatically as you choose to fly to your campsite. A plane ticket is easily north of $100 and can go up to $1000 for further destinations during popular seasons.
Cost of Camping Trip Activities
Unless you are hanging out at your campsite all day, you’ll end up spending some $$$ on fun activities.
These could be tours, park entry, all kinds of adventures.
This category will vary greatly depending on what you are planning. Many companies also have discounts for kids compared to adults.
Assuming you are doing 1 tour at $30 for each adult and $20 for each child, that comes out to be $100 in total.
Tips to Save Money When Camping
You can easily argue that camping itself is already a vacation on a budget when you have the essential gear.
But there are still multiple ways to save:
- Buy camping gear on sale – REI runs those quarterly garage sales where you can find gear at a steep discount but only lightly used. And generally speaking, camping gear is on sale during late fall and early spring so that manufacturers can move their inventory.
- Rent or borrow gear – renting a whole package is usually a lot more cost effective than renting individual items. Renting is a great option for multi-day camping trips. Borrowing gear makes more sense for one or two-day camping trips.
- Choose a free or cheap public campsite – as we mentioned earlier, dispersed camping is mostly free. If you don’t want to sacrifice too many amenities, public campgrounds that are some distance away from a popular destination are usually pretty cheap (under $25 per night). You just need to drive a bit to get to where you want.
- Opt for simple meals over campfire – the sausage and buns for a hot dog are quite affordable; and wrapping food in tin foil to cook directly over campfire means you can save on the stove and firewood
- Look for cheap/free activities – do you really need that guided tour or zip line adventure? Can you enjoy the free and available hiking trails? The best way to save money here is to simply enjoy what mother nature already has to offer!
If you want more money saving tips, check out this article from Dyrt.
Check Out the Budgeting Sheet!
If you’ve come this far, you might as well fully customize everything based on your budget and needs.
So go ahead and download the spreadsheet or view it online to start planning!